Muller Music Meta, November

puzzle — 7:05; meta — 4 hours during which I thought I’d lost my mind (Matt) 



Lo, the many twists and turns of the November Muller Music Meta. Never have I so many times been certain that I’d cracked a contest crossword, only to be both surprised and thwarted. Ultimately it fell, but only after an epic struggle — perhaps not just for me, as only 54 others got it in the end. Naturally it took Jangler just 26 minutes, but he’s half-Vulcan or something so it doesn’t count. For the rest of us, quite a battle.

We were looking for an early Springsteen song, which seemed right off the bat like quite a limiting set. Our four apparent theme entries were:

17-A [Louis Armstrong’s Grammy-winning version of a musical title song] = HELLO, DOLLY!

25-A [Hawaiian singer Iz’s cover of an Academy Award-winning movie ballad] = OVER THE RAINBOW

46-A [1971 hit by the Stampeders] = SWEET CITY WOMAN. Unfamiliar to me, but a big hit.

60-A [Who classic with a risqué theme] = SQUEEZEBOX.

The first thing I noticed was that, as so often with Pete’s grids, this one was wide-open and natural enough that I didn’t think there was any theme beyond these four entries, which indeed turned out to be the case. Combined with the limited possibilities of the meta instructions I figured this one would fall quickly. In retrospect that was amusingly naive.

My initial free-scan brought nothing: I saw that HELLO DOLLY has DOLL both backwards and forwards, but nothing else came of that. I also noticed the Scrabbly nature of the grid, but a lot of that is just SQUEEZEBOX and nothing else seemed forced (pangrammatic grid, but he didn’t go out of his way to get there), so onward we go.

I don’t know my early Springsteen albums as I should — “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Born to Run” I know well, but not the others — but I thought I could back-door this by getting into the constructor’s mind. I scanned the list of his pre-“Born in the U.S.A.” songs and asked myself which of these sounded like a title I could build a meta around. This turned out to be exactly the wrong meta to try this gambit on, like deciding you’re going to swing at the next pitch no matter what and then it’s a slider in the dirt: this wound up not being a title-driven meta at all, so this was a pointless tack to take.

But I thought I had it: “Tunnel of Love” is really a stretch to call “early” Springsteen (it’s clearly mid-career, at the height of his popularity) but look what I found: you can “tunnel” through two black squares to make LOVE, and they form the letters L and O!


Not entirely consistent, but odd enough that I was sure that we’d have a V- and E- shaped LOVE tunneling through black squares in the southern half of the grid. Nice meta, Pete! But mystifyingly, no V and E were to be found. Quite an odd circumstance but if a meta solution doesn’t work then you have to let it go.

Further scanning of the Bossman’s early catalog revealed a promising song title: “Meeting Across the River” off “Born to Run.” And look here! The first two theme entries “meet” across the crosswordy English river OUSE:

Axe Heads (open)

That settles that! Again, I congratulate the constructor on a devious meta. All that remains is to find the other rivers connecting theme entries, and this guy is done.

Hmmm…where are these other rivers? Is WALLA a river? Crestfallen, I realized there were no other rivers to be found. Not again! What’s up with this thing?

Oh, wait — there it is! It’s not “Meeting Across the River,” it’s the famous “Hungry Heart.” Not sure how that works, but there’s an internal anagram of HEART in five letters in OVER THE RAINBOW:

Axe Heads (open) 2

Again, shocked to not see HEART in any of the other theme entries. I was starting to feel like the guy in the movie “Pi” (not “The Life of Pi”), as if the universe was mocking one man’s feeble attempts to unravel its mysteries. That was three times I was sure I had it, and each time it turned out to be “just a coincidence.”

Make it four: Could it be 1973’s “Kitty’s Back”? Was it that simple? You replace the last word in each theme entry (its “back”) with the word “Kitty”? It works with “Hello Dolly” since Hello Kitty is a thing, but Over the Kitty isn’t and neither is Sweet City Kitty or Squeeze Kitty.

Frustrated and mystified, I went to bed on Wednesday night. What was going on with this thing? I’d invested about 3 hours already, and the many promising leads that ultimately proved to be dead ends were gnawing at my soul.

Went to bed, true, but could not sleep. The idea was to let my nighttime subconscious work on this thing, but my conscious couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The theme entries were not promising for wordplay, full of non-wordplay-evocative words like OVER, THE, HELLO, and CITY. I’d scanned the lyrics of each song and nothing jumped out there, either. I’d noticed that ELAM and NAM are MALE and MAN backwards, but that led nowhere. I’d looked at promising song titles like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and those had gone nowhere as well. I’d parsed the title, “Axe Heads,” to mean whatever it could possibly mean — did you chop the first letter off words to leave something, axing the words’ heads? HELLO becomes CELLO, but nothing else works. Was it “axe” as in the slang term for a musical instrument? Not that I could see.

So, I thought as I attempted to drift off to sleep: if this meta isn’t title-driven, and if it’s not wordplay-driven, and if it’s not grid-trick-driven, and if it’s not lyrics-driven, then what else is there?

