This is a long, self-indulgent post about the lyrics that somehow arrived in my brain for my re-visioning of the unrecorded Wire song I covered (music addressed in previous post: here’s the recording). On second thought, less “self-indulgent” really…because what really goes on in my head is more like recognition or discovery, a realization that these things go here, than the sort of deliberate thought process for which it’s reasonable to take credit. I’m more fascinated by the workings of language in the unconscious than in what a boringly conscious brain might do… Anyway:
First, the lyrics themselves:
Too much smoke for the snake to pass
Harry Houdini is cut down at last
Unable to escape or evade his past
He’s nailed up his gallows and swings from the mast
In one act polite and spotless
In another bedraggled and toothless
In one act polite and spotless
In another bedraggled and toothless
A dubious sleuth loose in black cotton shoes
I’ll drop by to pose all my scatterbrained clues
We’re troubled in debt to philosopher creatures
Convicted in absentia, silence the preacher
Hard-riding man hardly filling his breeches
Indifferent to seeing his major bewitchèd...
Pull back the salt leather, subtle promise of spring
The least honest devil still can take to the wing
They’re staked to the air like a light in a tent
Then to fill an upper room with False Thomas’s scent
As I mentioned, I came up with these by, first, attempting to transcribe what Colin Newman was singing in the live version on that CD from Wire’s Legal Bootleg series…and then either shifting things toward sense or, more often, committing “forced errors” where I knowingly twisted the sound punningly, sonically, in order to see what sort of ideas or connections popped up subconsciously.
(An aside: the way I most like to write lyrics is: I come up with a phrase or phrases. Often, I have no idea really what the phrase might mean…but gradually, if I put it alongside other such phrases that pop into my head, ideas begin germinating. Eventually, I might have a general idea of the song is “about.” The lyrics then often end up being a series of snapshots, unrelated to one another, certainly not a narrative, but all orbiting around the same general idea or set of associated ideas.)
In this case, with no real evidence whatsoever, I began with the notion that the opening lines of “Harry Houdini” (which are fairly close to what I ended up using in “Harrier”) referred to the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” Why? No idea…but, having thought of it, the question became: what did that incident have to do with Harry Houdini? The Holmes story features one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most disturbing villains, a ruthless and violent stepfather who plots to murder his stepdaughter to gain access to her mother’s inheritance. The “smoke” in question is from a candle Holmes lights, which causes the snake to reverse direction through the ventilator between the villain’s room and his stepdaughter’s, and strike the villain instead. Two ideas of this story and incident are reversal of expectation and effect. A man who should love his stepdaughter instead plots to kill her; his efforts to kill her instead kill him.
The “Houdini” of this song (lyrics fairly close to what Newman sings…although I am a lot less certain) kills himself, in a manner evoking both crucifixion and sailing, because he cannot escape his own past. What that past may be is unclear…but the contrast between Houdini the escape artist and being unable to escape echoes the reversal/contrast of the Holmes story. (In real life, of course, Houdini was unable to escape his hubris, dying, the legend has it, after goading a fan into punching him hard in the stomach, believing himself capable of withstanding any such blow.) I’ll note also the irony of “cut down” (as in “killed”) with hanging (in which the sudden suspension, the refusal of the rope to be “cut” by the weight of the body, is what kills).
The chorus is, as far as I can tell, exactly what Newman sings (except he might be saying “toothy” sometimes). This chorus is one reason I thought of the Holmes story: Holmes is intensely theatrical, often relishing disguises, costume changes, etc. The reversal imagery is clear…and for me, somehow the stage imagery glues together the religious and nautical registers of “Houdini’s” death. It also brings in the second key set of ideas of the lyric: fortune and reversal.
Here I should pause: it’s much easier to describe this as if I “thought of” these things…but in fact, that’s not at all how the process works. In this case, on the one hand I’m trying to interpret what another singer sang, and the murkiness of the recording forces me to shunt the words into the seemingly nearest available area of meaning…but what seems “nearby” obviously is what resonates, unconsciously, with whatever ideas, preferences, obsessions, and so forth, that happen to be percolating through my brain at the time. It’s very strange…I do not feel as if I’m discussing a thought process I engaged in so much as a series of discoveries I happen to have made. And sometimes (as with the last verse), I did not even know I’d made them until later.
Continuing: The second verse presents either Holmes again, or an imposter. Is Holmes “dubious”? Is his whole performance an act, a desperate stitching-together of disparate threads that fools others because we all crave coherence, a sort of narrative pareidolia akin to seeing a face on the surface of the moon? (which heavenly body shows up but doesn’t in the third verse…) Is the narrator attempting to expose the sleuth’s “dubiousness” by intentionally feeding him “scatterbrained” clues, which the sleuth will, obsessively, assemble into something resembling coherence? (And me, just now: uh…that’s kinda what I did with these lyrics…)
The second half of this verse plays further with the notion of appearance, misperception, reversal. There’s also an homage to Graham Lewis’s lyrics, specifically the ones I refer to in the previous post, with a pun on “doubles and trebles” (from “Ally in Exile”/”Doubles & Trebles” by Wire: “troubled in debt to”). In particular, this sort of sonic transformation is a German mixup/Mormon jigsaw (to borrow from Firesign Theatre) similar to Lewis’s “by the best of good fortune”/”buy the best, have good fortune” or “doubles then trebles”/”no trouble, it doubles” from the “Ally in Exile”/”Art of Persistence”/”Doubles & Trebles” triad. And yes, “philosopher creatures” is a pun on the Walker Percy essay “The Loss of the Creature,” whose central focus is the way expectations fox experience: Percy’s opening scenario is the way we fail to see the Grand Canyon in lieu of fruitlessly attempting to match reality to our mediated expectations. (Real-life comparison: years ago, my wife Rose and I toured Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. One man on the tour spent its entirety attempting to position himself to reproduce on his camera photographs of the house he’d seen in a favorite book. I doubt he actually saw Fallingwater at all.) The pun isn’t just arbitrary: of course, it’s “philosophy” which often stands in the way of unmediated perception…which prevents us from being embodied “creatures.”
