Pawn Hearts is Van der Graaf Generator‘s fourth album, released in 1971. It has only three tracks: two ten-to eleven-minute songs on Side One, and a side-long suite, “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” on Side Two–though a fourth track, “Theme One,” an instrumental written by George Martin, is included on some US and Canadian releases of the album.
The album wasn’t a success in the UK, but it went to number one in Italy, where the band were treated like superstars when touring there. Pressure from touring, nonetheless, caused them to break up for the first time in 1972.
The band originally intended Pawn Hearts to be a double album, like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, but Charisma Records, Van der Graaf Generator’s label, vetoed the idea. Keyboardist Hugh Banton originally didn’t want to include the side-long suite of Side Two, preferring more commercial material, like “Killer,” from the band’s previous album, H to He, Who Am the Only One. The 2005 reissue includes extra material, including “Theme One,” “W (first version),” “Angle of Incidents,” “Ponker’s Theme,” and “Dimunitions.”
I’ll be analyzing the original three tracks, though, of which the lyrics can be found here. And here is a link to a recording of the full original album.
The album’s title is derived from a spoonerism made up by saxophonist/flautist David Jackson, who said he was going over to the studio to “dub on some more porn harts,” instead of “horn parts.” Consider the saying of the spoonerism with the non-rhotic British accent, and it’s easy to hear it evolve into “pawn hearts.” Added to this is what singer/guitarist/keyboardist/main songwriter/lyricist/bandleader Peter Hammill said to album artist Paul Whitehead: “no matter if you’re a king, a pauper or whatever – you’re a pawn.” As a result, the album cover shows people of various walks of life as pawn pieces in chess floating above the Earth, with a kind of cloud curtain in the back.
We thus all have the hearts of pawns: the title of the album in this way sets the tone of what we’re about to hear. As pawns, used and manipulated by those in power, we’re like lemmings mindlessly running off a cliff. The killer lives inside us because we don’t act to help those in need, we don’t release the angels also living inside us. Our plague as lighthouse keepers, so to speak, is in sitting helplessly as others crash and die on the shore.
“Lemmings” opens with a fade-in and Hammill playing a tune of single notes on an acoustic guitar, a tune he’ll soon sing in falsetto. Banton’s organ and Jackson’s flute, the latter going back and forth from A to B, can be heard in the background, along with Guy Evans on the drums.
Hammill sings of standing on “the highest cliff top,” looking down and all around, and seeing those he loves “crashing on quite blindly to the sea.” These are the lemmings, those who foolishly follow the leader and go mindlessly to their destruction. He, knowing better, refuses to go along with their “game.”
This watching of the lemmings’ self-destruction into the sea links with the predicament of the lighthouse keeper on Side Two, who despairs as he sees sailors’ boats crash into the rocks on the shore, and he feels powerless to prevent the deaths.
The music then switches to the main riff, punctuated by Jackson’s saxophones. It’s played with an alternating of two bars of 6/8 and one of 3/4, except for the last line of each of the corresponding verses that Hammill sings, which is two bars of 6/8, one of 5/8, then a return to 4/4.
In the first of these verses, Hammill sings of “heroes” who “are found wanting.” One looks out, but “can see no dawn.” These are the words of the lemmings, who “are drawing near to the cliffs” and “can hear the call.”
While the themes of Pawn Hearts are, of course, universal, applying to the problems of any time, past, present, and future, and applying anywhere, I see them especially applying to the problems of our world today, even though Hammill had no way of predicting today’s problems. There was plenty to fear of nuclear brinksmanship back when he wrote these lyrics, back during the Cold War; and there’s plenty to fear of similar nuclear brinksmanship during our current, needless Cold War with Russia and China.
Such fears make Pawn Hearts especially relevant in today’s world, regardless of the original intentions of Van der Graaf Generator. So many of us today see the lemmings running off the cliff, and like the lighthouse keeper of the side-long suite on Side Two, we watch in despair and powerlessness as they run, crash, and self-destruct, taking us all with them.
“What course is there left but to die?”
