Wasted and wounded
It ain’t what the moon did
I got what I paid for now
The first time I ever heard this song was at around two in the afternoon on a commercial radio station, played by some mischievous DJ who was possibly hoping to get fired. It caught my attention. It’s not often that you have your lunch interrupted by a guy who sounds like Paul Robeson throwing up, singing about prostitutes, drinking and begging someone to stab him.
Later in life I explored Tom’s back catalogue a bit more thoroughly. Tom Traubert’s Blues is by no means his best song, but in the same way that Stairway To Heaven isn’t Led Zepplin’s best song, or Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t Queen’s best song. It is an extraordinary song, and seems to contain the essence of the man in a way that none of his other songs do.
No one speaks English
And everything’s broken
Most people are probably hooked into the song by its usage of Waltzing Matilda as a chorus. What keeps you interested are the huge, epic, evocative, enigmatic lyrics. “I’m an innocent victim of a blinded alley, and I’m tired of all these soldiers here”, he sings, and Christ knows what he’s on about. The cumulative effect of the lyrics is to create a kind of spoken-word abstract movie, with unnamed characters with indiscernible motives struggling in some unspecified crisis. For a long time I thought it was about immigrants from some country describing their experience in some other country. I had a phase where I was convinced that it was about troops fighting in Gallipoli.
Tom himself is very vague about the song’s significance. It’s subtitled “Four Sheets To The Wind in Copenhagen”, and research shows that Tom spent a night on the town with Danish singer Mathilde Bondo shortly before the song was written. As for the identity of Tom Traubert, Tom says that he was a friend of a friend who died in prison.
No, I don't want your sympathy,
The fugitives say that
The streets aren't for dreaming now
It all begs a question about meaning itself. One of the great unsolved mysteries of modern music is: would lyrics which we describe as poetry actually count as poetry without the music to help us. It’s an interesting problem. I certainly think that the king of the rock-poets, Bob Dylan, falls down without the music to back him up. I can’t imagine Dylan Thomas writing a line like, “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind”.
One of the essential differences is meaning. The words of traditional poetry are heavy with meaning, an inner logic that bursts through the rhymes. Whereas lyrics can have a meaning that exists some place between the music and the words. I can give you a line like “the girls down by the striptease show” and it doesn’t mean much on the page. But couple it with the chord descent that it’s given in Tom Traubert’s Blues and you immediately understand the significance. It speaks of the failure of modern life, and the emptiness of cities, and the loneliness that everyone feels deep down. That feeling doesn’t come from the music or the lyrics but some place in between.
So, after spending half of my life contemplating this song, I’ll say this: I really have no idea what it’s about. Perhaps there’s a simple explanation for why this song affects me so. Perhaps there isn’t, and the problem is that some things can’t be neatly deconstructed into simple essays explaining our emotions, but need to simply be experienced in a purely a priori fashion. Perhaps all great song lyrics are integrally linked to the music that accompanies them, and to separate the two is like separating the head and body of a living creature. Perhaps I just need to drink more budget Scotch. All I know for sure is that my heart breaks when he sings:
It’s a battered old suitcase
In a hotel someplace
And a wound that will never heal
No prima donna
The perfume is on an old shirt
That is stained with blood and whiskey
And goodnight to the street sweepers
The night watchmen, flame keepers
And goodnight Matilda too.