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:
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:
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.