Top 10 Loser Songs
Even rock stars get down on themselves sometimes, a topic we’re investigating in the Top 10 Loser Songs. You’d think the artists below — people with talent, fame, groupies and money — wouldn’t be so depressed about love and luck, but these songs prove otherwise. Rod Stewart sang about female frustration. Tom Petty railed against being forgotten. John Lennon wrote about feeling like a phony. Even those who appear to want for nothing can’t have it all, which might be of some consolation when the rest of us feel lame. So, the next time you’re lost and despondent, commiserate with these Top 10 Loser Songs:
‘I’m a Loser’
On this acoustic-tinged track, British hard rockers UFO seem to be recalling some troubled teenage memories along with the loneliness of touring. Frontman Phil Mogg sings about missing his train and being unable to go home (“They locked the doors and I’m left out alone“), before declaring himself “a loser on the road.” Yet there are glimmers of hope, from friends who offer up a couch for the night to a real “thing” with Ginger. And, of course, a Michael Schenker guitar solo always makes everything OK.
We shouldn’t do the Top 10 Loser Songs without a tune about a gambler, and this gem from Jerry Garcia‘s solo debut couldn’t be more appropriate. Co-written with Robert Hunter (and instantly absorbed into the Grateful Dead‘s live repertoire), ‘Loser’ features a down-on-his-luck cowboy who begs for money, wishes for riches and dreams of violence. For a con man, he’s a sad sack, whimpering for the “10 gold dollars” that will, surely, provide the foundation for his change of fortune. “I’ve got no chance of losin’ this time,” he convinces himself, and this loser and those gold dollars ride off into the sunset.
‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’
The story goes that Warren Zevon pal Jackson Browne was the inspiration for this song, a wry portrait of a man who carries a heavy heart despite being beloved by women. Zevon’s opening lines showcases his sledgehammer sarcasm: the guy’s such a screw-up that he can’t even manage to get run over by a train. ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’ only gets cheerier from there, suggesting an abusive relationship and sadomasochism (“I don’t want to talk about it,” Zevon famously demurs at the end of the verse). In a move that might have been masochistic, Browne produced Zevon’s debut LP, including ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’ — which featured Lindsey Buckingham on backing vocals and Bobby Keys on sax, as well. He also convinced Linda Ronstadt to cover a slightly altered version, which became one of her best-known tracks.
‘Women Is Losers’
On the first Big Brother and the Holding Company album, Janis Joplin didn’t yet give us a piece of her heart, but rather a piece of her mind. Fronting a male-majority band in a male-run industry (that was a small part of a male-dominated world), Janis belted out her truth: “Women is losers.” With a rasp that electrified your blood (and an attitude so genuine, she could have stolen it from the ghosts of the blues), Joplin delivered the state of women’s lib, circa the Summer of Love. By 1967, many things were changing, but still, “men always seem to end up on top.”
‘Even the Losers’
At first listen, you might think that Tom Petty is granting a hard-fought win in the chiming ‘Even the Losers.’ But this tale of an all-too idyllic romance gets spoiled every time he whines the verses’ last line: “It couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.” But it couldn’t have been that difficult either, right Tom? She’s obviously moved on and he’s the one living off of these meager, faded memories. Perhaps ‘Even the Losers’ is a response to the famous Alfred Lord Tennyson quote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” Petty is clearly not so sure.
‘Three Time Loser’
In the leadoff track from Rod’s first American-made LP, he’s once, twice, three times a loser. Although it’s never stated explicitly, Rod’s math appears to indicate his loser status is because the “jezebels” of this world have left him sexually wanting, flat broke and with an STD (“Now my friends say it’s here to stay”). In the course of this steady-rolling soul song, Rod the Mod isn’t simply forced the indignity of having to pleasure himself with Playboy magazine, he gets the full-on Costanza treatment in Chelsea when he’s left broke and naked by a woman who only lusts after his money. Rod might have been a loser, but the song wasn’t. It was the only track off the album that the Faces deemed worthy of inclusion during their final tour.
A book of Leonard Cohen poetry (also titled ‘Beautiful Losers’) inspired Bob Seger to write this ode to people who over-promise and underachieve. Yet, Bob’s idea of a “loser” appears to be a pretty decent guy. He’s polite and dependable, doesn’t complain and is willing to cede the spotlight. Sounds just like the kind of people most rock stars would love to have hanging around. But according to Seger, this ‘Beautiful Loser’ is guilty of wanting to be everything to everyone (even himself). The singer’s just waiting for it all to fall apart. At the end of the song, he repeats the lesson like it’s a mantra: “You just don’t need it all.”
‘King Midas in Reverse’
Although credited to multiple members, Graham Nash was the sole songwriter behind this portrait of an epic loser. As the title implies, the man in question is the opposite of King Midas: “all he touches turns to dust.” Co-singers Nash and Allan Clarke spend the song trying to ward off potential interests with portents of darkness, including, “I’ll break you and destroy you.” Pretty sinister stuff for a song so brightly colored with gorgeous harmonies, a stomping beat and a soaring orchestra. It was the Hollies’ most ambitious single to date, although it turned out to be a bit of a loser itself. ‘King Midas in Reverse’ arrived back then as the Hollies’ lowest-charting U.S. release since their 1965 breakthrough.
If a wildly successful college football team can have a grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, then why can’t a washed-up jazz musician invent a persona that’s just as grand? That’s the question that led Steely Dan masterminds to flesh out ‘Deacon Blues,’ the story of a man who leaves his old life behind in order to cling to a romantic notion of the suffering artist. It sounds like the crazy, rambling ideals of a college kid who’s just become infatuated with Charlie Parker: “I’ll learn to work the saxophone / I play just what I feel / Drink Scotch whiskey all night long / And die behind the wheel.” He might be a loser, but at least he’s got a plan. Call him Deacon Blues.
‘I’m a Loser’
We bookend the Top 10 Loser Songs with another, more famous, song titled ‘I’m a Loser,’ which was inspired by some pretty big winners, including Buck Owens, George Jones and Bob Dylan. John Lennon internalized the country-style picking of songs released by the first two along with the downbeat and complicated nature of tunes being written at the time by Dylan. As such, ‘I’m a Loser’ marks the first instance of the folk influence creeping into the Beatles’ sound. It’s also one of the first instances of the band moving past writing about the joy and pain of young love. Ostensibly, ‘I’m a Loser’ is about a breakup, but that’s merely the entryway into this depression. Lennon, who would plunge deeper into darkness in the coming years, expressed the duality of his pop star persona in the song (“Although I laugh and I act like a clown / Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown.”) John also goes deeper from a vocal perspective, bottoming out on a low G, and then reminding us, “I’m not what I appear to be.”