Wait a second…SQUEEZEBOX. That’s an old slang term for an accordion. I only knew that from the movie “Amadeus,” where the aged Salieri describes a Mozart phrase as sounding like a “rusty squeezebox.”

ACCORDION starts with AC…do the other theme entries point to musical instruments starting with AC? If so, then the meta answer is the Bruce classic “Atlantic City”! What other instruments start with AC? I couldn’t think of any. Another disappointment?

Wait a sec…Does “Squeezebox” have an accordion in it? I played it in my mind and seemed to recall one. Aha! This is an instrument-driven meta, perhaps?

Mind racing now. “Hello, Dolly” must have a trumpet in it if it’s Louis Armstrong. So that would be — aha, Axe Heads, the first letters of the musical instruments featured in the songs! T??A — Trumpet, something, something, Accordion — it had to be TUBA.

Practically leaping from the bed (sorry, wife and cats) I went to my laptop and on the way there realized that I already knew the U: the reference to the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawo’ole’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” is famously done on the UKULELE. The B I had to look up since I didn’t know “Sweet City Woman,” but it turns out to prominently feature a Banjo.

One last step: what early Springsteen song features a TUBA? Turns out to be 1973’s “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”. That’s our meta answer. Phew! Not a great song, so instead I’ll link to a superior Springsteen carnival tale, which I’d earlier thought was the meta answer:

Maybe I say this every month lately, but that’s a terrific meta. So simple in hindsight — you just need one insight, obvious in retrospect, to break the thing open, but it still took me about 4 hours all told and was intriguing enough that my mind would not let it go until it cracked.

4.65 stars. Please let there be a Season 5 to the Muller Meta; this thing is great fun.

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26 Responses to Muller Music Meta, November

  1. Giovanni P. says:

    So close on this one…I got the instrument thing off of SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW, but I took the word “Axe” to mean slang for guitar, and so I went searching for unusual guitar instruments in each song. Unfortunately, that got me a BANJO for three of them, and BUBB didn’t look like anything, so I called it a whiff.

    I gotta get back in meta solving mode. Two Gaffneys and a Muller dropped in two weeks is poor form.

    • jefflouie says:

      I had the same problem. The fact that three of the four songs prominently featured banjo (and, quite frankly, the banjo is featured much more prominently on Squeeze Box than the accordion despite the song’s title) made me think immediately that this was a banjo-centric meta, and the ukulele anomaly was the key to solving it. I also thought maybe there was a song with BUBB or BUBBA in it. I was also equally biased in associating the word “axe” just with a guitar-like instrument.

      • jefflouie says:

        There just aren’t that many pop songs that have banjo in them. So I think unintended confusion could have been avoided if songs were chosen that didn’t feature any other TUBA instruments (aside from the featured one). For example, for accordion, there could have been one of those Weird Al polka songs, e.g. “POLKAPARTY” (randomly finding one with the correct number of letters).

        Note that this only knocked this meta down from 5 stars to like 4.25 for me.

  2. tony says:

    Not even close. I knew I wasn’t right, bit seeing Squeeze and Sweet leading two entries, I knew that Peter Lincoln is on guitar (or Axe) with Sweet and went with Nebraska.

  3. Pete Muller says:

    Thanks Matt!

    55 correct this month…

    Granted that “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” is a bit obscure, but it’s an awesome song (at least to this Jersey boy)

    And thanks for the encouragement…I’m still deciding if there will be a Season 5 of the MMMM…I’ll let people know by next month.


  4. Howard B says:

    Very cool meta concept. I love this idea of using the music itself to drive the meta.
    (I can take solace this time in knowing there was no way at all for me to have even found a sign pointing me to the correct door through this meta.) :).
    Nice work, Pete.

  5. Dan Seidman says:

    Thanks, Matt — having had similar experiences with your month-end tortures, I really enjoyed the account of your agony over this one.

  6. Abby says:

    I meandered a bit on this one, but figured the title was the biggest clue since the theme words didn’t help as words. Got lost a while because of cover versions, etc., but since two of the performers are famous for their “axes”, that didn’t take long once I trusted to go with it. Had to go look for the song though since I didn’t know it. Sounded familiar once I heard it, but definitely needed some help to land there.

  7. Abide says:

    Nice write up Matt. Glad you could experience the agony you put us through once or twice a month.

    My breakthrough was watching the Sweet City Woman video on YouTube. Originally recorded with a prominent banjo part, yet there was no banjo player on stage in the video. Since “axe” is general slang for instrument, not just a guitar, I went B-A-T-U not long after that. Still took a while to confirm the song, which I had never heard, and it is just as awesome as this puzzle.

    • Pete Muller says:

      It’s a bizarre video…the guy is playing the banjo part on a double neck guitar.
      Fortunately, Wikipedia clearly mentions the prominence of the banjo in the song.

