When I first heard Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping,” I knew it was the novelty song for me. I was driving in Jersey City, looking for a place to get a photographic inspection of the car because I had allowed the insurance to lapse, and there it was on the radio-a heavy dance beat, chanting men, crooning ladies, a snippet of “Danny Boy,” a trumpet and lyrics I couldn’t really make out.
At the time I didn’t know Chumbawumba was not just a band, but some kind of socialist-anarchist collective that splits its earnings evenly among all its band members and crew. Now their song, the surprise hit of the late fall and early winter of ’97-’98, is making its way back down the charts, after having reached No. 6 in Billboard . So I wanted to take a moment to salute “Tubthumping” before it becomes just another pop music relic.
When I first caught the video, I was impressed with the way Chumbawumba seemed to be making light of the fundamental activity of hanging out in bars, or I guess I should say pubs, since Chumbawumba is English. What a thing to mock! I loved it when one of the women in the band, pretending to apply lipstick in front of a pub bathroom mirror, sang, “Pissing the night away, pissing the night away,” in a mournful tone. That was like me! I was pissing the night away, too, only I was doing it half-buried in the couch, rather than in a bar, or pub.
I had no idea what the males in the band were chanting in the song’s chorus. Then I was flipping through a magazine that I took from the recycling stacks in the basement of our building at 1 in the morning, and I saw that the chant was this: “I get knocked down/ But I get up again/ You’re never gonna keep me down.” So that explained the surge of optimism I felt every time I heard the song.
I looked up from the article and saw a guy coming out of the laundry room. He asked me if I was enjoying my reading material. I said Yes, and he said that was good because he had just spent 10 minutes tying that stack of magazines together with twine and would I mind tying it back up once I was done reading whatever I was reading. I told him it was an interesting article about Chumbawumba, this band of socialist-anarchists from England who were moving up the charts, and he said he didn’t really care what the hell it was, but he would appreciate it if I wouldn’t destroy his recycling stacks in the future. I said, No problem, and asked him if he had seen the Chumbawumba video, and he said No, so I told him about it, and he said he had just about enough of this and was going to bed, and I said good night and he said, For some people it is.
Time goes quickly in the basement of our building when everyone is asleep. There’s a buzzing noise, plenty of stuff to read in the recycling stacks, and the garbage pile smells kind of nice. At about 2 A.M., it struck me. Those funny revolutionaries in Chumbawumba were gently pointing out that we’re all pissing our lives away when we might be doing something worthy. What excuse did I have, really, for not spending a couple hours each week helping people who need help? Then I went back to the TV and waited for Chumbawumba to come on again.
Chumbawumba was on the car radio a lot the next week, during our sketchily planned holiday tour of upstate motel rooms. It was snowing and the defrost was blowing like hell. At some point, I asked my wife if she loved the song or was annoyed by it, adding that there seemed to be no in-between where “Tubthumping” was concerned, and she said she wasn’t in the mood for this kind of thing right now and why couldn’t I be more like the other husbands.
The boy was coughing in his car seat. He was getting better, but he had been “getting better” for a long time, and we were looking for a Wendy’s because that is practically the only place on the road where you can count on baked potatoes and salad and other things that a certain lady will eat.
I was singing along with the “pissing the night away” part, and my hot breath was fogging up the windshield. The boy’s coughs were coming harder. I think he gagged up a lot of phlegm or something, judging by how my wife was furiously looking through the baby bag for tissues and climbing into the back seat, but I wasn’t completely sure what was going on, since I was kind of laughing on the inside at how the Chumbawumba guy was saying, “It’s a whiskey drink/ And it’s a vodka drink.” He clearly understood the need to pound down drinks all night, but the lilt in his delivery suggested he knew the whole thing was useless. My wife was struggling in the back, and the boy was crying louder. I could barely hear the rest of the song.
We found a Wendy’s. My wife went into the maze leading up to the cash registers and I took the boy to a table, where he immediately vomited up a clear fluid and started crying again. The other customers weren’t so impressed by our grand entrance. I cleaned up the mess with those yellow Wendy’s napkins and took him to another table. After a serving of Vicks cough medicine and half a junior cheeseburger, he was feeling O.K.
Later on, I had to change him in the tiny men’s room, but I got rattled and forgot to put a new pair of training pants on him. So the boy and I ended up taking an unexpected warm bath on our Wendy’s bench, which he found very amusing. The phrase “pissing the night away” rang truer than ever as I started cleaning it up with about 20 of those napkins.
I don’t imagine anyone will ever say the late fall and early winter of ’97-’98 was some legendary time. In 20 years, nobody will say, “You should’ve seen it-Chris Rock was all the rage, crime was down and we drank coffee.” But even as my own idiocy or confusion or whatever was allowing me to piss away hour after hour, it was still a happy time. I believed in that rowdy Chumbawumba refrain, addressed to some unknown malevolent force, “You’re never gonna keep me down.”
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