Sunday, March 04, 2007

Phaedra Is My Name

I made a to-do list in a word file nearly a year ago, just after I returned from Australia. It included various tasks, as to-do lists often do, from “get full-time job at the Independent” to “write more fiction.” Clearly, I’ve accomplished some and failed to attend to others. One of the tasks that has long been languishing on the list was to explicate the lyrics to three songs — David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” Blondie’s “Susie and Jeffrey” and Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning” — and post the results on the blog. I like all three songs, in spite of that or perhaps because all three seem more or less nonsensical.

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 straight
Okay, 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."
Flowers growing on the hill Dragonflies and daffodils Learn from us very much Look at us but do not touch Phaedra is my name
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."
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 straight
Then Hazlewood re-speaks what he's already said. Nancy, speaking as Phaedra, gets different lyrics for her second part.
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
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.
Some velvet morning when I'm straight
Flowers growing on the hill
I'm gonna open up your gate
Dragonflies and daffodils
And maybe tell you about Phaedra
Learn from us very much
And how she gave me life
Look at us but do not touch
And how she made it in Some velvet morning when I’m straight
This 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.

18 comments:

  1. I do enjoy your "overanalyzing lyrics" posts.
    Now, I may be way off here--and goodness knows that's more than possible--but hearing the song for the first time and reading through the lyrics, I took it in a different direction. What if the male voice is the Minotaur? "Gates" to me jives with the labyrinth. So, Phaedra is re-imagined, but as, perhaps, the only person who was ever kind to the Minotaur. The "don't touch" would then reveal some of her fear towards her step-brother, but she's more teaching him about "life" on the outside of the labyrinth, a life he's never been able to experience.
    Eh... just my first response.

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  2. well, i can't think of a single good reason why this shouldn't be, but i'm skeptical.

    also, upon close examination, i'm not entirely sure of phaedra's relation to the bull-man, because i'm not sure who her mom is. if phaedra's mom wasn't paciphae, then she could rightly give a damn about the minotaur.

    also: how fucked up is this family?

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  3. She's, like, his step-sister or some such thing. And there are problems with my tentative reading in terms of the pronouns and such (that, and it would be a pretty freaking complex construction for it to be the intentional meaning) but still.
    Also: pretty fucked up. Pretty fucked up, indeed. I like the part when the mom puts herself in a fake hollow bull so she can get banged. I mean, there are ways to go about bestiality and that one seems like one of the more difficult approaches.

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  4. Anonymous3:36 PM

    The song is sexual, in the same way Coleridge's Xanadu is sexual. Hear the lustful, joyous tones of the voices.

    "Some velvet morning when I'm straight" – “velvet” is a reference to an intimate morning. I think of drawn curtains and a down comforter, lying next to the woman I love. The word velvet is sometimes used to describe both the internal feeling of and the vagina, itself.

    "…when I'm straight" references an erection. Simple.

    "I'm gonna open up your gate" – Compare this to Xanadu's rock and ice-filled caverns. Both are going to be entered in pursuit of the ecstatic pleasure to be found inside those gates in the “pleasure dome.”

    "Flowers growing on the hill" again compares favorably to the "pleasure dome" description with the lyrics, note particularly lines 3 to 6:
    "So twice five miles of fertile ground
    With walls and towers were girdled round:
    And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
    Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
    And here were forests ancient as the hills,
    Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”

    I don't know if these two consummated their relationship, but here Lee is clearly lusting for a Phaedra, who does respond. This song is the yearning of a man to become fully intimate with a woman. The song does accomplish this in the last verse, which Drew has ably analyzed. This is one very sensuous song. The two singers’ voices drip with frisson and lustfulness.

    I hope that Lee opened Nancy's pleasure dome. Coleridge would have been proud of him.

    "when I'm straight" - simple as that, when he is erect.

    "I'm gonna open up your gate" - compare to Xanadu's rock and ice-filled caverns.

    "Flowers growing on the hill" again compares favorably to the "pleasure dome" with the lyrics"
    So twice five miles of fertile ground
    With walls and towers were girdled round:
    And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
    Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
    And here were forests ancient as the hills,
    Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

    I don't know of their lives, but this song is the yearning of a man to become fully intimate with a woman, which the song accomplishes in the last verse, which Drew ably has analyzed. This is one very sexy song sung by two singers whose voices drip with sensuality.

