The Mindful Bard – Jonathan Coulton, Thing a Week

Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World

CD Box Set: Jonathan Coulton, Thing a Week

Release date: 2006

Gals, remember that guy who used to bring his guitar over and sing you love ballads, gently fingerpicking those suspended fourth and major seventh chords and crooning in that teen-idol voice, smooth as cream soda?

He would have had you if it hadn’t been so insulting to your intelligence, so carefully contrived to make you want to jump into the sack. But imagine that guy singing these words, and you’ll have Jonathan Coulton:

If you could find some way to be a little less afraid of me
You’d see the voices that control me from inside my head
Say I shouldn’t kill you yet.

I made this half-pony, half-monkey monster to please you,
But I get the feeling that you don’t like it.
What’s with all the screaming? You like monkeys. You like ponies.
Maybe you don’t like monsters so much?
Maybe I used too many monkeys?
Isn’t it enough to know that I ruined a pony, making a gift for you?

With this and 50 equally absurd songs, Jonathan Coulton has rendered the ballad-singing Don Juan extinct, leaving us to pursue the guy we should have been after all long, that nebbishy guy in the band or the computer club who was so much fun to talk to and who treated us with respect; the guy who, to our shame, we failed to think of as a guy at all.

Jonathan Coulton is the illegitimate son of a folk trio groupie. His dad was an as-yet-unnamed member of the Kingston Trio, and Jonathan’ s early years were spent listening to The New Christy Minstrels, The Courriers, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and The Limeliters. In the hippy dippy free school he was sent to, his Hawaiian-shirted pottery teacher played acoustic guitar just like James Taylor and passed his expertise on to young Jonathan, who secretly yearned to sing the heavy funk he heard on his big brother’s James Brown albums. (His envy was later to break out in white-bread covers of hip-hop hits.)

The yearnings of adolescence granted an intensity and urgency to his musical efforts, but he somehow couldn’t manage to break out of his waspishness. In eighth grade he visited an aunt in Waterbury who, punishing him for conducting experiments with houseflies in her microwave, shut him up in a dark room with every K-tel record ever made, a portable record player, and a broken stapler. He internalized the trauma by later obsessively producing reams of commercial-sounding songs with lyrics more twisted and hilarious than anything Captain Beefheart could have come up with on a diet of espresso, bennies, and No-Doz pills.

Okay, so this is the background Coulton would have had if I were God and had made him up from scratch. I wish I had invented him; he represents a pop-culture archetype that’s really not all that new but which for good reason is attracting more and more attention from the world of internet music fans: The Geek Rocker.

Whatever led to the success of nerd rock, anyway? the cool kids ask (the same kids who yelled, ?You suck!? to the Barenaked Ladies). Isn’t rock all about anarchy? If so, then nerd rock is, beneath its squeaky-clean surface, the ultimate rebel yell.

While the cool kids are saying, ?I wanna rock, but the old folks won’t let me,? the nerds are saying, ?I wanna rock, and I’m a musical genius, but the cool kids won’t let me into their parties.? So often it’s been the cool kids who’ve ruined rock, rendering it elitist, blasé, bland, and conformist. During periods of rock decadence (such as the one we’re in right now) it’s the geeks who must fill the breach and breathe new life into the form. Enter Jonathan Coulton.

Here we have a good-looking, polite, considerate, and self-deprecating young man, poking fun at himself while taking potshots at all the inanities of this vale of tears. He reminds me of Buddy Holly on the Ed Sullivan show, or of any one of those nice Southern boys graciously holding out their hands to be shaken by dead men in suits who had nothing but contempt for them and their music.

Compare these early bespectacled pioneers to the poseurs who, bloated with hubris at having been told they are the voice of oppressed and disenchanted youth, spew anti-establishment rants out of one side of their mouths while softly nuzzling corporate butt cheeks with the other. In Coulton and his ilk we have someone so humble and unassuming that no one notices him committing the ultimate subversion.

How? By choosing to express his creative urges free of corporate control and by disciplining himself to produce a brilliant body of satirical work in a limited period of time. In 2005 Coulton set himself the task of writing and recording a song a week for 52 weeks, releasing each song to the web for free as soon as it was done. When the year was up Coulton compiled all the songs into this CD box set. Jonathan quickly garnered an Internet cult following, and his fans have become his promoters.

When asked which Thing a Week CD was his favourite, Jonathan wrote: ?Hard to choose a favorite, but I suppose I’d go with number four. It was the end of the year so I was really stretching, and the results surprise me more the more distance I get from that space.?

Here’s to stretching. Obviously it doesn’t hurt.

The Bard could use some help scouting out new material. If you discover any books, compact disks, or movies which came out in the last twelve months and which you think fit the Bard’s criteria, please drop a line to If I agree with your recommendation, I’ll thank you online.

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