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Dropping Names, Cutting Tapes: Beastie Boys - “High Plains Drifter”

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Monday, Jan 30, 2012
Despite the more solemn subject matter, on “High Plains Drifter” the Beasties still give us the chance to play that old game “spot the pop-culture allusion”, with references to Clint Eastwood, Hunter Thompson, The Andy Griffith Show, and more.
cover art

Beastie Boys

Paul's Boutique

(Capitol; US: 25 Jul 1989; UK: Import)

After the playful sonic complexity of “Egg Man”, the next track on Paul’s Boutique, “High Plains Drifter”, has a notably sparse texture. The track starts with the sound of a gun being cocked, proving to us that the petty crime of throwing eggs at people from the last tune has gotten more serious. The main sample found on much of “High Plains Drifter” is from “Those Shoes”, the Eagles song from the 1979 album The Long Run. The accented, double kick-drum and bass part imitates the sound of gunfire throughout. Despite the more solemn subject matter, the Beasties still give us the chance to play that old game “spot the pop-culture allusion,” with references to Clint Eastwood, Hunter Thompson, The Andy Griffith Show, and more. 

“High Plains Drifter” tells the story of a roaming kleptomaniac who likes to knock down mailboxes and fight with his girlfriend on his “cellular” (not a common activity in 1989). Much like Clint Eastwood’s character in the 1973 Western film that gave the song its title, our protagonist is a man of mystery. As the song starts, we’re not exactly sure what his crimes entail, we just know that he pulls out “a pair of pliers and pulled the bullet out of [his] chest”. Gross. He’s running from something, because he describes “fear and loathing across the country listening to my 8 -rack”, which he apparently shoplifted somewhere along the way. He seems like a nice enough guy, but then he reveals that he can be like “Travis Bickle when I feel that I’m getting pushed”. The reference to Robert De Niro’s character in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver suggests that our hero may in fact be a time bomb waiting to go off.
The Drifter is driving 120 mph while plowing over mailboxes and using a radar detector before checking into Motel 6 for the night. He watches porn and drinks a “black and tan in my brandy snifter”. He reveals to us his kleptomaniac past, saying that he “found a nice place to visit but a better place to rob”. He then goes to the local 7-Eleven intending to “make a withdrawal”. When the clerk refuses to hand over all the money, things get violent, for the Drifter “clocked him off the turban with the bag of ice” .

This crime doesn’t seem to bother the Drifter too much. He claims that he’s “mellow like Jell-O, cool like lemonade / Made my getaway and I thought that I had it made”. He doesn’t, though. He is caught in a speed trap and gets pulled over by cops. The officer notices the mailbox artifact on his bumper and immediately arrests the Drifter. He is dismayed that the policeman “read me my rights, as if I didn’t know this”, suggesting that this kind of thing has happened to him before. Upon being taken to jail, the Drifter is thrown behind bars with “a drunk called Otis”, a humorous reference to Otis Campbell, the town drunk from the fictional Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show.

The Drifter is brought before a judge and sentenced to the “Brooklyn House of D”. However, this doesn’t slow our hero down too much. Obviously, if he knows how to rob a K-Mart, he also knows how to break out of prison. Upon making his great escape, he goes to the O.T.B. and bets on a winner. He collects his cash and then breaks into his new car “with a wire coat hanger / Hot wired hot wheeled . . .” The last thing we hear is the line “Suzy is a headbanger”, lifted from the Ramones song of the same name.

“High Plains Drifter” has never been my favorite song on Paul’s Boutique, partly because I’ve never found the groove from “Those Shoes” that intoxicating, and it is repeated throughout the song so relentlessly. There’s not that much else musically to latch onto on this track. I’m also not sure what I’m supposed to make of the High Plains Drifter as a character. I empathize with the musician-fallen-on-bad-times protagonist of “Johnny Royall” and the shell-breaking trickster of “Egg Man”, but this dude seems like kind of an empty slate. That’s okay. The pop-culture references of “High Plains Drifter” are still fun to wallow in, and the Beasties have much more interesting things coming our way on the next track.

Previous entries:

* “To All the Girls”/“Shake Your Rump”
* “Johnny Ryall”
* “Egg Man”

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