When I kicked off this blog, I named it after songs recorded by Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke, and maybe after the whole notion that paradise is popular fantasy, a kind of bait-and-switch trick. Because we chase after joy and maybe believe we’re entitled to it (the whole pursuit-of-happiness deal, “pursuit” being the slippery word), there’s a tendency to blame ourselves when it proves elusive. Hence: I was a fool. Pop music is a church where the congregants worship at the House of Holy Fools, and no wonder so many of its more esteemed lyricists are Jewish, because many of us aren’t Reform or Orthodox but Self-Deprecationist, and so you get songs like “Fools Fall In Love” (Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller): “Fools fall in love in a hurry/Fools fall in love much too soon/Just play them two bars of ‘Stardust’/Just hang out one silly moon.” And the singer implicates himself at the end, “Shake the hand of a brand new fool.” When Elvis Presley cut it, he botched that last line and turned it into “Take a look at a brand new fool,” ruining that internal rhyme, and speaking of The King (whose enduring anthem begins “Wise men say only fools rush in”) here is an album side’s worth of foolishness: “”Fool Fool Fool,” “Fools Rush In,” “Fool,” “Fools Fall In Love,” “A Fool Such As I,” “If I’m A Fool (For Loving You).”
“Fool that I am,” goes the ’40s song recorded by singers as estimable as Etta James and Adele, “for falling in love with you,” and that’s the thing about most of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of fool songs. Oh, sometimes a third party will call someone else a fool for doing something to mess up a good thing (“She’s A Fool,” “Foolish Little Girl”). At the top of that list is “Hey Jude,” with Paul giving an encouraging nudge. “Well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool/By making his world a little colder”: nice fool/cool, cool/colder word-flipping going on. (Buddy Holly rhymed “coolish” and “foolish,” and we know where he stands in the McCartney pantheon), And there’s the great doo-wop single by The Five Keys, “The Wisdom of a Fool.” The singer has totally blown it, has learned his lesson, and offers his belated counsel to a friend, or to the world at large: listen, just because I fucked up doesn’t mean you have to.
For the most part, though, there’s very little finger-pointing involved. It’s all about acknowledging one’s own complicity, or naivete, or confusion. This is something that, even if it is inflicted on the singer, the singer should have been insightful enough to avoid. Or it’s simply that Love Does This, scrambles the brain (St. Buddy’s “Love’s Made a Fool of You”). “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?,” one might ask. Or one (Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Paul Anka) might place his name in nomination for the “Fools Hall of Fame.” There are Stages of Fooldom: ignorance, delusion, realization, anger, resolve. “Am I fool number one?,” Brenda Lee wants to know. “I’m A Fool To Care.” “Poor Little Fool.” “I Played The Fool.” “How Could I Be Such a Fool?” “Chain of Fools.” “Silly, Silly Fool.” “Everybody Plays The Fool.” I’m not even going to start on The Fool Variations, like “fool around” in the intimate sense, or “These Foolish Things,” a list of things that aren’t really foolish themselves, but are items and events that trigger the memory.
You could write theses: “The Wisdom of a Fool: Aspects of Post-Adolescence Heartbreak in the Group Harmony Songs of Early Rock & Roll,” or “Who Will The Next Fool Be?: Behavioral Patterns of Trust and Duplicity in Country & Soul Music.” I go back often to some seminal recordings. Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers’ existential query, The Drifters’ original “Fools Fall In Love,” “Fools Rush In” by pretty much anyone, “I’m a Fool to Want You” by Sinatra (self-abasement and drowning desperation so naked — despite everything, he wants her back — that it should be banned from every bar everywhere in the universe, and that goes for the brittle Billie Holiday and Chet Baker versions also). They aren’t only about being fools but, as Holly sings, about being in a state past reason, getting spun around, saying I am (or I was) in over my head. “I was lost,” he admits, “in a fool’s paradise.” That’s what these songs say: “That fool is me,” “Open up your heart and let this fool rush in,” “I used to laugh, but now I understand/Shake the hand of a brand new fool.” Who’s laughing now?