Watch Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer Sing Leon Payne's 'Psycho' - Rolling Stone
Country Flag
Home Music Country Music

Flashback: See Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer’s Creepy Duet on Leon Payne’s ‘Psycho’

‘Coraline’ author and Dresden Dolls singer collaborated on macabre country tune

In the history of country music, where grisly murder ballads and laments to dead mothers, children and dogs are commonplace, every day carries a little bit of the ghoulish Halloween spirit with it. There is probably no more twisted, demented and just plain odd a country song than “Psycho,” a tune first recorded in the late Sixties but whose origins were, for a time, as curious as its deeply disturbing lyrics.

Written by Texan Leon Payne, whose songs had been recorded in the early half of the 20th century by Hank Williams (“Lost Highway”), Elvis Presley (“I Love You Because”) and Jim Reeves (“Blue Side of Lonesome”), among many others, “Psycho” has the unhinged (and decidedly unreliable) narrator confessing to killing an ex-girlfriend and her new man Jackie White, who are now at eternal rest under a neighbor’s sycamore tree. He also admits to killing young Johnny’s pup, and seems to take responsibility for the death of little Betty Clark, noting that he was holding onto a wrench when his mind just “walked away.” The biggest question mark, however, is in his closing lines, as he asks, “You think I’m psycho, don’t you, Mama,” then chillingly adds, “Well, Mama, why don’t you get up?”

Theories as to how Payne, who died in September 1969, came to create such a dark, sinister storyline included inspiration, naturally, from the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock shocker Psycho, and the later Southern gothic horror film, Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte. But in 2012, the songwriter’s daughter, Myrtie Le Payne, whose parents were both blind, told the Nashville Scene that the song was inspired in part by her father’s steel guitar player, whose name was Jackie White. “He started working with him in 1968, and the song came out of a conversation they had one day,” she said. As they talked about several notorious criminals who had been in the news over the past few years, including serial killer Ed Gein (the model for Psycho killer Norman Bates), England’s “Tyneside Strangler” Mary Bell and serial rapist and murderer Hamilton Howard “Albert” Fish. The song’s first line, “Can Mary fry some fish, Mama?” incorporates references to the latter two criminals, in fact.

The first version of the song that was recorded, not long before Payne’s death from a heart attack, was by Texas singer Eddie Noack in 1969. Five years later, Michigan country artist Jack Kittel resurrected it. In 1981, while Elvis Costello was in Nashville cutting his homage to country music, Almost Blue, with producer Billy Sherrill, he recorded it but wouldn’t release it until a 1994 reissue of that LP. He had also recorded a live version of the song in 1979, in which his intro misidentifies Kittel as the song’s writer. In 1998, the soundtrack to Gus Van Zant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho included Teddy Thompson’s version of the tune (see it below), made profoundly more disturbing by Thompson’s innocent-as-a-choirboy vocal.

In the above clip, British-born author Neil Gaiman, whose comic books, novels and children’s books (including Coraline) have incorporated dark fantasy and horror perfect for Halloween reading, collaborates with his wife, cabaret-punk performer and songwriter Amanda Palmer, of the duo Dresden Dolls, on a uniquely strange and unsettling rendition of “Psycho.” In this 2012 clip from the Violitionist Sessions in Denton, Texas, Palmer, in a wedding dress and tiara, strums a ukulele while Gaiman talk-sings the lyrics, looking appropriately disheveled and morose throughout. Watch their version of the song above.

In This Article: Amanda Palmer


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.