I’M NOT OBSESSED with shoes, though I appreciate a sexy black high heel or the occasional thigh-high leather boot on a long-legged woman like Salma Hayek—OK, maybe I have a thing for Salma but I’m sure I’m not alone there. I mean, did you see her table-dance scene in Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn? I digress. Still, I don’t spend my days thinking about shoes and I don’t own a ton of shoes, just enough to cover the proper occasion: clogs (which I could wear year round), black dress shoes, blood oxford leather loafers, flipflops, running shoes, casual slip-on mocs, and a pair of cowboy boots, which I almost never wear. I think I still own boots; I’d have to check. That’s just how shoe-neglectful I am.
For me, shoes are utilitarian, and they’re not the main things I notice about people when I first meet them—unless they’re wearing red shoes. Those I notice. I’ve always secretly admired people who can pull off (or put on) the red shoe look successfully. It’s not easy. I’ve never had the guts to own any, much less wear a pair in public (my big feet in red shoes would look clownish), which may contribute to the reason I so admire people who do. My good friend Crew got married in a black tux and a pair of bright red loafers, a flashy nod to The Wizard of Oz and Elvis Costello, walking up the aisle—a path, actually, in a historic garden in Athens, Georgia—making a bold statement about his whimsical nature and good fortune at finding a woman with a sense of humor to match his own. Crew totally rocked the red shoes, and I admit I was damned envious. Was it simply an homage to the iconic film and Costello—he and I are both huge fans of the latter—or did it go much deeper?
Apparently I’m not alone in my admiration of those brave, passionate, red-shod souls out there. Since the days of Louis XIV, red footwear has been turning heads with its aura of privilege, power and mystery. French courtiers donned shoes with red heels to distance themselves from the common aristocrat, who later adopted the look, making it no longer quite so exclusive. The Revolution ended all that, of course.
The late Pope John Paul II’s habit of shuffling around in unassuming brown or very dark red shoes gave way to Pope Benedict XVI’s resurrection of the empirical Roman tradition of wearing ruby Papal shoes both indoors and out, the color symbolizing the blood of martyrdom as well as the Holy Spirit. In my estimation, this makes the “Prada Pope” one gutsy cardinal. (The ruby loafers, or slippers if you like, are not actually Prada, but made by Italian shoemaker Adriano Stefanelli.)
Hans Christian Andersen most strikingly featured red shoes in his fable, “The Red Shoes,” in which the tragic heroine Karen dons a pair of demonic shoes that make her dance herself to an unspeakable choice, and eventually to death. The magical power of red shoes is most famously displayed in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, and while the book’s slippers are silver, MGM transformed them to ruby for maximum Technicolor impact. The 1948 film The Red Shoes (by Powell and Pressburger; one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films of all time) takes the Andersen fable to the ballet, where a dancer named Vicky must choose between her career and the man she loves (post-war sexism at its best). Her Mephistopholean impresario tells her, “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer—never.” The red ballet slippers carry her to an untimely demise with a modern locomotive twist.
Most recently—and harkening back to Louis XIV’s time—shoe stylist Christian Louboutin sued Yves Saint Laurent for infringing on his trademarked red-soled shoes. The lawsuit was overruled, however; no one has an exclusive market on passionate pedal fashion statements.
What fascinates me most about red shoes is the effect the image has had on songwriters, contemporary artists especially. I’ve lately discovered a plethora of songs with “red shoes” in the title, but offer here my personal top three from a trio of the most compelling songwriters and performers of the late twentieth century:
#3: “Red Shoes By The Drugstore” by Tom Waits (from Blue Valentine, 1978)
I was introduced to Tom Waits years ago by—of all people—my Portuguese sportswriter friend Rui, who was a complete freak for Waits. Although I consider him a magnetic performer and actor, I don’t pretend to like everything the man does, but a good Tom Waits song is like a gritty Beat poem rife with street life, young toughs doing crimes, sad old geezers in run-down bungalows on the edge of town who are hanging on by the skin of their yellowed and broken teeth. This song features Waits’ poetry at its most dazzling, with rain splashing like “spilled chablis on the midway,” a “dark huddle at the bus stop/umbrellas arranged in a sad bouquet,” and a petty criminal named Li’l Caesar botching a jewelry store heist, trying to steal a diamond for his woman because “he loved the way she looked in those red shoes.” She must have been a knockout, a Gretchen to his Faust.
