It's been mentioned on this node that the They Might Be Giants album "John Henry" was named for the legendary character "John Henry", and that it was Their first album to use a full band, but it has not been mentioned that these two facts are connected.

The story of "John Henry" (the mythical character) is about the struggle of Man vs Machine, and in the end, Man beats Machine. (Except of course for the fact that Man dies while Machine does not...) Now, previous TMBG albums used drum machines and the like, while "John Henry" (the album) uses actual people. Hence it is Man once again defeating Machine. or something.

The Ballad of John Henry


John Henry was a little baby,
Sittin' on his papa's knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Said, "Hammer's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord!
Hammer's gonna be the death of me."

Some says John Henry was born in Texas,
Some people thinks he was born in Maine,
John Henry was born down in Tennessee,
He was a leader of a steel-driving-gang, Lord, Lord,
Leader of a steel-driving-gang.

John Henry drove steel on the Southern,
He drove steel on the C&O,
He drove steel for that Big Ben Tunnel,
Well, now steel drivin' kill John you know, Lord, Lord,
Steel drivin' kill John you know.

John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was Polly Ann,
John Henry got sick and had to go to bed,
You know Polly, she drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord,
Polly, she drove steel like a man.

Well, the captain loved to see John Henry,
One of all loved to hear him sing,
But most of all that the paymaster loved,
He just loved to get John Henry's hammer ring, Lord, Lord,
Loved to get John Henry's hammer ring.

The Captain said to John Henry,
'Gonna bring that steam drill 'round,
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job,
Gonna whop that steel on down, Lord, Lord!
Whop that steel on down.

John Henry told his captain
"A man ain't nothin' but a man
But before I let your steam drill beat me down
I'll die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord!
I'll die with a hammer in my hand.

John Henry started out on de right hand,
De steam drill started on de lef',
"Cap'n, bet yo' las' red cent on me,
Fo' I'll beat it to the bottom or I'll die, Lord, Lord,
Fo' I'll beat it to the bottom or I'll die.

John Henry said to his shaker,
"Boy, why don't you sing,
I'm throwin' twelve poun'd from my hips on down,
Jes' listen to that cold steel ring, Lord, Lord,
Jes' listen to that cold steel ring.

John Henry tol' his shaker,
"Shaker you better pray,
For if I miss dis six-foot steel,
Tomorrow'll be your buryin' day, Lord, Lord,
Tomorrow'll be your buryin' day.

Oh, de Captain said to John Henry,
"I b'leve this mountain's sinkin' in,"
John Henry said to his Captain,
"Oh, my, Ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind,Lord, Lord,
Ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind.

John Henry tol' his Captain,
"Looka yonder what I see -
Yo' drill's done broke an' yo' hole's done choke,
H'it cain't drive steel like me, Lord, Lord,
H'it cain't drive steel like me.

The man that invented the steam drill,
Thought he was mighty fine,
But John Henry made fifteen feet,
The steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord!
The steam drill only made nine.

Sun shine was hot an' burnin',
Wer'n't no breeze a-tall,
Sweat ran down like water down a hill,
Dat day John Henry let his hammer fall, Lord, Lord,
Dat day John Henry let his hammer fall.

John Henry hammered in the mountain,
His hammer was strikin' fire,
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart,
He laid down his hammer and he died, Lord, Lord!
He laid down his hammer and he died.

They took John Henry to a hillside,
He looked to the heavens above;
He said, "Take my hammer and wrap it in gold,
And give it the girl I love, Lord, Lord,
Give it to the girl I love.

They carried John Henry on the mountain,
Upon a mountain so high,
Last words I heard that poor boy say:
"Give me a cool drink of water 'fore I die, Lord, Lord,
Give me a cool drink of water 'fore I die.

Well, they carried John Henry's body to the White-house,
And they laid it in the sand,
Everytime a locomotive follows go rollin' by,
They say "yonder lays a steel-drivin' man," Lord, Lord,
Yonder lays a steel-drivin' man.

Well, every Monday mornin',
When the bluebirds begin to sing,
You can hear John Henry a mile or more,
You can hear his hammer ring, Lord, Lord,
You can hear his hammer ring.

Traditional Folk Song

I have never heard anyone sing all the verses I list above (in a single rendition), but at one time or another I have heard or read them all. The order of the verses is often rearranged as well.

John Henry is, perhaps, the most captivating american folk hero. He was an African American steel driver in West Virginia in the 1870's. A steel driver swung the hammer that drove the drill into the rock face during the excavation of railroad cuts and tunnels. The poor sod that held the drill, and turned it between each hammer blow, was the shaker. The rest of the story is self-explanatory.

