The first god had in his garden
From the back looked like a household pet
When it twirled round was revealed to be
A three-legged black-grey hog (2)
See what flows from his mushy pen (3)
That person is films on TV,
Five years back, at least;
He's the Young Generation dancing troupe
Try'na perform Country And Western
(Do a dance here) (4)
Never since birth not eaten in a day
Never since courtship stayed up some nights
He had a Kingdom Of Evil book under a German history book (5)
He was contrived like that
See what flows from his slushy pen
Small, small location on huge continent
Sodomised by presumption (6)
Crook traitor past revealed at last
Godzone! (Jacob's Ladder) (8)
[...can be erased. This entails explosive charges, left to me by a dead sailor from Bury, being wired up under every window sill in close proximity to my ears. When phones ring and are inconvenient to the ears, I just press table lamp light button next to my bed and they blow up. I got the idea from a book.
Yours sincerely, Mr Reg Varney] (9)
The same thing could have been taken for a spoilt slate with largesse resource. His ferry stopped at the 'Pool port. (10)
Wild Bill Hick shaves and charts at last. The second god's sad - he's coming up - he's waiting number four with a bullet... Less stylish porch, we have the second god's influence. Wild Bill Hick shaves and charts at last. (11)
The best firms advertise the least (13)
The second god lived by mountains that flowed
By the blue shiny lit roads
Had forgot what others still tried to grasp
He knew the evil of the phone
He knew the evil of the phone (14)
The bells stopped on Sunday when he rose
The bells stopped on Sunday when he rose (15)
He's here at last
I saw him
I swear (16)
He's on the second floor
Up the brown baize lift shaft (17)
He's here at last
I saw him
A Jew on a motorbike (18)
A Jew on a motorbike
A Jew on a motorbike
A Jew on a motorbike
A Jew on a motorbike
A Jew on a motorbike
A Jew on a motorbike
A Jew on a motorbike
I saw him
Up the brown baize lift shaft
A Jew on a motorbike
A Jew on a motorbike
A Jew on a motorbike
(A Jew on a motorbike)
1. This song has some of MES's most enigmatic lyrics, but in this case I find the effect to be a wealth of associations and possible interpretations rather than mere perplexity. I would not presume to say what the song is about, largely because I think that polysemy is to a certain extent what it's about. The origin of meaning itself is figured as taking the form of a thwarted or unclear message, as the god writes with a "mushy" or "slushy" pen. The song seems to throw a satirically accusing light on any account of divine creation--or of the origin of things, whether seen as literally divine or not--that forgets that the resulting universe is confused, chaotic, petty, and comical, and, in any case, perverted by language. As is the case with some of the very best Fall songs, the lyrics are both awe-inspiring and humorous. The music matches this perfectly: it sweeps along majestically, but if we zero in on the bass line, it bounces up and down in a lilting figure that is somewhat reminiscent of "Look, Know." I try not to crowd these notes with my opinions, but in this case I feel compelled to say that the song under consideration is an absolute masterpiece. None of what I say below should be taken as a definitve account of what the song means; it is more accurate to say that these are reflections inspired by the lyrics, even if what I say unavoidably takes the form of an explanation. More than that, though, the thoughts below are found nowhere else but in "Garden," and thus they surely belong to it in that sense; in other words, I have not used the song as an excuse to expound on ideas I already had, but have tried to follow it where it leads me and record the results.
2. A chilling (and, typically, humourous) image: I find this encounter with the creature in the garden to be far more evocative than if it were described as something stranger or more sinister. Rather than being intensely horrified or awestruck, I imagine the immediate reaction of a witness to this scene being a loss of bearings, as the familiar is subtly undermined. It should be recalled that, in the book of Genesis, human beings' original home was in a garden where Adam and Eve walked and talked with God as a familiar acquaintance. In the Jewish and Christian traditions there is a theme of homelessness or uncanniness, since we are not at home in this world, having been expelled from our original abode and exiled here. With these lines, if we imagine ourselves entering the garden of the "first god," we are immediately presented with a familiar domestic image, a "household pet"--we expect to feel at home in the garden, and we interpret what we see accordingly. As the animal turns, the full shock of the situation is not something that immediately bludgeons us, but slowly sets in as the creature facing us is not what we expected to see--we are at a loss in the place where we had thought to be, finally, most at home. This is a masterful evocation of the experience of uncanniness. The word "uncanny," a term perhaps most famously employed by Sigmond Freud, is Unheimliche in German, which literally means "un-home-ly." What is uncanny, as Freud uses the word, is strange but always at the same time familiar--for Freud, an experience of the uncanny is above all an encounter with what is most strange in ourselves, to ourselves. In these lines, we are confronted with the strangeness of our own origin, which is certainly not presented as something horrifically, outrageously alien, but rather just a bit confusing, simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, and perhaps something which has nothing to say to us that we are capable of understanding. The first god's creature is like an unreadable hieroglyph: we recognize it as writing, as something which is meant to convey something to us, but it does not yield any meaning. In the garden, things are just a little bit off-kilter; we are allowed to hope, but never permitted anything approaching a beatific vision.
