This week we travel back to the late 60s and visit a song that was never a big hit, but that remains one of the best-known songs of one of the greatest bands of the era: Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul”.
“Mr. Soul” was written by Neil Young, a performer who’s rightly acknowledged as also being a great songwriter. Mr. Young built this song in an unusual (for rock, at least) structure—three verses of four rhyming lines each, and no chorus. Basically, the song is written more like a poem than an ordinary rock song. This means, of course, that this week we’ll be in for a real treat, a vision of perfect songsmanship. Right? Well, we shall see.
Oh, hello Mr. Soul, I dropped by to pick up a reason
See, what’d i say? Pure genius! Structuring a song in the form of a conversation between the artist and someone outside of the ordinary conversation between artist and audience, pushing us headlong into a world of pure metaphor, where reasons can be exchanged like candy.
For the thought that I caught that my head is the event of the season
See, once again, pure…erm…well…i guess this would actually be best described as incomprehensibility.
Let me try to parse this sentence. Maybe it means…well, no, not that. Maybe…no, that wouldn’t make sense, either. Essentially, this is not English sentence structure.
Well. Since we know Neil Young is a genius, let’s just chalk this up to bad transcription. Yeah! That explains it! Every single lyrics site out there is wrong, and if we could only decipher what Mr. Young had actually written, we’d all be sitting here stunned and slack-jawed with amazement at how amazing and beautiful this line actually was, instead of stunned and slack-jawed at how amazing and beautiful it…isn’t. Um.
In other words, move along, there’s nothing to see here.
Why in crowds just a trace of my face could seem so pleasin’
I’ll cop out to the change, but a stranger is putting the tease on.
See? This is just absolutely…
Well, the best word would, i guess, be “nonsensical”.
But at least it’s actually English, so it’s got that going for it!
I was down on a frown when the messenger brought me a letter
I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her
So which is it, Mr. Young? Were you down or raised? Or is it that the praise of the fan raised your spirits, after they’d been down? Probably that. Except that she also said you’d upset her, which only makes really mean people happy. So you’re a mean person, Mr. Young? Good of you to admit it, i guess.
And why would being brought a letter get you down? Most people like to get mail. Unless it’s bills.
Ooh! It makes sense now!
Mr. Young was delivered what he thought was a bill for his most recent hashish purchase, and he was sad about it, since he knew he’d either have to pay out a lot of money out or have his knuckles repossessed by the Bank of Guido. But it turned out that it wasn’t a bill, it was actually hate mail from someone who said he’d upset her, which made Mean Mr. Young smile.
Or maybe Mr. Young’s making a deeper point—that really deep stuff like good rock music can’t be tied down to ordinary, boring things like narrative structure. Yeah, man, that’s gotta be it! Genius!
Okay, i’ll let you stop rolling your eyes before moving on to the next lines.
Any girl in the world could have easily known me better
She said you're strange, but don't change, and I let her.
You let her what, Mr. Young? I mean, this being a rock song and all, normally i’d go for the unspoken sexual interpretation here, but with the line preceding it it’s just confusing. You’d let her know you better? Well, that makes sense, since you’d apparently let any girl in the world do so. But the most immediate possible antecedent is change, so maybe you let her change even though she asked you not to. I guess that’s a nice gesture on your part, so congrats on learning how not to be mean.
Or maybe this is simply semi-random words thrown together to create something incomprehensible enough that people will think it’s deep.
That gets my vote.
In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster?
No, Mr. Young, the smile on your face, assuming there has been no plastic surgery and you’re not wearing any makeup, will remain made of various lipids, proteins, salts, and water—and even if you are wearing makeup or have undergone plastic surgery, you’re still in no danger of your smile turning to plaster, which is made of stuff like gypsum, calcium carbonate, sand, or cement, none of which appears in most readily available makeup or plastic surgery formulations. So no worries on that score.
But this song is from the late 60s, so i suppose certain, um, practices may reasonably have led to such paranoias. So i’m glad i could set your mind at ease, Mr. Young—it’s just a service i provide.
Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster
For the race of my head and my face is moving much faster
Is it strange I should change? I don't know, why don't you ask her?
This doesn’t even make enough sense for me to properly mock it.
You know what’s really sad about these lines? Back when i was seventeen and wrote lots of really, really bad poetry, most of it came out sounding like this.
And the scary thing is that there are people out there who have killed many, many electrons in an attempt to explain what, exactly, this song means. What do i think? I think there’s a much simpler explanation.
p.s. Jim Messina’s career was launched by being in Buffalo Springfield. I wonder if our old friend Susan will drop by again?
8 years ago