Interestingly, there is growing (circumstantial) evidence that John Henry may be based on an actual individual. The Big Ben Tunnel does actually exist in West Virginia and was on the Chesapeake & Ohio railway. Historian Scott Nelson of William and Mary College, believes that John Henry may have been an African American convict at the Virginia State Penitentiary in the 1870's. This august institution provided convict labor to the railroads, was know as "The White House", and in fact has a sandy graveyard. During this period, Mr. Nelson reports that mortality on the rail gangs ran to 10%.

I am a failed writer. That's really all there is to say about it. I can read these great fantastic novels like Gilead or Middlesex and honestly convince myself for a while that I can write such a thing, but when I sit down at a keyboard, or I get settled into my writing space to try to put something down into words, it all just fails me. I put words onto paper, sure, but when I read them they're complete drivel.

The continual question I've been asking myself is why do I keep trying? What is inside of me that continues to push me forward, continues my dream of seeing my name on the table of contents of The New Yorker, seeing me at a writing workshop swapping tales with John Irving, seeing me autographing a copy of my long lamented Rings of Saturn for someone?

In my mind, a well-constructed album is as monumental an achievement as a well-constructed novel. Both propel forward Ideas and Ideals; both express some inherent Truths. Both speak to the soul on some other level. Ralph Ellison said it best, I think: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Whenever I find myself in one of these ruts where nothing comes from my mind except inchoate mental goo, I try to go get Inspired. I take out some piece of writing that Means Something, that Has Value and leaf through it, or I'll pull out an album that speaks to me on that frequency.

John Henry is perhaps chief among those albums.

J o h n   H e n r y
They Might Be Giants' best album (or their worst)

Release Date: September 13, 1994
Label: Elektra Records
ASIN: B000002HFL

World's going to hell anyway, have a good time.
John Flansburgh

Track Listing

1.  Subliminal (2:45)
2.  Snail Shell (3:20)
3.  Sleeping in the Flowers (4:30)
4.  Unrelated Thing (2:30)
5.  Nyquil Driver (3:14)
6.  I Should Be Allowed To Think (3:09)
7.  Extra Savoir-Faire (2:48)
8.  Why Must I Be Sad? (4:08)
9.  Spy (3:06)
10. O, Do Not Forsake Me (2:30)
11. No One Knows My Plan (2:37)
12. Dirt Bike (3:05)
13. Destination Moon (2:27)
14. A Self Called Nowhere (3:22)
15. Meet James Ensor (1:33)
16. Thermostat (3:11)
17. Window (1:00)
18. Out of Jail (2:38)
19. Stomp Box (1:55)
20. The End of the Tour (3:18)
A Short Essay On Why John Henry Sucks

My wife introduced me to They Might Be Giants in about 1996 or so, back when we were just "friends" but were more or less already dating. That's not entirely true, I guess; I was vaguely familiar with them through my headlong adolescent dives into independent music and Istanbul (Not Constantinople) used to see some radio play back in their 1991ish heyday until Kurt Cobain convinced mainstream radio that "alternative" sounded like a bad Pixies knockoff.

Anyway, she was quite into these two geeky looking guys from New York and this rubbed off on me a bit. Before long, I owned my own copy of Flood and Lincoln and they became a regular part of my music listening diet.

Yet through this passion of hers, there was some sense of distrust. With the gravest seriousness she could muster, she informed me that John Henry was a travesty of an album and wasn't worth wasting the time to listen to. The songs are all bad imitations of their other stuff, she said, and they sound like they want to be a heavy metal band. Or something like that; 1996 was my first year in college and I was too busy doing stupid college stuff to remember her grave warnings about this album in exquisite detail.

I listened then, and I thought it sucked, too. If you're expecting a flavor of pop like Istanbul, this album is in general much harder rocking and much less radio friendly, for lack of a better way of putting it.

Flash forward to 2005. John Henry is easily my favorite album by the group and the only one I listen to consistently, whereas my wife still thinks it sucks. How can you listen to that travesty? she asks, The only good song is Meet James Ensor.

Silly woman.

Subliminal (2:45)
This song is pure genius to start this album. Right out of the chute you get about three seconds of accordion work, a blatant nod to the "traditional" They Might Be Giants sound, immediately followed by the rest of this number, which is the first time in their recorded career that they featured a full backing band. And it shows; it has a rich, full, organic sound that's somehow missing from their earlier work, and it has a straightforward rock-tinged sound that the band never had before this. It's a new sound - no wonder a lot of their fan base rejected it, even though the vocals and tempo are still quite familiar.

John Henry is without a doubt the greatest of the albums by the band They Might Be Giants. That is, of course, my own opinion, to be taken with whatever weight that such an opinion holds.

