More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #3: “A Wild Holy Band,” Mike Scott

January 30, 2011 § 11 Comments

This song was released as a demo on the CD that came with the Believer‘s 2009 music issue.  I liked it when I first listened to it, then more or less forgot about it for a year.  I generally don’t listen to this kind of compilation CD very much, but for whatever reason I put this one back in earlier this year, and promptly became totally obsessed with this song.  (Unfortunately, it’s still unreleased in any other form, so far as I can tell, so I can’t give you a link to it here.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott has posted the song for one night only to http://soundcloud.com/mickpuck/long-strange-golden-road-a.  Listen there!]  You can find plenty of the Waterboys, Mike Scott’s band, to get a sense of the sound.)

The song’s ten-plus minutes: for the first nine or so, it’s just piano, acoustic guitar, and what I’m guessing is a drum machine, plugging along, workmanlike (with some quite lovely passages on the piano and guitar), under Scott’s really great Scottish lilt.  Five verses and an absolutely killer chorus.  It’s a song that cries out for interpretation, analysis, but even though it’s supposedly a demo, it forms a gestalt: it’s a song, not a poem, and you can’t get it all just by looking at the lyrics.  So much is in the delivery.  But what lyrics!

I was longing to be booed/ I was ready to be humbled/ by the words that you had written/ by the syllables you mumbled

Yeah, I was ready in my heart/ to have my heart invaded/ by the fervor of your passion/ yes, I came to be persuaded

But when I heard your ragged voice/ something switched in my perception/ and I knew I was the victim/ of a beautiful deception

All my once exact beliefs/ like tangled threads unraveled/ I walked out stunned and liberated/ and so began my travels

CHORUS: Keep the river on your right/ and the highway at your shoulder/ and the front line in your sights, Pioneer/ keep your eye on the road/ remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear

The only word in the whole song I’m not reasonably sure about hearing correctly is that “booed” in the very first line: it sure sounds like “booed” to me, though I always assumed it was “moved” before I started listening closely to transcribe the lyrics.  In context, “booed” makes some sense, leading to that readiness “to be humbled” — but I’m not sure.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott posts to Twitter: “Mystery word in verse 1 is “wooed,” not “booed.”  Thanks to Mr. Scott for clearing it up!]  Either way, this first verse sets a great scene.  It could be some combination of a “Dear John” letter and a confrontation at the end of a relationship; it could be a teacher/student relationship, the switch in “perception” being that the teacher has nothing more to teach the student; it could be any number of more allegorical or spiritual meanings.  But I really love those last two lines of the chorus: “remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear.”  Is “this” the song?  Is there a code here?  And is “Pioneer” a name, a code name, a type, a la Whitman?

“You better get yourself a coat”/ said the handsome taxi driver/ and he sighed like seven bridges/ like a natural-born survivor

As we drove into the night/ I could feel the forest jangling/ all the choices laid before me/ and their consequences dangling

We came upon a stricken ship/ that must have once been splendid/ the captain as he died said/ “Boys, our revels now have ended”

I heard a wild holy band/ playing jazz that was outrageous/ that recalled the days of rapture/ when our love was still young and contagious

[CHORUS]

This is my favorite verse, and a helluva piece of poetry in its own right.  That “forest jangling” from adrenaline (or something more?), that cryptic ship, the “jazz that was outrageous”: it’s here that we start to realize that we’re in Beat territory.  “Seven bridges” is another lyric I’m not 100% sure about, but I kind of like its mystery.

In a dim-lit motel room/ two sad lovers were discoursing/ on the dignity of exile/ and the merits of divorcing

She said/ “All certainty is gone”/ but he leapt up, still denying/ cried, “I won’t believe the flame I lit/ is dead or even dying”

She left him drooling in the dust/ and with rucksack packed begun her/ bitter journey to the border/ which is where I wooed and won her

She was Aphrodite, Helen, Thetis/ Eve among the satyrs/ she was Venus in a v-neck sweater/ she was all that ever mattered

[CHORUS]

And this is probably my least favorite verse: I like “Eve among the satyrs,” not so big on “Venus in a v-neck sweater,” and the rhythm of the third quatrain is a little strained.  As the verse begins, you think this might be a flashback to the opening scene, until hearing that the narrator “wooed and won her” at the “border” after this confrontation — similar, perhaps, to his own.

Like Dean Moriarty’s ghost/ I came in quest of secret knowledge/ in the winter of my journey/ to a crumbling Druid college

There I read the books of lore/ and contemplated in seclusion/ but I took my leave embittered/ still in love with my illusions

In the drizzling Irish rain/ as a tender dawn was breaking/ in a doorway I stood spellbound by/ the ancient music they were making

I took my breakfast with the gods/ on a blushing summer morning/ a wind blew them all away/ without a moment’s warning

[CHORUS]

Quite a change in scene, here, and the song comes to seem more like a bildungsroman, or a story of the narrator’s spiritual quest.  We have here a direct allusion to On the Road, and that’s fitting, with that work’s blend of the profane and sacred, the sexual and the spiritual.  “Still in love with my illusions” seems a very important line here, and the mystery of the “breakfast with the gods” and then their sudden absence.

