The song concerns a journey. It’s both a physical journey by train and a spiritual one. It begins with the journey underway, goes back to its start in verse six, and ends with the narrator’s arrival at his destination (though not necessarily the right spiritual one). The rest of the song is made up of flash-backs to a previous relationship with a woman which the narrator is attempting to restart. In the process, we glimpse aspects of the narrator’s character which explain why, though the physical journey is completed, the success of the spiritual one is still in the balance.
There is some ambiguity about the woman’s identity:
‘There’s a babe in the arms of a woman in a rage
And a longtime golden-haired stripper onstage’
It’s possible, but not certain, that one or both of these descriptions are of the ‘woman I long to touch’ of the first verse. If so, the woman and the stripper would be the same woman at different stages of her life. We can form a picture of a man, infatuated with a stripper, who goes on to marry her and have a child with her. The rage she’s in follows his infidelity. After their break-up, he tries either to get back with her again, while remembering her as she used to be.
The alternative is that there are two women. Whether there’s in fact one or two may not matter. This interpretation is unavoidably vague – the song omits unnecessary detail.1 What does matter is what we discover about the narrator from his interaction with her or them. For simplicity, I’ll not distinguish between them unless specifically necessary.
Spiritual Journey/Marcel and St John
Despite the narrator’s concern about his relationship, it’s clear he’s also concerned for his spiritual wellbeing. He begins his journey:
‘… with Marcel and St John’
– presumably the French existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel and the author of the fourth gospel respectively. (These are described as ‘Strong men belittled by doubt’ – other people’s doubt, one imagines, rather than their own.)
Marcel: The explicit reference to Gabriel Marcel acts as a pointer to a major theme of the song. Marcel claims we have come to treat others as subjects rather than objects. We have ceased to see others as ‘thou’ (French ‘tu’), instead objectifying them as he or she. ‘Thou’ is a person I identify with, in a way that ‘he’ or ‘she’ is not.
The idea permeates the song. In the first two thirds or so of the song the woman is referred to distantly in the third person. To the narrator she’s an object – ‘the woman I long to touch’. Apart from a single use of ‘we’ (‘we entirely agreed’) only the refrains which close the fourth and eighth verses represent a departure from the third person:
‘Oh, where are you tonight?
‘Oh, if I could just find you tonight’
This then changes. The final four verses all directly address the woman as ‘you’, our nearest modern equivalent of ‘thou’ or ‘tu’. The narrator is no longer addressing the woman from an emotional distance, or seeing her merely as an object. He now treats her as a person, a subject, the words ‘you’ or ‘your’ occurring eight times while ‘she’ and ‘her’ don’t occur at all. Further, in the final verse, for the first time, she’s apostrophised as ‘baby’ – a term which, like ‘thou’, implies a closeness.
The narrator’s proclivity not to see people as subjects for the majority of the song reaches its height in verse seven. Here he seems to distance even himself from his own subjectivity in the way he distanced himself from the woman’s. But this time it’s by using the third person ‘he’ even though he’s referring to himself:
‘He took dead-centre aim …’
What we can gather from this is that by the end of the song the narrator has made spiritual progress. ‘Spiritual’ is not to be taken in a vague, esoteric sense, but as concerning everyday matters. The success of his relationship is likely to depend on whether he’s prepared to treat the woman (and perhaps, as a result, himself) as a subject with emotions.
That she is a subject as much as he is, is hinted at by similarities between them. His train is long-distance and rolling. She is a longtime stripper, and drifting. She is also privy to his private thoughts, which amounts to their being identical subjects.
And the reason for the narrator’s despair when he:
‘… discovered her invisible self’
may be that what he discovered was her her true identity – with him.
St John: The success or otherwise of the narrator’s spiritual journey is to be judged against two claims made by Christ according to the fourth gospel. These are:
‘I am the light of the world. Those who follow me will never walk in darkness. They will have the light that leads to life.’ (John 8.12)
‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6).
