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

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.

Beastie Boys

Paul's Boutique

US Release: 1989-07-25
UK Release: Import
Label: Capitol

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"

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.