Welcome to a new recurring series that will ask that question of all sorts of songs, particularly those that aspire to artistic heights, whether they reach them or not.
Few bands walked that line between sublime and ridiculous as well as Live, the quartet of thoughtful young guys led by the ball of anger and spirituality named Ed Kowalczyk. Their full-fledged debut, Mental Jewelry, combined early-90s alt-rock energy with a spiritual vibe drawing influence from Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. They had a funkier rhythm section than most bands, making Pain Lies on the Riverside and Operation Spirit worth repeated listens to figure out what the heck Kowalczyk was wailing about.
Their follow-up was a smash. Throwing Copper is a terrific album with memorable singles — Selling the Drama, I Alone, Lightning Crashes — and some solid deep cuts. In those halcyon days of listeners buying full albums, they sold more than 8 million in the U.S. alone.
So by 1997, when they released Secret Samadhi, they were one of the bigger bands in the world. And Kowalczyk, prone to theatrical gestures that would make Bono blush, doubled down on his enigmatic lyrics, combining the abstract imagery of Kristin Hersh with the emphatic power of one of Tori Amos’ nastier efforts.
Was he singing about sex? Spirituality? Both? At times, listeners couldn’t be sure whether they were listening to Topographic Oceans-era Yes or Cherry Pie-era Warrant.
That’s the case with the provocatively titled Lakini’s Juice, with its equally provocative video, in which Ed seems conflicted about being hired to play at an orgy that borrowed a number dispenser from the local deli.
Believe it or not, a YouTube commenter explains what’s going on here, citing director Gavin Bowden (but not saying where she found the quote). The lard in the room with the guy handing out numbers represents “basic human sexual desires,” among other things.
So we have lard and sex. We’re in George Costanza territory here.
Another surprise from the YouTube comments: One detailed interpretation of the lyrics, which you can also find on songmeanings.net (amid less enlightened interpretations). The upshot: “The entire song represents a transition from the illusion of Christianity to the enlightenment of Hinduism.” (At songfacts.com, on the other hand, it’s all about those urges.)
That might be a surprise to anyone who has found Kowalczyk’s solo work classified as sort-of Christian rock. It’s not the first time Ed has been dismissive of his country’s dominant faith — Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition) says Jesus may have been a beautiful man of love and strength, but that was 2,000 years ago, and “the pain is right now and right here.” Kowalczyk now sees his back catalog as exploring Christianity from different angles.
And to be sure, there’s a thin line between faith and despair. XTC’s Dear God is the theme song of every angry agnostic, but between the lines, was Andy Partridge simply asking why so many people have been forsaken?
Maybe we should just look at the whole of Kowalczyk’s work and call him the foremost musician in Unitarian rock?
With Lakini’s Juice, it’s also easy to see it as something less devout. “More wine” and “more skin” could refer to Holy Communion or a less holy Bacchanalian experience. You could even hear “Let me ride” as “Lay me right.”
It’s not even the only reference to “juice” on Secret Samadhi. And the other one — “drunk on your juices,” from Turn My Head — certainly could be seen sexually.
But in this case, if we go back to the Hindu theme, we find a different “juice”:
In Hinduism, Lakini is the goddess of the Manipuraka (city of jewels), which is the third of the seven Chakras. This Chakra represents the solar plexis of the human body, just above the navel, and is responsible for the pancreas and gall bladder as well as intuition (gut feelings). Lakini’s “juice” is the bile, pancreatic fluid, and other chemicals produced by this region of the body that aid in digestion and excretion.
Surely this is the only rock tribute to pancreatic fluid. Oops, sorry, I forgot Weird Al.
Performed live, without the flourishes of strings of the studio version, Lakini’s Juice seems more sexual that spiritual, with Kowalczyk strutting around the stage and the band powering through the verses to the breathtaking release of the “Let me ride” orgasms, er, choruses. They ripped through it in a Saturday Night Live performance that’ll make you wish Kowalczyk and company hadn’t split in the all-too-familiar flurry of acrimony and lawsuits.
So Live pulled off a neat trick here, combining spirituality and sex like some sort of alt-rock answer to Prince and doing it with as much power as you can find in an old-school rock quartet with a sturdy but agile rhythm section, an inventive guitarist, and a singer who wasn’t lacking for confidence as he sang about Plato’s cave (maybe), Hinduism (surely), washing someone’s feet with toilet water (most definitely), and a vital organ. (No, not that vital organ.)
Your move, Daughtry.