One from the happy drawer of songs
by Marshall Bowden
I have a little drawer full of songs that I know I can call upon, time after time, to deliver to me the lift, the gift, the inspiration or comfort or splendor that I need to get me through the night. Or day. Like Brenda Johnson’s candy drawer on The Closer, I am always aware of this drawer during times of stress and struggle, and pretty obviously it’s getting called upon a lot these days.
“She Brakes for Rainbows” by the B-52s has always been in that drawer since I first became aware of it. It’s a song that simply made sense to me right away. It’s wistful, every so slightly melancholy, yet tinged with hope, and it always makes me feel good and helps me find some kind of peace when things are not going well.
It’s the final track on the band’s ill-fated 1986 release Bouncing Off the Satellites. Ill-fated because during its recording Ricky Wilson, founding member, guitarist, and brother of singer Cindy Wilson, was suffering from AIDS. He died after the record was completed but before its release. The band was obviously shaken to its core, and they declined touring or promoting the album via personal appearances. They did make a video for “Girl From Ipanema Goes to Greenland,” which is fun and marvelous, but after that, the doors were closed on Planet B-52s, many thought forever.
Warner Brothers, the band’s label, clearly did. They decided not to promote the album despite some success with the first single, “Summer of Love,” both due to the band’s decision not to tour and their announcement that they had no plans to hire a new guitarist. In other words, it looked like the band would no longer be a going concern, or as Billboard put it, ‘For a moment, “She Brakes For Rainbows” seemed like the last song we’d ever hear from the Athens, GA new wave heroes.’
Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland became friends as teenagers, forming a group called Loon together. After college the duo spent some time in Europe before returning to Athens and forming the B-52s in 1977 with Cindy Wilson and friends Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider. Following the success of the group’s first two albums, Wilson and Strickland began to experiment with ideas for expanding the group’s sound. Synth drums and synthesizers as well as the odd horn found their way into the landscape on Whammy. Strickland was tired of being stuck behind the drum kit, and he and Ricky played guitar, bass, keyboards, and programmed drum machines to handle much of the rhythm load. It was a definite change in the band’s signature sound, but it blended so perfectly with the soundscape of the times that it seemed like a natural progression. Touring musicians were brought in for the first time.
Bouncing Off the Satellites is a more settled record. It uses the same palette of synth sounds and drum machines, but it’s as though Wilson and Strickland were becoming more comfortable with the soundscape they were creating for the group. It should come as no surprise that Bouncing Off the Satellites is the most similar B-52s record to Cosmic Thing, which they would record three years after Ricky Wilson’s death. The guitar work on “Girl From Ipanema (Goes to Greenland)” is directly related to Strickland’s funky guitar on “Love Shack” and “Planet Z.”
ALSO The B-52s get the In Ten Tracks treatment. Ten great songs. Maybe not what you’d expect.
But the record was routinely ignored, and continues to be underrated and unfairly dismissed to this day. Part of the reason may be its association with Ricky Wilson’s death, but it seems strange considering that it features his playing heavily and he was deeply involved in its writing and recording; one would imagine that fans would be eager to hear this final record featuring him. Robert Christgau’s line in Village Voice stating “not only don’t ‘Summer of Love’ and ‘She Brakes for Rainbows’ redeem anybody’s ’60s retro, they don’t even take off on it” misses the point in that neither song is meant to be retro.
One of the things that Bouncing Off the Satellites does is break the mold by allowing tracks where the music commands more attention than the vocal performances. “Detour Through Your Mind” and “Theme For a Nude Beach” paved the way for Cosmic Thing’s “Follow Your Bliss” and “Topaz.”
You may be asking at this point why “She Brakes For Rainbows” is in my happy song drawer, occupying as it does the position of the final track on the last album to feature Ricky Wilson before his untimely death. A large part of it comes from Keith Strickland’s explanation of the song’s inspiration:.
“(the) song was inspired by a woman Ricky and I met in Santa Fe, New Mexico who was selling vegetarian tacos from a food cart decorated with wind chimes, prisms and flowers, and a sticker that read, ‘I brake for rainbows’.”
Brenda Holiday. An old hippie, perhaps, or a Deadhead, or just someone living in the clouds, off the grid, in a world where rainbows still matter. The song has a beautiful, searching melody, and Cindy Wilson’s vocal is dreamy and yearning, remembering an Avalon that has receded into the mists of time. It reminds me of someone I love dearly, someone who knows what it means to brake for the small, unrepeatable moments in life because, ultimately, they are all small, unrepeatable moments. The good and the bad.
It’s a little sad, and melancholy, because it reminds us of the places where the world bumps up against the tiny miracles and pops them, like bubbles. But there’s hope in the melody, and the beautiful singing and the phrase ‘she brakes for rainbows.’ Of course the song makes me think of Ricky, in retrospect it seems like a goodbye to him. I also think of the writing relationship that he and Keith enjoyed, how something they experienced together became this little song. The lyrics are enigmatic and impressionistic and ultimately very few, but along with the music they convey a sense of the fragility of the moment.
In a 2019 interview with the SongFacts website, Cindy talked about performing the song at Wigstock in 1986 and how it more recently has been an LGBTQ+ anthem:
‘”She Brakes for Rainbows” is a gay anthem, a gay reference. I got to sing that at Wigstock, and also recently I sang that in San Francisco, where this famous Danish drag queen has a theatre called Oasis. They did a tribute to the B-52s as well, and it was a hoot and a half. But I got to sing “She Brakes for Rainbows” and I’ll never forget that – it was amazing. I’m so glad that song comes out every once in a while.’
I’m glad it comes out of the happy song drawer once in a while, too. Just like a rainbow, it may not be get played every day but when it does appear, it stops everything.