Monday, January 28, 2008

WHEN YOU SEE THROUGH LOVE’S ILLUSIONS, THERE LIES THE DANGER: Blame it on the writer’s strike. With nothing worth watching on television, I have been watching movies most nights. A few nights ago, I watched We Are Marshall, which features the song If You Could Read My Mind by Gordon Lightfoot. Shortly after that, I heard the same song on the radio. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the lyrics.

Before focusing on those poetic words, I should note that the music is uncommonly good as well, conveying powerfully the melancholy emotion of the song. Listen to the evocative bass line, chord progressions, and strings. The song has been covered by various jazz artists, which is a testament to the beauty of the melody. Lightfoot’s vocals are nuanced and expressive.

One reason why this song has captured my attention is the ambiguity of its lyrics. I am going to try to explicate the song, but, well, I don’t think I will achieve anything close to a definitive interpretation of it.

The song begins:

If you could read my mind, love,
What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like an old time movie
'Bout a ghost from a wishing well

At least one source claims that Lightfoot himself has cited a surprising source as the inspiration for these lines -- the movie The Time of Their Lives (1946). The film, which I have not seen, features the comedy team of Abbott and Costello. The plot is certainly consistent with the song. Lou Costello plays Horatio, a tinker who is in love with Nora. Horatio is mistakenly shot by soldiers during the American Revolution on suspicion of being a traitor. He is thrown down a wishing well and condemned to remain there unless evidence can prove his innocence. 166 years later a letter of commendation from President Washington is found and Horatio is freed to join Nora in heaven.

This verse also calls to mind another “old-time movie” -- The Canterville Ghost (1944), which is based upon an Oscar Wilde story in which the ghost (played by Charles Laughton) must haunt an old mansion for the crime of killing his wife. He says to Virginia, the fifteen-year-old heroine of the tale, that he can “never be set free.” The ghost tells Virginia that because he has no faith and is unable to cry he can only die (and thus escape the torment of being a ghost) if Virginia “weeps for his past sins and prays for the salvation of his soul.” Ultimately, she is able to put the ghost to rest.

The song continues:

In a castle dark or a fortress strong
With chains upon my feet
You know that ghost is me
And I will never be set free
As long as I'm a ghost that you can't see

Lightfoot is setting up the main theme of the song. The protagonist believes his lover (or former lover) is able to see only a false image of him and is unable to perceive his true nature. In light of what is to follow in the song, it may be that she can love only a romanticized image of him. On the other hand, in light of the reference to The Times of Their Lives, perhaps she unjustly thinks he is guilty of some disloyal act when he, perhaps like Costello in the film, might not only be innocent but in fact worthy of respect.

Throughout the song, what we discover in both of the lovers’ minds are works of fiction: “tales”, movies, and cheap novels. Up until the climax of the song, each party seems able to deal with the other only in terms that are not real. The protagonist will never be fulfilled (“set free”) until the woman can see him (and accept him) for what he is. He feels ensnared, invisible, and muffled with his wishes of what their relationship could be, or could have been, and she does not recognize or does not care to recognize his true nature, his true desires.

The second verse starts:

If I could read your mind, love,
What a tale your thoughts could tell
Just like a paperback novel
The kind the drugstores sell

There is clearly an undercurrent of contempt in these lines, possibly even a more general sense of misogyny. The way that Lightfoot enunciates the phrase “paperback novel” suggests that her thoughts are not of a quality that would make a publisher want to issue a lasting hardback edition. The phrase “the kind the drugstores sell” makes me think he’s describing a cheap Harlequin romance novel, the type that deals in artificial sentiment.

The lyrics proceed:

When you reach the part where the heartaches come
The hero would be me
But heroes often fail
And you won't read that book again
Because the ending's just too hard to take

Before I go back to analyzing the song, I just need to say how stunningly powerful and beautiful I find those lines and how evocative I find the way that Lightfoot sings them.

His lover has an expectation that he will play the part of a typical romantic hero. The somber way that Lightfoot sings “But heroes often fail” is simply devastating. He can’t play that role.

The final two lines in this verse make me think he is describing a divorce, given the finality and the associated pain. That is consistent with Lightfoot's statements about the song.

The next verse begins:

I'd walk away like a movie star
Who gets burned in a three way script
Enter number two
A movie queen to play the scene
Of bringing all the good things out in me

The next thought I have to share is admittedly a stretch, but bear with me. I always think of Casablanca when I hear these words. A central theme in that amazing film is the contrast between Rick, the ultimate realist, and Victor Laszlo, the idealist. That certainly echoes the contrast in this song between the protagonist who ultimately becomes a realist and his lover who is consumed with romantic illusions. The film's contrast also echoes the contrast between the idealistic tales, movies, and books that dominate most of the song and the desire to be real, which comes at the climax of the song,

In Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman, as esteemed a movie queen as has ever existed, plays the role of Ilsa Lund, who brings out the best in Rick. Like “If You Could Read My Mind”, Casablanca’s enduring charm owes something to its inherent ambiguity.

There’s more than a hint of egotism in the protagonist describing himself walking away “like a movie star.” That, plus the lines about the woman’s thoughts being “like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstores sell”, make me wonder how reliable our protagonist/narrator is. He has a mix of positive and negative things to say about himself, although I would suggest that overall he portrays himself in a favorable light as, variously, an imprisoned and misunderstood victim, a realist, a hero (who fails only to meet phony expectations), and a movie star. In contrast, the woman is portrayed almost solely in negative terms.

That verse concludes with the climactic words of the song:

But for now, love, let's be real
I never thought I could act this way
And I've got to say that I just don't get it
I don't know where we went wrong
But the feeling's gone
And I just can't get it back

Pause a moment to reflect on the power of those words. Reread those lines. Listen to the song playing in your mind.

In contrast to all of the fictional things described early in the song, now, at long last, the protagonist is insisting the couple focus on what’s real.

There’s a delicious ambiguity in these words. First, is it his feelings for her that he can’t get back or her feelings for him? I used to think it was the former, but now I’m not so sure. The latter view calls to mind this Bonnie Raitt song (written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin), which never fails to affect me:

I can’t make you love me if you don’t
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t

Furthermore, what type of feeling is at issue here? I would assume that the prevailing view is that he is singing about feelings of love, but there’s certainly room to suggest that it’s a lack of sexual chemistry.

The first half of the final verse is a reprise of the opening lines, but the second half is different:

But stories always end
And if you read between the lines
You'll know that I'm just trying to understand
The feelings that you lack
I never thought I could feel this way
And I've got to say that I just don't get it
I don't know where we went wrong
But the feeling's gone
And I just can't get it back

I am struck again by how one-sided the account is here (“the feelings that YOU lack”). It seems to me that in most failed relationships there is blame to be shared by both parties. Clearly, this verse suggests much more strongly than the previous one that it her feelings for him that he can’t get back.

Returning one last time to what I believe is the main theme, to me the key is that, as Jackson Browne wrote so eloquently:

When you see through love’s illusions, there lies the danger
And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool

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