The 6/8, 6/8, 3/4 riff returns, with Hammill again singing of our disappointment with our “high kings.” The lemmings are as disappointed as all of us are, yet they’re still willing to “hurtle on into the dark portal…into the unknown maw.” Part of this hurtling to self-destruction is because of blind foolishness; part of it is despairing resignation to our fate. “They know it’s really far too late to stop us.” Lemming and lighthouse keeper, in this way, are one, just as the lighthouse keeper will feel himself at one with the sailors/lemmings on Side Two, as we’ll soon see.
“What cause is there left but to die?”
Next comes a brief instrumental break, with Hammill strumming acoustic guitar chords in G minor, playing a melody of which a variation will be heard soon in his singing. In the verse he sings, we hear of the mental conflict felt between hope, however faint, and the resignation to doom that makes us want to end it all sooner.
This theme continues on the sax, climaxing with Hammill bellowing, three times in head voice, a high note in F, the third time with him going down from F to D. Then we have a grating segue into the “Cog” section of the song.
We hear an angular riff on Jackson’s saxophones, made all the more dissonant and angular by a counterpoint from Banton’s organ. In the verses of this section, Hammill sings of how we’re mutilated by the “steel spokes” and “cogs” of the political machines under which we all suffer. We suffer from others, but also from ourselves, since, as we learn from the final verse of the song, we’re “merely cogs of hatred.” We suffer as lemmings hurtling to our self-destruction, hating whom the ruling class manipulates us into hating; and we suffer as lighthouse keepers who watch this needless self-destruction, powerless to do anything about it.
“But there still is time…”
Next comes another segue, imitative of 1960s avant-garde jazz with its dissonant piano and saxophones. That we would hear such tense music after Hammill’s words of hope just emphasizes how flimsy that hope is. This segue brings us back to the main saxophone riff (6/8, 6/8, 3/4), and then to the final verses of the song.
Hammill sings of how we must do the opposite of what the lemmings are doing. We must “fight with our lives,” “unite the blood,” and “avert the disaster.” Whatever disaster he may have been thinking of at the time, we today can think of stopping WWIII, a very real and nearing danger, and also environmental disaster, to “abate the flood.”
“Screaming in the mob” will do nothing to help us. Instead, we must “look to the why and where we are”: we can’t solve our problems without properly understanding them. With this understanding comes the hope: “What choice is there left but to live?” It is for “the hope of saving our children’s children’s little ones.” They, the future generations, are our hope. The hope of happiness lies in creating a future that they can live in and enjoy, if we can’t do so ourselves here and now.
“What choice is there left but to try?”
The sense of the feebleness of this hope is heard in how weakly Hammill sings this last line, especially the lethargic way he says “try” at the end. The dimness of that hope is further emphasized with the song’s instrumental ending, with Banton’s dark organ chords and Jackson’s flute playing a dissonant version of that strummed acoustic guitar part before the “Cogs” section.
The song ends with a dissonant flourish of organ, flute, and drums, giving an ambiguous feeling: has hope been realized, or has it been frustrated?
“Man-Erg” is an odd title for what is quite possibly Van der Graaf Generator’s best song. One proposed interpretation, one I’m far from 100% convinced of, is that the title is an anagram for “German,” implying the Nazi stereotype (which ties in with that photo of the band in the inner sleeve of the album cover, them all doing Nazi salutes during a break from playing a game of “Crowborough Tennis.” The saluting is obviously just the band joking around: why would they be seriously advocating such an unpopular, hateful ideology?) Though the Germans of the Nazi era were certainly lemmings in their own…right, driving their country to its self-destruction, and therefore such an interpretation fits in with the general themes of the album, it detracts from the sympathy we feel for the man Hammill is singing for…unless he were understood to be having second thoughts about his fascism, and feeling remorse over it.
Another possible interpretation for the title, as I see it, is that “Erg” is literally that: a unit of energy, an amount of work as understood in physics. Such an interpretation is plausible, given Hammill’s educational background in Liberal Studies in science during his university years; consider in this connection the implied meaning of H to He (Hydrogen to Helium), as well as the S.H.M. section of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” (i.e., simple harmonic motion). “Erg” thus could be understood as metaphorical of any action a man is responsible for, good or bad…or a guilty lack of needed action.