First of all, it stands out greatly from the rest of the TMBG oeuvre in the fact that it is authentically a rock album (albeit with pop elements, it wouldn't be the two Johns without those). From beginning to end, the band is trying something different: this is their first album with a whole band, and it is their longest album as well, with twenty songs topping out at about an hour.

Second, the album as a whole is a concept album devoted to the subject of man's relationship with technology, hence the name John Henry. Given that the band has moved from a more machine-oriented approach to their music earlier in their career (using a drum machine and many, many synthesizers on early albums) to a sound that in many places approximates a live album on this one, the theme not only is expressed in the lyrics of the album, but in the album itself and its place in the band's catalogue.

Note the first two lines of this first song on the album: As I got hit by a car there was a message for me / As I went through the windshield, I noticed something. To bring this full circle, the final verse of the last song on the album directly discusses an automobile accident. The beginning and the end both refer to the same event, a direct and harsh connection between man and machine. The whole "car accident" subtheme runs through the album, in fact, popping up in several songs.

There are so many things throughout this album that are notable and interesting that I have this deep explosive desire within me to begin listing all of them, noting things like the fact that the end of the song features a tape reversal of the chorus, in itself alluding to the concept of a "subliminal message" in a cute way.

It courses along with this sublime multilayered magic and when I listen I hope to be able to reach out and touch this region of the sublime, hold it in my fingers, make it mine, and understand the magic. But perhaps it is all too distant for me to find.

Snail Shell (3:20)
Almost as if the band wanted to flaunt the change in their sound, the second track starts off with a metal-like guitar riff before moving back to a rock-first pop mentality that the first song held. The lyrical duality of the life cycle of the hermit crab combined with the concept of a failed relationship (or sexual encounter) is very well executed here.

The hermit crab is one of the unluckiest of crabs. Unlike their crustacean brethren, they find themselves lacking a shell to cover their posterior, which leaves the relatively slow-moving beast with a big problem: how do I protect my back from larger predators?

The solution to the problem is one of those little bits of genius that only thousand years of adaptation and natural selection could bring about. The hermit crab looks for something else that has a shell, a snail being one particularly common target, and attacks it, killing the denizen of the shell. After quickly tossing aside the critter inside the shell, the crab quickly retreats into the shell to rest, grow, and wait for an opportunity to attack something else, hopefully with a bigger shell.

Sounds cruel, doesn't it? Yet, when you look closer, you see that the hermit crab is a friend to a lot of other animals in the area. The crab uses its massive claw to cut down large pieces of vegetation, more than enough for itself, and thus shares the food with the various animals around it. Many of these animals live on the hermit crab's shell, and not only does the crab tolerate it, he often moves his buddies with him when he moves up to a bigger shell.

If I've learned nothing else from James Herriot, it is that we can see a huge gamut of human behavior reflected in the critters around us.

Sleeping in the Flowers (4:30)
This song comes off almost as if not only has the band adopted live musicians, but they've added an extensive horn section as well. The memorable part here is the horn riff, as well as that chorus, one of those word flows shrouded in nonsense but yet perfectly understandable. The tentative narrative thread of this album threads through this one too, mentioning a car ride with a drunken individual who will come up in detail a bit later in the album.

We could be sleeping in the flowers
We could sleep all afternoon

When I get massive cases of writer's block or a similar affliction that I call writer's fear (that dreadful condition where everything I write is terrible), I just go bone dry for a good week or two, incapable of putting anything down on paper that doesn't appear to my eyes to be above the level of a seventh grade essay on the summer just past. It's like a dry spell in the summer; my mental grass withers and the vines begin to turn yellow and then brown.

You'd proclaim that you're an island
I'd proclaim that I'm one too

Then, just as suddenly, I begin to have these terrifically intense dreams. I find myself placed in this alternate reality that only exists between my ears, yet the realism of all of it is so intense that I don't realize that I am not awake. It is only when the alarm begins to ring or my wife reaches over to shake my arm that I see that I am indeed dreaming all of this, that it is not really a small 1930s fishing village where an old man is about to lose his grandson in a flood, that it is not really an unexplained murder on a Jovian moon two hundred years in the future, that it is not really the start of a passionate affair between two people with Asperger's syndrome.

Then we float into the harbor
With just piers and boats around

The dreams usually proceed for about a week, becoming more and more intense as the week wears on. I can usually recall them with full clarity, as they are usually fully realized fictional settings that I put directly into my "idea folder." By the last night or two, it is actually difficult for me to wake up from these dreams, as I am so pulled into their reality.

