This excruciating exercise in navel-gazing is actually less that solely and more a convenience to me in remembering where the hell these things came from. Even the lines that are my own more or less came to me before I had a meaning or context assigned to them: the idea was to allow them in, on the grounds that if I thought about it, or changed them slightly, or moved them around, the reason they occurred to me in the context of this song (whose overall subject was clear to me) would gradually reveal itself to me. Then I could decide whether to make them clearer or not (usually, not). The difference between this approach and worry-analyzing every line down to a nub is that I was looking vaguely off into the distance rather than staring at the line through a microscope. For (many) more words on the way I think about lyrics, see here. I've also indicated which lines are original, and the sources of the other lines.


Annotate the capstone (mine):       This was probably the first phrase to occur to me. The words just seemed "Stipey" to me, in their vaguely old-fashioned air, their reference to some sort of mercantile/literary or architectural register. Anyway: the suggestion is that a "capstone" (as a literally crowning glory) shouldn't probably need annotating, qualifying, or otherwise hedging information. That it does suggests it's a bit of a sham, a false front. (Also, the first of many imperatives.)


and prepare

three days' walk

milk scattered cows (mine):          Again, the rural thing seemed Stipey to me. The suggestion here is a lot of work with no real prospect of reward.


Sign your name

on the shattered (mine):               The missing word is "line," and the reference is (of course) "dotted line." Idea? People being asked to agree to something broken, something fucked-up or even tragic.


Cart before

swept behind (mine):                   The first part comes from "don't put the cart before the horse"; don't act rashly, without forethought, heedless of consequence. Absent the entire phrase, the suggestion is that the cart already is before the horse. The second line: What is swept up behind horses in the street? How is that product regarded? Disposable, worthless. The stanza as a whole, then, talks about those who've signed on to a dubious enterprise heedlessly engaged upon who are betrayed and abandoned as worthless.


March to grotto

banjo fence (mine, I think):           The chorus is a lot of abstract images from battle, really. "March" is obvious; a grotto is a cave (which makes it a slightly more specific reference, as not all battles bear any relation to caves. A recent one did, though, dinnit.) "Banjo fence" is a barbed-wire fence; I'm not sure if someone had used the term before, but I liked it. I suppose the musical reference (being played) helped, as did my goofy sense of Stipeyness about the line. Banjos are Stipey; they just are, okay?


Who needs calamine? (mine?):        Much more sound than sense, probably. The only real idea is that calamine lotion relieves unpleasantness; asking "who needs it?" might be a genuine inquiry, but it might also be merely dismissive. "Calamine" is also an ore of zinc (either zinc carbonate or zinc silicate – thank you Wikipedia) - and so I liked the fact that "calamine" in this vocal was nearly right on top of another chemical reference, to "sugar of lead" (see below in the background vocals section). Also, the chorus is the only part of the song whose lyrics rhyme: "calamine" with "define" sequentially, but also "calamine/refine" simultaneously and "define/line" simultaneously. I can't do the math on how many ways that rhymes, then. (There are also internal rhymes, but hey, do I have to tell you people everything?)


Air to blur and settle:                  The first part of the phrase ("air to blur") is from a cartoon in Magnet magazine (capitalized, referring to the bands Air and Blur: it was the first volume of an "Indie Hipsters' Dictionary" or something). I liked the idea of air blurring; what would it do afterwards? It might, of course, settle. Overall, I think this is about explosions (air appears to blur in heat, of course, and an explosion produces both that effect and the more radical "blurring" from smoke, debris, etc.)



and slate removed:                      This is from the fabulous Beaufort Wind Scale, subject of a fine recent book by Scott Huler (Defining the Wind) and addressed by me here. It describes the results of a "strong gale."


Depth and volume define:            The first three words are from the original spam alt-text source, itself taken from The Island of Dr. Moreau: "its depth and volume testified to the puma." I think its context here refers back to that " air to blur and settle" line above: cratered.


I can study rain:                          This is borrowed from a line from Robert Johnson's "Preachin' Blues," as cited in the Johnson box set liner notes. I think the annotator is wrong; there's another line in the song about a "distillery," and I think Johnson's just repeating the last three syllables of that word. Regardless: the line's evocative, and (side note) it's amusing to see graduate students huff and puff over the significance in Johnson's song of a line that may not even exist (as you can do if you google " 'study rain' robert johnson"). What it meant to me was somewhere between and among "pointless activity" and "trying to figure out this unpleasant phenomenon, which comes to us as if from above, out of our control." So again: helplessness, frustration. The variant of this line, before the bridge, is " Who can steady...?": another "who?" question, and another (obvious, punning) elision, of "reins."


Testified to the puma

I saw Montgomery wince:              As quoted above, these lines are from the original spam alt-text. "Montgomery" is, uh, Stipey ... probably in that it has this sort of old-American tone to it. Montgomery may be wincing because of the vicious, wild slashings of the puma, but he might also be wincing from more figurative wild, vicious slashings to his old America (cue Gore Vidal on republic and empire).