    For love's sake, I hope that Lee opened Nancy's pleasure dome. Coleridge would have been proud of him.

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  5. Interesting. And interesting again, for the second time it was posted. Hazlewood purportedly never had anything with Sinatra, however, at least according to his autobiography The Pope's Daughter. I could be mistaken, but I believe the two shared a platonic, creative relationship, more father-daughter than anything.

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  6. Too late to ask the author the meaning of the song, but surely someone did over the years?

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    Replies
    1. I've not been able to find it anywhere if someone did.

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  7. Anonymous10:16 AM

    Great analysis! Lee was a good poet (as well as a good old bum) so his lyrics have many senses and associations and we need to accept them all.

    I only want to add one missed thing: Phaedra was also the name of Lee's darling grandmother that was died right before he wrote this song.

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  8. One's understanding of the lyrics of the song are relative to what one see's as the actual source from which Hazlewood is deriving his inspiration, however with some exceptions and further reports not bad... good job! ~ soj712

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  9. Anonymous1:51 PM

    Have to differ with you on one point: I don't believe Hazlewood was praising Phaedra, or that, as you put it, "this song ends well", since I've always heard the lyrics as:

    and how she gave me life
    and how she made it end

    (Lyrics websites differ on this as well.) So the guy dared to fall in love with Phaedra, and now his life is ruined. Sort of a "she done him wrong" companion piece to "Summer Wine", only with a more devastating ending.

    Otherwise, great analysis!

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    Replies
    1. Cheers... well said!

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    2. Anonymous: How interesting. That actually would make more sense, really, since "How she made it in" is a lot more ambiguous than "made it end." Good catch.

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  10. thank you for this. this song has always haunted me. It still does.

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    1. You're welcome. Thanks for reading. I'm happy that other people think about it.

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    2. Anonymous7:59 PM

      The male singer is divorsed. He cheated on his wife with a young flower child of the 60's.
      some velvet morning when I'm straight means sober.
      I'm going to open up your gate. means he's going over to his ex wifes house that used to be his house and try to explain about phadra. how she gave him life and how she made it end.
      the girl part is what it says from the mouth of a young flowerchild...Gary.

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  11. Anonymous12:57 PM

    I like this explanation (from song meanings website). As with a lot of psychedelic lyrics, I think two meanings can be contained in one lyric (I've written many lyrics myself which contain more than one meaning):
    "One can enter the gate(Eden's Gate)when one is "straight"meaning singularity of consciousness. Esoterically, Hazelwood is talking about the opening of the third eye or the opening of higher-self. Phaedra is the illusionary world of matter representing the female principle. Adam or Mankind(Man and Woman)in order to return to life must not "touch" or be conditioned to the illusion of the material world.
    "Look at us, but do not touch, Phaedra is my name. This means eating of the tree of good and evil. It is a trap because we are caught in the conflict of duality."

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  12. Anonymous5:44 PM

    Another comment (continuing from before, anon. is!): This is distinctly Phaedra's song. Tho she seems shy and dreamy with her singing, she's the only one here looking you, the viewer, directly in the eye. You might call it the 'male gaze'; it has the power. The male is the one who is truly dreamy, and unconnected to reality. He can't look the camera in the eye.
    Also, he is on a horse at the beginning. But by the end of the video, it looks like she has taken it over.
    Since we're calling him (songwriter) a feminist, who also wrote 'These boots are made for walking' for Nancy, this song fits together with it. After she has used the boots to 'walk all over him', there is no need for that approach anymore. Here she is one with the wild ocean, a nymph or goddess who can even handle a singing cowboy.

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  13. Anonymous8:12 PM

    Not that it explains much, but there's a brief question/answer on the back of the 'Nancy & Lee' record sleeve --

    WHAT DOES "SOME VELVET MORNING" REALLY MEAN?
    We don't know. The words "Velvet" and "Morning" rhyme in our heads. Phaedra sounds like an "upper" that doesn't quite make it.

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