I declare that I am England
You declare that I have drowned

And then, the flood. It comes on like a clap of thunder, followed quickly by a torrential downpour of words. I can't pull myself from the keyboard, not even to use a tablet, because the words and ideas and thoughts and prose are flowing so fast that the keyboard is scarcely fast enough to contain the sheer volume and speed and flow of the output. It is an eruption, a great eruption, but yet it is an end to things. I am nearly drowned in the output, and afterwards, I have to deal with cleaning up the flood, turning these bits of prose and half-explicated thoughts into something worth living with.

It's a lot like sex, really.

Unrelated Thing (2:30)
After three uptempo rock oriented numbers with lyrics full of twists and turns, we get a downtempo rock oriented number with very straightforward lyrics: a tale of a woman who is thinking of something else when her partner is talking.

The greatest difficulty I have as a writer is that I'm lacking a "constant editor" besides the one in my head. Of course, the one in my head is just my own imagined version of the one in the rocking chair.

There is this odd semblance of fear I have when it comes to actually showing something I've written to her. In my head, she is incessantly demanding, criticizing every word choice and shaking her head sadly at every piece of character development. Yet on the occasion where I do actually show her something I've written, she's nothing but supportive of the writing. On the occasion where she does find a problem, it's a very good find.

Yet I hold myself back from showing her the things that I write. Perhaps I believe that if I show her these things, she doesn't really care about them. Or perhaps I believe that she'll see me as an abject failure, which I often convince myself that I am.

I see her sitting there, reading a book, and I wonder what is going on behind those hazel eyes of hers.

Nyquil Driver (3:14)
One of the band's most "controversial" songs, this one is listed on the album's case as "AKA Driver" due to the uncomfortable association with Nyquil and the ensuing possibility of legal action from Vicks. Yet the lyrics remain unchanged in this rock number about a driver who is drunk on Nyquil, continuing the "car accident" subplot of the album.

I tend to prefer to drink in the comfort of my own home; I usually feel really uncomfortable having more than a couple of drinks when I'm out and about, especially if there's any chance I'll be behind the wheel. Being completely stupid in public is not something that strongly appeals to me.

Yet there is this pervasive legend of the Great Writer as Alcoholic. James Joyce. Ernest Hemingway. I almost have this standard to live up to, as though people expect me to be soused off my ass when I tell them that I'm a writer in a social situation. People have bought me Guinness solely for this purpose, although that's not necessarily a bad thing.

When I was a young, foolish man, I was quite intoxicated one splendid evening when I began to drive around in circles in a grassy field. I was so completely smashed that I ceased to realize where I was going at all and almost ran directly into a tree. That scared me quite badly.

Perhaps I'm not cut out to be a Nyquil Driver.

I Should Be Allowed To Think (3:09)
This song opens with a quote straight from Allen Ginsberg's Howl: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical..." It turns into a nice jangly traditional-sounding They Might Be Giants song that fans of their earlier work would probably like, while telling a tale of a boy whose advertisements for his band are censored.

I quite like how this song sounds like a throwback to the "earlier" They Might Be Giants sound, clearly showing that they've not left that sound behind but evolved from it. It sounds to my ears as though it would fit right in next to songs like Purple Toupee and Ana Ng.

The concept of censorship to me is quite funny, actually. Censorship is merely someone saying that they do not agree with something and thus you should not have the right to experience that thing. Thus, under my huge umbrella, drug laws are indeed censorship. I tell people that censorship and drug laws are nonsensical and should be abolished and people stare back at me wondering if I'm a dope-smoking child pornographer.

I think I like the way that Janis Joplin once put the idea: Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

I think that's part of the reason I keep at this silly idea of being a writer. I am amazed at the great ideas that can be distributed within the guise of fiction; the stories you can swallow down without realizing that it's changing your way of thinking are amazing little things. I dream of doing that, of somehow changing someone's way of thinking about the world. But rather than reading, a lot of people would rather listen to Rush Limbaugh in their SUV on their way to work.

At one point in the song, John sings I should have a call in show...

Extra Savoir-Faire (2:48)
A jazzy number about an extremely self-confident person who believes he has more than enough savoir faire to go around, to the point where it has completely skewed his perspective on the world. I find the wordplay and imagery in the lyrics here to be quite good, particularly the opening refrain: "When I walk down the street, most guys look like elves."

I love delving deep into the inner bowels of concept albums, almost as much as I enjoy digging into the soul of a complex novel. They exist on a good number of levels: the outer layers of straightforward enjoyment, then the inner nougat of symbols and ideas and hidden relationships.

This song is a terrific example of that idea. On the very surface, it is a simple jazzy song about an arrogant man, one that you'd enjoy but never really think twice about.

