Artist: The Nails
Writers: Marc Campbell and David Kaufman
Album: Hotel for Women
Year: 1981, released on major label in 1982
Label: Jimboco, RCA
Marc Campbell, lead singer and songwriter for The Nails, would certainly identify. "That's so true it can get spooky," he said, "because you don't know which lies are the truth. Did I dream that or did that really happen? I can't think how many times I've said that. Leonard certainly has to figure into any discussion of '88 Lines,' no question."
So does Jim Carroll, whose "People Who Died" is often thought of as a direct relative. More obscure but just as relevant is the book length poem by New York underground poet Joe Brainard called I Remember. "He did a listing of stuff he liked. Which is great, to begin every line with "I remember" and then go into your brain and pull this stuff out. So I really need to give Joe Brainard props for giving me the idea of just a simple list and how compelling that is. It really has this mantric theme going on where you kind of become hypnotized by it. And the same is true of '88 Lines.' I kind of got into this hypnotic reverie and it did bring up all kinds of great memories."
Campbell, however, has taken Leonard Cohen's notion to a degree that perhaps only Cohen wouldn't consider extreme, going so far as to be currently living with a girl from the song, the one whose line begins: "Tanya Turkish liked to fuck while wearing leather biker boots."
"I got divorced three years ago after 18 years of marriage and it was devastating," Marc said. "Somebody said, Marc, have you checked out this thing called Facebook? So I checked out this thing called Facebook and I hooked up with some old friends in Manhattan, and we decided I was going to drive to Manhattan from Texas and visit my old friends and have dinner with them. And one of the women that attended was Tanya. Well, we hooked up and the rest is history."
"88 Lines" was so simple it was uncanny. The Nails had a studio in our loft in Manhattan. It was back in the day when you could rent the entire floor of some old factory for $1,000 and we had put a little recording studio and rehearsal space in there. My keyboard player, David (Kaufman), and I were shifting our positions in the band around by me playing drums and him playing bass and we were just laying down some riffs on this new Casio keyboard that had some preprogrammed rhythm tracks. The little rhythm track you hear on "88 Lines" is taken directly from the Casio. He turned on that little rhythm track and I was on the drums and I liked what I heard. So I took the casette tape that we made of that riff and went home. I realized there was about four or five minutes worth of riff in there, and that that would accommodate 88 lines, or 44 couplets. That was what determined the length of the song. Curiously, 88 is a pretty cosmic number. There are 88 keys on the keyboard. "Rocket 88" was a key rock and roll song. So I wondered, what can you write 88 lines about? What can you write 44 couplets about? Well, I mean, what is there, really, other than women? Maybe cars for some guys. But what were the big things in my life at that time? Sex, drugs, rock & roll. So it came down to women. I didn't have to really think twice about it. I'm actually making it sound as if I made a choice. I didn't. It just was obvious.
The way the songwriting works for me is it's always a trance type state. I really believe that most good writing kind of takes the writer by surprise. And that's what happened. It just came flowing through me, one line leading to another. Some of the women are real, some are made up. At that point I don't know if I'd actually had 44 really important women in my life.
Many people thought, "Oh, he's boasting about his sex life." If you listen to the song, that's not true. Again, it wasn't like I was sitting there faking through this. But as I was flowing along and writing it, I instinctually felt gaps needed to be filled in terms of my characterization of women. I wanted to achieve some kind of epic uberwoman. You know, one that kind of encapsulated all of these women, woman as a source of energy and inspiration for me. And that's kind of how it panned out.
It was written in about two hours. I sat at my beat up typewriter and when it was done, I stuck it on the nightstand, went to sleep, and the next day took it into the guys in the band and said, "Let's get together and record this." They came in and not much was done. Some horns were thrown down and some guitar. And then I sang over it. And it was done.
I started the Nails as a punk band in Boulder, Colorado. I never thought that I would be a part of the music industry. I wasn't one of those guys who sat on the end of his bed with a guitar writing songs and having visions of being a rock star. I was doing it because I loved rock 'n' roll and I thought rock 'n' roll needed some new energy. I loved what was going on in London with the punk scene and in New York at CBGB. I wanted to be a part of it. It had very little to do with any kind of commercial or financial expectations. It was fucking fun. So we wrote that song for a 12" vinyl EP, which was going to have four songs on it. We had a little indie record label that we had hooked up with, and both that label and ourselves pooled our money and we bought some time in a nice state of the art recording studio in Manhattan and we went in and recorded some pretty layered multi-track, somewhat bombastic rock songs. "88 Lines" was not part of that project, but it was sitting there. We had recorded it in our studio and it was gnawing at me. I said, "I really want to include '88 Lines' on this EP." And the guy who had partnered up with us said, "No, Marc. It's just too low-tech. Up against all these other songs it's going to sound rinkydink." And I said, "That's why I want to include it." I had halfway decided that what we had recorded in this big studio was not really all that honest. "88 Lines" seemed to me to be a lot purer. So after much arguing we included it on the EP.
