When the going gets tough, the tough sing ‘Besame Mucho.’
Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By JOE QUEENAN
A friend, now long dead, once told me that when the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on their second album, they found themselves one track short. So Paul McCartney suggested recording “Besame Mucho.” The way my friend recounted it, when Paul suggested including this innocuous little ball of hot-tamale flapdoodle on the album—a song the Fab Four had played at their Decca Records audition—John Lennon flew into a rage and threatened to quit the band. This was presumably because Lennon deemed the tune, written in 1941 by a love-smitten 25-year-old Mexican girl, to be totally uncool and sad and pathetic. Cooler heads prevailed and “Besame Mucho” was scotched in favor of “Till There Was You,” a saccharine, infinitely lamer, ballad from The Music Man.
Carlo Hermann / AFP / Getty Images / Newscom
For whatever the reason, the decision to record the treacly show tune, which provided the first warning of the Brobdingnagian sappiness that lurked in the recesses of Sir Paul’s soul, and to ditch the ethnic chestnut, placated Lennon. The rest, as we know, is history.
Partly out of deference to my long-dead friend, but mostly because I love this story, I have never bothered to find out if it is true. Lennon’s drawing a line in the sand regarding “Besame Mucho” has always struck me as both principled and sagacious; Lennon, who had probably played the song literally thousands of times during the Beatles’ formative years in Hamburg, trembled before the song’s Promethean corniness, and felt that its cloying, hyperbolic cutie-pie quality and general ethnic inanity might make the Beatles look silly, grounding their flight to the stars before they even got off the runway.
I agree. To this day, I can think of no single song that will prompt me to exit a restaurant, a subway car, a relationship, or a society faster than “Besame Mucho.” Not a one. Usually, I leave on the dead run.
“Besame Mucho” is not the worst song ever written; it is certainly not in the same category as “Feelings,” “Piano Man,” “Sometimes When We Touch,” “I Am Woman,” “Cherokee Woman,” “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” or more recent abominations like “[Had a] Bad Day.” These are songs that emit a kind of Chernobylyjoelyean hideousness from the moment they are first recorded, heartrendingly awful songs with the power to make ordinary people lose faith in humanity and start chugging carbolic acid. These are songs that make people who do not believe in the Devil believe in the Devil.
This is not what we are talking about here: “Besame Mucho,” a harmless ditty about puppy love, is not so much a bad song as a bad habit. Like “Danny Boy” and “Volare,” it falls into the category of overplayed ethnic hooey, harmless piffle from another time and place that has survived and even prospered long after it should have gone the way of “Danke Schön,” “Sukiyaki,” “The Song of the Volga Boatmen,” and yes, perhaps even “Thumbelina.” Much like that revoltingly murky coleslaw that is always served up in diners, extraneous and inedible, “Besame Mucho” is a song that abides and endures and adamantly refuses to go away, even though no one is entirely sure how it got here in the first place.
Yet 70 years after its release, “Besame Mucho” is still very much with us. What’s more, long after innocuous fluff like “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and “Macarena” have faded from memory, “Besame Mucho” will continue to be warbled, croaked, hummed, strummed, or fingered on the accordion in restaurants, subway cars, bus stations, banquet halls, arcades, underground passageways, Andrea Bocelli’s shower, and execution chambers everywhere. “Besame Mucho,” a song that kills, is a song that literally refuses to die.
I sometimes suspect that, on the eighth day, after He had rested, God commissioned “Besame Mucho” as a fallback punishment should Adam and Eve ever be foolish enough to partake of the Tree of Knowledge. (I admit that my time frame may be sketchy here.) I also believe that “Besame Mucho” is actually tailing me, that I am being hounded to death by shadowy musicians I refer to as los besame muchachos. Two years ago, while on the train to Charles de Gaulle airport, I was forcibly serenaded on the accordion by a young man playing the song. I told him the Beatles story, and gave him two euros, but only with the proviso that he immediately stop playing the accordion and get off at the next station. The same thing happened in March when I was on the very same train to Charles de Gaulle: A young, talentless North African man boarded the train, armed with a jumbo-sized karaoke machine, hacked his way through “Delilah” and what appeared to be a trans-Siberian rendition of “Those Were the Days,” and then essayed the dreaded “Besame Mucho.” This was in fact the day, my friend; I thought it would never end. When the conscienceless young man went through the car after his set, seeking tips, not a single person loosened their purse strings.
“C’est cauchemardesque,” I explained to him. “It’s a nightmare.”
I thought that was the end of it. But two weeks later, while dining in a Mexican restaurant near my home, I was hemmed in by three overbearing mariachi musicians who asked if I had any favorites I would like to hear. I requested “Aquellos Ojos Verdes,” the beautiful old love song, but they said they didn’t know it. “Perhaps we could do ‘Besame Mucho’ instead,” the lead guitarist suggested.
“No,” I said. “Anything but that.”
The trio launched into a bracing version of “Perfidia,” but after I generously tipped them $20, they went to the very next table and started playing “Besame Mucho.” Pretty aggressively, too. This didn’t seem very sporting. The dozen diners at the table grabbed their things, got up, and left before the final verse. No tip, either. The diners at the next table were similarly unamused when the trio began to belt out “La Cucaracha.” I now suspected that the owner of the restaurant was using the mariachis to clear the room and free up tables in a diabolical form of ethnic cleansing. They were doing a pretty good job of it.
My waitress asked if I would like dessert and I said no, but a cappuccino would be fine. But just then the three men, having virtually emptied the room in less than 10 minutes, launched into a reprise of “Besame Mucho.” I canceled the coffee, paid my bill, and left. That night, when I got home, my wife informed me that the wine-tasting fundraiser for the senior citizen center she operates pro bono would feature a Mexican theme this year, complete with a five-piece mariachi band. I asked if we had any carbolic acid lying around.
It is, I must now concede, a “Besame Mucho” world. I am merely living in it.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.
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