[Dan: Three-legged pigs in gardens? Makes me think of chanchitos, Chiliean good luck ornaments made of terracotta in the shape of three legged piglets.]
3. One among several instances in Fall lyrics of MES using an odd and unexpected adjective; the effect is jarring, and all the more so because "mushy" is not a particularly euphonius or poetically chiming choice of word. The line seems to operate on two levels. On the one hand, the interruption or diffusion of the god's message is implied, so that we only have a distorted sense of what he might be saying to us. On the other hand, however, the god's writing could refer to the creation of the world itself; the connection between words and world is a common religious trope, as seen in the Midrashic "In the beginning, God looked into the Torah and created the world." In that case, the written word is the original blueprint for the universe. It is a universe that is "perverted by language," as the album title proclaims: if the pen of its creator is mushy, then a fortiori our own words take us even further from the original source of meaning. Immediately after this, we suddenly find ourselves escorted into a much more mundane scene, and left to wonder what the connection is with the god in the first verse (see note 4 below).
4. This is an abrupt transition from describing the garden of the first god to mocking a ridiculous character; the "films on TV" line is one of MES's most brilliant insults ever. My punctuation of the line, with a colon after "TV," indicates my interpretation of the lyric: the person in question is "five years back," like films on TV are. This is the most intuitively obvious interpretation, I think, although another is possible: the films could have aired on TV five years ago, which would strengthen the insult in one sense but water it down in another. The person would be more out of date, but the insult is weaker in the same way that "I'll bet you 75 dollars" can be a more powerful challenge than "I'll bet you a million dollars." If we push the films too far back, the insult is excessively hyperbolic. This is admittedly a very small point.
We are left to wonder: is this person the "first god"? In that case, perhaps we were first shown how he sees himself, and now we are being shown how others see him, as an anachronistic and slightly ridiculous character. On the other hand, maybe we are just seeing what is on the other side of the "mushy pen": from the author of a message to those who are its intended recipients, or perhaps the recipients are the words that flow from the god's pen (see note 3 above). On our side of creation, self-important fools and badly executed buck dancing are what we get. These are Christ figures, as it were, in an axiologically neutral sense: incarnations, images, or avatars of the god (see note 6 below). Arguably the god by himself in his garden, on the other hand, is an incarnation, image, or avatar of the twerps who populate the world of "films on TV."
The Young Generation danced on the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s. Stephen Parkin provides the following helpful information in the comments below:
The Young Generation were a group of dancers who were on a Saturday night TV Variety programme in the 70s; from the clip I've found they did a dance routine and sang at the same time. They were a bit like Pan's People on Top of the Pops, except that there were more of them, with an even M/F split, [and] they were better dancers as well. Later they were replaced by The Second Generation, I think.
And Danny has dug up the following:
On his first adult Saturday night TV series, The Rolf Harris Show, accompanied by the irreparably dated Young Generation dance troupe, he would draw huge landscapes on 12ft x 9ft backdrops. It looked effortless. But Harris would practise the paintings in full size as many as five times, against a stopwatch, so he could recreate them live in the allotted time each week."
"Irreparably dated," of course, fits well with the "films on TV" line.
5. Kingdom of Evil (1924) is a novel by Ben Hecht (1894-1964). It is a phantasmagoric horror story, the sequel to Hecht's Fantazius Mallare (1922). Hecht went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter, writing or co-writing Scarface (the original 1932 version), Gone With the WInd, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, His Girl Friday, Spellbound, Notorious, and Mutiny on the Bounty, among many others. Kingdom of Evil is pulpy and purple, and would be less likely to connote intellectual maturity than would a German history book. ^
6. The Lyrics Parade has "small covenance" here. "Covenance" is not a word, but the transcriber could have been groping for "covenant" (there is no sibiliance at the and of the word on the recording). Either one makes sense: "continent" more immediately and intuitively so, but in a larger context it seems appropriate for there to be a reference to a covenant in the song. Is the garden, the home of the god, here said to be a small location in the wider world the god has made, and in which the human relation to the divine is more real than what the latter would be in and for itself? According to Kant, all we can say about God is what our relation to him ought to be; God in himself is completely unknowable. The garden is a notional place, implied by the world but never found within it. In "Garden," the world is a mirror for the god, and the distorted reflection he finds therein is all he knows to be true of himself, or our confused thought of the god is the god thinking himself at the moment of a necessary but impossible self-possession: the greatest fullness of being that is at once the most externalized, insubstantial state. Can I really say this notion belongs to the song? In any case, this is one thought the song enables us to think...