Yet taken in the context of this whole album and evaluated a bit deeper, layers unveil themselves. Is the singer here the arrogant Nyquil driver of the earlier song? Why is he so proud? How fractured is this portrayal of pride?

This is a big reason why John Henry is so enjoyable to me. I can listen to other songs by the group and ponder their meaning, but only with John Henry is there a greater context and framework to evaluate these themes. Their lyrical wordplay and musicianship is taken to a different level on this album, and it is a true shame that it is so often overlooked among their albums.

Why Must I Be Sad? (4:08)
The sound of this song harkens back to an earlier They Might Be Giants sound; this track would have fit onto Lincoln very nicely right next to Purple Toupee or Ana Ng. The lyrics here are obvious but very cute: much of the song is constructed out of Alice Cooper song and album titles and the rest outlines a seemingly depressed fan of the old rocker.

Most teenage boys seems to go through a "metal" phase of some sort. I vividly remember my "metal" phase: it was during the times when you had to have several pounds of hair in order to qualify as a heavy metal band. To tell the truth, it was mostly an AC/DC and, to a lesser extent, Alice Cooper phase. Even now, I dare anyone to claim that Who Made Who isn't one of the great rock songs ever recorded, and any slight against Back in Black will bring about the greatest rage.

But I moved on from that phase after a time, and although I'll occasionally whip out my Highway to Hell LP and test the upper limits of my speakers, I'm much more content to listen to something like A Love Supreme or Jack Johnson or, well, John Henry.

I guess when I look back on it, I see it as part of my cognitive development. I really sense the person that I was at that time in this song, particularly when John sings No one knows these things but me and him / So I'm writing everything down in a spiral notebook / In the hopes that one day / Other people will feel as low as this.

But I often want to scream at myself at that age, Fucking high schooler! You're wasting your time playing video games and writing inane bullshit in that journal of yours and pining over a girl that's long dead and gone! Get over yourself and do something with your life! Wow. I'm beginning to sound like my father.

They Might Be Giants captures the pretentiousness of this little sliver in a teenage boy's life quite well, actually, with just the correct amount of sarcasm.

Spy (3:06)
This song feels a lot like the Johnny Rivers' classic Secret Agent Man, both from the musical style (it sounds a lot like the theme from a 1970s James Bond film) and the lyrical content (isolation, under the general theme of being an undercover agent). It pops along all right, but it is far from one of the standout tracks on this album.

This track and the one before it both wear their influences right on their sleeves, something that is a consistent trait of the music of They Might Be Giants. That's part of the appeal of the band: they draw equally from teen angst and American history, and they're just as comfortable recording heavy metal as they are performing jug band music.

The writers that have always stood out as inspiration for me are the ones who cross boundaries like it is nothing. Look at John Irving, for example (who I consider the greatest living American writer, by the way). Books can scarcely be as different as The World According to Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany and A Widow For One Year, yet he pulls them all off and makes each vastly different work quite enjoyable.

When you take the canon of a great writer as a whole, you can see that they're commenting on the human existence in general, but when each individual work can feel as though it's coming from a completely different realm of human existence than the writer's other works, that's when you can color me impressed.

I hope to build the confidence and skill necessary to create such an oeuvre of works, but until then I'll just stop by the bookstore to pick up the latest John Irving novel and listen to John Henry a few more times.

O, Do Not Forsake Me (2:30)
This is probably the closest thing to a pure "joke" song on the album, featuring a operatic quintet on vocals singing some absurd lyrics about being one thousand years old. Once upon a time, I speculated that the song was about England's relationship with the United States (from the perspective of jolly ol' England), but now I just hear it as a very fun piece with vocals that I attempt to imitate in the shower every once in a while.

I like the fact that the most "frivolous" song on the entire album comes pretty much right in the middle of the disc; in fact, on the LP version of the album, this song finishes out the first side of the record.

It almost serves as a division of the album into two distinct parts: the first half is actually the lighter half of the album, whereas the second half may be the darkest run of songs ever recorded by the group, even though it continues the themes and ideas set up in the first half of the album.

The split is decisive enough, at least to my ears, to make me question whether or not at some point John Henry was considered to be a double album and eventually a number of tracks were eliminated, reducing it to a rather long single disc album. This is actually true of many novels, or should be; novels like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged should have been split right down the middle into two readable novels rather than one seemingly neverending tome.

This ends the first half of the recording. Please turn the record over to continue with the lessons.

No One Knows My Plan (2:37)
The second side of the album opens with a horn-filled number about a man in prison (whether that prison is literal or of the prisoner's own creation is left up to the listener; I actually tend to think it's about an inmate in an asylum, trapped by the bars of his own mind) devising a way to escape from his cell.

