In The Cards

by Jess Grant

Ah, the card game. Whether playing around a dining table with the family, or gambling our hard-earned money at a bustling casino, the humble deck of palm-sized paper oblongs has given us all some combination of comfort and community, thrills and dejection.

Playing cards are the songwriter's friend, providing myriad metaphors for a range of emotions and topics; a universal language that can tell a simple story in the most intriguing of ways. For Kenny Rogers, it's words to live by; for AC/DC, it a social disease.

Very rarely is a successful song about the card game itself; it's more about who we are and what we want in life related through the random turn of a card. You might find your matching pair, but you could just as easily lose even when the odds are in your favor. So, budding songwriters out there, play your cards right and you may just deal yourself a popular song like one of these.
"The Jack" by AC/DC (1975)

Next time you head-bang your way through AC/DC's "The Jack," just know you're grooving to a track about Gonorrhea contraction. Yup, turns out "The Jack" is Australian slang for the sexually transmitted disease, and late front man, Bon Scott, told Sounds he penned the track after the band got the infection from a bunch of groupies: "We were living with this houseful of ladies who were all very friendly and everyone in the band had got the jack. So we wrote this song and the first time we did it on stage they were all in the front row with no idea what was goin' to happen. When it came to repeatin' 'She's got the jack' I pointed at them one after another.'"

She's got the Jack
She's got the Jack
She's got the Jack,
And who knows what else?

The entire song surreptitiously carries this theme of being infected by groupies that have, ahem, "got around," with Scott bemoaning how he was dealt the dreaded "Jack" card:

But how was I to know
That she'd been shuffled before
Said she'd never had a Royal Flush
But I should have known
That all the cards were comin'
From the bottom of the pack
And if I'd known what she was dealin' out
I'd have dealt it back!

"The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers (1978)

This is more than a song - it's a franchise. Soon after it hit, Kenny Rogers starred in 5 made-for-TV movies as "The Gambler," and casinos were filled with slot machines based on the story. The song was written by a Nashville Cat named Don Schlitz, who isn't a poker player but knows how to tell a story. In this song, he finds himself on a train with a wise old card player who offers this advice:

You got know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.
Know when to walk away and know when to run.

No cards are played in the song, but it taps into the wisdom of poker, which was just as intriguing but far less accessible at the time. Poker players know that you can't think in absolutes: if you always go for it you will ultimately lose. Success comes from adapting to changing conditions, studying your competition, and thinking long term. You can get more out of this song than most books on how to succeed in business.

Another lesson from this song: it can take a while to get it right. At least 5 other singers recorded "The Gambler" before it became the signature song for Kenny Rogers. One of the guys who lost that hand was Johnny Cash.

"Solitaire" by The Carpenters (1975)

In the '90s, solitaire became better known as a time-killer at work played on the PC when you were sick of looking at spreadsheets. But real solitaire - playing cards by yourself - can be a very lonely pursuit, a game played when there is no one in your life to share it with.

How did it come to this? The first lines explain it all:

There was a man, a lonely man.
Who lost his love through his indifference.

With the love of his life out of the picture, he keeps playing the game and getting the same result. Faced with a vision of heart-wrenching isolation with just a sad deck of cards for company, many a man has brought home flowers after hearing this one.

Neil Sedaka wrote the music, and told his lyricist Phil Cody to come up with something that would make him cry. Sometimes a songwriter is surprised by what comes out in his lyrics, and Phil's emotional outpouring was one of these times. "I didn't know I had that in me," he told us.

Karen Carpenter's voice could carve a pit in your stomach with this song, and many others have taken a stab at it, including Elvis, who took it way over top.

"Two of Hearts" by Stacey Q (1986)

Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins and Bono have told us that two hearts are better than one beating together in just one mind, but only the pop singer Stacey Q has hit with Two of Hearts. There's not much card imagery in this one beyond the title, but it gives us an excuse to show you the clip of Stacey performing the song on The Facts of Life in one of the most unmistakably '80s two minutes you'll ever see.

"Two of Hearts" sold a million copies in 1986 and went to #3 on the Hot 100. It almost became the highest-charting song with a playing card or card game in the title, but it was another card in the same suit that kept her from that title...

"Queen of Hearts" by Juice Newton (1981)

In September 1981, Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts" peaked at #2, making it the highest-charting card game song in America. Penned by Hank DeVito, "Queen of Hearts" was first recorded by the Welsh musician, Dave Edmunds.
Edmunds' original version peaked at #11 in the UK, but was kept back from release in the US, meaning Edmunds always felt a sense of envy towards Newton's subsequent success. Edmunds told Creem: "She [Newton] did pinch my arrangement, note for note, but I'm not angry with that…good luck to Juice baby. If I'd have had it out as a single and it didn't hit but hers did, I'd have said, 'Fair enough, great.' I really wanted it out as a single."

