An amusing and touching little love song? No. It’s better seen as an unintentionally, and for the most part damning, indictment of the narrator out of his own mouth. Despite what he says, there’s not any real love in it. Instead the narrator merely attempts to convince the woman, and perhaps himself, that he’s acting to further their relationship, while coming across as deeply flawed and untrustworthy. In this way the song provides a realistic portrayal of human psychology. What saves him from total condemnation, perhaps, is our recognition that in condemning him, we’d be condemning ourselves.
One positive characteristic is the narrator’s humour which he uses both to express and make light of the misery the relationship is causing him. The first verse begins with hyperbolic, and therefore ludicrous, exaggeration:
‘Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears’.
The ‘rain’ of the first line will be a representation of the narrator’s feelings, given what he tells us in the rest of the song. What’s absurd is the turning of this to ‘buckets of tears’. Nobody weeps that much however sorry they’re feeling for themselves. Immediately even this absurdity is outdone by the even more ludicrous:
‘Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears’.
It should, of course, by eyes that they’re coming out of. The idea is presumably that he’s full to the brim with tears which keep overflowing. But do they overflow into buckets, or are the buckets themselves emerging from his ears?
Up till now at least the watery content of the buckets hasn’t stretched the imagination. No longer! The fourth line requires us to imagine not only buckets in an impossible place, but buckets with an impossible content:
‘Buckets of moonbeams in my hand’.
The moonbeams are presumably to be taken as an overly romantic reference to the narrator’s feelings. As he more prosaically puts it:
‘I got all the love…
you can stand’.1
The effect of reusing the buckets metaphor is to associate the depth of his feelings – ‘all the love’ – with his misery, represented by the tears.
So far we might sympathise with the narrator, at least to the extent that he’s putting a brave face on things. If the first verse seems to be setting the tone for the rest of the song, though, we’re quickly disillusioned. If we laugh at all in the later verses, we laugh at the narrator’s expense.
The narrator is thoroughly self-centred. Even his love for the woman is declared in a way which egotistically focuses on himself:
‘I got all the love…’
And when he at last mentions her, it’s to compare her unfavourably with himself. He’s got so much love for her, she wouldn’t be able to ‘stand’ any more.
Love for him isn’t so much an attitude towards someone. It’s reified. It’s a thing, a thing you can have a lot of. It’s a thing which, represented by moonbeams, can be carried in a bucket. The same applies when he describes her negative effect on him. Rather than her making him miserable, he says:
‘Everything about you is bringing me
Misery is a thing which is brought. In the final verse, life too is reified. It’s dismissed as ‘a bust’.
The self-centredness is apparent again in the third and fourth verses. Three lines in the third begin with ‘I like’ (or its abbreviation ‘Like’), and in the fourth a further two lines contain ‘I like’. There’s no hint of consideration for what the woman might like. And what does the narrator like? He likes:
‘… the cool way you look at me’.
He’s still the centre of his own attention.2
The verse ends with what might sound like an expression of commitment to the woman, but in context probably betrays a concealed desperation:
‘I’m taking you with me, honey baby
When I go’.
This is the hard side of his character, alluded to in the second verse. It’s probably not that he intends to forcefully take her with him, but that it comes naturally to him to assume he should be in control.
Pretence of Affection
The structure of the song serves to emphasise the self-centredness and bitterness of the narrator. The penultimate line of each of the first two and final two verses ends with ‘honey baby’, a term of apparent endearment for the woman. The middle verse does not. Instead it ends:
‘Everything about you is bringing me
If the term representing endearment, ‘honey baby’, can be omitted, one wonders how seriously it is intended on the four occasions it is used. Furthermore, its absence in the middle verse draws attention to the coldness and bitterness of the words which replace it. Not only does the narrator criticise the woman, which is enough anyway to make us doubt that he has ‘all the love’ she can stand, but he’s criticising everything about her.
Occurring in the central verse, the omission of ‘honey baby’ is pivotal. It indicates just how central the narrator’s self-interest is to him. And conversely, the presence of the phrase in just the outer verses indicates how peripheral to him the woman is.
Meek and Hard
The narrator has a confused idea about what’s going to make him seem attractive. He claims to have been:
And hard like an oak’,
as if the two might be compatible. But the whole point about being meek is that you recognise that it’s better than being hard. Being meek is inconsistent with being hard, not its complement. In mentioning them in the same breath, the narrator seems to be treating both as positive attributes.
There’s little evidence of meekness in the song. But if ‘hard’ means domineering, he’s certainly that now, not just in the past as he implies. He lets it be known what he expects of the woman, and when she’s met his expectations:
‘You do what you must do and ya do it well’
That this hardness is likely to be part of his problem is apparent when in verse two he says :
‘I seen pretty people disappear like smoke
Friends will arrive, friends will disappear’.3
The repetition of ‘disappear’ in connection with friends suggests that the first reference likewise is about friends, former friends, perhaps former girlfriends. If the latter, the future tense – ‘will arrive’/‘will disappear’ – betrays his expectation that the present woman is going to leave him. In other words, he has no expectation that this present relationship will last. One suspects that he’s right.
The admission about having been both meek and hard has an air of desperation about it. He’s really telling us that having tried both to no avail, he doesn’t know what else he can do.
If it is desperation which caused him to try being both ‘meek’ and ‘hard’, he tries to hide it. The second verse ends with the narrator attempting to build himself up in the woman’s eyes by contrasting himself favourably with those who’ve disappeared. He assures her that he’s not about to disappear from her:
‘If you want me, honey baby
I’ll be here’
The attempt to contrast himself with those who’ve left doesn’t work. By saying ‘I’ll be here’, he puts the onus on the woman to do something to further the relationship while he remains static. He’s leaving all the work to her, while not being prepared to lift a finger himself.