I first listened to this album on an autumn afternoon in 1996 - and I hated it. This song was the lone exception to that hatred, and listening to it now, I think that lone exception was created by the first verse of the song:

When I made a shadow on my window shade
They called the police and testified
But they're like the people chained up in the cave
In the allegory of the people in the cave by the Greek guy

The first time I read The Republic, I was too young to really understand it and I discarded it as rubbish, quickly scurrying back under the refuge of my Stephen King novels and Spiderman comic books. When I read it several years later (as a high school senior), it made a great deal more sense to me. No longer was the allegory of the cave a weird story about people in chains.

I guess that it all comes back to a fundamental question: how accessible does something have to be to make it worthwhile? Where is that magical point where something profound can be discussed while simultaneously appealing to a wide audience?

I look at this idea by looking at the two extremes. On one hand, you have the huge mass appeal of Stephen King. No one is going to claim that King's books are full of great ideas; they're good old fashioned fun, the type of enjoyable reading that is a great way to wind down after a long day. That's not to say that King doesn't occasionally nose around some deeper truth, but he knows where his bread is buttered, and that's to entertain you.

On the other hand, you have people like Thomas Pynchon or, even better, David Foster Wallace, whose novels are full to the brim with tons of ideas and thoughts and perspectives, but are also largely inaccessible to a wide audience because of the density and the language of it all.

What's in the middle, then? People like John Irving and Tom Wolfe, people who can put ideas into their works but sugarcoat them with enough effective language and plot to make them swallowable by housewives in Indiana.

I guess it's impossible to say which is best here, but I know which I respect more. I also never realized that They Might Be Giants could be helpful in using Plato to compare the writing styles of John Irving and Stephen King. Until just now, that is.

Dirt Bike (3:05)
A very melancholy number with highly ambiguous lyrics, Dirt Bike is perhaps the most puzzling song (at least for my ears) that the group has ever produced. Ambiguities abound in this one, but the song is a pleasant little bit of pop melancholy.

Let's see...
Five Ways To Interpret "Dirt Bike" By They Might Be Giants:

1. It's actually about a dirt bike. This is perhaps the easiest interpretation of the song, since most of the lines literally talk about a dirt bike. The idea that an adolescent would be obsessed with a dirt bike makes sense, but many of the lines in the song no longer make any sense at all.

2. It's about Nazi Germany. I tend to feel this interpretation is one of the strongest ones. If you replace the phrase "dirt bike" with the rhyming "third reich" in the lyrics, the song is similarly melancholic and the first verse becomes chilling: Here comes the third reich / Beware of the third reich / Because I hear they're coming to our town / They've got plans for everyone / And now I hear they're over their sophomore jinx, so you had better check it out. Obviously, this interpretation fits very well with much of the lyrics (I particularly like the sophomore jinx meaning in this interpretation).

3. It's about television. Many of the song lyrics are about brainwashing, which is the primary function of television as far as I can tell. The band has alluded to this being the case from time to time.

4. It's about another band. This is lent credence by the use of the plural in discussing who is coming, as well as the reference to the "sophomore jinx," which is often used to describe a band who has an unsuccessful follow up to a popular debut album (think Weezer's Pinkerton).

5. It's about a cult. Again, the brainwashing ideas fit here. Perhaps the cult is in fact worshipping a dirt bike, which would be rather odd, but would fit the lyrics of the song.

I tend to think that the song is all of these, actually. It's written with enough intentional ambiguity to make it fun to add your own interpretations to the song.

Destination Moon (2:27)
Other than the epic closing track to this album, Destination Moon is without much question my favorite track on the disc. Encompassing a classic They Might Be Giants sound along with a tale of delusions of wellness, this song is a great example of what makes this band great: catchy popness with lyrics that speak to the loneliness and delusion within.

There are these moments when I manage to create this illusion of being a good writer, someone who can speak to the human existence while having the mass appeal of John Grisham. I honestly believe this from time to time, and I get so vigorously involved in the process of writing that it consumes me like a fire from within.

I have some completed novels floating around, a wad of novellas, a good box full of short stories, and what feels like a hard drive worth of essays on various topics. I've only attempted to have a tiny number of them published; many more have wound up as nodes on this very site.

Why? When I finish writing something, I often put it aside for a few days to read it with a fresh mind, no matter how good I feel about the piece. I save the file, or I print out a hard copy, and I stick it somewhere out of the way for a week or so, giving myself enough time to give a good crack at writing something else.

And then the moment to read my magnum opus comes. I start to read... and it's tripe. I fall short of every goal I hoped to reach; the characters are about as one dimensional as a Marmaduke compilation and the great ideas are either obscured by my own ineptitude with the English language or revealed to be not that great to begin with. I can convince myself that I am good, but the evidence proves otherwise.

