Archive for the 'Great Lyrics Series' Category

Walking Spanish

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.

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Great Lyrics Series: Sunday Morning Coming Down-Updated with audio and Video

(Lance’s listening notes: I just spent the evening with my wife and a friend at a little bar, in a very little town, Fordoche Louisiana, called the Red Monkey. I loaded up the Juke box with what interested me (no The Jam, Clash or Pixies) which ended up being The Band, Van Morrison, Creedence and Janis Joplin, plus Johnny Cash. Since I have reprised a couple of posts, I thought it would be a good time to bring you once again Robby’s excellent discussion of Sunday Morning Coming Down. Listen at the bottom.)


One of the most durable traditions in American popular music is the drinking song. Our national anthem’s melody and structure is based on “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an 18th-century drinking song, a fact that tells me 18th-century drinkers were far more ambitious than we are today, the melody being much more challenging to sing than “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” I guess that’s why we sing the anthem at the beginning of sporting events, anyway: by the 7th inning stretch, everybody would sound like Harry Caray. (more…)

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Songs and Celebrities

When I decided to start writing about rock lyrics, I promised myself I wasn’t going to talk about the Beatles or Bob Dylan, because forests have already been harvested to provide the paper for musings on their lyrics, and I don’t really have anything further to add. At least not without breaking out some Marxist/feminist/Lacanian theory, and nobody wants that. (”Everybody run! I’ve got a Derrida and I’m not afraid to use it.”) But I’m going to break my rule, just a little, because a Beatles lyric that is both petite and grand (and that likes to think it’s full of great wisdom and import, and maybe it is after all) provides a nice jumping-off point for some sort-of related topics.

The lyric, “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make” is from “The End,” which fittingly completes the Beatles’ final album Abbey Road. If you imagine the entirety of The Beatles’ work as one great piece of art, a giant gift to the world, then “The End” is a big red bow on that present. As endings to works of high modernist pop go, it hardly rises to the level of a Gatsby-esque “boats against the current” finale, and perhaps bears a whiff of Hallmark sentimentality, but as a simple evocation of a moral truth, it works.

Whether or not that claim is actually true seems less important than actually wanting it to be true, which has the happy real-world effect of making its truth-value more real. If everybody lives as if McCartney’s claim is true, then it is. (Game theorists, chime in with “prisoner’s dilemma” commentary now.) And maybe it is anyway; after all, we are talking about love here, not power. The Beatles were on this case early in their career, observing that money can’t buy it (love, that is; apparently money can buy other things, which must be why they were not reluctant to accumulate it). In any case, I find it amusing that decades passed before someone asked Sir Paul if the lyric from “The End” was true, and even more amusing that the questioner was Chris Farley, in his clumsiest and most innocent persona. (more…)

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The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul

Theology and moral codes tell us to be good, in conflict with our natural desires and appetites, which tell us the opposite: be bad! Take what you want! Look out for #1! Socializing ourselves to develop a sense of empathy–that is, an emotionally-based understanding for how our actions affect others–is crucial for the development of ethical frameworks, the rule of law, and free societies. However, there are two sides to moral injunctions, the social and the personal. For example, when we teach the Golden Rule (”Do unto others…”), a version of which is found in virtually all religions, the focus is usually on the social, playing on the empathetic feeling and the impact of one’s actions on another. The personal, self-centered side of morality is often ignored.

Empathy requires an imaginative leap: How would I feel if someone did that to me? But since we are naturally wired to be selfish, it is a shorter leap to imagine: How would I feel if I did that? Of course, those feelings are inextricable from empathy, a quality that (thankfully) all but sociopaths have to some degree, but I don’t mean the feelings of being sorry because of the pain I cause somebody else, I mean the effects on myself of what I do, without taking into account how others feel.

Nor am I talking about a cycle of violence, in which my actions invite retaliation from others I have harmed. In fact, I am not talking about violence at all, although certainly it could be argued (as Steven Spielberg recently has) that violence psychologically harms its perpetrators. Instead, I mean basic selfishness and its spiritual costs, which is the topic of XTC’s magnificent song, “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul.”

Set against a John Barry-esque background suggested by producer Todd Rundgren, “The Man Who Sailed” would be a perfect title song for a James Bond film in which Bond gets honest with himself and finds that, despite all his babes and cool toys, his spiritual life is barren and sad. Such is the predicament of the Sailor, who sets out on life’s voyage “with ego as his drunken captain” and greed as a mutineer who has “trapped all reason in the hold.” The self, driven by greed, has “no compass, guide, or chart” to guard against carnal temptations represented by “sirens that sing.”

