His Italian Leather Sofa: Cake Does an Anthem

Published February 16, 2017 in Warp & Woof


His Italian Leather Sofa: Cake Does an Anthem

William Sundwick

Alternative Rock was a big thing in the nineties, and not just among the teenage crowd. Some of us old-timers could instantly relate to the sound, based on fond memories of its genesis with classic blues-based rock ‘n roll, acid rock, and punk. Its definitional boundaries are fuzzy, however. Some critics will include “grunge” bands from Seattle, notably Pearl Jam and Nirvana, in the genre; while others want to include late punk, like Green Day, in the mix, a much harder, darker sound; or, perhaps, retro blues rock, like White Stripes.

In the middle range of Alt Rock is Cake: not too dark or heavy, not too anodyne pop; but just edgy enough, just creative enough, to rise above the crowd. Hailing from Sacramento, its lifespan stretches from 1991 to the present, although it has released no new album since 2011. They claim they’re still alive, and working on another.

Front man and songwriter John McCrea came up with some real gold in the 1996-98 period, especially on their second album, Fashion Nugget. It went platinum in late ’96. If you followed pop music in the nineties and ‘aughts at all, you’re probably familiar with “The Distance”, which had a great run for a time on radio stations (still the major promotional medium for music in those days). Here it is on YouTube.

Like all the best McCrea songs, “The Distance” has some clever lyrics. He does have a poetic gift:
Reluctantly crouched at the starting line
Engines pumping and thumping in time
The green light flashes, the flags go up
Churning and burning, they yearn for the cup
They deftly maneuver and muscle for rank
Fuel burning fast on an empty tank
Reckless and wild, they pour through the turns
Their prowess is potent and secretly stern
The backup includes not just guitar, bass and drums, as expected … but, also, trademark mariachi horns. They give Cake a ska-like sound. And, McCrea delivers the vocals in a distinctive monotone, almost like a poetry reading in a beat generation San Francisco coffee house!
But he’s driving and striving and hugging the turns
And thinking of someone for whom he still burns

He’s going the distance
He’s going for speed
She’s all alone
In her time of need


Because he’s racing and pacing and plotting the course
He’s fighting and biting and riding on his horse
He’s going the distance
No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine
He’s haunted by something he cannot define
Bowel-shaking earthquakes of doubt and remorse
Assail him, impale him with monster-truck force
In his mind, he’s still driving, still making the grade

Such youthful exuberance, such resolve! Is anybody reminded of Bruce Springsteen, twenty years earlier (“Born to Run”)?

But, of all the songs on Fashion Nugget, my favorite must be “Italian Leather Sofa.” Here’s a prosperous old guy, with a gold watch and an Italian leather sofa, enjoying the company of an attractive young woman, who doesn’t care if he’s a good man, or if he’s an island, as long as his ship’s coming in!

Here’s the YouTube video.

In addition to the clever lyrics, this one has the tempo of a rock anthem, along with the horns. And, rock anthems are always hard to resist for the stridently youthful at heart (like myself)! Also, McCrea has backup vocals for the first two verses, adding a bit more flourish:

She doesn’t care whether or not he’s an island
She doesn’t care just as long as his ship’s coming in
She doesn’t care whether or not he’s an island
They laugh they make money
He’s got a gold watch
She’s got a silk dress and healthy breasts
that bounce on his Italian leather sofa.

And, the second verse, with chorus:

She doesn’t care whether or not he’s a good man
She doesn’t care just as long as she still has her friends
She doesn’t care whether or not he’s an island
they laugh, they make money
He’s got a gold watch
She’s got a silk dress and healthy breasts
That bounce on his Italian leather sofa

Yes, it does sound slightly cynical. But, not really, because both seem to be very happy with their arrangement. Of course, we don’t know if there is a wife around … it may be that the young woman with the silk dress and healthy breasts IS his wife!

All well and good, except, after a somewhat avant-garde interlude from the band, we get the mysterious third verse, where the subject inexplicably changes to simple food storage in the kitchen, and this strange sequence is repeated one more time, as a fourth verse:

She’s got a serrated edge
that she moves back and forth
It’s such a simple machine she doesn’t have to use force
When she gets what she wants,
she puts the rest on a tray in a ziplock bag
…in the freezer 


… intermezzo of a few provocative guitar chords at this point … then repeat chorus, complete with full horn backup:

She doesn’t care whether or not he’s an island
She doesn’t care just as long as his ship’s coming in
She doesn’t care whether or not he’s an island
They laugh, they make money
He’s got a gold watch
She’s got a silk dress and healthy breasts
that bounce on his Italian leather sofa

Songwriters: John M Mccrea
Italian Leather Sofa lyrics © Cake – Stamen Music

You have to wonder what the third (and fourth) verse has to do with the first two. This sort of device reminds me of another favorite precursor band to both Punk and Alt Rock, The Velvet Undergound … from the sixties, with Lou Reed as front man. What could such nonsense mean?

Cursory research does not unearth any interviews with McCrea, where he might have explained what was going through his head when he wrote those lyrics.

Perhaps he will discover Warp & Woof, and contribute a comment! At any rate, whenever the song comes up on my iPod playlists at the gym, I always smile. It’s one of select few that makes me pedal harder, and grunt more, on the machinery. Such an anthem!


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