To love a song, it’s not important that you understand the words. And I say that as a onetime lyricist and singer. As one of my guitarists often reminded me, “the words don’t matter.” Well, yeah they do, but not as much as lyricists like to think. For example, I enjoy Elvis Costello’s lyrics tremendously, but I don’t always know what he’s singing about. It’s enough for me that EC’s words are interesting in and of themselves, given how great the musical elements of the songs are.
On the other hand, understanding the meaning of the words can enhance my appreciation of a song. Case in point is Tom Waits’s “Walking Spanish,” which for the last 20 years I have completely misapprehended. Until recently, I carried around the idea that “walking spanish” was just a kind of funny way of walking, like John Leguizamo doing a pimp roll or something. I know that is a ridiculous thing to think, but I have a lot of odd notions that are probably wrong, and I’m comfortable with that.
Anyway, I recently discovered that “walking Spanish” means, literally, being forcibly carried from a place by one’s collar and belt, with one’s tiptoes scrabbling at the floor, so that the Spanish walker is being forced to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. The expression derives from being made to walk the plank on a pirate ship, but a more modern example might be being thrown out of a bar.
“Huh!” said I upon being given this information. Maybe Tom Waits isn’t just growling about a funny way of walking in that song. So I went back to the lyrics, and whaddaya know, “Walking Spanish” is a song about death.
The first three verses tell the story (in an elliptical, Tom Waitsish way) of Mason, a man who “got himself a homemade special”(a gun) and committed a crime. He thinks “his glass is full of sand,” but he’s got less time than he thinks, as he is arrested and sent to death row. The song offers the possibility of spiritual and material comfort (respectively a picture of Jesus, or “a spoon to dig a hole” to escape through), but neither can change Mason’s ultimate destination.
Jesus appears again in the last verse, as one who “wanted just a little more time” when he was walking Spanish down the hall. In Christian theology, Jesus stands in for all of us, taking on the sins of the world, etc., and so the song expands from the story of a single death row inmate to everyone’s story: we’re all walking Spanish from our very first staggering baby steps, and no matter how full of sand our glass seems, it is sand, and it is an hourglass, and it does that hourglass thing where the sand runs out. Damn gravity.
But Waits is neither weepy nor solipsistic about that grim conclusion. The loose, relaxed blues riff that anchors the song suggests a wry acceptance of facts, and one death or many deaths doesn’t change the equally pertinent fact that “tomorrow morning there’ll be laundry.” That is, there’s always work to do, so quit your bitching, death-boy.
Discussion: what other songs might be good for a “Death Mix”? I mean songs (like “Walking Spanish”) that are at least a bit subtle, that don’t hit you over the head with their deathily deathish deathiness (e.g. The Doors or Cannibal Corpse). A couple that spring to mind would be “Glowworm” by The Apples in Stereo or by Neutral Milk Hotel.