"The Bagman's Gambit" as written by and Colin Meloy....
On the lam from the law
On the steps of the capitol
You shot a plainclothes cop on the ten o'clock
And I saw momentarily
They flashed a photograph, it couldn't be you
You'd been abused so horribly
But you were there in some anonymous room
And I recall that fall
I was working for the government
And in a bathroom stall off the National Mall
How we kissed so sweetly
How could I refuse a favor or two
For a trist in the greenery
I gave you documents and microfilm, too

And from my ten floor tenement
Where once our bodies lay
How I long to hear you say
No, they'll never catch me now
No, they'll never catch me
No, they cannot catch me now
We will escape somehow
Somehow

It was late one night
I was awoken by the telephone
I heard a strangled cry on the end of the line
Purloined in Petrograd
They were suspicious of where your loyalties lay
So I paid off a bureaucrat
To convince your captors they're to secret you away

And at the gate of the embassy
Our hands met through the bars
As your whisper stilled my heart
No, they'll never catch me now
No, they'll never catch me
No, they cannot catch me now
We will escape somehow
Somehow

And I dreamt one night
You were there in fours
Head held high
In uniform

It was ten years on
When you resurfaced in a motorcar
With the wave of an arm
You were there and gone


Lyrics submitted by Imposs1ble

"The Bagman's Gambit" as written by Colin Meloy

Lyrics © BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC

Lyrics powered by LyricFind

The Bagman's Gambit song meanings
Add your thoughts

90 Comments

sort form View by:
  • +3
    My Interpretation^^^^^^^^^^^^I forgot to mention this but, another argument for alliteration ( repetition of a particular sound in the first syllables) being the reason behind calling St. Petersburg "Petrograd" is that "tenth floor tenement" is also an alliteration...
    And repetition is again found, in the form of consonance, in the repetition of the "all" sound in Recall/Fall/Mall/Stall.

    Alliteration and consonance really do help build the memorability of a song and I applaud The Decemberists for doing it in a manner that doesn't seem forced.


    -----------
    Also, I want to add that the reason some people (me included) believe that there is a POSSIBILITY that the lover is a male is because of the connection between bathroom stalls and homosexual sex. A quick search on Google does reveal that this is a widspread connection. In fact, here is a QUOTE from some forum user (not myself!!!) confirming this widespread concept: "I don't know how true it is but .I have a gay guy friend who says that there is a common pick up bathroom in every city .You can just walk in there and have sex with whomever. In Charolotte, it's the downtown bus station, Savannah, it's the ogerthorpe Mall. It's also at a Mall in Columbia (not sure which one) . I heard that the pick up spot in DC is the courthouse." (AGAIN, THAT IS NOT MY COMMENT. I found it via Google.)
    Another reason that bathroom sex makes people think of homosexuality is because of the Larry Craig scandal. This really imprinted the social consciousness with the idea that bathroom stalls were where gay men go when they want a quick hookup... or tryst. ;)
    harwelron October 04, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General CommentIt's simple: Boy works for the government and falls in love with girl. Girl is actually a spy for the Reds (I assume this takes place circa 1970-1980) and uses boy to get the documents she needs. Boy figures out she's a spy (as is evidenced by the "They'll never catch me now" part), and she promises him that they'll escape together (We will escape somehow).

    What happens next isn't clear. My best guess is that she leaves without him. He feels betrayed but goes on with his life. I base this on the fact that there is no description of her leaving, but she seems to just disappear. At any rate, boy recieves a call from girl, who doesn't know where else to turn. She's returned to the Soviet Union and for whatever reason, the higher-ups in the KGB have lost faith with her and she's in trouble.

    Boy goes to help her, and bribes a KGB member to let her off. They meet one last time at the gates of the American embassy in St. Petersburg. He leaves. What becomes of the girl is uncertain, but the end holds some clues. It would seem that she returns to the United States, possibly by her own voilition, but the more likely option is that she's been sent on another assignment. She sees her old lover briefly, but cannot chance to see him again.

    Anyway, my $.02.
    SleepyWeaselon January 30, 2006   Link
  • +1
    My OpinionI am also dubious about "There in Fours" and would like to know if someone has a more solid reference for what Fours would mean. I hear "there in force" and assumed the spy was "head held high in uniform," standing at attention in a military unit, which would make a formidable force.

    To those who ask "Why must you always make it a gay relationship?"...

    Life is not simple. Life is not clean. The spy can be anyone you want, and anyone I want, and that's very powerful. So can the singer, though the voice is male.