Nail the wind to the water

Tie the flame to the ground:         These lines have been floating around in my head for years. Both actions (more imperatives...) are impossible, fruitless, and deny the essential nature of what is being attempted to be captured, limited, or installed.


Whose face on the coin

the ransom bought? (mine):           I suppose there's some suggestion of the bible verse about rendering to Caesar here, which raises the question of what's owed to whom. And why: "ransom" obviously suggests something shady about the transaction. And that the question "whose face..." needs to be asked suggests, again, subterfuge, deception: counterfeiting.


Civil twilight

resent the shadows (mine):           The relation of these two lines, grammatically, is hazy, penumbral. "Civil twilight" is a meteorological term (I wrote about it here), but it suggests a dimming of both civility and civil society generally. I could theorize for hours on the role of resentment in the current political alignment, but I think it's particularly strong among right-wingers and fundamentalists. If I'd wanted to punch this point more clearly, I might have said "resent their shadows."



the dictionary (mine):                  To distort language or to lie is one thing; but to pass off an entire repertoire, an environment, an ideology, a language, as being real, true, and legitimate, when it's a falsehood, a lie, a fabrication…well that's another thing, and much worse.


Bury armies ( mine):                    During the first Gulf War, U.S. tanks simply plowed over ranks of retreating Iraqi soldiers, burying them alive in the desert sands. (Here's one link and here's another).


Harvest fountains (mine):             Black gold. Texas tea. Curiously, months after writing these last two lines, the thought occurred to me that they could be read optimistically: by metaphoring "bury" and changing the nature of the fountains to something more innocently celebratory.


Background vocals


(beneath the chorus)


barrel a peck and:                       Among the last things written. For some reason, the line from the old song "a bushel and a peck" popped into my head. That made no sense at all to me, either directly or as reference to that old song, so I was about to dump it when the idea to change "bushel" to "barrel" occurred. Now it made sense - oil comes in barrels ya know. Still later I realized that one could really go for a stretch and find a pun on OPEC in there...


the sugar of lead technology

refines:                                      From this page - which, incidentally, someone running a "weird web" site either stole from my site or, less likely, got from the same source I got it from. Anyway, the basis for that site is a wacked-out letter that, nonetheless, offers several evocative phrases (which I've therefore stolen liberally from). "Sugar of lead" is an old name for lead acetate, which for its sweetness was actually used by the Romans in wine. Tastes sweet; is poison. You are allowed to assume that "lead technology" might be bullets too.


under the old state who?:             Munged from the original spam alt-text which read "State who, under the old electoral law, have the elective"… This is, apparently, from Orestes A. Brownson's The American Republic and comes from a passage discussing enfranchisement of the former Confederates after the Civil War. (You can find the entire text in a couple of places by googling the whole phrase in quotation marks.) I trust by this point that the significance of references to (dis)enfranchisement is clear - although the Civil War context is fairly irrelevant, I think. There's also, then, a second reference to the disappearance of the old American republic. This is as good a place as any to note that (again, almost completely by accident - which was the point) the idea of "the old America" that recurs throughout this song is both, well, older but also usually presented in rather agrarian imagery. This isn't because I think that's really what should be the case, it's because (a) it works metaphorically and (b) it's...Stipey!


desert and skies blue

undraw a sanded line (mine):        Here's an example of why I'm doing this commentary. I originally had forgotten that the "blue skies" come from the poem "The Fourth Dimension" at this site, also the source of "sugar of lead technology" - and so I thought I'd just cobbled them together nearly as rhyming filler. In fact, given that context, it's essentially a reference to the same question asked below ("who will beat the drum?") The second part refers to "drawing a line in the sand," which is usually a challenge; it also refers to the way the borders of Middle Eastern nations were essentially drawn. "Sanded" also puns on "sanded down" - worn, eroded.


(behind the second verse)



to the water


to the ground (mine):                   These essentially cobble together lines from elsewhere in the song. "Signify" mostly is here because it rhymes with " testify" (and can be synonymous); both lines return to the notion of fruitlessness: the water cannot grasp sense, and the ground cannot hear.



the frequency:                            Adapted from the spam alt-text; rephrased to refer to the lessons learned from Vietnam: that body counts inflame the populace, so it's better to pretend they don't exist, or lowball them. Well, "better" from the perspective of the war- makers.


who will beat

beat the drum?:                          Also from the "sugar of lead technology" site. From a poem on the site called "The Fourth Dimension"; the idea seems to be, who maintains, who preserves, who questions. It was convenient that my two main sources (this page, and the spam alt-text) both had "who?" questions in them - and in fact, "who?" is (as recorded) the very last line of the song.


(in the bridge)



under the old

under the old state

who?:                                         All from the Brownson spam alt-text. Essentially, a dis- and re-assembly of those phrases to refer back to a handful of other lines in the song.