“The Ballad of Stallion Cornell” was written during my freshman year at the University of Southern California. I had just gotten my first guitar, and I was trying to figure out what to do with it. I only knew about three or four chords, and I played them over and over, which resulted in the OOM-chuck-chuck 3/4 waltz that forms the backbone of the song. Since these four chords constituted the entirety of my guitar abilities, I could practice and improve my proficiency, or I could just write a song that made do with the limited skills I had.
And I? I took the path of least resistance, and that made all the difference.
At about the same time, I was taking a beginning guitar class that was as boring as it was useless. It was astonishing to me how many people knew even less about the guitar than I did, and I found myself trying to find ways to make the class more entertaining. Our final exam consisted of a performance of any piece of our choosing, so I thought it would be fun to perform an original composition.That gave me a cause and a deadline, two things which are essential when it comes to my songwriting. That’s the reason the Stallion Cornell Songbook is as short as it is, because I need a reason to write a song before I’ll commit the time and energy to make it happen, and over the course of a varied lifetime, those reasons have been few and far between.
Anyhoo, I had the music in place. My four chords were ready to go. Given my playing style, my ditty wasn’t going to be a hard rocking anthem. As I chunked out the chords, I kept thinking of this grizzled gray hippie who used to sing on a television commercial in Southern California for some children’s camp. He’d smile at the camera with his long white beard, his Santa suspenders and his painted banjo and cheerfully croon, “Come sing with the Rainbow Man.” (I’m reasonably sure that Mr. Rainbow Man had done enough drugs in his life to allow himself to sing any song with a smile.)
As a father myself, I make it a rule never to expose my children to men with banjos and beards. I decided, however, to write a demented version of a song the Rainbow Man might sing.
It had to be a story song, then. All of those creepy guys sing folksy stories about little bears or trains or blue whales who make good.
But what story?
At the time, I was still enamored with the name Stallion Cornell. I was using that name as my nom de plume in my creative writing class, and I think I came up with the line “Stallion Cornell was a sad lonely fella” before I came up with anything else. I was something of a sad, lonely fella myself at the time,so that seemed as good a place to begin as any.
I have no memory of how I proceeded from that point. Looking back on it, it’s clear I was robbing from “Color Your Dreams,” where you meet the boy in the first verse and the girl in the second, where a lover’s advances are promptly rejected. Except in “Color Your Dreams,” the boy gets a new girl in verse 3, whereas in “The Ballad of Stallion Cornell,” the boy gets turned into a lizard rat.
There’s also, once again, obesity mockery. In later years, I changed the line “She was fat as a tortoise” to “she weighed more than Texas.” By amping up the absurdity, I delude myself into thinking it’s less offensive to real-life tubby people who might, indeed, be as fat as a tortoise.
This was the first song I felt comfortable singing in public, and the ridiculously simple guitar accompaniment made it easy for me to perform it without much preparation. Unlike “Color Your Dreams,” which has essentially been shelved since high school, I still like “Stallion Cornell” enough to sing it to this day. I recently performed it for an LDS youth conference just last week – changing, as I often do, the word “slut” to “nut” in order to accommodate community standards. I hate doing that – the tortured rhyme of “slut” and “hermit” (her-mutt) is great fun, and the word “slut” is inherently funny. But you gotta do what you gotta do.
The song was first performed at my guitar final, which I aced, and it made its debut in public at the Marks Hall Dormitory Talent Show in the spring of 1987. I have successfully used it as an audition piece, and I tried to incorporate it into the Playmill Theatre’s Variety Show in 1993. (The founder’s wife heard the word “slut” and nixed the whole thing.) It’s since been performed in venues large and small – mostly small – and audiences are ostensibly appreciative.
The singalong verse – “Stallion, oh Stallion, etc.” – was added years after the initial song was written, but it’s great for audience participation, and it’s one of the reasons I lean on this song so much, even after all this time.
This demo was recorded at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts in the summer of 2001 as part of an epic recording session that took place while the rest of my family was out of town.