Saturday, November 19, 2016


Here are the full lyrics for A Pair of Brown Eyes (1985) by The Pogues. See if you can follow the two narratives. It's about a drunken encounter of two men in a pub--one young and the other much older. The plot is easier to follow with the indentation separating the two first-person points of view:
One summer evening drunk to hell
I sat there nearly lifeless
An old man in the corner sang
"Where the water lilies grow"
And on the jukebox Johnny sang
About a thing called love
And it's "how are you kid and what's your name?"
And "how would you bloody know?"
In blood and death 'neath a screaming sky
I lay down on the ground
And the arms and legs of other men
Were scattered all around
Some cursed, some prayed, some prayed then cursed
Then prayed then bled some more
And the only thing that I could see
Was a pair of brown eyes that was looking at me
But when we got back, labeled parts 1, 2, 3
There was no pair of brown eyes waiting for me
And a rovin' a rovin' a rovin' I'll go
For a pair of brown eyes
I looked at him he looked at me
All I could do was hate him
While Ray and Philomena sang
Of my elusive dreams
I saw the streams, the rolling hills
Where his brown eyes were waiting
And I thought about a pair of brown eyes
That waited once for me
So drunk to hell I left the place
Sometimes crawling sometimes walking
A hungry sound came across the breeze
So I gave the walls a talkin'
And I heard the sounds of long ago
From the old canal
And the birds were whistling in the trees
Where the wind was gently laughing
And a rovin' a rovin' a rovin' I'll go
A rovin' a rovin' a rovin' I'll go
And a rovin' a rovin' a rovin' I'll go
For a pair of brown eyes
For the longest time (30 years!) the lyrics confused me. First, I didn't understand that two different men were having a dialog about the same thing. In this sense, it's a bit like Neil Young's "Old Man." Second, I didn't understand that the older man had not only been through a horrific wartime experience but that he too had lost a woman. The older man says:
And the only thing that I could see
Was a pair of brown eyes that was looking at me
But when we got back, labeled parts 1, 2, 3
There was no pair of brown eyes waiting for me
I used to think that he was talking about literally finding a pair of disembodied brown eyes, or maybe a survivor with brown eyes who then vanished when he came back to "label (body) parts one to three." Rubbish. The soldier's memory of a woman with brown eyes back home got him through the horror. But when he returned from the war, she had left. This triggers the younger man who too had once had a woman with brown eyes. The younger man leaves the pub, hating the older man. 

I wanted to subtitle this post "When the artist betrays his own meaning." Just look at the video released by The Pogues to promote the single: 

Utter rubbish. It's all Thatcher Derangement Syndrome and Big Bad Government. Why couldn't they have been truer to the meaning of the song?
It’s just about a guy getting pissed at a bar 'round here. He’s getting pissed because he’s broken up with this bird and… you know how it is when you just go into a pub on your own to drink and it’s really quiet and you get this old nutter who comes over and starts rambling on you. So this old guy starts on about how he came back from the war, the First World War. Or the Second. One of them anyway. And he tells him about the ship he had out there and how he got out and came back and this girl had fucked off with someone else, a girl with a pair of brown eyes. Which is the same situation as the young guy sitting there listening to all this rubbish and the juke box playing Johnny Cash and Ray Lyman and Philomena Begley, classic London juke box tracks. And in the end he gets to the stage where he says fuck it, and he goes stumbling out of the pub and he walks along the canal and starts feeling really bad, on the verge of tears, and he starts realising that the old guy has had a whole fucking lifetime of that feeling, going through the war and everything, but his original reaction is to hate him and despise him. I’m not saying he goes back and starts talking to him but you know… ~ Shane MacGowan link


chickelit said...

Shane MacGowan is still alive somehow. But like Shelley Duvall, he's hard to look at these days.

Chip Ahoy said...

Great commentary.

I read the lyrics, then when the video started and people were blindfolded on the train, I stopped listening. Scrolled down and saw "Utter rubbish" *ding* na-a-a-a-a-a-i-l-e-d it.

When you say he's hard to look at these days I expected the worse, worser than worse. He's actually improved from this. Cleaned himself up, he did.

And he's better off than the old man in a wheelchair I encountered outside tonight. Now, that old man had it rough.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

I paid attention to the quote where Mr. MacGowan describes the song and I'm glad I did. Sounds like a great thing to write a song about. I wish people would think about music (and things in general) more in terms like that. A story that resonates with what it feels like to come to grips with your own understanding of things, one of those things being yourself.

Many years ago I took a sociology elective and there was a quote in one of the texts that made a big impression. I tried to find it on the internet but that was a fail. IIRC, it had something to do with the beginnings of the Ghost Dance and Quanah Parker, and it might have been him explaining that he will no longer wage war because he's come to realize that his problems are personal, not political.

Maybe the reason I can't find it on the internet is I never got it right to begin with.

Dad Bones said...

Well said chickelit. For a long time I misheard the refrain in the Johnny Cash song Sam Hall as "damn your ass" when it was actually "damn your eyes". I still took something away from the song but that one word makes a world of difference. Johnny Cash got it right even if my ears didn't. It's disappointing that The Pogues didn't reach a little deeper.

William said...

I take strange comfort in the fact that Shane MacGowan has outlived all these other rockers. At one time he was everyone's favorite pick in the deathpool. His voice is as close to a scream of pain as a voice can be and still be musical. His voice and his looks work for him. Someone pretty and mellifluous could never deliver those lines with so much authority........Bibi Anderson was asked to explain her role in Bergman's movie, Persona. She said words to the effect "What the fuck do I know. I'm just an actress".......I like Shane's explanation off the song's meaning, and I like his confusion too........The meaning of life is elusive and just out of reach,by if we try hard enough we can come up with a fathomable explanation.

chickelit said...

Another thing I like about MacGowan's lyrics is the way he hints at other songs on the same album: The war horror rhymes with the narrative in "Waltzing Matilda"; the rovin' rhymes with the "roving young fella" in "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Everyday"; the canal rhymes with the filthy canal in "Dirty Old Town."

deborah said...

Old Man is one of my favorite NY song.

OT but you remind me of two clever State Farm insurance's one..

deborah said...

this too:

sorry, creating a link is excruciating on this touch screen.

chickelit said...

The song has has an element of what I'd call (for lack of a better term) "inter-generational comeuppance." I saw this once before years ago while living in Switzerland and travelling in France. I was in a tiny delicatessen outside of Versailles. It was lunchtime and very busy. I had taken the time to teach myself enough French to get along, being aware of how English never cuts it with the French. Others in front of me had struggled to order in English, and the woman behind the counter obliged, but with the rolling eyes thing. Right after I had ordered (in French), an older woman began ordering her grocery list in Italian. The younger woman dutifully obliged without expression and spoke not one word in return. Now perhaps the older woman was a local and the younger one knew her; perhaps the younger woman was Italian herself- I never did find that out. What I came away thinking with a smile was that the older woman had just laid some linguistic superiority of her own onto the younger one: I'm speaking the language closer to the mother tongue so you just hush and take it. That's what I wanted to believe anyways.

chickelit said...

Deborah, your first link doesn't work. Is the second one the same?

The Dropkick Murphy's are another example of a band who blew their cool getting political. What is it about a modicum of fame that drives them to do that stuff?

deborah said...

no, youtube state farm commercial couch...

I don't know much about DM...just love some of their songs.

chickelit said...

Using your clues, I found this

deborah said...'s so well done.