Phantom Songs: Rupert Holmes – “Escape [The Piña Colada Song]”

Phantom Songs is an ongoing series of musical pieces that you can’t quite put your finger on. You have most definitely heard the song before, but are most likely not able to pinpoint who made it, when it was released, and/or what the song is really about. All of the artist’s history and biography was either stolen from wikipedia or made up entirely.

The art of writing a personal ad is one that has always been lost. It’s a medium that doesn’t require linguistic integrity or grammatical correctness. It is essentially a forum for people to express how badly they want to get laid. Their words may feel like poetry to themselves, but on paper, they all apear to be sloppy, desperate accounts of aching hearts, lonely souls and masochistic inquiries. You may not know this [or maybe you do], but I am a purveyor of personal ads. I find the act of writing a bunch of nonsense to be a therapeutic exercise. In fact, I just wrote one yesterday.

Typically, my ads are sandwiched in between “I wwant to hump yr boans” and “you looked hawt on the L trang, do you like my beard?”. I think that’s the point. Actually spending time to craft a personal ad is just as fruitless as spending a fortune on the production of a solitaire tutorial video. This fact was also true in the late 1970’s, when singer/songwriter/composer/playwright/burger enthusiast Rupert Holmes was flipping through the personal ads in the newspaper.

Rupert had this filler song that he was screwing around with. When it came time to record a rough scratch-track, he decided to whip up some quick lyrics based on a personal ad that he read. He expected the song to be terrible, forgettable and unworthy to be on his new album and he treated it as such. What he didn’t expect, however, was that the song would end up being a #1 hit. In fact, it would be his boost to the megastardom that he didn’t even want in the first place. He had to expect that his selling out was inevitable. Underground pop is the indie kid that shops at Hollister; you know he’s trying to get popular, but he’ll be damned to ever admit it. And what happens when you strike gold? You ride that damn gravy train, no matter how opposed to it you may be.

I was tired of my lady,
We’d been together too long,
Like a worn out recording,
Of a favorite song.
So while she lay there sleepin’,
I read the paper in bed,
And in the personal columns,
There was this letter I read

Off the bat, we already know that the protagonist is unlikeable. There could have been a million things wrong with “his lady”, but instead he bitches about how he’s just tired of her. He doesn’t like her being around, she bores the shit out of him and the only pleasure he can get out of life is reading the newspaper in bed. This act in itself is extremely selfish and rude. He has no regard to the fact that his lady is trying to sleep [as she obviously has more important shit to do tomorrow than he does] and he’s just sitting there with the lights on, reading the newspaper. He could at least have the courtesy to go to the kitchen and do his business. He could even make a sandwich in the process. But no, he hates his lady so much that he’s willing to scramble her sleep patterns for the sake of his own comfort. What’s the point of reading the newspaper so late at night anyway? By then, the news is already over a day old. If you’re not going to read the paper before 8PM, you might as well just throw it away, that’s what I say. Also, if the record of your favorite song is worn out, that should make it even more special! The record had obviously made him happy every time, or else he would’ve stopped playing it. This character simply doesn’t have a sense of nostalgia, nor does he appreciate music.

If you like piña coladas,
And getting caught in the rain,
If you’re not into yoga,
If you have half a brain,
If you like making love at midnight,
In the dunes of the cape,
Then I’m the love that you’ve looked for,
Write to me and escape.

Wow, what a ridiculously generic personal ad. All of the characteristics are leaning toward the same thing. It’s excessively repetitive and if deemed true, would really say nothing about the individual. Here’s a simplified version of the ad:

I am looking for a human being that would rather be on vacation than do yoga.

That’s all it really means. Who in the right mind would actually enjoy a piña colada in a non-tropical setting? When else is it possible to make whoopie in a cape dune [?] at midnight? Why else would you get caught in the rain, besides being far away from home without an umbrella? So, she’s looking for someone that likes going on vacation. Who doesn’t like going on vacation?!?!? If the enjoyment of a trip is a true indicator of character, then I’m going to propose to marry the next girl I see that is breathing. I’ll be like “Damn, you have lungs too?!?!? We were designed to be together!”

I didn’t think about my lady,
I know that sounds kind of mean,
But me and my old lady,
Had fallen into the same old dull routine,
So I wrote to the paper,
Took out a personal ad,
And though I’m nobody’s poet,
I thought it wasn’t half bad.

This self-absorbed prick didn’t even think about his lady, even though she was sleeping right next to him! But at least he’s aware of his sheer douchiness and then takes another opportunity to remind us that his lady is boring as all hell. So, just like the hundreds of other lonely men that read the ad, he responded to it. This is good to know, I guess. But why in the hell would he have to put up an ad himself? Didn’t they have personal PO Boxes to send responses to? If that’s really how things worked back then, it must’ve been a big mess. Someone could put up an ad saying “Used TV for sale” and then the next day, there’d be a shitload of ads wasting ink and paper, all claiming that they want the television. Then the seller would have to write yet another ad, saying “Alright, I’ll sell the TV to get the guy that used two exclamation points. I like his style!!” It must’ve been a newspaper dedicated entirely to classified ads. Also, if only he would just be his lady’s poet, maybe he’d be less bored.