  8. Rachael says:

    An interesting MMMM year for me. I’ve done a lot worse solving the metas than I have in years past, but I’ve enjoyed it SO MUCH. Especially with the ones I’ve not solved (this one included), I keep getting pulled down rabbitholes that, while fruitless in terms of meta-solving, have been extremely educational in terms of music. This year I’ve learned more about jazz, classical music, Warren Zevon, and now delving deep into Bruce’s catalog has given me some new favorite songs. That, and I learned that Squeeze Box was covered by Poison – with the first two themes being cover songs, I thought maybe that was the way to go and of course it was going to be Blinded By The Light, but that was too obvious, and also, no significant covers of Sweet City Woman!

    Couldn’t wait for the writeup to see what the meta was. In awe of the genius it took to construct it, and to get to the answer. Unreal. Superb.

    All this is to say: Pete, PLEASE keep doing this! I look forward to the MMMM every single month and in my mind it’s one of the best crossword games going.

  9. Al says:

    I was lucky on this one. Googled “Sweet City Woman” early on, saw the banjo reference and was on my way. Great writeup, Matt. There must be a psychological term for our ability to find patterns in a random set of data (or metas in a random grid).

  10. CC says:

    Didn’t get this one. I was fixated on the 2 clues for HELLO DOLLY and OVER THE RAINBOW because they specifically called out two cover versions- and the Iz song is a medley with What a Wonderful World, which is a song made famous by Louie Armstrong. So I was certain that the meta had to deal with that.

    • jefe says:

      That was actually my in into solving – why clue for the cover versions and not the originals, unless they stand out in some way, such as featuring a Trumpet and Ukulele?

  11. CC says:

    Just saw Pete’s note and want to add- YES TO SEASON 5!

  12. Jeff G. says:

    Excellent meta (even though I didn’t get it). I was thinking of axe only as a guitar, not other instruments. I was trying to get the initials for the lead guitar players in the bands Sweet, Squeeze and Rainbow. I would love to see a MMMM season 5!! I look forward to them every month. Thanks Pete!

  13. pannonica says:

    Completely forgot about this one, and I like to think I would have gotten it. Not a Springsteen fan, so I would recommend the Band’s version of “Life Is a Carnival” or Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” (Harper’s Bizarre had a nifty cover of it, too.)

    I do want to register my appreciation for the inclusion of EEK-A-Mouse, and the early (Bang years) Van Morrison “He Ain’t Give You NONE”.

    I have only apathy to blame for not even remotely pursuing the meta-meta—although I have one little vague idea about it—and I hope the following observation has nothing to do with it, but I found it curious that P Muller neglected an obvious opportunity for a musical clue at 36-across.

  14. Justin says:

    Pete, great puzzle.

    Matt, that was hilarious.

  15. Eric Prestemon says:

    My favorite dead end, based on “axe heads”, was the implied words missing before the titles.

    (Well) Hello Dolly
    (Somewhere) Over The Rainbow
    (Sweet) Sweet City Woman
    (Mama’s Got A) Squeezebox

    “Well Somewhere Sweet Mama’s Got A [something]” was a plausible title or lyric, but fortunately I couldn’t find a match.

    • Paul Coulter says:

      This is exactly the path I followed to a fatal cliff. Great job, Pete. In retrospect, it looks so simple, but that’s the beauty of a finely crafted meta. Five stars from me. Yes, please, for another year! Five makes a nice set, don’t you think?

  16. Steve Blais says:

    Ok, so here’s the rabbit hole I went down. I noticed the letters RAINB in the second themer. This anagrams to BRIAN. And by some eerie coincidence, there’s MAY (from MAYBRITT) right above it. So based on the title, I thought there would be three other lead guitarists, or “axe heads” (Brian May of Queen being one of them) hidden in the grid in a similar manner, along with the surname of a fifth, whose first name is anagrammed in a Springsteen song. I thought “how neat!”, but the only other names I could pull out were LLOYD and WES from the theme answers, and no other guitar players from the grid itself. I had such a hard time dropping this line of thinking, even though it was leading nowhere! With two and a half hours left, I finally realized why the reference to Iz was so important…

  17. I was way, way off on this one. I got fixated on the large number of bands in the clues whose official names include “The” but were clued with either the “The” Missing or in lowercase: [t]he Stampeders (46A), Who (60A), Byrds (63A), Black Eyed Peas (8D), [t]he Blockheads (22D), Pretenders (38D), and Doors (48D). I was sure this had to do something with the meta, since the heads of the band names were being axed, but like Matt’s many rabbit holes, this one went nowhere.

  18. S says:

    Wow, I felt pretty good about my answer here – HELLO, RAINBOW, SWEET, and SQUEEZE are all bands, and so is SPIRIT, so i went with SPIRIT IN THE NIGHT

    • Dave C says:

      That was my thinking and answer too – but I wasn’t all that confident, as it had nothing to do with Axe Heads. From Pete’s write-up, I don’t believe we were the only two to go that route.

      • Pete Muller says:

        I received three “Spirit in the Night” submissions.
        As Dave C says, that answer unfortunately doesn’t jibe with the puzzle title, “Axe Heads.”
        It was unintentionally devious that all four theme entries contained a band name!

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