Flip to the page on Bugs in the Vitalogy songbook and you’ve got a great big picture of a cockroach, and that’s it. Not the most subtle moment in the booklet, but Bugs is not a very subtle song.
Bugs is a difficult song to listen to at times, at least casually. It’s a wry, sarcastic spoken word piece accompanied by an out of tune accordion and percussion that sounds like someone stepping across a field of swarming roaches.
In some ways it’s a depressing piece to follow the tentative, but somehow triumphant, Corduroy. Bugs is a song of descent, of gradual surrender, and takes back the progress and momentum of the previous song.
In this song it seems pretty clear (to me anyway) that the Bugs are meant to symbolize the music industry and the intrusive celebrity culture that is so destructive of art, authenticity, and even life, but the bugs can represent any force that’s hostile to those principles. Bugs are a good choice of metaphor for Eddie to use for this piece. They are faceless, identical, amoral, and have an inexorable sense of inevitability about them (waiting…waiting…). They only want to feed themselves and expand and care nothing for how they affect the lives of those they need to feed off of (flashbacks to Rats are not inappropriate here). There are too many to kill, to many to reason with., and in the end there is no choice left but to give in. He never fully does, as Bugs is immediately followed by Satan’s Bed, the last moment of real resistance on the record, but you leave Bugs wondering just how long the subject is going to be able to keep fighting back against a foe, an industry, a trend, a collection of social values so much more powerful than he is—especially if he remains alone, one man staring down the swarm.
Beyond the thematic fit there is something powerful about Bugs as a statement. While the presence of the accordion and music like this is less impactful after discovering an artist like Tom Waits, including a song like this on a record from one of the best selling bands in the world is a wonderful fuck you gesture and artistic statement directed at an industry that habitually takes whatever innovative art they can fine and distributes bastardized clones as quickly as they can be assembled. It is a declaration that there is something intangible at work here, that there is a core to the music that cannot be copied, duplicated, or even defined, and a refusal to be a party to any attempt at doing so.