A guilty undertaker, saxophones that speak, weeping mothers, a broken cup, and – above all – the mysterious Queen of Spades! A surreal nightmare? No, but neither is it just the love song implied by the title. The narrator’s apparent yearning for romance is in fact a yearning for something more spiritual.
The omens for success are not good. Spiritual death abounds, first in the guise of the guilty undertaker, and then as a lonesome organ grinder – the latter suggestive of a dreary and otherwise empty church.1 The narrator finds himself under pressure to ‘refuse you’ – God – the object of his spiritual quest:
‘The cracked bells and washed out horns
Blow into my face with scorn’
He largely succumbs to this pressure. In deliberately ignoring the plight of those around him, he’s unconsciously destroying any chance of spiritual fulfilment.
Although the song ends with his behaviour increasingly at odds with his spiritual longing, there have nevertheless been signs of hope. From the start he at least shows some willingness to resist the pressure:
‘It’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you’
And in the fifth verse, he comes closest to experiencing the spiritual union he craves, albeit at second-hand.
Although the song ends with the narrator still yearning, that’s because he associates the spiritual solely with an external God, the ‘you’ of the title, rather than with selfless action. This leads him to ignore the suffering of others.
Those in need of help are represented by the weeping mothers of the second verse. Yet he does nothing, despite recognising from the drunkenness and perverse leaping of the politician that there can be no political solution to their plight:
‘The drunken politician leaps
Upon the street where mothers weep’
Instead he looks to an equally impotent source of help:
‘… the saviours who are fast asleep’
Not only are these ‘saviours’ asleep, but since the expression ‘fast asleep’ normally applies only to young children, he must realise that looking to them would be futile.
Since they’re powerless, they can only:
‘… wait for you’
But who is ‘you’? The narrator seems to be putting the ball back in God’s court. If neither the political authorities, nor the next generation are in a position to help, then God must intervene.
At this point the narrator seems to realise that ‘you’ could equally refer to himself. Unfortunately, he seems not to notice that this puts him on a par with God, pointing the way to the spiritual union he wants.
Instead, he responds by making an excuse for his own lack of action:
‘And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinking from my broken cup
And ask me to
Open up the gate for you’
He must wait, or so he claims. Yes, he can do what is required. He and the saviours can work together – but not yet. He must wait for them to be old enough to shoulder their share of the burden. Having been forced to accept his own responsibility for alleviating suffering, he welcomes procrastination as a means of escape.
The imagery in the second verse serves a number of purposes.
First, to establish the narrator’s lack of spiritual commitment, it presents him as a parody of Christ. Like Christ, he refers to the personal suffering involved in his role of saviour as a ‘cup’. But whereas Christ had, albeit reluctantly, accepted his suffering –
‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done’ (Luke 22.42)
– the narrator attempts to negotiate with God. He’ll do God’s work, provided the suffering – an inextricable part of that work – is taken away. Or to put it another way, he insists on having his cake and eating it.
Secondly the reference to ‘drinking from my broken cup’ reminds us of the drunken politician. But now we see that the politician is drunk not because he’s irresponsible (although on one level, like the narrator, he may be), but because he’s had to drink from more than one cup, as it were. Having been been forced to take on others’ responsibilities – including the narrator’s – it’s become too much.
There’s also further evidence of the narrator’s disingenuousness. Presumably the gate is both heaven’s gate and a barrier to God’s direct intervention. How, one might wonder, do you ‘open up’ a gate? The superfluous ‘up’ seems like an attempt to make what he’s agreed to do sound as onerous as possible.2
And in addition to exaggerating what he’s agreed to do, he takes steps to make himself sound more reasonable than he is. He requires only that his drinking from the cup be ‘interrupted’, not ended altogether. Likewise, the saviours have only to ‘ask’ him to ‘open up the gate for you’, and he’ll do it. (By adding ‘for you’ on the end of a sentence spoken to God, the narrator becomes downright patronising – it’s as if he is saying that God can’t open the gate on his own.)
The narrator, then, is both selfish and disingenuous. He has no intention of acting in the present, but would rather pass the responsibility for acting on to the next generation. Rather than refuse outright, he becomes devious, first by attempting to strike a ludicrous bargain, and then by putting on a show of being conciliatory.
The Dancing Child
The dancing child of the final verse, one assumes, is one of the saviours mentioned earlier, but no longer asleep. That is, he’s aware of what needs doing and by whom. Despite the narrator, the impression we get of him is favourable. Being a child he represents innocence, while his clothing suggests unostentatious simplicity.3 And his ‘dancing’ contrasts favourably with the gross leaping of the politician who, apparently having had to drink more than his share from the narrator’s cup, has become drunkenly ineffective. The child is clearly a source of hope for the future.
The narrator is less appreciative:
‘Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit
He spoke to me, I took his flute’
The narrator’s declining to tell us precisely what the child said suggests it didn’t reflect well on him. Instead he tells us how he reacted – ‘… I took his flute’, and only in vague terms why:
‘… I did it, though, because he lied
Because he took you for a ride’
The flute is the child’s voice, just as the ‘silver saxophones’ of the first verse are the narrator’s voice telling him to refuse his God-given role. From the narrator’s harsh response one imagines the child had criticised him for his indolence, and for passing the buck onto the next generation.
Was there a ‘lie’? Unlikely. From the picture we’ve been given of him, we can assume that the child told the narrator the truth – that the narrator is neglecting his responsibilities.
The false accusation of having lied is not the only fictitious reason the narrator deploys to excuse his behaviour. His disingenuousness comes out in three other ways.
