[10 May 2010]
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
—Alfred (Michael Caine), The Dark Knight
“And it’s okay to laugh about it.”
—Faith No More, “Ricochet” (King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime)
In a feat worthy of the Clown Prince of Crime, Faith No More somehow managed to encapsulate the fractured, subversive purpose of Heath Ledger’s Joker 16 years before Ledger’s Joker came into being. Consider this excerpt from “Midlife Crisis”, a single from 1992’s Angel Dust:
I’m a perfectionist
And perfect is a skinned knee
This notion struck me while I was listening to Faith No More on my iPod while doing the evening dishes. (I initially titled this column “Compiling Joker’s iTunes Playlist”, but a mixtape is more do-it-yourself and somehow anarchic; surely an iPod is too tidy for Joker.) I was also struck by the song’s chorus:
You’re perfect, yes, it’s true
But without me, you’re only you
Huh. Sounds like something Joker might say to Batman. Come to think of it, so does this lyric from “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”, from Faith No More’s King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime: “Your day has finally come / So wear the hat and do the dance, and let the suit keep wearing you.”
Indeed, the more I thought about the Mike Patton era of Faith No More, the more it seemed that one could almost make the case that their four studio albums were written for the Joker. Here I speak not just of Heath Ledger’s portrayal, but indeed every incarnation of the Joker character since his first comic book appearance in 1940.
Surely Faith No More’s more abrasive tracks (“Caffeine”, for example, or “Smaller and Smaller”) would appeal to the character who described himself as “an agent of chaos” in 2008’s The Dark Knight. It seems equally certain that the Joker of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel, who raised unsettling but credible implications about Batman’s relationship with the young, tights-clad Robin, would endorse vocalist Mike Patton’s justification for the shockingly loyal direction the band took with their cover of Lionel Richie’s “Easy”; asked why the band opted to play it straight rather than add thrashed-out guitar work or what-have-you, Patton insisted (correctly), “It’s more Satanic this way.”
“It’s always funny until someone gets hurt
And then it’s just hilarious!”
—Faith No More, “Ricochet” (King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime)
In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, the Joker offers what might be his definitive statement from seven decades of appearances in print and on the small and large screens:
It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for—it’s all a monstrous, demented gag!
The Joker who delivered that line would love the smash-cut from verse to chorus in Faith No More’s “Collision,” from 1997’s Album of the Year:
When the dawn breaks
With a handshake
Relaxed and feeling great
Head-on! Head-on! Head-on!
A head-on! Head-on! Head-on!
Arkham Asylum ends with Batman escaping from a truly lunatics-run asylum, only to have Joker bid him farewell by saying, “Enjoy yourself out there… in the asylum.” This corresponds to lyrics from Faith No More’s “Pristina”, the final song from 1997’s Album of the Year:
These walls won’t keep them out
They’ll keep you in
What a Joker thing to say; let’s not forget his choice of words in The Dark Knight when he repeatedly mocked Batman’s impotent efforts to intimidate him: “You have all these rules, and you think they’ll save you!”
“Rhymes and giggles muffle the dialogue”
—Faith No More, “Kindergarten” (Angel Dust)
Then there is 1989’s The Real Thing, which is tame and mild compared to Faith No More’s later efforts, though it boasts more than a few hints of depravity and sedition sure to appeal to Joker. “From Out of Nowhere” sounds almost like a traditional love song, but it also happens to be the perfect From Joker To Batman ballad:
Obsession rules me
I’m yours from the start…
You come from out of nowhere
My glance turns to a stare
Don’t know if I’ll laugh or cry…
All becomes you
Skeptical? Recall Joker’s plea to Batman in The Dark Knight: “You complete me.” Ledger’s delivery of this line was arresting not because it was sarcastic, but because it was utterly earnest; I wouldn’t hesitate to deem his delivery more charged than Tom Cruise’s offering of the same line to Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire.
Joker’s sincerity simultaneously subverts and validates the corny Hallmark power of the original line, much in the same way that an errant hand on a steamy car window in a crass and miserable sex scene between Shep (David Harbour) and April (Kate Winslet) in Revolutionary Road made a subtle mockery of the more famous and audience-pleasing love scene between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.
“You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it!”
—Joker (Heath Ledger), The Dark Knight
Or perhaps the unfortunately titled “Zombie Eaters” better summarizes Joker’s feelings for Batman. It seems on the surface to have been written from the perspective of a baby singing the praises of its mother, but Faith No More songs are seldom that straightforward. I’ve long believed that the narrator of “Zombie Eaters” and the pedophile character who narrates “Edge of the World” (both from The Real Thing) might be one and the same; perhaps the baby’s perspective is only utilized to reflect that the pedophile character is stunted.
Whatever the case, “Zombie Eaters” contains lyrics that could definitely apply to Joker’s relationship with Batman:
You’re everything, that’s why I cling to you…
I like to make a mess
I laugh at your distress
Mike Patton behaving rather Joker-esque
“Zombie Eaters” also features a cry of, “Nobody understands except the toys in my hands,” followed soon after with a demand of, “Give me! I need my toys!” These lines would never have struck me as relating to Joker a week ago, but once you start combing through Faith No More’s lyrics with Joker on the brain, everything seems to take on a new significance. (In “Digging the Grave”, Patton sings, “Let something in, throw something out / You left the door open wide,” while in The Dark Knight, Ledger tells Christian Bale’s Batman, “You changed things. Forever.”)
In the case of Patton singing “I need my toys,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jack Nicholson marveling aloud in 1989’s Batman, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
Also from “Zombie Eaters”:
If I smile, then you’ll smile
Then I’ll get mad for a while
I stole the title of this essay from “Zombie Eaters”, as well, and it might be the ultimate Joker-to-Batman statement:
I hope you never leave
‘Cause who would hear me scream?