The song begins with a plaintive piano chord progression of F-major, 1st-inversion C-major (i.e., with E in the bass), D-minor 7th, and C-major, root position. We hear a high C played throughout the progression, in other words. Hammill sings of a character tormented with conflicts over the bad sides (“the killer”) and the good sides (“angels”) that “live inside [him].” “The killer” and “angels” are good and bad internal objects derived probably from his experiences with his parents, in their good and bad forms. “The killer” is the more repressed of the two sides, “lightly sleeping in the quiet of his room,” but he comes to consciousness sometimes, too, causing mayhem.
One intriguing stylistic quality of Banton’s playing of the Hammond organ is how he can make it sound like a pipe organ. Indeed, the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll aptly refers to “Hugh Banton’s churchy Hammond organ” (page 1026). This “churchy” sound is a fitting background to Hammill’s lyrics about a man with a “killer” and “angels” inside him, a man plagued with guilt, craving redemption of the sort one might try to find in a church.
…and what is he feeling guilty about? What does he need redemption for, be it through Christ, or through whomever? Since the themes of Pawn Hearts include those of helplessly watching lemmings destroy themselves, sitting back as a lighthouse keeper and doing nothing as sailors crash on the rocky shore, I’d say he feels like a “killer” for not doing anything to prevent the deaths. Recall that old saying often attributed (incorrectly) to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
In these three tracks, we have a Hegelian triad, with “Lemmings” and “Man-Erg” opposing each other: the first song is about the self-destructive fools whose actions the man in “Man-Erg” is so opposed to; the second song is about him confronting his own guilt in doing nothing to stop their foolishness, while his more ‘angelic’ side wishes to help; “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is the sublation of the opposing former two, depicting and merging both sides, and also resolving the lighthouse keeper’s guilt by…suicide, or by finding peace through rationalizations?
Anyway, back to the second track. After “the killer” and “angels” verses, there is an abrupt break from the sweet, plaintive opening tune, into a tense middle section, introduced by Jackson’s saxophones, first screeching downward glissandi, then playing perfect fourths of G and C in three bars of 3/4 time, then a wailing bar of 2/4, and a 3/4 bar of organ notes playing eighth notes of B-flat, C, A, C, A-flat, and C.
These six eighth notes will form the second half of a tense riff in 11/8 time (subdivided 5 plus 6), the first half of which being made up of five eighth notes, being tritones of C and F-sharp, played on the organ. Banton solos over this riff on a Farfisa Professional electric organ.
[Since Robert Fripp of King Crimson played electric guitar as a guest musician on Pawn Hearts–he sat in on H to He, too–I used to think that this brief solo was by him; but I soon suspected, based on the sound of the attacks of the notes played, that it sounds more like keyboard tapping than the plucking of strings. It turns out I must be right in my suspicions; in fact, it remains an utter mystery to me where Fripp’s playing can be heard pretty much anywhere on the album, since he apparently plays on all three tracks. I find this mystery to be particularly frustrating, given Fripp’s distinctive guitar playing style, which should be easy to pick out.]
After this brief soloing, we hear an example of Hammill’s trademark tortured vocal screams, the helpless viewer of the lemmings/sailors crashing on the rocks below, him wanting to be free (i.e., of his guilt) and to know who he really is. Those internal objects I referred to above, “the killer” and the “angels” were projected into him, as I would imagine, from his parents when he was a child, telling him on the one hand never to interfere in others’ affairs, and on the other hand to do what is right. As projections from other people, neither “the killer” nor the “angels” are the real him, of course. Undue parental influence has a way of stifling the growth of our authentic selves.
The 11/8 riff does a drawn-out ritardando until the A-flat of the aforementioned six eighth-notes is stretched out and part of a tritone with D in the bass. The music calms down and switches to a progression beginning with F-major and its relative minor in D. Hammill has switched from playing an acoustic to an electric piano.
Hammill sings of his isolation (“cloisters”) and “the acolytes of gloom,” those internal bad objects that assist him in his misery, as it were. “Death’s Head” is his reminder that he can’t stop the self-destruction of the lemmings/sailors, and that their destruction is his own.