#2: “The Red Shoes” by Kate Bush (from The Red Shoes, 1993)
The song that’s closest to the Andersen fable, a classic be-careful-what-you-wish-for cautionary tale of vanity, piety and mercy, is from otherworldly singer/songwriter/dancer/actor/director Kate Bush. The unnamed narrator envies a dancing diva her moves—so what does the diva do? She tells the woman to remove the shoes and put them onto her own feet and her dream will come true. The instant she puts them on, though, the narrator knows immediately that she’s made a terrible mistake because she can’t remove the shoes because she can’t stop dancing, and she can’t stop dancing because she can’t remove the shoes—it’s a Mobius strip of tragic bad choices. “Call a doctor! Call a priest!” she sings. You just know she’s going to die.
In Andersen’s version, Karen can think of nothing else but her new red shoes; even during church, when she should be thinking about God, she’s fixated on those shoes. When a suspicious old soldier compliments her on her pretty dancing shoes, she begins dancing and can’t stop, tripping all through the night across the countryside to the house of the local executioner, whose only solution (being a good ax-man) is to chop off her feet. The disembodied feet, still in the creepy red shoes, dance away only to return, haunting Karen as a visual reminder of her vanity. She later confesses her sins, turns her life over to God and hobbles to church on her new wooden feet carved for her by the executioner, at which time she is so “slain in the spirit” that her heart breaks with joy and she dies. Nothing quite like a good moral Christian cudgeling.
#1: “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” by Elvis Costello (from My Aim Is True, 1977)
I first became an Elvis Costello fan on a lark. After witnessing his U.S. network TV debut on Saturday Night Live when he abruptly stopped playing the scheduled song, “Less Than Zero,” 30 seconds in, and then launched into “Radio, Radio” (a snarling indictment of corporate rock, which seems quaint and naive now), I was so taken with this odd Brit that I went out and bought his debut album, My Aim Is True. Elvis appears on the cover in cuffed blue jeans and dark horn-rimmed glasses—a Buddy Holly on acid—and all the while I thought this was no more than a strange addition to my oddball vinyl collection that already featured an album of Bob Dylan cover tunes “dramatically” spoke-sung by character actor Sebastian Cabot (“Baby . . . I just want to be . . . FRIENNNNDS with you”) known most infamously for his role as Mister French on the ‘60s sitcom “Family Affair.” Much to my surprise, the songs on the Costello debut were strong, weighty, full of intelligent literary wordplay accompanied by a frenetic electric guitar and a thumping rhythm section. This guy was no joke. I was hooked. The song that especially struck me was “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” I had no idea what he was singing about, but the line “I used to be disgusted / but now I try to be amused” was like nothing I’d ever heard by Bob Seger, The Doobie Brothers, Chicago or Deep Purple (the bands I’d been exposed to at that time by my older brother). Elvis looked like a total geek but sounded dangerously intelligent, and could rock and croon like no one else. This was a post-punk/new-wave artist who sounded nothing like Gary Numan—no offense to Gary Numan.
The songs on My Aim Is True are laced with biting humor and sleazy noir images of lust, sex, guilt, revenge, Fascism (“No Dancing”, “Mystery Dance”, “Less Than Zero”, “Watching the Detectives”), perfect listening material for a high school kid tooling around town in a lime green VW Bug to absorb, if only by osmosis. “Red Shoes” hit me right between the eyes. Costello took the Andersen fable and mixed it with Marlowe and Goethe: The song’s narrator, frustrated with his pitiful worldly knowledge, strikes a bargain with the archangels for divine knowledge and eternal youth to “dance” with the girl he desires, and when the deal is done and he wins her, he goes totally apeshit with lust. He is so happy he could die, while the girl, feeling completely abused by his sudden cloying lust, says “drop dead” and leaves with another guy. The narrator, who made a deal to get everything he wants, ends up losing it all: the girl, the red shoes (his soul), and wisdom (he’ll never get any “older”).
Then again, maybe the song is all one big euphemism for groupies (angels) having sex with Elvis (“wearing” his “red shoes”), which keeps him young. Maybe I’ve completely over-thought this song since I first heard it, and that first gut reaction I had as a high school kid is the only interpretation that matters. Whatever. After all these years I still love this song, and I can imagine a 22-year-old Declan MacManus writing the lyrics while riding in a crowded subway car on his way to a Liverpool day job, visions of red shoes dancing in his head.
Listen to The Official Weeklings Power Trio Playlist on Spotify.