With respect to the first quotation, it’s because he’s in darkness – ‘dark heat’ and ‘the dark side’ of the room – that by the end of the song it remains unclear the extent to which the narrator has achieved spiritual fulfilment. It’s merely unclear because in the second verse his otherwise dark environment is lit up:
‘There’s a neon light ablaze in this green smoky haze’
And the ‘white diamond gloom’ which accompanies the darkness near the end suggests that he’s still alive, or has enough of the ‘light that leads to life’.
With respect to the second quotation, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, the narrator seems to ignore its implied advice for achieving spiritual fulfilment.
Consider ‘the way’. While he recognises ‘a pathway that leads up to the stars’, he says no more about it, suggesting that he at least fails to fully grasp its significance as a route to salvation. On two other occasions he has an opportunity to follow ‘the way’, but doesn’t take them. As a result of fighting his twin, he falls ‘by the way’. And he also ignores ‘the way’ when he indulges in adulterous sexual behaviour despite realising that ‘the law (of God) looks the other way’. Despite having ‘finally arrived’ in the final verse, it’s unclear whether his destination is the right one:
‘If I’m there in the morning …’
His way – or pathway – might not have been Christ’s way.
In addition to not following ‘the way’, the narrator makes excuses for ignoring ‘the truth’:
‘The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure’
Why he finds the truth (or the law of God, roughly ‘Love God and love your neighbour’) obscure, too profound, and too pure, he doesn’t say. More likely, he just doesn’t find it convenient to go along with. Nevertheless he does go some way towards seeing that truth when he discovers the true nature of the woman’s ‘invisible self’.
It’s significant that the woman of the second verse didn’t experience his qualms about purity since she:
‘… bathed in a stream of pure heat’
The Woman’s Role
The woman is presented as Christ-like. As such she has a role in enabling the narrator to achieve spiritual fulfilment.Since she is a representation of Christ, in trying to ‘find’ her, the narrator is attempting to achieve spiritual salvation.
That she’s to be seen as Christ is apparent from the narrator’s longing to ‘touch’ her, which is reminiscent of the woman cured of menstrual problems by touching Christ’s clothing (Mark 5.25). And if she is Christ, she will be prepared to sacrifice herself for the narrator. That she’s prepared to make such a sacrifice is apparent from her agreement with him that:
‘Sacrifice was the code of the road’
An additional reason for seeing her as Christ is that her father has God-like qualities. He advocates being ‘more than streetwise’ – in other words, being considerate to others rather than merely learning how to deal with them. He is for being, as it were, ‘street legal’. He practises what he preaches, and he’s loving in that he preaches ‘from the heart’. And in that he can predict the future, he – like God – would seem to be omniscient.
The woman is presented as God-like too, in that her hair implicitly associates her with Apollo. Just as her divine counterpart in Changing Of The Guards had ‘long, golden locks’, so the woman here is ‘golden-haired’. And she too seems to be omniscient, for with respect to the narrator’s private thoughts:
‘… she had some way of finding them out’
Not only is she associated with purity, rather than darkness, but at the same time with water – ‘a stream of pure heat’ – with its baptismal significance.
What, then, is her role in the narrator’s spiritual survival? This will depend on the extent to which he can adopt her Christ-like qualities. He, too, needs to be identified with Christ. That he too sees ‘sacrifice as the code of the road’ makes a promising start.
The narrator’s ironic description of his dissolute way of life as ‘sweet paradise’, in the penultimate verse:
‘If you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise
Remind me to show you the scars’
also suggest that the narrator could eventually come to be identified with Christ. The lines put his hearer is in the position of the apostle Thomas who likewise wouldn’t believe unless he had first-hand experience of Christ’s wounds. However, that she needs to be reminded about the scars suggests that the narrator’s Christ-likeness can’t speak for itself. He has not yet achieved identity with Christ. He is un-Chris-like in that his acceptance of the scars is an unwilling one, unlike Christ’s acceptance of his wounds.
