Can Mary fry some fish, Mama
I’m as hungry as can be
Oh Lordy, how I wish, Mama
That you could stop that baby crying cause my head is killing me…
So begin the lyrics to Leon Payne‘s utterly unhinged country & western classic, “Psycho.” Payne, known as “the Blind Balladeer,” was a country music singer and songwriter who wrote songs that were recorded by the likes of George Jones, Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, Hank Williams (Payne wrote “Lost Highway”), Johnny Horton, and Merle Haggard.
“Psycho” is the irony-free, point-of-view ramblings of a hillbilly murderer who you can’t even trust with a cute little puppy. To call it “memorable” is an understatement. It’s downright chilling and yet highly amusing at the same time. No mean feat!
There were several persistent rumors about the story behind the song: One, that it was about Charles Whitman, the former Marine mass murderer who killed his mother, wife and 14 more people at the University of Texas, Austin in 1966 after commandeering a bell tower with a sniper’s rifle. It makes sense as Whitman was famously known to have complained of headaches—he was found to have had a brain tumor during his autopsy—and headaches are mentioned in the song. And he was a psycho, obviously. But it wasn’t about him, or at least not directly about Whitman.
Secondly, that the song was written about the Alfred Hitchcock thriller. It wasn’t. An article about Payne’s oddball first person murder ballad on the Nashville Scene website clears this up:
“The movie story came from my mother, and she was known to exaggerate at times,” says Myrtie Le Payne, Leon Payne’s daughter. Since both Payne and his wife were blind, their daughter did accompany them to movies and whisper descriptions of what was happening onscreen, but cinematic horrors were not the direct source for “Psycho.”
After years of people asking her about the song, Myrtie Le recently tracked down the true story. “Jackie White was my daddy’s steel guitar player,” she says. “He started working with him in 1968, and the song came out of a conversation they had one day.”
According to the story related by White, in the spring of 1968, he and Leon Payne were discussing the Richard Speck murders. Speck murdered eight student nurses in Chicago in July 1966 and was convicted and sentenced to death the following year. Being a history buff, Payne was familiar with the cases of many notorious mass killers, and the discussion soon turned to other famous cases — Charles Whitman, Ed Gein, Mary Bell and Albert Fish. That conversation directly inspired the song, and Payne immortalized White’s contribution by naming the boyfriend killed in the first verse after him, along with working in references to some of the murderers they had discussed in lines like, “Can Mary fry some fish, Mama?”
That same article also dispels the third legend around the song, that Leon Payne, not wanting to sully his good name and songwriting career stipulated that it not be recorded until after his death. Well, the song was recorded before his death, by his pal cowboy singer Eddie Noack, for whom the song was probably written, so that’s another legend dashed.
Here’s the original 1968 version of “Psycho,” by Eddie Noack:
This wasn’t Eddie Noack’s only psycho-ballad, he also recorded the creepy “Dolores” about “a man who sees a girl and goes berserk…” You can easily see why Payne might have written “Psycho” with Noack in mind as the subject matter was clearly up his strasse.
A few years later, in 1973, “Psycho” was recorded by Michigan-based singer Jack Kittel. I find this to be the “definitive” version. It was an underground “hit” with a “certain type” of crowd. By the 80s it was well-known to Cramps and Nick Cave fanboys. Elvis Costello covered it and so did Beasts of Bourbon.
I can’t embed the clip, but here’s Elvis Costello doing a little-seen live version of “Psycho” (released as the B-side to his “Sweet Dreams” single) in 1981.