Despite its chart successes, this country-pop number is pretty cliché in subject matter. Expect no Gonorrhea metaphors here - "Queen of Hearts" instead uses gambling to represent volatile relationships and being played around with by non-committal partners during that unforgettable chorus:

Playing with the queen of hearts
Knowin' it ain't really smart
The joker ain't the only fool
Who'll do anything for you

"Ace of Spades" by Motorhead (1980)

In 1980, Motorhead dropped their biggest hit to date, "Ace of Spades." Rumored to have been written in the back of a speeding transit van, this raucous rock track was described by front man, Lemmy, as a "word-exercise on gambling, all the clichés":

Seven or Eleven, snake eyes watching you,
Double up or quit, double stakes or split,
The Ace Of Spades

The song's lip-curling soundscapes compliment the sheer cockiness of the "born to die" gambler illustrated throughout the lyrics:

You know I'm born to lose, and gambling's for fools,
But that's the way I like it baby,
I don't wanna live forever,
And don't forget the joker

This persona is undoubtedly based on the American sheriff, Wild Bill Hickok, who was shot and killed in 1876 during a poker game in Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood, South Dakota, while holding the now-legendary "dead man's hand." Although there are differing accounts regarding the exact combination drawn, Hickok's biographer claims the hand consisted of the ace of clubs, the eight of clubs, the queen of clubs, the eight of spades and, of course, the ace of spades:

Read 'em and weep, the dead man's hand again,
I see it in your eyes, take one look and die,
The only thing you see, you know it's gonna be,
The Ace Of Spades

"Poker Face" by Lady Gaga (2008)

Lady GaGa told the Daily Star her trope-laden 2008 hit single, "Poker Face," was inspired by ex-boyfriends "who are really into sex and booze and gambling." In the track, GaGa treats her relationships as if they were a steamy poker game:

I wanna hold em' like they do in Texas please.
Fold em' let em' hit me raise it baby stay with me (I love it)
Love Game intuition play the cards with spades to start
And after he's been hooked I'll play the one that's on his heart

Moreover, GaGa claims she appointed the theme of card games in order to ambiguously express her bisexuality. The singer elaborated that the track is about her being with a man, all the while she is secretly fantasizing about a woman, hence her indecipherable "Poker Face."

"Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" by Bob Dylan (1975)

In 1975, Bob Dylan released what was to be his break-up opus, Blood on the Tracks. The album's nine minute centerpiece, "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts," has been the subject of many Dylan debates (the most pretentious debate of all!) since its release. Such interest was, and continues to be sparked as a result of the song's mysterious and practically indecipherable plot, populated by a multitude of archaic characters, namely the "Jack of Hearts," an enigmatic bank robber who inspires ambition in all that know him:

In the darkness by the riverbed they waited on the ground
For one more member who had business back in town
But they couldn't go no further without the Jack of Hearts

We also meet "Jim," the richest man in town. Despite unlimited wealth and women, however, Jim is unable to compete with the Jack of Hearts:

He took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste
But his bodyguards and silver cane were no match for the Jack of Hearts

The song also introduces us to two female characters, "Lily" and "Rosemary," who are repetitively seduced by the mysterious rogue that is Jack of Hearts, despite both married to the apparent bigamist (!) that is Jim:

It was known all around that Lily had Jim's ring
And nothing would ever come between Lily and the king
No nothing ever would except maybe the Jack of Hearts

And big Jim was standing there ya couldn't say surprised
Rosemary right beside him steady in her eyes
She was with big Jim but she was leaning to the Jack of Hearts

Jim ultimately goes on to be murdered by Rosemary, who is subsequently hung. Meanwhile, the Jack of Hearts escapes into the night, leaving a helpless Lily left to conclude the allegory:

The cabaret was empty now a sign said. 'Closed for repair'
Lily had already taken all of the dye out of her hair
She was thinking about her father who she very rarely saw
Thinking about Rosemary and thinking about the law
But most of all she was thinking about the Jack of Hearts

So, whether the shadowy Jack of Hearts was ever meant to be a real person, or a mere representation of the gamble and risk we experience with closet (evil) desires, we will never know (after all, Bob still refuses to explain the plot). What we do know however, is this song remains of the most complex and intriguing of card game themed tracks in our aural canon.

January 14, 2012
More Song Writing

Comments: 5

  • Mark Elliott from Pacific Palisades, CaWink Martindale's "Deck of Cards", though undeniably cheesy, sure does deserve a mention here.
  • William Looft from Syracuse, NyA 1963 song, entitled 'Cards of Love' was written and performed by Tico (before he used his real name Paul Simon). The song used the Jack, Queen, and King cards as metaphors for a relationship that went bad when his 'Queen' left him for a 'Jack', leaving him, as 'King' alone.
  • Karen from Manchester, NhLaura Branigan also had a hit with a different song titled "Solitaire".
  • Gerry from Cambridge, EnglandI can't believe they left out "Deck of Cards"!
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaAs I recall, Spinal Tap satirized AC/DC's their cupid's problems in the movie when they all showed up in public sporting cold sores.
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