Another track from The Real Thing, “Falling to Pieces” would seem at first glance to be an appropriate homage to Joker, but then again, Patton sings “somebody put me together”, and if the Joker were ever to offer a cry for help, it’d come more in the form of “Helpless”, from Album of the Year, which features a lyric that is probably Joker’s worst nightmare:
I even tried to get arrested today
But everyone looked the other way
Jack Nicholson as the Joker
To be ignored is possibly the only punishment that could undo the Joker. (That said, this bit from 1995’s “Ricochet” could also be Joker’s worst nightmare: “It is the hardest thing to do / To watch it grow on top of you / And see you’re just like everyone: No fun!”) Meanwhile, “Helpless” ends with a stubborn insistence of “Don’t want your help/Don’t need your help,” until another cry slowly drowns out the first voice and, eventually, the guitars and the drums. Finally, the new voice cries alone: “Help. Help. Help! Help! HELP! HELP!”
It’s probably the most unsettling bit of singing I’ve ever heard, and it, too, seems to fit Joker perfectly; he’d probably never overtly ask for help or admit that he could benefit from it, but inside he must be screaming for it.
“Do you often sing or whistle just for fun?”
—Faith No More, “Land of Sunshine” (Angel Dust)
In the animated film Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, which features scenes so dark and menacing that I literally had a stomach ache after watching it for the first time, Joker abducts Robin, portrayed in this era of the animated Batman universe as Tim Drake, a preteen. Batman conducts frantic, fruitless searches for weeks, and by the time he locates his young ward, it is in a very real sense too late, though Joker has not killed the boy.
Instead, he has remade Tim Drake in his own image; after enduring several weeks of A Clockwork Orange-style brainwashing and torture, Robin boasts a leering rictus, green hair and purple schoolboy shorts. He is capable of no verbal communication save for a tense, haunted series of giggles. (My first, horrified thought during this scene: Joker must have undressed the boy at some point to get him into his miniature Joker suit. Brrr.)
Joker boasts to Batman, “I’ll begin with how I peeled back the layers of the boy’s mind,” then encourages Tim to shoot his former guardian: “Make Daddy proud. Deliver the punch-line.”
Perhaps Joker had Faith No More’s “Last Cup of Sorrow” in mind during this most perverse moment of triumph:
With a new face, you might surprise yourself
Of course, “With a new face, you might surprise yourself” could also work as a generic recruitment slogan for Joker. Like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, Joker isn’t simply about mayhem; he’s also an enthusiastic provider of social commentary. In The Dark Knight and A Killing Joke both, what’s most terrifying about the Joker character is that he is so persuasive.
From The Dark Knight:
You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan,” even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I told the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truck load of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die… well, then everyone loses their minds!
Carrying on, from The Killing Joke:
All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once. Am I right? You had a bad day and everything changed.
One is reminded of Heath Ledger’s Joker politely insisting, “I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve” and, later, “Madness, as you know, is like gravity… all it takes is a little push.”
“What if there’s no more fun to have…?
Think about you crackin’ a smile…”
—Faith No More, “Ricochet” (King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime)
Of course, no matter how persuasive or seductive he becomes, Joker’s demented (if sometimes uncomfortably insightful and accurate) lessons will usually go unheeded by the comparably sane denizens of Gotham City; presumably, he would find much to relate to in the closing words of Faith No More’s “A Small Victory”:
If I speak at one constant volume
At one constant pitch
At one constant rhythm
Right into your ear
You still won’t hear
One of my favorite tracks from The Real Thing calls to mind a highlight from Tim Burton’s Batman, from 1989. Here I’m speaking of the moment when Jack Nicholson’s Joker turns to his lead goon, Bob, and says, “Bob: gun,” and then Bob hands Joker his gun, at which point Joker unceremoniously shoots Bob. The perfect soundtrack to this scene, so perfect indeed that it’s almost too easy to cite: “Surprise! You’re Dead!”
Perfect match though it seems, however, I might suggest that Joker’s take on a title like “Surprise! You’re Dead!” would be to argue, as would Tyler Durden, that it applies to all of us. In other words, we are all so numb and oblivious that we may as well be dead; how telling that the lyric that follows “Surprise! You’re dead!” is “Open your eyes!” Actually, something else appears between the two lyrics: a maniacal laugh. Ha ha ha.
“Sense of security
Holding blunt instrument”
-Faith No More, “Midlife Crisis” (Angel Dust)
What about “Everything’s Ruined,” a perplexing gem from Angel Dust which appears to concern a well-off family and their ambiguously disappointing son. Setting aside the fact that “Everything’s Ruined” sounds like something Joker might have engraved on a trophy, wouldn’t he be delighted by lyrics such as, “When he lost his appetite, he lost his weight in friends” or “He made us proud, he made us rich/How were we to know he’s counterfeit”?
—Faith No More, “Jizzlobber” (Angel Dust)
Finally, what would Joker make of the songs Faith No More has chosen to cover throughout their career? I’ve mentioned Lionel Richie’s “Easy”, but they’ve also recently taken to performing Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” as part of their celebrated reunion tour setlist, and Patton used to make a point of covering everything from New Kids on the Block hits to Nestlé chocolate jingles during the band’s early live performances. Studio recordings include covers of songs from performers ranging from Dead Kennedys (“Let’s Lynch the Landlord”) to Black Sabbath (“War Pigs”), and even the theme from Midnight Cowboy.
Hell, they even covered a Bee Gees song. At this point, I assume its title won’t surprise you:
“I Started A Joke.”