The ocean’s your mother, your bitch and your lover, and nobody gets to ride free…
If you’ve gone to see Montauk’s own Nancy Atlas perform this summer, then you’ve heard this lyric. (You also might have seen the lyric emblazoned on a T-shirt or a beach towel!) The lyrics come from an Atlas-penned number called “The Tale of Johnny Load,” a song based on the true life-and-death struggles of John Aldridge and Little Anthony, a pair of Montauk fishermen. It’s an epic song that manages to combine the ancient traditions of seafaring ballads with a heavy rock beat and a fun, sing-along chorus. Atlas’s band, the Nancy Atlas Project, has been playing the song at every one of their shows.
The band also released a hard-rocking studio recording of the song as a single, featuring the power drumming of Montauk’s own Chad Smith—of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame. The recording is available for download from CDBaby, iTunes and Amazon.
Atlas is a longtime friend of both of the fishermen whose harrowing ordeal is recounted in “The Tale of Johnny Load,” and ever since she heard their story she knew she wanted to write a song commemorating it. But to hear Atlas tell it, the song went through a difficult gestation. “I struggled for months working on it,” she says, “and it was the worst song I had ever written.” It wasn’t until after she had given up on it that she finally had a breakthrough.
“At that point the song wrote itself,” she says.
It must have come pouring out of her—according to Atlas, the original version contained something like nine verses. “[Chad Smith] sat down with me and really tightened up the tune…It was way longer than just the seven minutes we got it down to.” At seven minutes, it’s longer than most pop songs, but it’s action-packed.
There’s a deep tradition in folk music of taking a disaster and writing a song about it. Think of all of those ballads about shipwrecks, floods, and mine cave-ins—it’s a long list. These were songs, often written by people with personal experience of tragic events, that sought to express sorrow about inconceivable loss. But such songs are mostly a thing of the past. Nowadays, people seem to have decided they’d rather not spend their leisure time listening to tales of death and destruction. There’s a short list of such songs in the pop canon—a list that, until “The Tale of Johnny Load,” pretty much began and ended with Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
“On an upcoming show we’re going to play both ‘The Tale of Johnny Load’ and ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ and see how that goes,” jokes Atlas.
Of course, disaster ballads aren’t just about disasters, but have also customarily been an opportunity to memorialize individual and collective acts of courage and heroism. “The Tale of Johnny Load” stays true to this tradition. The courage of the two fishermen, as well as the commitment of the Montauk commercial fishing fleet and the contributions of the Coast Guard all get a lot of credit in the song. (For the landlubbers, there’s even a shout-out to the faithful praying down at St. Therese’s.) The song serves as a reminder of the perilous work all of those who ply the oceans d —the gritty reality behind that pile of seafood on your dinner plate—and the toll it takes on the people who wait at home for their safe return. It’s also a reminder of the power of lifelong friends and tight-knit communities to come together and risk lives to save others.
Not surprisingly, Atlas wasn’t the only creative person drawn to this particular story. After they made national headlines, John Aldridge and Little Anthony’s story was quickly optioned for a book. The book, called A Speck in the Sea, will be released next spring. The Weinstein Company optioned the story for a film, also to be called A Speck in the Sea, which is currently in development.
Atlas doesn’t talk too much about it, but there’s a good chance that her song will follow the story to the silver screen. With Hollywood being Hollywood, it’s wise of her to keep expectations low on that score. In the meantime, she’s been marketing her own part of the story in her low-key manner.
“It’s just me,” she says. “I don’t have an agent!” T-shirts and beach towels bearing her lyric from “The Tale of Johnny Load” are available at NIBI MTK at the Atlantic Terrace in Montauk or by contacting the band at nancyatlas.com. You can download the song of course, and keep your eye on Dan’s Papers for the Nancy Atlas Project’s upcoming shows. And mark your calendars: January 2017—the return of Nancy’s Fireside Sessions at Bay Street Theater.