Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head

Dennis Hopper, one of the American countercultural icons to have featured in Apocalypse Now, had a checkered career in some the best and the worst that Hollywood had to offer. From a generation-defining role in Easy Rider, to playing the inimitably psychotic Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, to the legendary humiliation that was the Super Mario Bros. movie, his niche in pop culture is and was that of a talented man, with great vision – or, depending on the story, a violent lunatic with a fondness for drugs that made the Red Hot Chili Peppers look like Boy Scouts. His harlequin-role in Apocalypse Now worked in either vein, and it’s this centrality that makes the comparison to one of his later (and more obscure) efforts possible.

‘Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head’ is the thirteenth track on the album Demon Days, by Gorillaz. It’s one of many of the group’s more oddball ventures, and it takes Damon Albairn’s scientific understanding of pop music to have allowed this song to exist alongside hooky ventures like ‘Feel Good, Inc.’ and ‘Dare’. The hook is sung by 2D, Albairn’s black-eyed vocal avatar, but the verses are a spoken word poem delivered by Hopper. The brief story depicts an idealistic community of Happy Folk, who live at the base of a mountain, worshipping the spirit they see as inhabiting it, Monkey. At some point, a group of (literally) shady Strange Folk come around and try to mine the riches in the mountain. The song ends with some kind of eruption, and fire comes from Monkey’s head as both the Strange Folk and the Happy Folk are destroyed.

The connection to Apocalypse Now is interesting and sinister. The Happy Folk could be read as the wild people, the Montagnards of whom Kurtz appointed himself the general (it would be too much of a stretch to call the Vietnamese government happy or copacetic in their previous situation, on either side), and it’s evident within the story that the Americans in the temple, especially Kurtz and Hopper’s photojournalist, are strange people indeed. Greed is a motivator that keeps more to the Kurtz in Heart of Darkness than the character Brando inhabited, who is more motivated by his desire to fight the war than to gain from it, but the end is the same. In the song, Monkey is the voice of nature bringing wrath on all for wrongs committed, whereas in the film Willard says that even the jungle wanted Kurtz dead, and that was who he took his orders from in the end. The link via Dennis Hopper adds another layer to it, almost as if the photojournalist survived, and went on to employ Kurtz’s mind-expanding rhetoric in this fable about the cost of greed and venality.

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