This is not the only example of the narrator’s inactivity. He never tells us what he does, presumably because there is nothing to tell. Instead, in order to impress he has to rely on dubious claims about what he’s already done – ‘been meek’ and ‘hard like an oak’ (if those count as doing) – and on vague promises about what he’s going to do in the future – ‘I’ll be here’, ‘I’ll do it for you’.
By contrast, the woman comes across as continuously active – she moves, looks, loves, does what she must. Even the references to her smile and fingertips in the middle verse suggest she’s ongoingly active in pleasing him.
Another negative character trait becomes apparent in the final verse – pessimism:
‘Life is sad
Life is a bust’4
It’s a generalisation for which the narrator provides no justification. What he has in mind by ‘life’, presumably, is not life generally, but his own life. Nevertheless, by generalising he convinces himself that all life is bad. His motive, one imagines, is to prevent his own deficiencies making him seem more of a failure than the rest of us.
This pessimistic attitude he has to his life, is further reflected in a refusal to actively try to make it better:
‘All you can do …’
‘… is do what you must’.
But why is it? His wording here is tellingly reminiscent of that of the narrator in Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. Lily, we’re told, ‘did whatever she had to do’. But there’s a difference. The emphasis there is on Lily’s sense of responsibility. Here, this narrator emphasises what he takes to be the impossibility of going beyond his responsibilities:
‘All you can do …’.
– ‘you’ seeming to be a reference to himself. In the next line, where the reference of ‘you’ subtly changes to the woman, it’s noticeable that the ‘all’ is missing:
‘You do what you must do and ya do it well’.
Not only does the woman do what’s required, but there’s no implication that she limits her activity to this. As with Lily, the emphasis here is on the woman’s going beyond her responsibilities.
The song ends with the narrator again covering up his deficiencies. He makes a promise:
‘I’ll do it for you …’,
doubtless hoping this will make him look active. But the giveaway is the pronoun ‘it’. ‘It’ can only refer back to what he must do anyway. If so, he’s pessimistically assuming that anything more than what he must do can’t be done.
The most enigmatic lines of the song are in the fourth verse:
‘Little red wagon
Little red bike
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like
I like the way you love me strong and slow’
All four lines are closely interrelated. The third line looks forwards to the fourth which, as we’ll see, is an attempt to meet criticism. It also looks backwards to the previous two lines, which establish what the narrator means by ‘monkey’. It could well be that it’s because the narrator expects to be criticised for being a ‘monkey’, that in the third line he explicitly denies it.
The ‘little red wagon’ and ‘little red bike’ of the first two lines explain the monkey reference of the third line in that these are toys that a literal monkey would play with. In the present context of a relationship they stand for women – sexual playthings the narrator feels he can play with despite his denial that he’s a monkey. That these toys are ‘red’ suggests either that the women are prostitutes, or that he sees himself as having no more commitment to them than to a prostitute. Since both toys are described as little and red, the reason he chooses the one he does must be down to the only significant difference between them – and that’s the difference between a vehicle to passively ride in, and one to actively ride on. From what he says about ‘the way you love me’, we can assume that he sees the present woman as represented by the former.
The fourth line:
‘I like the way you love me strong and slow’
confirms that by ‘monkey’ he means someone taking a frivolous or purely sexual approach to a relationship. In denying he’s a monkey, he denies that he’s motivated just by sex. But why does he need to deny it? Obviously the woman’s either accused him of it, or he’s expecting such an accusation. She might be getting the impression he’s just motivated by sex , he says, but really she’s being misled by his liking for the ‘strong and slow’ way she loves him.
This is unconvincing, and for two reasons. First, the context (‘strong and slow’) makes it clear he’s using ‘the way you love me’ as no more than a euphemism for ‘the way you accede to my sexual desires’. In so doing he’s actually admitting the truth of her criticism while disingenuously making it seem as if his interest is ‘love’. Secondly, this euphemistic use just helps confirm what we’ve already divined from the wagon and bike metaphors.
While the narrator is somebody with whom we could warm to on account of his bizarre sense of humour, and perhaps even have some sympathy with on account of his failings, it’s those failings which dominate the song. Among these are his egotism, pessimism, inaction, and failure to understand what a relationship requires of him. Throughout, there’s a pretence of affection but, in the middle verse, the mask briefly slips and a cruel, underlying bitterness emerges. The penultimate verse contains a hopeless attempt to disguise his true motivation, and by the end of the song he’s resorting to vague, unconvincing promises of commitment and generosity.
1. Sometimes these lines appear as:
‘You got all the love, honey baby
I can stand’.
The other version seems better, though, being more consistent with the narrator’s character in the rest of the song. It has him bragging, whereas this version has him presenting himself as weak.
2. He also likes the way she moves her lips, suggesting perhaps that he’s more
interested in superficial appearances than listening to what she’s saying. In another
version of the song ‘lips’ is replaced with ‘hips’, but ‘lips’ seems preferable. While the
line with ‘hips’ equally suggests a superficial interest, it doesn’t get across the
narrator’s lack of interest in what she’s got to say to him.
3. That they ‘disappear like smoke’ perhaps implies he’d made enemies of them, the
phrase seeming to be an unconscious reference to Psalm 37.20 ‘… and the enemies of
the Lord … into smoke shall they vanish away’.
4. The phrase ironically suggests part of the narrator’s true interest in the relationship.