Reversal, disguises, expectation, loss…show up in the last line of this stanza as well. “Convicted in absentia” is obvious, and a silent preacher is (perhaps) no preacher at all. (I should note that this verse is probably the most distant from whatever Colin Newman sang…sound substitutions and “forced errors” abound.)
The preacher also repeats the religious imagery summoned up by the crucifying gallows of Houdini’s death in verse 1…imagery which will dominate the third verse.
The bridge is simple (and, I think, direct from Newman’s vocal in the source): “Reversal” and irony are obvious in the “hard-riding man hardly filling his breeches.” The sort of Victoriana implicit in “riding” and “breeches” aligns with Holmes as figure of ambiguous “reason”: in one act, alight with reason, in another bedraggled by obsessive association, and truthless.
The third verse…well, this is really strange. The meanings that ended up cohering here came from nowhere in particular…or so it seems. Anyway: I think what Newman’s singing in the first line is “pull back the soft leather.” At any rate, that was my first guess. It’s not all that interesting a line, but I left it as placeholder for a bit. The rest of the line I heard as something-“promise of spring” or perhaps “promises bring.” The next line seemed fairly clear…and I liked the idea of “the least-honest devil” (who would, I suppose, be the best devil…). I used the Mormon jigsaw to force the error of “a light in a tent” from what is more obviously sung as “light intent.” The last line changed quite a bit: at first, I thought it was something like “pull another moon with false promises sent.” Wire had played with “moon”/”room”/”new” before (in “A Mutual Friend”…which also rhymes “troubles” with “doubles”…), so I followed suit and played around with that for a while (“fill another room”? “put another new”?) but was…still a bit unsatisfied.
The breakthrough came when I intentionally changed the first line from “soft leather” to “salt leather.” That latter phrase immediately suggested the idea of dessicated flesh: a corpse. Why would anyone be “pulling back” such flesh? Well…perhaps to verify the nature of a wound the body received in life. Such as a spear to the side: we’d already had Houdini’s self-crucifixion and the silenced preacher, so a religious register was ready to hand. (And, stretching a bit, it’s there already in the first line’s “snake” and the supernatural “bewitched” in the bridge.) I think, too, that it just “felt right” because religion is an excellent example of both the sort of will-to-sense, the narrative pareidolia I mentioned earlier, and the “forced error” idea I’d played with in this lyric (although with vastly different results, at very different scales). It’s also a disguise of sorts, calling back to the Holmes idea: Jesus a god “disguised” as human, “whenever you acted thus to the least of men, you acted thus toward me,” Christ as beggar-king…. So instead of a Doubting Thomas demanding proof that the living man before him was the Jesus who was pierced in his side with a sword, we have someone else, examining perhaps the same wound but on a dried-up corpse. “Doubting Thomas” had, of course, appeared in a Wire lyric before: specifically, the mysterious “Pieta” (which, I was truly disappointed to find, does not refer to a suave man-about-town named “Dalton Thomas” but just straight-up “Doubting Thomas”…). So “false promises sent” turned into “False Thomas’s scent,” “False Thomas” being another way of saying “Doubting Thomas”…or perhaps, “Thomas” meaning “twin,” a twinning imposter to the real Thomas. And “another moon/room”) became “an upper room.”
And that is the most curious coincidence. Having come up with that phrase, a little niggling hook began wriggling in the back of my brain…probably an aged remnant of childhood Bible studies, but…I looked up “upper room”…and found that “the upper room” was a traditional phrase for the site of the Last Supper. And suddenly, in the last verse we have some sort of plot, with a corpse instead of a resurrection, and false clues laid down to suggest an imposter…alongside flying devils and “a light in a tent.”
There’s something mysterious about a “light in a tent.” The whole structure is illuminated…but also contained, confined: “staked” is a pun here, another forced error (on “take to the air”), but it suggests a limiting, a tying-down: the light is confined to the tent, staked to its confines…and the other pun is, of course, “stakes.”
I can’t pretend the whole thing “makes sense”: I’m certainly not making any kind of statement. But I like the way the lyric ends with an ambiguity, in that the religious register combines and culminates the other, included common registers of reversal, disguise, intent, and willfulness…
So: I have no idea what the song is about…yet it coheres sufficiently to suggest meanings, just out of reach…a rope on the border…