As I mentioned before, one of the things I love about karaoke is the way it gives you a fresh perspective on a familiar old song. On a recent evening, I was perusing the songbook at our favorite bar down the road. I wanted to sing something I had never performed before, but knew well enough to sing on the fly. Then I stumbled across Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer".
When I was in the 3rd grade, my parents bought our family our first VCR for Christmas. The first two things we recorded, in some order, were The Beastie Boys "Fight for Your Right to Party" video and the video for "Sledgehammer" - both of which we watched over and over and over. For years, "Sledgehammer" was touted by MTV as The Best Video Ever (it very well may be to this day), so it got a lot of play well after exiting the Top 40. Based on video viewings alone, I know every beat of that song. And I thought I knew every word.
When I got up to sing that night, the janky karaoke monitor got staticky for a moment and that first line, the one that leads into the verse, was illegible. Since I could never make out what he was saying - it sounded something like "Help me / eh ba da ba doo day" - I just ad-libbed "Help me / I can't read the lyrics". Perhaps the monitor heard me, because it righted itself and I had no trouble singing the rest of the song.
In fact, it was the most fun I've had singing a karaoke song! What a joyous piece of music, and all that "Come on, come on help me through / YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YOU" was a great way to get out my aggression in a non-violent fashion*
I was eager to sing it again last Friday at the Circus Bar in Ann Arbor, where we were celebrating a friend's birthday. The Circus karaoke is hosted by Stoo's, which is the high-end, shiny, wait-in-line-for-two-and-a-half-hours-to-sing karaoke. I prefer my white trash bar down the road, but I will say that Stoo's monitors don't get staticky. And when I finally got to the stage, I discovered what the first line is
"Hey hey / Is anybody using?"
And now I finally know what this song is about! I assumed that "Sledgehammer" was just code for a big, erect penis. Yes, I've come to accept the limitations of my low, mannish voice, and that sometimes I'm just going to sing a song about having a boisterous penis. If it's a good enough song, I'm cool with that. But that isn't what this song is about, or at least it's not all this song is about.
Rather, I think that the sledgehammer is the happy, natural fix that a recovering drug addict gets when they are finally sober - it could be sex or dancing or some other sort of good, clean fun. It's that thing you are so thrilled to find enjoyable after the detox, because isn't that the worst thing about coming off of any drug? That wondering if you will ever have fun again?
When Gabriel sings "I wanna be your sledgehammer," he's telling a friend that he wants to be that source of joy that helps them get over their detox blues. It reminds me of that line from David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" when he says "Want an axe to break the ice / want to come down right now". It's that same idea of breaking through the cloud of addiction, but it's a hell of a lot cheerier. "Sledgehammer" isn't a song about getting sober. It's song about finding a reason to stay sober.
At least, that's what I think it's about. I could just be talking out of my ass. Anyway, I suggest watching the video.
* work has been a bit rough lately