    Readers and viewers modify a story with their perceptions *every time they look at it.* Those of us who have an experience other than the cultural default are always looking for our own faces, to find stories about ourselves. This includes skin color, gender, relationship patterns, culture groups (how many shows can you name "the geek character"?) and a whole bunch of less obvious things. Sometimes if we can't find ourselves, we'll actually start making up versions where we are included; this leads to a lot of gay people humming love songs with reversed pronouns. This song saves us that trouble and makes it worth talking about.

    I appreciate that the picture in the liner notes was of a man and a woman. That was my first take on the story, and it's a beautiful, glamorous thing. I see Natasha in an open-top car in the last stanza. Bare shoulders, a chunky bracelet, big sunglasses, dazzling smile that you know never reaches her eyes. A woman who buys secrets with her body. It's a classic.

    But pretend we're in a lit crit class fifty years from now. We're not looking at the liner notes. All we have is the music itself, the lyrics as they were written, and the teacher says, "There are no gendered pronouns. When you think the spy is a woman, or when you think the spy is a man, how do you listen to it differently?"

    If the spy is male, the story in my mind is darker, more illicit (due to taboos), and... potentially more honest. The singer is the same, a mid-level, mild-looking clerk in Washington DC who's minding his own business except for this one big secret.

    The spy is a Russian version of James Bond from the books (Daniel Craig is pretty close), or Jack Harkness from Torchwood in one of his other lives as a military operative. A hard man, bleeding the charisma of competence. Maybe he snagged the clerk at a gay bar. Maybe he just spotted the desire and played it.

    Do they love each other? Probably not. Do they have any illusions about it? Probably not. Is James Bond even into that? Probably not as a matter of routine, but he has nerve endings and some information to buy. He's a practical man.

    Is the clerk helplessly, hopelessly smitten by the romance and drama of the whole thing? Oh yes.
    gementon December 02, 2009   Link
  • +1
    My Interpretationoops: I accidentally originally posted this under "meaning" when I meant to post it under interpretation. Sorry for the double post.

    "On the lam from the law
    On the steps of the capitol
    You shot a plainclothes cop on the ten o'clock
    And I saw momentarily
    They flashed a photograph, it couldn't be you
    You'd been abused so horribly
    But you were there in some anonymous room"

    Interpretation:
    The narrator is on the steps of the capital and he overhears that his lover, while trying to escape DC, shot a plainclothes cop on the 10 o'clock train. He pays attention to the conversation and he sees a photograph that confirms it's his lover. The lover has been beaten up and abused but she is alive.
    ((The first two lines do make it seem like the lover shot the cop "on the ten 'oclock" on the "steps of the capital" but that makes no sense. How do you shoot someone "on a 10 'o'clock?" Because of that, I'd say that the first two lines are acting as juxtaposition: He's on the steps of the capital, and she's on the lam.


    -------
    "And I recall that fall
    I was working for the government
    And in a bathroom stall off the National Mall
    How we kissed so sweetly
    How could I refuse a favor or two?
    For a tryst in the greenery
    I gave you documents and microfilm, too"

    Interpretation:
    Seeing the images of the lover makes the narrator think back to "that fall" when the two of them were having tryst (meaning sexual romps) and, the narrator, being very much smitten with the lover, was willing to give the lover anything requested... including top secret documents.
    The narrator is laying in bed at his shabby 10th floor apartment and begins to think back about how the two of them used to lay there together. The lover would often talk about how they were going to escape and never be caught.
    The narrator is probably awake and restless because he has the knowledge that the lover is captured but is being held in some anonymous room and there is no way for him to know where.


    -------
    "It was late one night
    I was awoken by the telephone
    I heard a strangled cry on the end of the line
    Purloined in Petrograd
    They were suspicious of where your loyalties lay
    So I paid off a bureaucrat
    To convince your captors there to secret you away"

    Interpretation:
    Finally, a call comes through: it's the lover. The lover has been illegally apprehended (purloined means "taken dishonestly") in Petrograd (st. Petersburg. Don't read too much into the city's name: using the archaic name of Petrograd is probably simply for alliteration, same way "on the lam from the law" is alliteration.) and is now being held at the American embassy in Petrograd. (Again, obviously illegal but that's just the way espionage works.) The captors were after the lover because of the police shooting but also because of their suspicions that the lover is a spy. The narrator, acing as a bagmand (a person that transports money- often illicitly.) travels to Petrograd and pays the captors "there" (the usage of the word there further builds the case that the lover is being held in Petrograd, not the US) to "secret" the lover away- basically, he paid them off to forget the entire mess. The gambit is that he paid a massive sum for the lover's freedom despite being unsure whether or not the lover would be freed or, if even if the lover was to be freed, if they'd ever be able to have future together. Basically, the bribe was a sacrifice he gladly made.


