Today, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t put on pants without trying to clarify what at least one of these songs means. Since it’s my favorite of the three, I picked “Some Velvet Morning,” a decision which worked against my desire to get anything done quickly. You see, the first hit for “Some Velvet Morning” on Google is the Wikipedia page for it. I wrote that page. And I still haven’t got a clue what the song is about.
The video appears below. Please excuse the corniness of it all and keep in mind that in 1968 people didn't know any better. Also, note the description of the woman named "Phaedra."
Now here goes nothing: First, some things you should know about Lee Hazlewood. He wrote this song. He also wrote "These Boots Are Made for Walking," the song that transformed Frank Sinatra's pretty daughter into a notable singer in her own right. That song also employed the lyric You've been lyin' when you should have been truthin', however, so Hazlewood is not necessarily someone who thinks words should be used grammatically. More proof of this: the intro to his autobiography, The Pope's Daughter, which I wrote about in a previous post. Despite this tendency, I think Hazlewood is trying to get at something in "Some Velvet Morning." As far as the rest of his music is concerned, "Some Velvet Morning" stands out; it's psychedelic and less clearly influenced by country western music. And because it stands out, I’d say he wrote it for a reason. Why else take a departure from your usual fare if not to express something you feel necessary? Aside from being an asteroid and a genus in the spurge family of plants, Phaedra is a character appearing in Greek mythology and various subsequent works of literature. In nearly all of them, Phaedra has some connection with sex that usually results in something bad happening. (Such is the lot of so many women in literature, you know.) To the Greeks, Phaedra was the daughter of Minos, the Cretan King whose wife screwed a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. (I suppose this makes the Minotaur and Phaedra step-siblings. Odd.) Phaedra is married to Theseus, the man who slays the Minotaur. Shortly after giving birth to two sons by Theseus, however, Phaedra falls in love with Hippolytus, Theseus's son by the Amazon queen Hippolyte and, thus, her stepson. Hippolytus rejects Phaedra, who then gets revenge for being scorned by falsely alleging that Hippolytus raped her. In all versions of the story, the claim directly results in Hippolytus being killed, whether by daddy Theseus's own hand or by divine intervention that Theseus asks for. (Best of these: At Theseus's request, Poseidon sends a sea monster to spook Hippolytus's horse and drag him to death.) In some versions, Phaedra subsequently kills herself out of guilt over her lie. In Seneca's tragedy based on the tale, Phaedra is portrayed as a sort of Deliliah figure, being amorally seductive and duplicitous enough to draw other people into the constant manipulations of the men in her life. Jean Racine offers a slightly more sympathetic take on Phaedra in his 1677 play, but not by much. In 1962 — just a few years before Hazlewood would have written "Some Velvet Morning" — Jules Dassin directed a film "Phaedra," in which his wife Melina Mercouri played the title character, a wife of a shipping tycoon who begins a disasterous affair with her stepson (Anthony Perkins.) Guess how it ends. Given Phaedra's spotty history, then, it's curious to me that Hazlewood would write a song that praises the character, at least would seem to on a superficial read-through. His working relationship with Sinatra persisted for many years after "Some Velvet Morning" and I don't think he'd have her portray a conniving, lying seductress. Thus, I think "Some Velvet Morning" might actually be an interesting reinterpretation of a generally reviled character — and quite a feminist spin at that. That's what I'm hoping a verse-by-verse examination of the lyrics should further prove, anyway. For the purposes of understanding the song, know that it’s a duet. Nancy’s parts are indented and italicized.
Some velvet morning when I'm straight I'm gonna open up your gate And maybe tell you about Phaedra And how she gave me life And how she made it in Some velvet morning when I'm straightOkay, when Hazlewood says "straight," I don't think he means to use the word the way we'd use it today. Given the content of his other songs, I'd assume this means "sober" or "no longer a criminal." Note that right of the bat, Hazlewood is full of praises for Phaedra. He also might be making a weird sort of sexual metaphor with talking about how he wants to "open up your gate." Then again, it might just be an easy rhyme for "straight."
Nancy's part makes no overt references to sexuality, but all the natural imagery and flowers and stuff seems to put her in the context of the nymphs of Greek mythology — certainly not the context Phaedra occupies in the stories originally told about her. It's an odd switch. However, the nymphs were almost always sexual beings. I'd say Hazlewood wrote these lyrics specifically to conflate the actual Phaedra with some nymphy version of her. After all, Nancy's last spoken line in this verse is "Phaedra is my name."Flowers growing on the hill Dragonflies and daffodils Learn from us very much Look at us but do not touch Phaedra is my name
Some velvet morning when I'm straight I'm gonna open up your gate And maybe tell you about Phaedra and how she gave me life and how she made it in Some velvet morning when I'm straightThen Hazlewood re-speaks what he's already said. Nancy, speaking as Phaedra, gets different lyrics for her second part.
Again, Hazlewood is putting Phaedra in the context of natural wonderment and beauty. Also, he seems to be attributing a unspecified sort of power to her — "Secrets are the things we grow" and "Look at us but do not touch" being prime examples from that. These lines, I think, hint more at the kind of power that made the mythological Phaedra powerful, as she used a secret — specifically a secret about a lie she told — to bring down an entire family and all the badness arose from her being angered.Flowers are the things we know Secrets are the things we grow Learn from us very much Look at us but do not touch Phaedra is my name
Some velvet morning when I'm straightThis whole last verse combines the previously separated parts into a whole. Given the nature of the classical Phaedra and "Some Velvet Morning" itself, I feel like this is the musical equivalent of sex. Literally, the male and female parts are commingled, and going back and forth. Kind of funny in a way. And, if you buy this interpretation, it's pretty high-concept to use the structure of the song to actually convey meaning. What I take away from all this is the simple story of a male speaker praising a woman for teaching him the ways of love — if not necessarily the physical act of it, then the emotional response needed to be a good person. Whereas the myth ended badly, this song ends well because Phaedra specifically warns the man about her power — "Look at us but do not touch" — and the man knows to respect this. At a time when the feminist movement was an appreciable presence in American life, this seemingly surreal song actually seems to be making an interesting commentary. But I suppose that the sentiment expressed shouldn't be surprising, given that Hazlewood himself dedicated a sizable chunk of his songwriting career to aiding a talented and beautiful woman in her artist efforts — perhaps at the expense of his own. After all, this is the man who titled his autobiography The Pope’s Daughter.Flowers growing on the hillI'm gonna open up your gateDragonflies and daffodilsAnd maybe tell you about PhaedraLearn from us very muchAnd how she gave me lifeLook at us but do not touchAnd how she made it in Some velvet morning when I’m straight