The implied injunction against carnality should by no means be read as some kind of fundamentalist or Puritan tenet. Because songwriter Andy Partridge is probably an atheist, as witnessed by the more famous (and also great) song from the same album, there is no evidence to suggest that these orienting tools necessarily represent a religious moral framework. However, what’s important is not whether the framework is religious or secular, but that such a framework accounts for the self as part of a community rather than just a unitary, “ugly and cold” consumer of experiences. Considering Partridge’s rejection of an explicitly religious morality in “Dear God,” it is ironic that the fourth verse of “The Man Who Sailed” hints at predestination:


    The man who walked across his heart
    Was doomed to journey from the start
    Of every love affair he’d broken
    All the lies he’d ever spoken tattooed on his arm.
    In short, living a selfish, ego-driven life is a doom in and of itself. Behavior creates consequence, cause leads to effect, and the neat resolution of the song’s final line (”He found the treasure he’d been seeking”) reinforces the idea that we get what we deserve. It is tempting to view “The Man Who Sailed” as a thematic expansion and illustration of The Beatles’ dictum, “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make.” So, yes, Chris Farley: it’s true.
    Implicit in “The Man Who Sailed’s” crisp depiction of a rudderless and lonely soul is the Big Question, “What is a life for?” As the song suggests, the hedonistic life is easy, but its reward is nothing but a “bag to keep life’s souvenirs in.” It’s a terrific and terrifying line, suggesting cheap plastic novelties, T-shirts with place names, and other items we buy to prove to ourselves that we have been there. And so a shallow life, led like a permanent vacation, yields similar gaudy, momentarily diverting, but ultimately disappointing returns. Partridge does not describe what his vision of a good life would be, thereby happily avoiding any hint of preachy-preach talking to kissy-kiss. As admirable as the sentiments may be, there are no “c’mon, people now, everybody get together, we are the world” mealy-mouthed and easily mocked platitudes. But he really doesn’t need to explain; in this negative, we can see all the outlines of the things that aren’t there.

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    Póg mo thóin

    It may be well known to you, dear reader, or it may not (it makes no difference), that Pogue Mahone is one of my favorite commenters, bloggers and writers. In fact, he’s been somewhat of a celebrity amongst my partners here, and our bretheren at QandO. His politics lean somewhat left for my taste (although he is a reliable anti-establishment type), and it can be difficult to draw him into topical debate. But it is not his political or philosophical predilections that strike my fancy.

    Instead, it his ability to convey, through humor, a common-sense view of life that can all too often be lost in philosophical ruminations about this or that. Pogue hones in on a point by whimsically dancing around it in such a way that you can’t ignore the point, and yet he rarely alights directly upon it. Like a bee circling a pollen-heavy flower, hovering and swaying without quite touching, until it goes in for the goods, but only for a moment before it flies often again for sweeter treasure.

    In short, Pogue is a wonderful writer, and you should read him. Even if you experience some turbulence along the way, you will enjoy the flight.

    Pogue’s latest screed touches on the subject of sock-puppetry, but only to illustrate a more salient point — he may employ a psuedonym for his facetious fortnight follies, but he is all Pogue and nothing but Pogue. Frankly, I don’t think he could pull off the whole sock-puppet thing anyway. His writing is too damned recognizable. For example, on the subject of venturing into the blogosphere under one’s true name:

    For some of us, anonymity is the latchkey that allows access for our ideas.

    For others, identity is what is to be considered and they wish to build upon their identity and reputation. Whether through fortunes of their own making or by having exiguous consequence, those who publish with their true identity give their reputation as fodder to their detractors and champions alike.
    Those who choose to identify should be commended for their honesty and fortitude.

    It is said that eloquence is the gift of the Irish (and that we waste it on drunken rambling). Pogue has that gift and it comes through in every word he writes. In exchange, Pogue, I offer you a link and a song.

    Incidentally, if you want to know what Pogue’s pseudonym means, you either need to understand Gaelic (as referenced in the title of ths post) or you’ll have to do yourself the pleasure of following the link to Pogue’s post.


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    Let’s Not Talk About Bombs: X’s Marriage Songs

    (Second installment in the Great Lyrics Series)

    I agree with Paul McCartney. There is nothing wrong with a silly love song, a perfectly useful thing to have around. A love song amplifies the feeling when you are in love and sweetly intensifies the ache when you aren’t and want to be. That can be true no matter whether the song is actually good (”I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “The Way You Look Tonight“) or syrupy dreck (”Endless Love,” ““). Of course, those are subjective opinions and your mileage may differ. However, in a functional sense outside of any aesthetic judgements, a love song can be considered successful by how well it arouses those kinds of feelings.

    Most love songs, good and bad, share two things in common: a lack of specificity, and a focus on only the positive side. Again I will echo Sir Paul: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, given the function the silly love song is designed and expected to perform. The benefit of bland universality is that listeners can more easily mentally and emotionally inscribe their own specific details and personalize the song. But bland lyrics are also boring to consider. They are heartfelt perhaps, and (at best) very good at conveying strong emotions, but the words rarely rise above the level of the slogan. At worst, bland love songs are too slick and too manipulative, and the cheap cliches produce (in some listeners) the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of being swept up in the strong emotions of “true love,” we are annoyed or even revulsed by the trite manipulation. (more…)

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