I'm Not Much Into Health Food Or Why Escape (The Piña Colada Song Isn't the Trifling Novelty Tune You Think It Is

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I’ve previously suggested that Helen Reddy’s 1974 #1 smash Angie Baby would make a great horror movie. It’s an example of a story song, a tune that tells a self-contained tale. There are many examples of great story songs and the best, like Angie Baby, contain a twist that flips the script on the opening lines.

One story songs that twists in expert fashion is Escape (The Piña Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes. Peaking at the end of 1979—in the USA it was the last #1 song of the 1970s—it tells the story of a bored married man whose attention is grabbed by a personal ad. In that a prospective lover speaks of exotic locales, exotic drinks, and free thinking. The man quickly arranges a rendezvous with this glamorous lover. The twist, of course, is that the mystery woman turns out to be his wife.

I was tired of my lady
We’d been together too long
Like a worn out recording
Of a favourite song

So while she lay there sleepin’
I read the paper in bed
And in the personal columns
There was this letter I read

If you like piña coladas
And gettin’ caught in the rain
If you’re not into yoga
If you have half a brain

If you like makin’ love at midnight
In the dunes on the cape
Then I’m the love that you’ve looked for
Write to me and escape

I didn’t think about my lady
I know that sounds kinda mean
But me and my old lady
Had fallen into the same old dull routine

So I wrote to the paper
Took out a personal ad
And though I’m nobody’s poet
I thought it wasn’t half bad

Yes, I like piña coladas
And gettin’ 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

So I waited with high hopes
And she walked in the place
I knew her smile in an instant
I knew the curve of her face

It was my own lovely lady
And she said, “Oh, it’s you”
Then we laughed for a moment
And I said, “I never knew
That you like piña coladas
And gettin’ caught in the rain
And the feel of the ocean
And the taste of champagne
If you like making love at midnight
In the dunes on the cape
You’re the lady I’ve looked for
Come with me and escape”

Although it’s often written off as a goofy novelty song, Escape is a remarkable piece of writing, succinctly painting a picture of domestic drudgery on par with the Woody Allen observational comedies of the time. The simile of comparing a tired marriage to a “worn out recording of a favourite song” perfectly encapsulates what it’s like being in a relationship that used to sparkle but has now lost its sheen due to being overly familiar. Anyone who has sat in bed reading alongside their sleeping partner knows it can be a special kind of domestic bliss, but the narrator’s perusal of the personal column means that the domesticity has withered into dreariness.

It feels fitting that this study of a dying marriage capped off the 1970s. Escape is well-crafted, but it’s inherently selfish. No matter what self justification the narrator makes, him seeking a relationship outside his clearly monogamous marriage is deceitful. He even admits that he’s being cruel, thinking only of himself. What better song to cap off the ten years commonly referred to as the “Me Decade”?

I can’t say that the text of the personal ad would grab my interest. Does anyone actually love being caught in the rain? And having made love on a beach I can testify sand enters all the places sand should not enter. I’m not sure why the narrator shares the ad writer’s disdain for yoga. I would have thought being able to contort into 150 positions would be a plus in a prospective partner. But I too am not much into health food unless peanut M&Ms classed as a health food. They contain nuts which are natural so I’m going with yes, in which case then bring that health food here.

The titular piña coladas do a lot of heavy lifting in this song, immediately painting an image of somewhere exotic. Ironically, the alcoholic drink was a late addition to the song. Holmes, who the song, explained in a 2003 interview that the original first line of the fictional personal was “If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting caught in the rain.” Holmes had written other songs with Bogart references and, sitting in the studio, racked his brain for something else. The song was already titled Escape and through word association he landed on holiday drinks and then narrowed it down to piña coladas. That fruity little drink was such a powerful image it not only elbowed its way into the lyric, it parenthesised its way into the title. Escape (The Humphrey Bogart Song) certainly wouldn’t have had the same impact.

Holmes charmingly conveys the moment of the twist, when it’s his wife that wanders into O’Malleys, a bar which I’m guessing has a shamrock in its logo. The line “I knew the curve of her face” is such a beautiful way of describing the familiarity of someone we love. Her “Oh, it’s you” reaction feels ripped from the big reveal scene in a romantic farce like You’ve Got Mail. I’m half convinced Meg Ryan spoke those exact words in the film when she learns her online paramour is Tom Hanks.

While I love the twist in this song, I equally appreciate the way Holmes chooses to end it, moving the story forward with a hint that the future of this couple is a bright one. In this sense it truly is like one of those classic romantic comedies, leaving us feeling hopeful for that the lead couple might deepen their relationship. After all, Holmes chooses to describe his wife as his “lovely lady” when she turns out to be the one he’s due to meet. This pair’s intended illicit secret rendezvous may turn out to be a second honeymoon.