Aiming and Missing
Unfortunately, the narrator tends to see his life’s purpose merely in terms of winning back the woman. This is made apparent by way of a play on the word ‘miss’. In the first verse we’re told:
‘There’s a woman I long to touch and I miss her so much’
In the sixth, we’re told:
‘He took dead centre aim, but he missed just the same’
On one level the narrator is aiming not literally at the woman, but in the sense of making her the object of his interest. The suggestion is that in trying to recover her for himself, he’s taking the wrong approach. He wants to possess her, rather than engage with her as a fellow subject. The result is that he misses her in the sense of regretting her absence.
On another level, the aiming is more sinister. He could be aiming a gun. And just as in Baby, Stop Crying, where it’s unclear whether the intended victim is the woman, the narrator’s rival, or the narrator himself, so it’s unclear here too. We’re told ‘He took dead-centre aim’, but not who or what at. Since he’s despairing and fights himself (‘the enemy within’), the target could be himself – a failed suicide. Alternatively, it could be his rival – suggested by his going on to kick his rival in the face.
And it could be the woman, out of revenge. The reference to ‘horseplay’ suggests this. While on the surface the term ‘horseplay’ suggest general philandering, in seeming to hark back to New Pony, it also reminds us that in that song the narrator shot the pony.
Since people share subjectivity, and are thus in a sense identical, it makes no difference who the intended victim is.
Sex and Violence
However we’re to interpret his aiming, having failed to win the woman, the worst of the narrator comes out:
‘There’s a lion in the road, there’s a demon escaped’
He seems to struggle to control himself:
‘I won’t but then again, maybe I might’
Might what? In the same verse he mentions ‘a landscape being raped’. The word ‘raped’, together with its reappearance in the phrase ‘I watched her undrape, perhaps provides the answer. Just as the rain in the first verse reflects his tears and the misery they’re caused by, so the rape of the landscape might seem to reflect more sinister intentions towards women.
Sexual licentiousness might also be behind the references to both ‘horseplay and disease’ and ‘forbidden fruit’.
At any rate, the narrator now turns his attention to the rival he presumably sees as responsible for his brush off:
‘It felt out of place, my foot in his face’
and, for no clear reason, to the woman’s boss whom he, euphemistically, ‘deals with’.
At this point in the song his moral progress has been largely, but not entirely, negative.
The Narrator as Humanity
If the woman is to be seen as Christ, then her boss (like her father) might be taken to represent God. His having ‘never known about loss’ seems to describe God’s position up to the Fall, and therefore makes apparent a further identity, one between the narrator and Adam, the cause of God’s loss. To that extent, the narrator’s journey towards spiritual fulfilment is that of humanity in general.
Further reasons for seeing the narrator as Adam include his describing an earlier wrongdoing as eating the ‘root of forbidden fruit’, and his earlier situation as ‘paradise’.
The narrator’s selfish approach is not only misguided but self-defeating. That his actions just re-bound on himself is clear from the way he seems to be identified with – is one and the same with – the rival he beats up. In the very next verse he tells us:
‘I fought with my twin, that enemy within
Till both of us fell by the way’
suggesting that to fight the rival is indistinguishable from fighting himself.
To fight an aspect of oneself – the ‘enemy within’ – is literally self-defeating if one or other succumbs. As it is, both succumbed in that they both ‘fell by the way’. The implication is that in assaulting the rival, the narrator is effectively assaulting himself.
That he and the rival can be taken as identical is further reinforced by the expression ‘the guy you were loving’. That in fighting the rival, the narrator can be taken to be fighting himself is made clear by the vagueness of the expression. It would seem to apply as much to the narrator before the breakdown of the relationship as to a rival.
That the narrator and his rival are identical is further made apparent by the narrator’s excuse for his violence, that the rival ‘should have stayed where his money was green’. The only place where his money is likely to have been green is the ‘green smoky haze’ referred to in the second verse. Since the narrator is clearly there, but the rival is not explicitly mentioned, the rival’s presence depends on, and amounts to, the presence of the narrator.
It’s worth noting that the narrator’s fighting ‘the enemy within’ cannot be justified on the ground of moral superiority. The twin has as much of a claim to the moral high ground. He, too, has an ‘enemy within’ – the narrator.
