Released in ’79 on Rupert Holmes’ Partners in Crime LP (8-track! Cassette! Woo-hoo!), “Escape” was so popular it had to be reissued with a subtitle so people would actually buy it. No one knew the song by its original title, but everybody brayed that chorus wherever heavy drinkers congregated: “If you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.” Something about those images stuck in the psyche, so the track resurfaced as the Holmes/label compromise “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” Naturally, it body-shot to #1 and was, in fact, the last chart-topper of the decade, meaning there was an abundance of assholes in Hawaiian shirts trying to put the lime in the dance-floor coconut that New Year’s Eve.
“Escape” has become so ubiquitous that it’s all but lost its original meaning to become a cultural punchline, or a cheap laugh at its own expense, like Jesus Jones’ “Right Here Right Now,” a fairly accurate snapshot of early-’90s global optimism, or pretty much anything recorded by The Carpenters. With its soft, melodic chunder and evocations of a Coppertone getaway, “Escape” is shorthand for camp cheesiness. It so transcends generations that even ten-year-olds get the joke, although none were around to hear it mocked in Norm MacDonald’s Dirty Work back in ’98, when its use was, as always, lazy and trite. We’ve transferred our response down bloodlines; it’s part of our collective DNA. Now the song’s being mangled in a popular Taco Bell ad, with bored drones — thanks to The Office, everything’s set among zany cubicle jockeys now — improvising new lyrics to get them through a day of vapid bosses, annoying meetings, and passing Frutistas through their colons.
Of course, “Escape” is more than just its raised-glass chorus. In fact, it’s what we call a story song. Rupert loves to tell stories. After this ditty ensured he’d never have to climb out of bed again except to retrieve his royalty checks, he became a playwright and novelist. (He’s released a few more albums too; can’t exactly accuse the man of sloth.) Anyone familiar with Holmes’ work as a songwriter might recall a tale he weaved for The Buoys in 1971: “Timothy,” which reached #17 on the Pop chart despite being blacklisted from most U.S. radio stations for its objectionable content. Let me tell ya, pina colada fans, this gut-wrencher would’ve turned your tropical-themed soiree into an all-out hoinkfest, with margaritas and daiquiris taking northbound elevators to daylight. “Timothy,” see, was about three desperate miners trapped underground who get a mite peckish. Two emerge with the third on their breath. Alas, poor Tim.
“Escape” has a much happier ending. Dissatisfied with the predictability of his longtime relationship, the narrator peruses the personals in his hometown daily (tres quaint!) for a possible fling. He finds a notice that sounds perfect:
If you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain
If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain
If you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape
I’m the love that you’ve looked for; write to me and escape.
Yowza. Who could resist that? Once he tucks his eyes back in, our hero replies:
Yes, I like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain
I’m not much into health food, I am into champagne
I’ve got to meet you by tomorrow noon and cut through all this red tape
At a bar called O’Malley’s, where we’ll plan our escape.
As a writer myself, I’ve always dug the intentional contrasts between the characters’ prose. Hers has a more poetic flow; his sort of plods along.
We then cut to the anxious fellow at the appointed time and place as he nervously awaits the arrival of Chapter Two. She enters. He sees her. There’s an instant chemistry. A familiar one. That smile. Those curves. It’s his own girlfriend, the one who snoozed as he sat in bed quietly responding to her anonymous ad. Seems they were both hungry for excitement. If any consumption took place in “Escape,” it happened discreetly after the fade and was likely more pleasurable. Alas, poor Tim.