Sometimes I think I'm destined to be a greeting card writer.

A Self Called Nowhere (3:22)
This is about as ambiguous as a song can get. A nice rock number, of course, fitting in with the more rock-oriented theme of the album, but the lyrics of this song are buried in ambiguity. There is this overall sense of some type of self-analysis going on, but the truth of the matter is hidden beneath layer after layer of confusion. And perhaps that is the point.

It seems so strange to me that the few pieces of my own writing that I've actually enjoyed reading a second time are so deeply introspective that when I've shown them to others, they've looked at the words on the paper with eyes as vacant as Dagwood Bumstead before handing it back to me with a hesitant, "Yeah, it's... good" type of reaction.

Maybe inside we're all such huge knots that when we are actually able to dig into our own knot a bit that the language to describe what is happening becomes alien to everyone else.

Maybe that's why I enjoyed Finnegan's Wake so much. Either it was insanely difficult for Joyce to write because of the challenge of digging that deep into himself (which is the apparent picture given in biographies of the man), or else he was so gifted with the prose that he could have been pulling our leg all the way down to the pub.

But does it matter to the wider humanity, most of who are going to look at Finnegan's Wake and immediately deem it a waste of time? Maybe that's the whole problem with this album for They Might Be Giants fans: often on this album, they kick their ambiguity up to a whole new level, leaving the listener to fill in some pieces on their own. No bright Purple Toupee-esque symbolism can really be found on John Henry. No easy Your Racist Friend type answers.

God, I love this album.

Meet James Ensor (1:33)
Oddly, this is perhaps the most well known song from this album. Even though it was never released as a single, it received quite a lot of college radio play after this album's release. It's a short, brief bridge between the themes and sound of this album (introspection and creative blocks to the sound of rock music) and the themes and sound of the band's other works (symbolism abound to the pop beats).

James Ensor was a painter from Belgium who was perhaps a few cards short of a full deck. He painted grotesque portraits of other people with two exceptions: his self-portraits and his images of the tortured Jesus Christ. His paintings evoke this very strong sense that Ensor loathed the world as a whole and his life bears this to be true; he spent much of it living with his mother and avoiding the world, scarcely emerging from his home.

This song kicks up the pop sensibility in a big way. What better way to treat a song about a man who loathed the world and expressed it through his art than through the sounds of 1960s surf-and-party movies like Clambake, because that's certainly the audio cue given here.

Ensor was fairly popular in his lifetime, much to his own disdain. He avoided crowds like the plague and was much pleased that later in life crowds stopped following him wherever he went. His artistic style is a forebear of much of the pop art of the 20th century; you would think that Salvador Dali, for one, would have had much in common with Ensor, except that Dali had this social gene that Ensor seemed to desperately lack.

Nevertheless, I find his art quite striking, and he is obscure enough that I likely would not have discovered Ensor without this song.

Thermostat (3:11)
If there's any doubt of the darker tone of this side of the album, following songs about delusions of wellness, going mad, and a crazy dead Belgian painter is this rather strong anti-technology song. Although it has great horns and is rather catchy, the lyrics are a rather harsh condemnation of the modern life.

This song makes the astute point that humankind has created various technologies in order to make our lives easier and yet the end result of it all is that we spend all of our time turning the thermostat up and down; in other words, we created technology so that technology could control us.

This very concept is the core of mountains upon mountains of literature of all kinds and has been one of the central points of human thought over the past hundred years. And yet, has anything more been said other than the fact that we spend much of the time in our modern life adjusting various machines?

I imagine with horror some sort of dystopia where all we do all day along is adjust things, where humanity is reduced to turning dials and flipping levers all throughout the day. We all live under this pretense that we can do so much, but in fact we really do very little. Most of our time is spent giving instructions, and it's going to just get worse from here on out.

I close my eyes and wonder quite often whether or not I want this kind of future for my children, or for their children. I guess on some level I understand why Luddites lash out against machines, for in so many ways we have intertwined our humanity with them.

Window (1:00)
I consider this to be one of the most uncomfortable songs that the group has ever written. John Linnell here adopts a rather creepy voice to sing the song, giving the sense that there's something detached or broken inside the narrator, and the droning nature of the song, even in its shortness, gives one a shudder. The lyrics themselves, portraying someone watching others through a window, also contribute to this sense of something not right with the world.

This song, like many others on the album, lends itself well to multiple interpretations. Here, the "window" seems to be the television screen, and the narrator is someone who is deeply afraid of direct human interaction, which makes him afraid of the people that he sees on television, let alone people in the real world.