“And I am doomed,” sings Hammill against a background of F-sharp, F, E, and F major. Then he sings of “the pranksters of [his] youth” who are “laughing in [his] courtyard,” a reference to his attempts at regression to an innocent, childlike state, an attempt to escape his despair. The “Old Man,” who is the wiser part of himself, nonetheless brings him back to reality and “tells [him] truth.”
Next comes some sax soloing by Jackson, then a rather bombastic passage with a return of the acoustic piano (this passage will be heard again, in a more developed form, at the end of the song), and a return to the original theme with the F major/1st-inversion C major/D minor 7th/root position C major progression.
Along with “the killer” and the “angels,” Hammill sings of how the protagonist himself is in there, his true self…but who is this man, really? He’s no hero, that’s for sure, for he’s done nothing to prevent the deaths of the lemmings/sailors. Will he be “damned” for his inaction? He’s “just a man,” after all.
He knows that he, like all of us, is a complex combination of good and evil (“killers, angels,” as well as “dictators, saviours”). In our predicament of lemmings hurtling to their self-destruction, our sin of inaction to prevent these deaths make us no better than the dictators we often blindly follow (we’re reminded of that Nazi salute photo), for we are neglecting our potential to be saviours, not giving aid to the “refugees in war and peace.”
“As long as man lives,” there is hope…but time is running out, and for us listeners now in the 2020s, WWIII is coming ever closer, as is the destruction of our planet, ecologically speaking.
The chord progression of the “I’m just a man” section–G major and F major (twice), then A minor, G major, F major, etc.–is soon combined with the tense 11/8 riff, punctuated by Hammill singing five Gs, then F/G/E/G/E-flat/G.
The tense 11/8 riff is heard alone, followed by and ending with that bombastic passage I mentioned above, but a longer, drawn-out version, with Evans banging on tympani. Thus ends Side One, and we flip the record over.
“A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” opens with Hammill playing electric piano, the reverberating tone of which suggests the movement of the water; we hear an opening chord of D minor 7th added 9th.
In part one of this side-long suite, “Eyewitness,” Hammill sings of a sailor “waiting for [his] saviour” as a storm at sea is tearing him apart. But perhaps this is really the lighthouse keeper empathically identifying with the suffering, dying sailor (whose “fingers feel like seaweed”), hence his guilt. He’s “too far out” and “too far in” because of his alienation from his work: too far away from the dying sailors to save them, and too introverted to reach out to help. “Too far out” and “too far in” could also refer to the sailors (with whom he identifies) as being too far out to be saved, and too far in the water to be pulled out.
When he says his “nights are numbered, too,” we can interpret these words in the dual sense given in the preceding paragraph: this could be the voice of a sailor who knows he’ll die soon in a storm at sea, or this could be the voice of the lighthouse keeper, identifying with the sailor in his fear of imminent death. It could also simply mean that the keeper is contemplating suicide.
As I said above, “Lemmings” is essentially about those rushing to their self-destruction, those other than this eyewitness; “Man-Erg” is about the eyewitness; and “Plague” is about him and those he sees getting killed–there’s a kind of fusion of both sides, of the watcher and those watched, a sublation effected through his empathy and guilt over his inaction, the “Erg” that the “Man” never does.
“The stars” don’t “shine” for him: he feels fated to die, as do the sailors/lemmings he identifies with. Indeed, he “prophes[ies] disaster,” for he knows the doom that’s coming, that which he can’t prevent (and therefore feels he’s partly responsible for), as “the witness and the seal of death.” Such a prophet of doom is what you become “when you see the skeletons of sailing-ship spars sinking low.” All of those “ancient myths” seem eerily true.
Part two, “Pictures/Lighthouse,” is an instrumental interlude starting with Jackson’s flute, imitative of birdsong, played over Banton’s organ arpeggios. A bit of saxophone is similarly imitative of bird-calls, then the saxes imitate the ships’ horns, after which Evans’s drums suggest the ships crashing. Next comes Banton’s churchy organ again, playing a passage that has been compared to Messiaen‘s Catholic pipe organ works. Perhaps this juxtaposition of ships crashing, killing the sailors, followed by ‘religious’ music is meant to suggest the dead sailors going to heaven…or is this just the keeper’s wish fulfillment, to assuage his guilt?
