I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times.
— Robert Bloch, Psycho (1959)
Just out of sight
In the summer of 1968, a peculiar country and western song came and went to little fanfare on a small Nashville record label. Sung by a fading honky-tonker who needed a hit and penned by a successful songwriter who could afford a flop, scant airplay and mediocre distribution consigned the tune to swift oblivion. There it gestated, just out of sight, passed among a fringe of curious listeners drawn to its outré subject and incongruous tone. Over time, hip cover versions and the track’s inclusion on album anthologies of oddball songs gave it underground cachet. Neither singer nor composer lived to see this unlikely development.
Bob Dylan, the high priest of cool in 1968, was going country that year – a stylistic shift as controversial among rock fans as his earlier embrace of rock and roll had been with folkies. In 2007 he extolled the song, spinning it on his Theme Time Radio Hour and cementing its status. “It never got much airplay,” intoned the aging priest, “but has become quite a bit of a cult favorite.” He then added, changing verb tense: “As is Eddie Noack himself.” Noack was the singer, and Leon Payne wrote the song, which was called “Psycho.”
Eddie Noack: “Psycho” (1968)
Can Mary fry some fish, Mama?
I’m as hungry as can be
Oh Lordy, how I wish, Mama
You could keep the baby quiet
‘Cause my head is killing me
The voice is twangy but smooth, a throwback to honky-tonk crooners like Lefty Frizzell or Faron Young in balladeer mode. Accompaniment is spare full-band, minus the syrupy strings and background vocals of the then dominant Nashville sound. The arrangement is tasteful, enlivened slightly by tack piano flourishes and simple shifts of rhythm and meter. A bluesy guitar discretely supports each verse and a steady rim-knock from the drummer keeps mid-tempo time.
The soothing backup belies aberrant words. The lyric is a monologue – not a soliloquy, as it’s all addressed to “Mama.” Despite the mild tone the mood is tense. It soon grows unsettling, paranoid, though the singer never seems to break a sweat.
I seen my ex last night, Mama
At a dance at Miller’s store
She was with that Jackie White, Mama
I killed ‘em both, and they’re buried
Under Jenkins’ sycamore
The admission is chilling but not unexpected in a song called “Psycho.” Alfred Hitchcock’s film, based on Robert Bloch’s novel, was eight years old in 1968, and the abbreviated term for psychopath had entered common parlance – shorthand for a killer driven by deviant urges, especially one who’s mild-mannered and seemingly sane on the surface like Psycho’s Oedipus-addled necrophile, Norman Bates. There had been first-person murder songs in country music before, including recent ones like Porter Wagoner’s “The Cold, Hard Facts of Life” or Johnny Paycheck’s “I’ve Got Someone to Kill” (both 1966, both about homicidal responses to adultery). But for all their luridness, these still traded in familiar themes: love gone wrong, the empty bottle, the prisoner’s lament. Even Johnny Cash’s nihilistic “Folsom Prison Blues” (1957, but reissued in 1968 via the live LP recorded at the prison) is ultimately contrite: its killer may have “shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die,” but the coldhearted act brings only grief and regret.