    -------
    "And at the gate of the embassy
    Our hands met through the bars
    As your whisper stilled my heart
    "No, they'll never catch me now
    No, they'll never catch me
    No, they cannot catch me now
    We will escape somehow
    Somehow""

    Interpretation:
    The captors did free the lover and released the lover to the other side of the embassy- back out to Russian territory. The narrator finally gets to see that the lover is free for himself. But, of course, the lover and the narrator are on the other side of the gate of the embassy so all they can do is squeeze each others' hands. Again, the lover reassures that they'll never catch him/her... and again alludes to the fact that the two of them will escape somehow.


    -------
    "And I dreamt one night
    You were there in fours
    Hands held high
    In uniform"

    Interpretation:
    At some point, the narrator has a dream about the lover. (Ok, I have to admit that I'm sill of the impression that "there in fours" is really "there in force.") In the dream, the narrator sees the lover there in force- meaning, not there surreptitiously but there in confidence, not on the run from the law or anything. There legally and without concern.. Heck, the lover is so legitimate that he/she can even wear his/her uniform withou fear of being apprehended. ... Anyway, The lover's hands are held high in greeting. The lover has come back to the narrator!


    -------
    "It was ten years on
    When you resurfaced in a motorcar
    With the wave of an arm
    You were there and gone"

    Of course, it was a dream. The lover had not come back. In fact, it was 10 years later before the narrator finally saw the lover again.... in a car... driving by. The lover waves and then is gone.
    The bagman made the gambit in hopes of having a future together with the lover but it is now obvious that it will never be. All the narrator gets from his sacrifice is a wave as the lover drives on by.




    Overall, this is a song about all the things you do for love and how, in the end, there's always the chance it'll have been for nothing.
    harwelron October 04, 2010   Link
  • +1
    Song MeaningMy interpretation is different than many of the others that have been posted here...

    I take it to be a story of one-sided love, with the spy character using the narrator for his own selfish purposes. The narrator falls in love with the Russian spy and basically spends his life doing things for him (I agree that it is likely 2 men). Whenever the spy gets in trouble he calls him, because he knows he'll do anything for him because he is so in love. However I do not get the sense that the love is returned.

    The narrator dreams of his love, and imagines him as a picture of perfection. He is so infatuated he cannot see he is being used. At the end, he sees him one more time in a car after 10 years... and the spy just waves an arm and keeps going. The spy is living his life and has pretty much forgotten about the narrator. He no longer needs any favors.

    Even the refrain "They'll never catch me now", seems to hint at the spy's selfishness. Notice it is not "they'll never catch US now" - he was never really planning a future for the two of them, only himself.
    stovernyon February 07, 2011   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis is definitely my favourite song on Picaresque, and it definitely has a cool cacophony towards the end.

    Also, I'm pretty sure it's "for a trist in the greenery" which seems to make more sense.
    scarybearson February 03, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentYeah, this is a great song. Definitely one of my favorites from Picaresque, but right now it is behind "On the Bus Mall". Thanks for the correction, your interpretation makes more sense. Let me know if you see any more of my failures, otherwise I'll just make the proper changes are made when I buy the real deal.
    Imposs1bleon February 03, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthis is an ignorant comment, but does this song relate to the cold war what-so-ever?
    teenage x roboton March 01, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General Commentsorry if some of these lyrics are incorrect, i had to listen to this like 5 times in a row. lol. if you think you know the correct words to where I was confused just post it and I'll edit the lyrics. Thanks.
    SuperNova34on March 11, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General Commentbasically it's a sort of star-crossed lovers thing. One of 'em (Colin, or someone like him) works for the US government, while his lovuh is something of an anarchist. She ends up captured by the FBI (?) and is not so narrowly saved by Colinorsomeonelikehim. It's nice.
    pumkinhedon March 22, 2005   Link

Add your thoughts

Log in now to tell us what you think this song means.

Don’t have an account? Create an account with SongMeanings to post comments, submit lyrics, and more. It’s super easy, we promise!

Back to top
explain