“Stuck in the Middle With You” makes me think of torture

I’m working my way through a third or fourth Glenlivet, struggling to unravel puns and spoonerisms that pass for clues in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, when I hear the opening lyrics of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Frankie Valli’s 1967 single that vaulted all the way to #2 on Billboard that tumultuous year. And the first image that comes to mind is Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken playing pool in a Clairton, PA workingman’s bar in “The Deer Hunter.” When Valli stretches his famous falsetto to belt out “I love you Baaaay-bee, and if it’s quite alright, I need you Baaaay-bee to warm the lonely nights,” I can’t help envisioning the two actors miming the tune in proper histrionic fashion.

“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” is that strange pop tune that having enjoyed a life of its own comes to be associated later, after appearing in a film, with something completely different. In 1967 the song evoked the consummate optimism of the Four Seasons founder and “Jersey Boys” inspiration. Now, following the 1978 release of the harrowing tale of friendship and obligation in wartime Vietnam, it’s difficult to hear the tune without thinking about Russian Roulette.

Dozens – perhaps hundreds – of songs that were originally commissioned for films went on to top the charts: “Eye of the Tiger” (“Rocky III”), “Footloose” (“Footloose”), “Power of Love” (“Back to the Future”), “Danger Zone” (“Top Gun”), “Moon River” (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). Now consider “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel that reached #6 in 1973. Can anyone listen to that one-hit wonder and not conjure visions of a psycho in a black suit slicing the ear off of a cop bound to a chair? The scene in question, Mr. Blonde strutting about as he toys with his captured prey in “Reservoir Dogs” is vicious and disturbing. The song playing in the background, a Dylanesque, pop, bubble-gum favorite, winds up consigned forever to an association with violence and depravity.

Regardless, if it hadn’t been for Quentin Tarrantino’s inclusion of the throw-away song in his gritty, scene-scrambled masterpiece, the extent of Stealers Wheel’s legacy would be their appearance on the occasional oldies album featured on the QVC channel.

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