Turning Back the Page:
Despite the apparent negative direction of the narrator’s spiritual journey, he has made some progress towards his true destination – and more than he thinks. The evidence for this is his writing a letter. Thoughts of the woman bring back memories. She:
‘… winds back the clock and she turns back the page
Of a book that no one can write’
The book presumably stands for the events in the couple’s lives to date. The claim that no one can write it seems to imply that those events are beyond anyone’s control. They’re pre-determined. The narrator seems to be blaming chance for things having gone wrong in the relationship.
He’s wrong. Although he doesn’t realise it, it’s clear that things are not beyond his control since he’s already putting them right. In the first verse, he refers to:
‘Tears on the letter I write’
He might not be able to write the book, if that means assuming responsibility for everything that’s happened, but he can and does write a letter. The letter, presumably an attempt to undo the wrongs of the past, can thus be seen as a first step in the narrator’s spiritual rejuvenation.
Just as there are grammatical changes of person – first to third, and third to second – so there are changes of tense. While many events are recounted in the past tense, the present tense ‘there’s’ is used no fewer than ten times in places where the past might have seemed more natural.
The removal of temporal distinctions from certain situations, so that they each seem to occur in an eternal present, establishes their importance. There’s a ‘nowness’ about the woman’s raging while looking after the baby, the narrator’s being dazzled by the stripper, and his contemplation of violence.
There’s a similar ‘nowness’ arising from the two dawn references. The first occurs in the middle of the song at the outset of the narrator’s journey:
‘I left town at dawn with Marcel and St John’,
and the second in the final verse at the journey’s end:
‘There’s a new day at dawn and I’ve finally arrived’
Both the employment of different tenses and the lines’ respective positions in the song suggest that on a literal level there are two separate dawns rather than, say, two references to the same dawn. However, if dawn is taken as symbolising a new beginning, there’s a sense in which they can be treated as one and the same. The narrator is hoping, at the end of the song, that the new dawn will bring the meeting with the woman he craves. He’s assuming that the previous dawn did not bring this about, but there’s a sense in which he’s mistaken. To the extent that the woman is Christ, his re-discovering her began when he set out accompanying Marcel and St John. If his arrival, and presence in the morning at the end of the song, are interpreted in moral terms, then – although he doesn’t realise it – he has already gone some way towards finding her. The dawn or moral awakening he’s hoping for at the end has already occurred.
Among the numerous identities which become apparent are those of the woman the narrator ‘longs to touch’ and the stripper, the woman and Christ, the woman and the narrator, the narrator and his rival, the narrator and Christ, and ultimately the narrator and humanity in general. Each can be taken to illustrate the view, derived from Marcel, that people are united in their subjectivity and that this is insufficiently recognised. The lack of a real distinction between individuals is reinforced by the listener’s inability to tell whether in certain cases there is one person or more.
The lack of distinction which perhaps matters most is that between the narrator and Christ. The woman and the narrator are each implicitly identified with Christ, but the identities need to be recognised by the narrator. In order to make his quest for the woman successful, the narrator needs to be Christ-like in his relationship with her. And this means acknowledging, by way of his behaviour, his identity with her.
This role in turn requires the narrator not to objectify himself as ‘he’, but to accept his own subjectivity. He needs to accept that this subjectivity is at bottom the same as that of the woman and Christ. To fully realise his identity with Christ he needs to behave in accordance with the dictum ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. The narrator’s awareness of the woman’s absence at the end of the song makes it uncertain whether or not the narrator has sufficiently done this.
- The reference to a woman with a baby is reminiscent of the similar situation in No Time To Think.
- A comparable identity might exist between the narrator and the boss. There’s a similarity if the boss’ having never ‘known about loss’ applies to the narrator too. We’re not told explicitly that this is the case, however. Also, the boss, we’re told, ‘was always too proud to beg’. This might seem to identify him with the narrator by way of the narrator’s counterpart in We Better Talk This Over, although there the narrator is fully prepared to ‘beg, steal or borrow’.