The Gambler

Kenny Rogers just died.

For anyone not aware, Kenny Rogers was a Country Western singer whose career started before you think and was still going up until just a few years ago. In a way he was one of your pop-crossover one-hit wonders, thanks to a duet with Dolly-mother-freaking-Parton called Islands in the Stream, a song that gives her every opportunity to show off how awesome she is and how he can manage to Be Next To Her, which you know, when you’re dealing with the incandescent strange sun that is Dolly Parton, a woman who at that time in history was somehow managing to be a gator-wrangling country firecracker in the visual aesthetic of what can only be called Escaping The 80s Big Hair Bimbo Chic, it’s not so bad.

It’s not that he was a great man or a good man and I don’t say that because I’m thinking that there’s some well known fact about his life or how he stiffed the KFC Colonel out of reparations money or something weird like that but it’s just that these days I don’t feel comfortable sticking my neck out for any famous person I primarily know for having committed the act of being rich in their lifetimes. It’s entirely possible the dude was really great in his private life, but I don’t know that and I don’t feel like looking it up and picking over his moral character in his life through the pinhole of wikipedia now the dude’s died and I need to make that call in order for my Death Take to be apprporiately woke. What I can tell you based on observing the guy is that he had some fucked up boomer-ass opinions about women and relationships and the way he spent his later years pumping out Christmas albums and getting plastic surgery to stave off the Being In His Seventies suggested that he wasn’t particularly super happy with the enormously comfortable life of someone who owned multiple restaurants and was married for twenty-three years.

And despite all that, what’s super weird is that Kenny Rogers dying means a lot to me for no good reason. The internet has conditioned me to see every single thing in terms of a listicle and so with that, here are Three Things About Kenny Rogers I’ve Been Thinking About All Day as I Process the Death of a Fascinatingly Mediocre Successful Person.

3. The Gambler

This song is one of Kenny Rogers’ most famous, and I mostly see it invoked as a punchline. It’s a song about using a game to look at your own life, as a metaphor, and consider the lessons from a poker table that you can bring to bear on problems in life in general, and you know what startles me relistening to it again, after all this time, all over again?

This song gets poker right.

It’s so utterly baffling to me that this cheesy little song of a riverboat ridin’ ramblin’ man who generally never reached higher levels than an emotional sentment of I heart you and sometimes love, but hard? managed to convey in a song an actual meaningful metaphor based off a game that doesn’t break if you know how the game is played.

2. Coward of the County

Oh and content warning here! Sexual assault, misogyny, toxic masculinity!

This song was on a Kenny Rogers ‘best of’ compilation I listened to when I was a kid in the 90s. The album had a lot of songs I remember more for a crooning part of the chorus than anything of their content, and Kenny’s music is extremely samey at the best of times.

Anyway, uh, so, hey, this country song with a lilting tone and a back-and-forth beat is uhm, it’s about a gang rape? It’s about a woman who’s gang-raped by three men and how massively it traumatised her.

I mean, that’s not what the song is about. That’s just a detail in the song, a song that is otherwise about the classic story of a seemingly humble young man who refuses to fight people thanks to a promise his father asked him to make (and maybe he made it) finally being pushed too far because the worst thing that could happen to him was his girlfriend being gangraped. God, I try to repeat phrases like that to numb them of all their sense but you know this time I think I’m not going to do that. I didn’t realise at the time that that’s what ‘they took turns’ would mean. It was never explained to me, so that detail just… hung around until some twenty years later I thought back and went: Hang on, holy shit.

Anyway, this song is really fucked up and it fucked me up directly, because of a whole laundry list of personal traumas. Not the least of which was that my father made me promise that no matter how angry I’d get, I’d walk away from trouble and let people hurt me because that was the Christian way. I mean, it’s not like fighting would have fixed anything (because I tried that too) but the song kept hanging around in my mind with the idea that at some point, something bad would happen to me, and then that would be the point where God would make me a just and noble avatar of his anger and maybe it’d all be a good story, then, rather than a story about thirty years of crawling.

There’s also the fact that Tommy’s dad died in prison, something about which I had complex feelings. After all, Tommy’s dad wasn’t… around. He asked his son to meet a moral standard, and then… he left.

That was oddly comforting, a fantasy to have.

The whole of this story really impressed itself on me, as an idea of something I thought that should happen in my life. That’s pretty messed up.

1. Six Pack

Hey that was a bit dark, what about this? How about something unrelated? Well, Kenny Rogers was one of a number of country music ‘stars’ who moved into making movies that we can lightly refer to as ‘mid day TV fare.’ Six Pack was an attempt to make a kind of dad movie about a wannabe Stock Car racer with a broken heart bringing back his career from the brink and collecting a bunch of kids on the way.

This movie is definitely in that calibre of ‘good enough to be pirated on Youtube.’ It’s the kind of movie where even the people who own the copyright for it aren’t going to bother pulling it down because it’s not like they’re making profit off it some other way.

This movie was one of the first non-Christian non-kid-targeted movies I can remember watching. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t great… but it was there. It was a post on my personal timeline.

None of these works really matter to me now. None of them are good, I don’t recommend them to anyone. The place I was in, the person I was, the person who listened to these stories and who loved them and who thought that they were meaningful is gone, and I’d like to think I’m a much better person than I was then. I’m out of a space that was bad for me, and I would not recommend any of these works of stunning mediocrity to anyone.

But I still know all the words by heart.

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