With part three, we briefly return to “Eyewitness” and the melancholy theme in D minor. If that organ music, as representing the dead sailors’ entry into heaven, is the keeper’s wish-fulfillment, it seems that he has rejected that wish as unattainable, for Hammill sings of the keeper as recognizing that it’s too late for “contrition” (besides, it might be hard for the keeper to conceive of those who ‘swear like sailors’ as dying in a state of sanctified grace).
All the keeper can do is sit helplessly in regret, “think[ing] on how it might have been” if he could have been able to prevent the deaths. All alone, he is trapped in the mental prison of his torturous thoughts, “locked in silent monologue, in silent scream,” this last word Hammill fittingly, and characteristically, screaming.
He sees “the waves crash on the bleak stones of the tower” from which he’s been watching the ships as they crash on the rocky shore with the waves. Seeing the waves crash on the tower, just as they–and the ships–crash on the shore again suggests his empathic identification with the sailors/lemmings. Thus, he is “overcome” with guilt, and “much too tired to speak.”
Part four, “S.H.M.”, means, as I mentioned above, ‘simple harmonic motion’ on the scientific level, but it’s also a rearrangement of the letters H.M.S., or “His (or Her) Majesty’s Ship.” He sees the ghosts of the dead sailors, heightening his guilt. Since they’re “intent on destroying what they’ve lost,” this is him, in seeing his own destruction linked with theirs, once again identifying with them. If he can be destroyed with them, his guilt will be assuaged. Thus, his imagined dying with them is more wish-fulfillment.
He compares the “lost mastheads” in “the freezing dark” to his “isolated tower,” once again to “parallel” his experience with that of the sailors, thus identifying himself with them. There’s a dark descent of notes in the bass, leading to the next section.
Part five, “The Presence of the Night,” starts with a melancholy, soft passage in A minor, going back and forth between that and F major. Fripp’s guitar is in this passage, though it’s buried under the sax, organ, and drums–you have to listen carefully to hear his soft, improvised soloing…rather similar to how he plays in a soft passage in “The Court of the Crimson King,” in the middle of the song, soft guitar notes heard behind Ian McDonald‘s flute soloing.
Hammill sings of ghosts calling out “Alone, alone,” just as the keeper is all alone, a paralleling that again shows his identification with them. Since he empathizes with them in this identification, he also wonders if anyone else will empathize with him if he died: “Would you cry if I died? Would you catch the final words of mine?”
With these words, we shift from the melancholy loneliness of the beginning of this fifth part to rising tension, building to a riff of three bars in 7/8, each subdivided 3 + 4, then a bar in 5/4, ending in eighth-note triplets before returning to 4/4. In the bass, this 7/8 passage ascends from A to B, C, D, E, and F, then in the 5/4 bar, it descends in arpeggios from C major to B minor and to a resolution back in A minor, which again is in 4/4. This section reaches a climax with the 7/8 and 5/4 parts, excluding the resolution in 4/4.
Hammill sings of wanting to be free (of his guilt) and of wanting to be himself–as he did in the 11/8 section of “Man-Erg.” He sings of the keeper’s fears of dying “very slowly alone,” yet also of wanting to be allowed to be “completely alone,” that is, to be without the company of those voices that plague him so with guilt.
[Incidentally, Hammill sings these verses in mixed voice on the album, but in a live performance of “Plague,” done on TV in Belgium in 1972, due to a lack of regular practice of the suite–since, recorded with so much studio gimmickry, it to a great extent couldn’t be reproduced live–his voice, I’m sorry to note, cracks a bit when he sings these verses.]
With the odd-metre climax of part five, we shift into part six, “Kosmos Tours,” written by Evans based around a short piano riff in A major, with tritones between the tonic and E-flat, and between C-sharp and G. It’s quite a chaotic passage, with energetic drumming and two lines of dissonant counterpoint played by Banton on an ARP synthesizer, one line in the treble, the other in the bass. The whole passage, in its wildness, musically suggests being caught in a maelstrom at sea, which leads to my next point, a brief verse ending part six.