Yes I like piña coladas,
And getting caught in the rain,
I’m not much into health food,
I am into champagne,
I’ve got to meet you by tomorrow noon,
And cut through all this red tape,
At a bar called O’Malley’s,
Where we’ll plan our escape.

So, we’ve discovered that he’s an alcoholic and also Irish, which is still redundant. The guy would rather drink champagne than eat health food. That seems like an odd thing to mention. Perhaps, if he wasn’t forced to make his ad rhyme, he’d have much more sensical options. He also comes off as a bit of a psychopath, urging her to meet him as soon as humanly possible. It sounds like he’s going to kidnap her and hide out in Barbados for a decade or two. There’s a reason why he keeps getting stuck with boring ladies: he just doesn’t know how to court without sounding threatening.

So I waited with high hopes,
And she walked in the place,
I knew her smile in an instant,
I knew the curve of her face,
It was my own lovely lady,
And she said, “Aw, it’s you”,
Then we laughed for a moment,
And I said, “I never knew”.

That you like piña coladas,
And gettin’ caught in the rain,
And the feel of the ocean,
And the taste of champagne,
If you like making love at midnight,
In the dunes on the cape,
You’re the lady I’ve looked for,
Come with me and escape.

PLOT TWIST!!!!!!!! It was that boring chick all along! The joke’s on him! He’s doomed to be bored for the rest of his life! Ahahahahahahaha!

Actually, no, it’s much more sordid than that. At the end of the day [or song], they are both terrible people. It’s an age-old plot of couples cheating on each other without being aware of the big picture. Simply, they don’t deserve anything better than each other. It’s discouraging to know that they have been together for too long, but they still don’t know a single thing about one another. Also, I can sense a hint of embellishments in the ad. When the lady originally wrote hers, she had to have “somebody that’s not him” in mind. Why else would she make it clear that the guy cannot be into yoga? The protagonist never mentioned in the response that he hates yoga. In fact, he’s probably a closet-case yogaholic. Also, let’s keep in mind that her original ad was very general. She could’ve had a whole day of dates lined up, all of them progressively better than the protagonist. After all, it IS only noon when our story ends. The guy could be homeless and broken-hearted by the end of the day. But essentially, they were both looking for somebody that wasn’t their other, but they would up together anyways. That’s extremely disheartening and deranged! That is telling us that it is a-okay to settle in life. It’s saying “your girlfriend may be boring as shit, but you should marry her so that you can go on vacations and stuff! It’ll be fun!” All in all, this is a terrible song with an even worse message. I guess that’s why it climbed the pop charts.

Of course he loves piña coladas and stealing people's songs

Although he has continued to make music his entire life, this is Rupert’s only hit. This is mainly because of the fact that he never wanted to write a hit in the first place. When the song was released, he was immediately unenthusiastic about its success. However, one man was extremely enthusiastic about its existence. His name was Jimmy Buffett and he probably erased Rupert’s notoriety singe-handedly. When the song was released, Jimmy immediately took a liking to it. The tune is right up his alley, as he also writes songs about lowlife alcoholics on vacation. It is a cut-and-paste Jimmy Buffett song in every way, even down to the shitty generic guitar riffs. It feels like a song that was written by Jimmy for fans of Jimmy. I’m also suspecting that Rupert put an ad up in some trade publication:

If you like piña coladas
And singing about the same
If your primary listeners
Only have half a brain
Then I got the song that you’ll like
And you can play it all day
And please take all the credit
So I can make my escape

Jimmy started adding his own cover of it to his travelling repertoire and then decades passed. The KaZaa boom of the post-Y2K era built a generation of misinformed music listeners. The 70’s and 80’s were filled with one hit wonders and when those songs became available for illegal download, they were usually improperly credited. This led to many conversations like the following:

[“Puttin on the Ritz” starts playing]
-Whatever happened to Taco anyway?
-Who’s Taco?
-The guy who did this song…
-Umm…no…this is They Might Be Giants
-Eh….no…it’s Taco.
-But my MP4 player says They Might Be Giants! See?!?!

And so on and so forth. In this era, “Escape” also got lost in the shuffle and now a considerable amount of people will claim this song was written by Jimmy Buffett. [Do a man on the street quiz. I guarantee more people will say Jimmy Buffett than anything else.] Perhaps it’s better off that way. After all, Rupert Holmes is “an artist” and the monstrosity that he created is below him. Jimmy loves it so much that he sings it in the shower. Rupert hates piña coladas, while Jimmy drinks them for breakfast. I feel like it could have been Rupert’s intent to pass the burden along to him. This creates a whole new category of Phantom Song: One that you have heard a million times, but believe it was made by someone else. Much like all the other Phantom Songs, this one has been overexposed at alarming rates. It is typically used in an ironic context, just like in this clip from Bob Saget’s 1998 cinema classic, Dirty Work:

It’s rare that I ever learn any lessons from a Phantom Song, but today is an exception. I learned to never give Jimmy Buffett credit, even when credit is due. Also, if I’m ever looking to cheat on my girlfriend, writing a personal ad is probably not a good idea. If I do, I will end up finding her again, then we would both find some false inner “meaning” and be stuck with each other forever and ever amen. It’s strange that such a dumb and pointless song could have that much unintentional meaning. It’s just like Fish Bohn always says, “It’s a dirty world”. And he’s right every time.

Originally posted 3/2/12