Turnover Rate: “Kenesaw Mountain Landis” by Jonathan Coulton
From walk-in songs to seventh-inning stretches, music and baseball are inextricably linked. The Spin Rate is a weekly look at the stories behind the bands and artists who share a love for the sport, and the songs that draw on the annals of baseball lore.
Jonathan Coulton – “Kenesaw Mountain Landis”
Jonathan Coulton sported a Yankees logo while playing Little League baseball – perhaps an unlikely emblem to wear in his native Colchester; a Connecticut Yankee at the New England court.
“I was a fan of a logo and an idea,” Coulton said in a phone interview. “I was stunned to find the Yankees looked down on. I have a soft spot for a team that doesn’t need it.
It might also have amused the future self of the songwriter, who grew up writing curated songs tackling mathematical concepts like fractals, that his short baseball career was something of a statistical anomaly.
“I would get walked or taken away,” Coulton said. “Especially the first one, since it was at the start of Little League.”
For two seasons, spent mostly in left field, praying the ball wouldn’t get knocked his way, Coulton didn’t record a single tally in the hit column. He blames the protracted slump, ironically, on the fact that his playing days came before his glasses-wearing days.
Those days also meshed with Coulton’s playing days: He remembers the vibrant, colorful atmosphere of Brooklyn Cyclones games from his youth, curated by the antics of King Henry, an explosive emcee who led interstitials between the sleeves.
It was with these baseball good faiths that Coulton finally put pen to paper for one of the game’s most gleefully and fictitiously absurd songs – “Kenesaw Mountain Landis”, which appeared on his 2003 debut album, Smoking monkey.
Coulton had wanted to write an endless multiverse (in the sense of so many stanzas, not in the sense Everything everywhere all at once meaning, but, also, it is somehow? More on that later.) song, and the setting for “Kenesaw Mountain Landis” was modeled after Bob Dylan and “stolen” from They Might Be Giants, an equally clever band that had previously perfected the “dancing song” plan. ‘incorrect history’.
The game plan: pit an impossible hero (Kenesaw Mountain Landis) against an impossible villain (Shoeless Joe Jackson), mythologize the story with absurd folklore, dabble in pop culture, and follow this thread until the story be told.
But why, of all the heroic figures in baseball, did Coulton choose baseball’s first commissioner as the namesake and protagonist of his song?
“I had seen Eight men out a decade before writing the song, and I kindly to remember what’s going on,” Coulton said. “Kenesaw Mountain Landis sounds like a fantastic name. He’s named after a mountain, so he became this larger-than-life person.
Coulton cops to do “absolutely no research” before writing, to terrific effect. All clarifications from now on are half-memories and coincidences: In Coulton’s rambling verse, Landis is a 17-foot-tall mountain of a man with 150 wives and a real aim with a gun (spoiler alert, but he shoots Shoeless Joe’s middle finger clean aboard an airship).
Shoeless Joe of the Coulton Dimension has a bad cannibalistic streak, and after being beaten by the Commissar’s heroics, transforms into Joe Jackson, the English musician behind “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and often confused with Elvis Costello. Coulton said the fake shared-name chef that caps the track was an unforeseen happenstance.
While some learned listeners may take mild indignation at the imperfections of Coulton’s fractal-covering lyricism, baseball fans in his audience were happy to let the nut’s story roll without much scrutiny.
“Most people are happy with the ridiculousness,” Coulton said.
Coulton’s more recent brushes with baseball come mostly from the game MLB: The Show (yes, still like the Yankees) and shaking up traditional managerial philosophies to the frustration of his opponents. No one, he says, expects a pitcher to throw lead after lead after lead.
“Kenesaw Mountain Landis” stands as an ode to the flow of unrefined storytelling, but Coulton joked that it would be fun to do a baseball song that deliberately only does halfway: playing with the precision of dates and recordings to ruffle the pedantic stathead in all of us.
“Sport is so woven into the fabric of everything,” Coulton said. “Few things are able to bring out our passion against them like sports.”
Photos by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire & Dorien Monnens on Unsplash | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)