Under cold electric light/ I watched the scenes mutating/ like an old-time frontier ballad/ or a carousel rotating

As if in a moment from a film/ with astonishing precision/ the camera zooms in closer/ and a figure comes into vision

I’m in Tokyo; it’s dawn/ and it’s raining hallelujahs/ down the bright-lit neon canyons/ along the sidewalks of Shibuya

I’m trying to take a stance/ and rise above my contradictions/ but I’m just a bunch of words in pants/ most of those are fiction

[CHORUS x2]

[AWESOME ELECTRIC GUITAR SOLO]

This is another pretty fantastic verse, with one helluva final quatrain.  “Just a bunch of words in pants”!  Jesus, what a line.  Most of us should be so lucky to write one line so great; this song has three or four at that level.  This verse really makes me think of the song as a spiritual quest, with serious Buddhist underpinnings: its recollection of epiphany or near-epiphany (what does it mean to “rain hallelujahs”?)  in Japan, followed by the (necessary?) devastation of realizing the hollowness of existence or identity, of being mostly “fiction.

And yet there’s that inescapable, beautiful, hopeful chorus, which Scott uses with such versatility and passion throughout the song.  Somehow — and this may just be me — I connect it in my mind with that Irish blessing you see in pubs and shops and elsewhere: “May the road rise up to meet you./ May the wind be always at your back./ May the sun shine warm upon your face;/ the rains fall soft upon your fields; and until we meet again,/ may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”   Yeah, it’s a song about God, I think, or about one man’s quest for “secret knowledge” of something like a god, at any rate.  The first verse is covered in this kind of language of the spiritual.  Is that the “code” that “this is all in” — the code of the pop song that seems like it’s about sex or lust and is actually about the desire to let go of the self, to find the divine?

Either way, the kick-ass electric guitar kicking in at the end here never fails to absolutely delight me: it’s such a surprise, and it functions as a kind of wordless, wild epiphany and ecstasy after minutes of repetitive sound with little variation.

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§ 11 Responses to More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #3: “A Wild Holy Band,” Mike Scott

  • Glenn I says:

    I’m listening to the song right now, for only the second time, the Believer CD in my laptop.

    Thanks for the transcription. The song does not feel ten minutes long. It goes right by – and I want to start it up again.

  • bobbie joe says:

    i was longing to be wooed!

    • willhansen2 says:

      Hmm. I like that reading, but I can’t get past the “B” sound at the beginning of the word. Maybe it’s a Scottish thing?

      • bobbie joe says:

        i think the b sound carries over from “BE wooed” but i don’t know. it makes the most sense to me?

  • Elly says:

    Dear Will Hansen,
    Thanks for this article, it’s a nice read.
    I just asked Mike Scott about “wooed” or “booed” and it has to be “wooed”, he told me.
    Kind regards,
    Elly

  • zappa says:

    I thought this was an ode to Bob Dylan….I also am obsessed with the song. Mike has responded on twitter…check it out.

  • Pioneer says:

    Fantastic thought provoking review. I’ve come here as a result of a link today on Twitter by @WaterboysFans and it’s great to discover a Waterboys obscurity, especially one as beautiful as this. I had heard it once before, like you, and then forgotten about it, but your essay has really made me try to ‘get’ the lyrics. The more I listen, the more I want to think it describes Mike’s journey from traditional Christianity, through paganism, to some kind of non-dual awakening (which I wouldn’t necessarily equate with Buddhism). But maybe that interpretation says more about me and my journey than it does about @MickPuck…

  • Mike F says:

    Echos of dylan and the beat generation are inherent right through this album. This song is so obviously heartfelt and thought provoking I cried at it’s sheer beauty. It takes real courage to depart from a successful formula and this album is the best thing thing the Waterboys have ever done and that’s saying a lot

  • Robert says:

    This song was released as the last track on their newest album, “Modern Blues”.

  • Rosalind says:

    It is very nice reading this. Saw The Waterboys the other day live without having listened to Modern Blues not even once before and this song hit me so deep inside. I have been listening to it on repeat since then. It is one of the most intense revelations I have had through a song in my life. I am glad there are more people out there sharing this awesome feeling

  • Andy says:

    Heard this on youtube for the first time (last song) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGmda3-_8OE
    It stopped me dead… bought the album, bought the tickets to see the Waterboys in Liverpool in November…As a 50 something I so agree with ‘devastation of realizing the hollowness of existence or identity, of being mostly “fiction’ those last lines just blew me away.
    Thanks Mike Scott… I just found god where it always was…

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