From Hearsay and Statistics to Broken Clocks: Gus MacGregor's Dead Horse
Notes by Andrew Shields, Poet, Songwriter, Lecturer in English at The University of Basel.
Ultimately, words are always hearsay: we hear them before we speak them ourselves. Hearing what others have said runs through the choruses of "Secret Wedding" on Gus MacGregor's Dead Horse:
I've heard about a hidden door
That leads beneath the forest floor
And if you get down in the leaves they say
It's like a secret wedding day
The "hidden door" may take you to a secret place, but you don't discover it yourself: you hear about it. The impersonal third-person plural that speaks of such things reappears on "Oh My Sweetest":
Well they say when it’s over
You can’t take it all with you
But I’ll smuggle my woolen hat
And my walking boots through
Here, what "they say" is a variation on "you can't take it with you" as a comment on the inescapability of death. The secret is now a matter of resisting hearsay by "smuggling" the personal – "my woolen hat / And my walking boots" – past the the loss of individuality that is essential to hearsay as well as to death. Language as hearsay plays both ways, then: it is a way to discover secrets but also something to pit one's own secrets against.
The quotation of other people's words found in hearsay can also take the form of idioms, which are themselves both impersonal and personal: impersonal in how they count on having been used over and over again by many people, and personal in that "idiom" comes from the Greek idios for "one's own" (as in "idiosyncrasy", for example). The title cut of Dead Horse quotes horse idioms in order to play with them:
We tried a carrot, tried a stick
Kicked the spurs and cracked the whip
Every old persuasion known to man
Took it to water, took it straw
Bolted that old stable door
Looks like we’ve got a dead horse on our hands
The "dead horse" of idiom comes alive here even as, in the end, there is no way out of the situation.
But idiom can also be a literal quotation. "To Do List" juxtaposes items that might actually appear on such lists with a range of more unlikely items:
Make good coffee, raise the kids
Clean up what my ego did
Mow the lawn and live a fulfilled life
One item on the list later in the song is both an idiomatic phrase and a quotation: "seize the day". This idiom has left its source behind, a poem in Horace's Odes that is more than two millennia old: carpe diem. What was once personal becomes an idiom, a form of hearsay, just as the "to do list" can be a very personal document full of everyday routines that we feel keep us from "seizing the day".
Quotation also comes up in "Maria-Elena (Or Whoever)" with its references to Bob Dylan's "To Ramona" and to two Leonard Cohen songs: "Oh Suzanne / I'm your man". The song proposes to Maria-Elena to "drink a glass of red before we part", but it is also a toast to the sources of the music on this album. If Cohen's "I'm Your Man" confidently asserts how appropriate the singer is for the woman he addresses, Gus's "Deep Enough" is more doubtful about whether he is such a man:
Can I be the man
That I professed to be at first
This definition of manhood in terms of self-doubt contrasts with the exploration of a father's expectations for a son in "To Be A Man":
You showed me how to hide the pain
To be a man
The vision of manhood that the father gave the son is another kind of hearsay, a cliché in which masculinity involves suppressing emotions. The end of this song, though, finds another way to "be a man" in fatherhood itself, which brings the son "closer now than ever to being a man" now that he has long left behind the self his late father knew, the "awkward skinny teenage kid / In eighties clothes".
In their way, those "eighties clothes" are another kind of idiom, and again they mark a play between the impersonal and the individual: we wear the clothes of our time, even as we try to make our clothes into a kind of self-expression. This "awkward" teenager turns up a little younger in "Football Days", a song based on a photograph of a youth football team taken at "a windy field on the Lancashire coast in 1979". Taken back in the days before our age of "a million pictures of a thousand friends" (as "Too Much Of Everything" begins), this photograph becomes a vision of the future that the boys could not have imagined back then:
I haven't seen a single one of those eleven since
I've been spared the marriages, divorces, beer guts and kids
Statistics tell us one or two at least would turn out gay
But we didn't care about anything except football in those days
The future biographies of these young football players, all of them dreaming of playing professionally, turn into standard lives that can even be captured in statistics. And that is a form of analysis that eliminates the individual in the impersonal generality even as the homosexuality that is captured statistically here makes the "one or two", in their way, more individual and less willing to conform to the heterosexual biography described in the previous line.
Dead Horse, then, reflects in a variety of ways on how the individual relates to an indifferent world: hearsay as a potential trap; idioms as something personal that becomes impersonal; quotations from others that one makes into part of one's own idiom; statistics as a normalizing force that also enables a kind of statistical non-conformity. Language and statistics are machines that both enable individuals to live their lives and trap them in conventional, impersonal biographies. Yet those machines can break, like the clocks in "Broken Clocks", and the "riddle" of the individual keeps trying to resist such conformity:
Tap and hold it to your ear
There’s something's going on in here
But what it is that makes it tick
Remains a riddle left unpicked
The measurement of time – like the ticking of language and statistics – can break down and leave a space for the unknown behind. Gus MacGregor fills that space with the picking of his guitar, his lovely melodies, and the "broken clocks" of his songs.