Somehow that EP got into the hands of John Peel at the BBC and he started playing "88 Lines" on his radio show and was inundated with phone calls from all over the United Kingdom. Suddenly, he contacted us to get our address and broadcast it on his show, and we were inundated with fan mail. It was really heartfelt stuff. It was people saying, "I knew a girl like suchandsuch, she broke my heart." Or "This is the best song I've ever heard." It was handwritten by kids from all over Great Britain and elsewhere, any kid within earshot of John Peel's radio show. He was so hugely influential and so cool.
Suddenly the record labels started coming at us, and I mean, coming at us. So we had this big showcase gig for all these record labels in Manhattan. The Nails got on stage and I refused to do "88 Lines." I was drunk, I tore my clothes off and fell into the drum kit and blew it. The only ones that stuck around were RCA. It pissed off my band. But at the same time, it was what they expected of me. I mean, it was a big fuck you to all these guys that were up in the balcony passing judgment. They'd all come because of that one song, but I had written 12-15 new songs since then. And those were the ones we played. RCA contacted our manager and said, "Let us know when they're playing again." This time we played at a place called Trax. I remember being in the dressing room drinking vodka and trying to pace myself so I wouldn't be too fucked up on stage. I looked out the dressing room door, and there was nobody there but the guys from RCA. So we just laughed. A few minutes later I stuck my head out the door and it was packed, packed with all of our fans. And the crowd went apeshit when we played it and the next day we got an offer from RCA. By then I'd made my point. There were other battles to fight by then.
I think that was the only time we'd played it live. Of course, after that we had to play it because radio stations were playing it and we were touring and everybody would expect to hear it. I always begrudgingly played it and made a big deal about not wanting to play it. I'd make it quite clear that I had a cheat sheet of the lyrics that's 10 feet long, and I'm making a very, very big production of the fact that I'm reading the lyrics, and the band is struggling with trying to reduce their sound down to the "88 Lines" sound. There were six great musicians on stage to back up a really bad four-track recording. Eventually, the band would leave the stage and I did the song sitting on a stool, to a taped backing track. Instead of trying to get the band to sonically dumb down and try to replicate that song live, I just said, "Fuck it." It's a song that revolves around a really low-tech Casio rhythm thing, so let's not pretend it's anything more than that. It's really about the lyrics. No question it has a hook. But again, it was so hard to pull off live that I almost made it into a performance piece, a poetry reading. It was almost embarrassing to do live because the band was big and "88 Lines" was an atypical song of ours. The other songs were big and fat and Doorsy and gothy and here was this thing that really kind of stuck out in our set. And so by setting up a stool and doing it on a backing track, it was effective. It was dramatic.
If there's a story about "88 Lines," it's that for a long time it was the song that could only be found on compilations when compilations starting popping up. Before that, it was the song that everybody heard, but nobody could buy. This was before CDs. None of the Nails catalogue was ever released by RCA on CD, believe it or not. After the first 100,000 records were sold of our first album, on which "88 Lines" appeared, RCA did not do a second pressing. Why, I don't know. They gave us money to do a second album, but they never did "88 Lines" as a single; they didn't even do a dance mix. The first time "88 Lines" became available on CD it was on this kind of one hit wonder new wave compilation called Living in Oblivion. Do you really want to be on a compilation called Living in Oblivion?" So we'll never know what it might have sold had people been able to go in and buy the single. Eventually we signed a deal with RCA to get our masters back. So now the first few Nails RCA albums are available on CD on Amazon. I think there are three different versions of "88 Lines," the original four-track version, and some others. The guys in the band, my bass player, George, who died not long ago, and my keyboard player, David, were really devoted to keeping the Nails legendary status alive with Web sites and these re-releases. I would have preferred to just move on.
We never did a video for "88 Lines," which is weird. RCA gave us like $35,000 to do a video for "Let It All Hang Out," our cover of the Hombres song. They were scared of "88 Lines," which is ridiculous. I had this scenario, where basically it was me in a lounge, like a Ramada Inn in Atlantic City. I'm now in my 50s or 60s, I'm overweight, and I'm singing our one hit, which I've been milking for 30 some odd years. I'm looking like fat Elvis and the camera pans across the audience, and it's all these old women. They're the women in the song. They're all swooning. Can you imagine how much fun that would have been? I think people really would have adored that on MTV. Nowadays, if you look at YouTube, you'll be shocked to see how many people have made their own videos for the song. I mean, there are dozens of them. One guy made one about fishing, "88 Lines About 44 Fish." I actually sent him a message through YouTube. I said, "I got to hand it to you, man. This song has covered a lot of territory. But this is the first one about fish." A lot of the people who made these videos are high school students. So there's "88 lines About 44 Anime Characters," so clearly they're really young people but the song connected with them. I guess "88 Lines" connects on a pretty primal level. Everybody knows those chicks who have broken their hearts or taught them a lesson, so it's universal. Most of the videos are terrible, but I'm thrilled the song has this life of its own.
November 14, 2012
More They're Playing My Song