21. Marillion - Sugar Mice

Some bands are destined to fracture.  Hell, most bands are destined to fracture.  Egos, excess, libidos, money and fame all combine to create an environment that is toxic for the long-term health of most bands.  For every Rolling Stones and U2, there are many more Beatles, Guns N Roses, Led Zeppelins and Talking Heads.  Bands just spend too much time together and have to be so gosh darned collaborative that there are too many opportunities for things to go south.  Just like Ben Franklin's idiom, "Three may keep a secret... if two of them are dead," the only way to keep band strife at bay is to be a solo artist.  That discord often times finds itself smack dab in the middle of the material that the band writes.

"Sugar Mice," by Marillion, is a song that was recorded just before that band fractured into "the band" and "the lead singer."  Fish, a giant of a Scot whose given name is Dereck Dick*, was the lead singer, lyricist, one of the songwriters.  He was the default band leader for Marillion's career, as most front men are.  The internal strife and squabbles within the band could have been smoothed over by their manager, who instead just delved the spike of division deeper.  This lead to Fish's self-medication of the depression he had about the state of the band, the rigors of constant touring and the stresses both of those heaped upon his family life.  His medicine of choice, like all good Scots, was alcohol.  On Marillion's website, they have interviews with the band about each album, so feel free to read more about Fish's side of the story (you've got to scroll down some),  Although he claims that the character in "Sugar Mice" is actually a character he created called Torch, upon reading Fish's thoughts, it's clear that he and Torch share the same barber.

"Sugar Mice" is in my mind, one of the most depressing songs ever written about normal life.  There are no serial killers or people dying in plane crashes, just a family destroyed by alcohol and apathy.  And even before a single lyric is sung, the song begins with a musical sadness.  It starts off with Steve Rothery's guitar, which evokes tremendous sadness with such simple playing.  Pete Trawavas' bass uses a digital effect to give is bass line an almost cello feel to it, augmenting the layers that give the music that melancholy feel.  The band does an amazing job of already setting the mood for Fish's lyrics.

I was flicking through the channels on the TV
On a Sunday in Milwaukee in the rain
Trying to piece together conversations
Trying to find out where to lay the blame

The song is about a man on the road, knowing he's left his family behind and trying to deal with the damage that he's done with his alcoholism.  Like many alcoholics, though, he knows exactly where the blame lies but feels powerless to do anything about it.  "You can blame it on me," Fish sings as Torch, delivering the line with such convincing resignation that it breaks your heart just listening to it.

The song amps up as Torch's self-loathing turns into anger, and the mood of the song follows suit.  You can feel the lament in Steve's guitar solo, during which I picture Torch sitting at some random bar, finishing off his whiskey as the guitar pours out his anger and regret.  Drummer Ian Mosley finally gets to let loose a bit, but his restrained drumming up till now has stayed true to the tone that "Sugar Mice" needs.  Another admirable sacrifice by a rhythm guy+.  With all of his anger expunged, the song slows down and Fish delivers, for me, the saddest verse of the song with such fragility.

Well the toughest thing that I ever did was talk to the kids on the phone
When I heard them asking questions I knew that you were all alone
Can't you understand that the government left me out of work
I just couldn't stand the looks on their faces saying, "What a jerk"

In this economy, so many men are in this position where they feel like a failure and that they're letting their family down with every passing minute.  That humiliation and sadness tears at a man's soul, leaving many to join the ranks of all the self-medicating MDs out there.  They just can't stand things any more and have resigned themselves to the fact that their failure is complete.  Fish sums that mind set up perfectly.

So if you want my address it's number one at the end of the bar
Where I sit with the broken angels clutching at straws and nursing our scars
Blame it on me, blame it on me,
Sugar mice in the rain, your daddy took a rain check

That last rain check part makes my blood boil as a father, since I'd like to think that I'd never let things get to that point with my children.  I take my duties as a father as the most serious ones I'll ever have and the thought of choosing alcohol over my children angers me.  But with the disease in full swing, combined with the stresses of no job to support the family that you promised to support, it's understandable, I guess.  The sadness of this song affected me even before I had children, and now that I have two fantastic sons, it's even more depressing to think of anyone ending up like this.

Great songs are supposed to do more than entertain you, and that's good, because there's nothing entertaining about "Sugar Mice."  What this song does doe, and it does it in spades, is make you think hard about life, responsibility, alcoholism, and family.  "Sugar Mice" isn't a summer blockbuster of a song, it's the indie Christmas film that you think about long after it's over.  Music doesn't always have to be art, but when it is, it has the ability to change people's lives.  Hopefully, the cautionary tale that is "Sugar Mice" can help some man out there on the cusp of going down the wrong path rethink things and decide what's really important.  Even though I've never been close to this actual situation, it does help reaffirm my commitment to support my family in every way that I can.  I hope it can do the same for some of you.

* I'd change my name, too, if it was Derek Dick.  I don't know if I would've picked Fish, but I'd have changed it to something non-dicky.
+ It  hasn't gone unnoticed, Ian.  Good job.

(Fun Fact #415:  Marillion holds a Guiness World Record.  No, it's not for record sales (that'd be Michael Jackson's Thriller, with 110,000,000 albums sold worldwide).  Their record is for the fastest release of a music DVD release.  A mere 63 hours after their March 17, 2003 concert at a fan convention, you could purchase the DVD Before First Light at The Record House on High Street)

(Fun Fact #63:  If you didn't grow up in the UK, chances are you have no idea what a sugar mouse is.  Basically it's the British version of the USA's Peep marshmallow chicks that you get in your Easter basket, only theirs are mice and you get them in your stocking at Christmastime.  So when Fish sings of "sugar mice in the rain," he's referring to fragility of life, that can melt away in a harsh rain.  So if you've never seen a sugar mouse (and I never had) here's a picture just for fun...)

Just in case you're on the verge of some of your own self-medication again after this post, scroll down to the end of my "Jeremy" post and give Katy Perry's "California Gurls" another whirl.  It'll make you feel better, trust me.

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