First, he claims he acted as he did:
‘Because he took you for a ride’
Not only is this too a lie, but one would expect him to have said ‘Because he took me for a ride’. The use of ‘you’ instead of ‘me’ ironically serves to unite the narrator with the addressee in making them both a victim of the child’s purported deception. It’s ironic because it points to the very unity with the addressee which the narrator is hoping for. In the end, since it’s the narrator, and not the child, who’s being deceptive, the accusation serves to emphasise the distance the narrator is putting between himself and God.
The narrator also claims that the reason he silenced the child was:
‘… because time was on his side’,
thus implying that the child has time to recover from any harm arising from his lie. This is also ironic in that the narrator seems unaware of the implication – that he himself does not have time on his side. Already time has moved on since the saviours were ‘asleep’ in verse two. By misrepresenting the time left for action, he’s playing with fire.
And finally, he tries to make light of his treatment of the child, referring to it merely as a matter of not being ‘cute’.4
The third verse is different from the preceding verses in that is not addressed to God. Since there is no addressee other than the narrator himself, there’s more reason for taking it at face value. Its purpose seems to be to make clear what the narrator represents in the scheme of things.
That eternity is the concern of the song becomes apparent in the first line of this short verse:
‘How all my fathers, they’ve gone down’
The biblical-sounding expression ‘all my fathers’ seems to refer to the narrator’s ancestors throughout history. What is true of him is therefore timelessly true. And the same can be said of the third line:
‘But all my daughters put me down’,
except that instead of looking backwards to the beginning of time, the line looks forward to its end.
These lines make the narrator both a son, and then a father, from the beginning of the human race to its end, respectively. As such his redemption or salvation will be the eternal redemption or salvation of humanity.
The fathers have ‘gone down’ – died – without accepting their role in the world. This is a spiritual death, not just a literal death, because they’ve ignored the suffering of those like the weeping mothers. As the second line puts it, using ‘love’ in the agape sense:
‘True love they’ve been without it’,
The daughters haven’t ‘gone down’, either physically or spiritually. Instead they’ve put the narrator down, or criticised him. Physically, they’re either alive, since they’re around now, or have yet to be born. And spiritually they’re alive because they criticise the narrator’s lack of concern with true love:
‘… all my daughters put me down
cause I don’t think about it’
The implication is that the only love he thinks about is sexual, a view which is corroborated in the fourth verse. In criticising him, they can be seen dismissing him, and those throughout time whom he represents, as spiritually worthless.
Having been rejected by the daughters, the narrator makes do with sex from another source – a chambermaid at The Queen of Spades, which is presumably a pub or small hotel.5 Her provision of sexual favours is one sense in which she is ‘good’ to him.
Like the previous verse, this verse is in the third person and seems to represent the narrator’s private musings which, therefore, we can trust. He extols the chambermaid’s virtues and in so doing seems to at least glimpse God-like qualities in her. In her God-like role she acts as a foil for the narrator against which we see his selfishness. At the same time, she’s a model of what he could be like. She selflessly acts as his saviour, by being (sexually) ‘good’ to him, despite knowing she’s not his first choice:
‘She knows where I’d like to be
But it doesn’t matter’
We’re left to decide whether he’d ‘like to be’ with God, the ‘you’ of most of the verses, or another woman.
Of her God-like qualities there can be no doubt. Like God, as traditionally conceived, she seems to have total knowledge:
‘She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her’
‘She knows where I’d like to be’
And like God, she is all seeing:
‘And there’s nothing she doesn’t see’
Her omniscience is a reason for the narrator to put aside dissimulation as pointless. She – and therefore God – can see through him.
She also serves as a foil for his arrogance. The language employed in:
‘She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her’
is reminiscent of Exodus 3.6 which says that ‘Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God’. The narrator’s arrogant refusal to take on a saving role, represented by his inappropriate fearlessness before God, is thus emphasised by the contrast between it, and Moses’ humble respect before God.
So, it’s not an ordinary love song, and the surreal imagery serves a purpose. It enables us to grasp the sad plight of someone with a spiritual ideal which he cannot live up to in practice. The events of the song span a short period of time in which on the one hand the narrator becomes more entrenched in his selfishness, while on the other he acquires an unconscious glimmering of understanding about how his ideal might be realised. Whether he’ll emulate the kindness and understanding of the chambermaid, and so achieve his spiritual goal, is left undecided.
The narrator is an everyman character. His spiritual aspirations and failings represent those not just of his contemporaries, but of people throughout eternity. He is the son of all fathers – and thus all weeping mothers – from the beginning of time. And he is the father of all daughters to the end of time. Thus he represents both the product of spiritual death throughout the ages up to the present, and the progenitor of spiritual hope from now onwards. Just as it is incumbent on him to advance from spiritual death to spiritual life by taking responsibility on himself, so it is incumbent on humanity generally to do the same – not leaving it to would-be ‘saviours’.
- The expression ‘lonesome organ grinder’ also has auto-erotic overtones and may express the narrator’s fear for his sexual future. The result would be his apparent promiscuousness.
- ‘Open up’ also has connotations of liberal generosity. Taken in this way it suggests what the narrator could be like, but sadly isn’t.
- I’m assuming the Chinese suit is the sort of simple clothing ubiquitous in China under Mao Tse-tung. It might be being used here to represent a Christ-like simplicity.
- It might be possible to take all but the first line of the verse, and the chorus which follows it, as being spoken by the child. On this interpretation, the child would be warning his mother about the narrator’s promiscuousness about which the narrator has lied. It’s not an interpretation which fits easily with the song as a whole, though.
- This sounds a bit prosaic, but it appears to do justice to the surface meaning. Why ‘Queen’? Why ‘Spades’? The expression ‘Queen of…’ might be to make us think of the queen of Heaven. And ‘Spades’, with its connotations of digging, might remind us of the undertaker, and the dangers of spiritual death.