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
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
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
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
[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.