I must be honest about this verse: I find it overdone, not only with the alliteration of “maelstrom of my memory,” but also the mixed metaphor of “maelstrom” and “vampire.” It’s rather melodramatic, even by Hammill’s standards. I never liked it.
Still, “over the brink I fall” once again links the keeper with the sailors, in how he wishes to fall over the brink of the lighthouse tower and into the sea, and in how he identifies with the sailors, who in the storm, fall over the brink of their shattered ships and into the sea. On the word “fall,” the piano bangs a hard, dissonant A minor chord with an added sixth.
Now, we move into part seven, “Custard’s Last Stand,” which melodically starts in a more cheerful C major on the organ, though Hammill’s lyrics remain as gloomy as ever. He sings of his hopes for “the key,” but he can’t “reach the door.” He wants “to walk on the sea,” like Christ in Mark 6:45-52, but he can’t “ever keep [his] feet dry.”
The keeper yearns for some kind of happiness, for peace of mind, but this is of course ever elusive. In doing his job in the lighthouse tower, he “scan[s] the horizon” and “must keep [his] eyes on all parts of [himself].” Obviously, he must also keep his eyes on the sailors, so “all parts of me”–be they as each man intact, or torn to pieces–is yet another example of his self-identification with the sailors.
He’s “lost [his] way,” and “like a dog in the night, [he has] run to a manger,” where he feels himself to be a “stranger.” The reference to a manger suggests again his wish to be like Christ. As Hammill sang in “Man-Erg,” he’s “just a man…dictators, saviours, refugees.” He feels himself to be a killer of sailors/lemmings in his inaction, and he yearns to be a saviour, since he identifies empathically with the “refugees” of the sea.
He is “chasing solitary peace,” which as I said above, he is yearning for but can’t find, an escape from the hell of other people who he feels are judging him for his inaction. Such peace will never be fulfilling, though, for he cannot escape his problems, his Jungian Shadow. He’s “too close to the light,” and so he can’t see right. The light is also the glare of the lighthouse, making it hard for him to see the incoming ships. Its light blinds himself, and perhaps its glare also blinds the sailors, who then can’t steer their ships properly; thus they will crash on the rocky shore. So “I blind me” also means ‘I blind them,’ once again identifying himself with the sailors.
A minor chord on the organ and a drum roll on a tom-tom lead into part eight, “The Clot Thickens,” which comes in attacking our ears. A tense riff beginning in 5/4 is led by Hammill singing a number of questions: Where? How? When? Who? With all of his unanswered questions, the lighthouse keeper is in a state of utter confusion, which is heightened by the intensity of the music. His identification with the suffering and dying sailors is reaching a point where he is losing his ability to distinguish himself from them: “I am me, me are we, we can’t see any way out of here.” The incoherence of his words indicate a psychotic break from reality, intensified further by the dissonant music.
The 5/4 riff repeats instrumentally a few times, then we come to a climactic level of tension in which, the keeper in his growing psychosis over his unbearable guilt, cannot tell the difference between himself and the drowning sailors at all. His wish-fulfillment, in this growing delusion, is to imagine himself dying and drowning at sea with them, his punishment and atonement for his sinful inaction, an assuaging of his guilt.
An angular synthesizer tone is heard playing an awkward, irregular theme in a fifteen-beat cycle that can be subdivided 4 + 5 + 6; I would interpret it either as 4/8, 5/8, and 3/4, or perhaps 3/4, 3/8, and 3/4. It suggests another maelstrom, or an otherwise wild storm at sea (yet, symbolically, it’s also his psychological fragmentation), with boats smashed to pieces and sailors’ bodies mutilated. Banton adds a Mellotron with wavering pitch bends of tapes of the string section, to add to the musical tension and chaos.
Note Hammill’s reference to “the lemmings coming,” his equating of them with the sailors–hence my frequent reference to the lemmings/sailors in this analysis. He also repeats “I’m just a man,” a line from “Man-Erg.” Thus we can see how all three songs are thematically united, and why I treat them all as telling the same story, if from somewhat different points of view.
