Monday, August 1, 2011

God Bless the Absentee

Most people probably see the life of a travelling musician much the way the speaker of the song "Money for Nothing" does: "That's the way you do it/ You play the gee-tar on the MTV/ Money for nothin', chicks for free."

As we have already seen, the life of a travelling musician may be anything but glamorous. I recall seeing one folkie in college. A guy came out, set up a stool and a mic', put some water on the stool, came back with a guitar and tuned it, and left the stage. Five minutes later, the same guy came out, picked up the guitar, and started to play and sing. This guy was his own roadie-- glamorous, indeed! Like the guys Dire Straits sing about who have to "install microwave ovens," the speaker considers himself a "working man."

This is the level of the game our speaker plays. In earlier songs on this soundtrack, Jonah discusses the toll it takes on him. Here, he widens his scope a bit: "I have a wife and family, but they don’t see much of me."

The line "I play the ace of spades" can be taken several ways. It might be a reference to "Ace in the Hole"; one imagines many games of poker are played on tour! Another meaning could be that he must always play his highest card, his best material, as his he still making his name. Yet another, more unlikely, idea is that he plays the role of the ace, the leader of the group, but this is a role he puts on.

Then speaking of his family, he asks for a blessing for himself, "God bless the absentee." On the surface, this may seem selfish. After all, shouldn't his family be the one he is asking God to bless, having to make their way without him? Ah, but of course God is watching over them. He is the one who has to remind God-- "Hey, I need some blessing, too! It's hard out here!" (This is the third song on the soundtrack to mention "God," plus one that mentions "Jesus.")

The next metaphor for what he does is surgery: "Music is my knife." In what way? "It cuts away my sorrow." Yes, but doesn't it also, in a way, cause it? After all, if his sorrow is missing his family, the music is what takes him away from them in the first place. If he gave up touring, he could see them every night. Perhaps that is not his only source of sorrow, however.

Now, if his heart would be "released" from the rest of his body, it would need the Absentee's Blessing. A heart with no body-- "pure" emotion without that which to feel about-- is not present in a new, truer context as it would hope, but "absent" from its real home. That heart would need God's special attention, with no other support system.

The bridge may seem to be about his "woman," but all the sentences start with "I." He is the true subject of the song; without his wife, bed, and pillow, he feels alone. Even if it was his choice to go on tour.

The next few lines are about his "son," whom he says "do[es]n’t need me yet." Why? "His bones are soft." This would imply a newborn, and one could argue that all a newborn needs is a source of milk, a clean diaper, and a nice crib.

But is this child a newborn? Not in the movie, and not here: "He flies a silver airplane/ He wears a golden cross." This is presumably a toy airplane, and one might even guess the kind of gift bought by a hurried, harried parent at an airport on the way home, having forgotten to buy one at the other city. And the son is old enough to wear a necklace, something one certainly does not put on an infant or toddler. Perhaps our speaker is in denial about how old his child really is and how much he needs a present father figure.

The last verse seems like a cop-out, blaming societal changes for his own guilt. The comments about how the country is changing reveal that he has not changed while everything around him has-- and maybe he is just noticing now (for instance, his newborn is now zooming around the living room narrating the flights of toy airplanes).

Changing the subject and externalizing his "sorrow" proves useless, however. He sees in the metaphors available to a traveler-- "highways" and "airports"-- what he is avoiding at home: conflict. Why else would he look at something usually used as a metaphor for freedom and spontaneity-- the open road-- and see "litigation"? Why imagine something as sterile and efficiency-minded as an airport "disagreeing"?

Maybe his store of sympathy has run out at home. Maybe when he calls home to gripe about something that happened at a gig, his wife replies that her single parenting is hardly the life of Riley, either... and if he hates it so much out there, he could come home and wash a dish or two.

Home is warm and cozy but stifling and stultifying; the road is thrilling and full of possibility and opportunity but lonely. Perhaps our conflicted absentee is truly in need of a blessing after all.

Next song: Long, Long Day


  1. I like the "silver and gold" touch. It may not be intended to be significant, but perhaps there's a hint of the "riches of the heart" that are being left behind?

  2. It might be. Here he is, touring for silver coins and trying to get a gold record, and maybe the real wealth is back home.