In any case, every other version I have heard has MES saying "continent," and I am pretty sure that's what he says here. Humans were expelled from the garden, which was guarded by cherubim and a flaming sword so that we could not re-enter, but the world soon expanded, first by miles, then tens of miles, then by ten thoudands of miles, until eventually we came to understand that we are inhabitants of a tiny world on the outskirts of a galaxy, itself on the outskirts of the Virgo cluster of thousands of galaxies, itself dwarfed by the tens of billions of other galaxies surrrounding it. The garden--the seat of creation and the spiritual center of the universe--is a tiny spot on an infitesimal speck, so to speak. How could such a location ever be found by one searching for it? How many zillions of lifetimes would it take to reduce the odds to 50 billion to one? I am reminded of William Blake's lines:
There is a Grain of Sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it: tis translucent & has many Angles.
If Satan cannot find the garden, unfortunately, neither can anybody else; the first god pressed the wrong button only to see his creation zip away at the speed of light in every direction.
7. Native New Zealanders sometimes refer to their country as "Godzone," an epithet derived from "God's Own Country" ("God's own..."). In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes: "Around the hero everything becomes a tragedy; around the demigod everything becomes a satyr-play; and around God everything becomes--what? perhaps a 'world'?" Whether or not MES had this sentence in mind, it is evocative of one of the song's themes: the god is closely associated with the world which springs up around him, which is described, in part, as petty and ridiculous. Nietzche's line seems to suggest that the god and its world are inseparable, that it is in the very nature of a god to give rise to a world. This is a key notion in "Garden"; the grandeur of a god and the pettiness of the world, rather than being a contradiction, indicate one another. A god would not be a god without something profane to contrast him to; and yet, this very contrast also shows us the god in a less than flattering light, as it is also in the nature of a god that we only know him through looking at the world. And in "Garden," it is possible that God only knows himself that way...the holy or sacred is here a vanishing point, implied yet contradicted by the world it is implicated in. The God cannot remain alone, in his Godhead; the phone is always ringing, with the sacred on one end of the line and the profane on the other, but all the action is in the wire...
8. In the book of Genesis, Jacob--who is also called "Israel" and is the scion of the twelve tribes of the nation which bear this name--dreams of a ladder extending to heaven. From Genesis chapter 28, verses 10-19:
Jacob left Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to the place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it [or "beside him"] and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you." Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it." And he was afraid, and said, "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
In the context of "Garden," the words "I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land" ring ironic; while the connection between what is divine or original and what is profane or derived is insisted upon, it is also portrayed as confused and uncertain, not incidentally, but by virtue of its nature.
9. This segment comes from a bit MES performed/read on the pirate radio station Greenwich Sound Radio in 1983, entitled "Mark E Smith's Guide to Writing Guide." Reg Varney (1916-2008) was an English actor, known for playing Stan Butler in the 1960s-1970s sitcom On the Buses. The lyric about blowing up phones is echoed later in the line "He knew the evil of the phone." This entire section (beginning with "...can be erased") has been edited out of some CD versions of the song.
The full text of this letter is included in the blue lyrics book, and reads as follows (the part that is not audible on the track is in brackets):
Dear T.V. Times,
I have concocted, through the noble invention and blarneycraft of the humble northerner, a system, whereby constant annoyance by the telephone] can be erased. This entails explosive charges, left to me by a dead sailor from Bury, being wired up under every window sill in close proximity to my ears. When phones ring and are inconvenient to the ears, I just press table lamp light button next to my bed and they blow up. I got the idea from a book.
Mr. Reg Varney
(Please note, all the herbs is available from P.O. Box 935 G.T.V. Manchester)
Thanks to Mark for bringing this to my attention.
Note that the form of the sentence "Guide to Writing Guide" would reappear. On the album I Am Kurious, Oranj, at the end of "Yes, O Yes," MES ia heard saying "And that's what you get when you join the M. Clark School of Soccer Coaching School: Enraged and inflamed with torment." And Code: Selfish opens with "The Birmingham School of Business School."
11. Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876) was a scout, soldier, sheriff, and "gunslinger" in the "Old West." He was also briefly an actor in Buffalo Bill's WIld West Show. While this stage of his career was short-lived, it is evocative of one of the themes of the song: something original and wild or great being portayed or represented in a way that distorts it and renders it a bit ridiculous. As in Philip K. Dick's Ubik when the messages from a divine being come couched in the form of inane advertisements, in the world of "Garden" the multivalent onslaught of meaning renders a pure origin apprehensible only through diffuse echoes. Wild Bill dresses up as himself and takes to the stage, and isn't even adept enough of an actor to portray himself convincingly. This fits with the statement that he "shaves and charts at last"; the idea is that a message must be watered down in order to be widely communicated (what is sometimes called "selling out"). Wild Bill "Hick" is certainly a joke, but it may also be a clue that this line also refers to someone else.
Mr. Marshall points out that this line probably refers to Pete Wylie, who apparently shaved and charted around this time...
12. The counterpart of the earlier "Godzone," this is our introduction to the second half of the song, which deals with the "second god." Fittingly, a sacred image is replaced with a profane one, as heavenly thunder gives way to its man made echo.
13. An odd interjection; the song becomes less cohesive as we are taken further away from the original garden scene. This statement could be heard ironically as, if it were a boast made by a company, it would itself be intended as a form of advertising. At the same time, it could be heard as a swipe at evangelizing: why does the eternal plenum of the godhead need advertisers or adherents?
14. See "when phones are inconvenient to the ears..." in the Reg Varney bit, and note 9 above. Thop suggests, "One might interpret this as saying that the second god is more reclusive, intentionally less contactable or apparently so. Sort-of the same idea as church-goers being referred to as 'God-botherers.'"
If we interpret this song in a Christian context, the second god could be Jesus. In any case, in a way the second god is the furthest extreme from the first: if "what others still tried to grasp" is the knowledge or essence of the first god, then the divinity of the second god is a kind of acheived idiocy. If the first god's pen is mushy or slushy, then the price of incarnation is unavoidable, and the most perfect incarnate god would be the most ignorant of divine matters. His "Godzone" is accordingly a funhouse of appearances where mountains flow, and when the phone rings--is the first god on the line?--the second god is not interested in, or perhaps even capable of, answering it.
On the other hand, as is perhaps always the case in the nest Fall lyrics, the interpretation could be pushed in another direction: on some live versions, MES sings: "What was a revelation to some seemed normal to him." The second god is simply cool--that is, if being tuned in to the divine mystery of creation is indeed cool (as we've seen, the case for this is far from obvious in this song).
15. As the church bells fall silent, we have completed the transition to immanence--we are left with only an incarnate idiot god, who dwells right here among us, by the side of the road. The appearance of the second god may be reminiscent of the "Death of God" theology of Thomas J.J. Altizer, who famously held that, with the incarnation, God emptied himself into the world: the heavens were vacated.
16. Mark the mad prophet sounds unhinged here, as he bears witness to the advent of the second god. It is one of his best vocal performances (on an album full of them), not sounding a magisterial prophetic baritone like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments so much as the reedy tenor of one of Lovecraft's drunks (as I imagine it) or some other such creepy character; the final revelation has as much of the atmosphere of a horror story as it does of holy scripture--not that the Book of Revelation doesn't have that atmosphere also, come to think of it, which is why it crops up in so many horror movies. And yet here it is horror of the banal rather than the bizarre that grips us; even the black-grey hog dumbly leering in the first god's garden is now five years back at least, no match for the evil of the phone, as the utmost horror is the facile reality under which the god has buried himself, and the awful realization that when he comes he will be unrecognizable by virtue of his familiarity, indistinguishable from his creation. Blake's grain of sand is a pixel on the smartphone in your pocket. And there is no transcendence there for Satan or any of his watchfiends to find. Yes, I realize that there were no smartphones in 1983.
17. The brown baize lift shaft is an echo of Jacob's Ladder earlier in the song. Baize is a coarse fabric, and is what is used on the surface of pool tables. If the lift shaft were actually composed of baize, it would be difficult to ascend, to say the least. In his divine aspect, the second god is elusive, but if we interpret the song as saying that divinity is now fully immanent (and that in such a way that it virtually vanishes) then we might take the singer's insistence--"I swear"--as the bravado of a false prophet.
18. We ride out the song's finale with an absolutely perfect image. From Reformation:
It would seem that the riders MES saw had some garments on that marked them as Jewish; perhaps they were Orthodox Jews. In any case, whatever the inspiration for the lyric was, in this image the sacred and profane are placed together, yet remain distinct; at the same time, divinity only comes to us second hand, suggested by the motorcycle rider's clothing, and thus it remains within the realm of appearances. The entire song can perhaps be seen as MES's commentary on this single image.