The final parts of the suite, “Land’s End (Sineline)” and “We Go Now,” begin with a more cheerful, optimistic piano progression in E-flat major. Hammill sings of the keeper being “pulled into the spell,” that is, into the water; yet, “spell” could also metaphorically mean magical spell, that is, the ‘magical’ illusion of a hallucination. He says he feels he is drowning, but if he is, how can he be able to give voice to the experience?
It’s been said that the ambiguous resolution to the story is that the keeper either kills himself by throwing himself in the water and drowning, or he finds peace of mind by somehow rationalizing his situation. I’d say that, in a way, he does both: by hallucinating a psychic merging with the sailors, he imagines he’s drowned with them, and in this way, he’s found peace of mind through an imagined atonement.
The cheerful melody thus represents his illusory peace. Only through such a deep state of delusion, imagining he is a ghost among the other sailors’ ghosts, can he feel reconciled with them. Delusion is his rationalization.
“I feel you around me; I know you well,” Hammill sings. The keeper imagines he is at one with the ghosts and with the sea. In his psychotic state, he is experiencing the undifferentiated state of what Lacan called the Real. It’s a paradoxical state: it can be both traumatizing and mystical, like Bion‘s O, the “deep and formless infinite.” It’s traumatizing if one is still attached to one’s ego, but if one gives up one’s individual existence, one can find peace. “Whose is my voice?” the keeper asks, suggesting a giving-up of the ego, a merging with the sailor-ghosts.
Still, one isn’t too sure if he means it when he says, “It doesn’t feel so very bad now…begin to feel very glad now.” He could be simply in denial of his ongoing pain; “the end is the start” could refer to his attainment of an ouroboros-like, cyclical infinity, or it could mean he’ll cyclically return to that pain after a temporary respite from it.
“All things are a part/apart” is a most ambiguous ending line. Are all things a part of a Brahman-like infinity, the keeper’s Atman linked to a pantheistic whole, an ouroboros of nirvana? Or are all things torn apart, through a physical mutilation and drowning at sea, or apart in the sense of psychological fragmentation, his psychotic breakdown? Is it a combination of the two?
Since the cheerful melody starts to decay into dissonance at the end of the suite, I suspect that the keeper has simply gone mad, and that his ‘peace of mind’ is only a delusion whose purpose is to keep his mental state manageable…though this stability can only last for so long.
We go now…he and the sailor-ghosts as a merged unity–into heaven, or hell?
Fripp is supposed to be playing at the end of the suite: again, is the soloing we hear by him, or is it Banton’s Farfisa?
Though as I said above, the themes of this masterpiece album by Van der Graaf Generator are universal and applicable to any time, I feel that they are especially relevant to us now in the 2020s. Many of us, including myself, are watching the madness of our political leaders in the West, who are needlessly provoking Russia and China into war, all because the US/NATO imperialists won’t accept the emergence of a multipolar world.
The mainstream corporate media in the West continue to scapegoat Russia and China, and the masses in the West far too often buy into these media lies, which are told to manufacture consent for war and greater nuclear brinksmanship. As I said, many of us feel like prophets crying out in the wilderness, or like the lighthouse keeper, watching the lemmings, or sailors–choose whichever metaphor you prefer–going along with the banging of the war drums, cheering on the Ukrainian soldiers without realizing–or in denial–that many of them are Nazis (eerily giving that inner sleeve photo of the band greater thematic weight)!
This isn’t about being ‘pro-Russia’ or ‘pro-China’: it’s about being anti-war.
Like the lighthouse keeper, we’re watching this growing madness, ourselves going crazy trying to warn people. Yet still, the lemmings just keep on supporting the political status quo, running off the cliff, dooming us all.
Will we drown in the madness of a nuclear WWIII, or will we drown as a result of rising sea levels and global warming? Are we going to sit back and watch helplessly, or are we going to be a man and…erg? Are we going to have pawn hearts, or peace-loving ones, those of people who can think for themselves?