Window almost comes off like a poem from someone who knows that they're teetering on the edge of doing something desperately wrong but cannot help themselves. They're caught up in this huge snowball of fear and trepidation and loathing of themselves and the world around them and soon this snowball will smash on the ground, an explosion with unknown consequences.

This is the power of a strong narrator, one who by his mere presence can make you assume that certain things are true and that certain things are going to happen. Just through voice alteration and tone, John Linnell is able to place this sense of dread into the song. It's similar to the effect of Nirvana's All Apologies; the weight of the narrator adds an extra dimension to the number.

It seems like such a simple matter, doesn't it? Then why is it so hard to accomplish?

Out of Jail (2:38)
A very uptempo song telling a straightforward Bonnie and Clyde type story, except that the crimes are all perpetrated by the female in the pair and she's the one that winds up behind bars.

One of the classic tools in a writer's work box is to shift the roles around in classic tales: Thelma and Louise is just a road movie rewritten with two female leads, and countless stories center around the idea of an ordinary person as God.

This song is actually somewhat reminiscent of the Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers. The female escapes a mundane small town life, goes on a high profile crime spree, and winds up in jail. Her male lover, along for the ride, winds up on a television talk show, thus blurring the line once again between reality and entertainment.

It's really quite a simple song, and there's not all that much to comment on in it.

Stomp Box (1:55)
A song with an extremely fast beat almost to the point of annoyance, the music is very appropriate to this critique of heavy metal music and its fans, who often seem to respect the aggressiveness of the music above everything else, regardless of any merit it might have.

This is almost a parody of thrashy heavy metal music, both in musical style and lyrics. Both elements are given a nearly cartoony edge and the lyrics repeatedly comment on the fact that many metal fans disdain other kinds of music and blast their own to the exclusion of all else.

I had a roommate in college who was obsessed with the band Tool. He claimed repeatedly that there was this great and deep meaning to the band's music and that if you didn't like Tool, it was because you didn't understand the deepness that was Maynard James Keenan.

On a regular basis, this roommate would play ├ćnima and Undertow over and over agan for hours upon hours, usually at a sufficient enough volume that it would interfere with whatever music of mine I would play into my own earphones. He'd also subscribe to various newsletters about the band, which often included material on Area 51 and Freemason conspiracies.

Needless to say, we parted ways after only a semester. Yet this is an image of heavy metal fans that pops up with enough regularity that it can be fairly called a stereotype.

The End of the Tour (3:18)
A most amazing song to end an amazing album, and perhaps one that they should have finished their career with, considering they've been on a downhill slide ever since. Lyrical interpretations of the song abound (including my own analysis, where I claim the song is about Kurt and Courtney and the whole grunge movement), yet it suffices to say that it is just a majestic end to this great album, tying together the threads that run through it (even the "car accident" theme).

This is the single best album closing song I've ever heard; the only thing that comes close is the finish of The Beatles' Abbey Road.

I could comment on this song all day, noting how it tidies up all of the concepts and narrative threads that fill this album: isolation, musical critique, the "drunk driving accident" story, and so forth. I could provide a lengthy analysis of the song's lyrics on their own, though I've already done that.

Instead, I'll simply say that I've been a music fan my entire life and I've listened to music in hundreds if not thousands of genres, and I believe that I've listened to The End of the Tour more than any other.

If you ever receive a mix tape from me, I'd almost guarantee that this song will be the last song on any tape you receive.


To put it simply, this album is not only my favorite album by one of my favorite groups, it has provided regular inspiration for me to continue my writing career. When I feel that I can't possibly put a good word down on paper, or I've just read a piece of mine and hated it, all I have to do is glance at that girl on the cover of this album, pop the disc into my stereo, and turn the lights down low for a while.

The Ballad of John Henry

Now John Henry when he was a baby
Settin’ on his mammy’s knee
Took a snow shovel in his little right hand
Said “Shovel be the death of me, me, me,
Shovel be the death of me!”

“Well”, the Captain said to John Henry
“I’m gonna bring my snow blower ’round,
Gonna take it to the mountain o’ snow so high,
Gonna whup that snow on down, down, down,
Whup that snow on down!”

John Henry told his Captain,
“Lord a man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let that snow blower beat me
I’m gonna die with a shovel in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’ll die with a shovel in my hand!”

John Henry he shoveled in the driveway,
From the porch right down to the street,
But he slipped so hard on a slick patch of ice,
And banged his head on concrete, concrete,
Knocked cold on the hard concrete.

John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was Polly Anne.
And when he woke he saw his Polly
With the Captain’s blower in her hand, hand, hand.
Clearin’ snow with the blower in her hand.

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