and there was a booming above you
that night, black airplanes flew over the sea
and they were lowing and shifting like
beached whales
shelled snails
as you strained and you squinted to see
the retreat of their hairless and blind cavalry

you froze in your sand shoal
prayed for your poor soul
sky was a bread roll, soaking in a milk-bowl
and when the bread broke, fell in bricks of wet smoke
my sleeping heart woke, and my waking heart spoke

then there was a silence you took to mean something:
mean, run, sing
for alive you will evermore be
and the plague of the greasy black engines a-skulkin'
has gone east
while you're left to explain them to me
released from their hairless and blind cavalry

with your hands in your pockets, stubbily running
to where I'm unfresh, undressed and yawning
well, what is this craziness? this crazy talking?
you caught some small death when you were sleepwalking

it was a dark dream, darlin', it's over
the firebreather is beneath the clover
beneath his breathing there is cold clay, forever
a toothless hound-dog choking on a feather

but I took my fishingpole (fearing your fever)
down to the swimminghole, where there grows bitter herb
that blooms but one day a year by the riverside - I'd bring it here:
apply it gently
to the love you've lent me

while the river was twisting and braiding, the bait bobbed
and the string sobbed, as it cut through the hustling breeze
and I watched how the water was kneading so neatly
gone treacly
nearly slowed to a stop in this heat
- frenzy coiling flush along the muscles beneath

press on me: we are restless things
webs of seaweed are swaddling
you call upon the dusk
of the musk of a squid
shot full of ink, until you sink into your crib

rowing along, among the reeds, among the rushes
I heard your song, before my heart had time to hush it!
smell of a stone fruit being cut and being opened
smell of a low and of a lazy cinder smoking

and when the fire moves away
fire moves away, son
why would you say
I was the last one?

scrape your knee; it is only skin
makes the sound of violins
when you cut my hair, and leave the birds the trimmings
I am the happiest woman among all women

and the shallow
water
stretches as far as I can see
knee-deep, trudging along
a seagull weeps; "so long"

I'm humming a threshing song
until the night is over
hold on!
hold on!
hold your horses back from the fickle dawn

I have got some business out at the edge of town
candy weighing both of my pockets down
'til I can hardly stay afloat, from the weight of them
(and knowing how the common-folk condemn
what it is I do, to you, to keep you warm
being a woman, being a woman)

but always up the mountainside you're clambering
groping blindly, hungry for anything:
picking through your pocket linings - well, what is this?
scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?

I see the blossoms broke and wet after the rain
little sister, he will be back again
I have washed a thousand spiders down the drain
spiders ghosts hang soaked and dangelin'
silently from all the blooming cherry trees
in tiny nooses, safe from everyone
- nothing but a nuisance; gone now, dead and done
be a woman, be a woman!

though we felt the spray of the waves
we decided to stay 'til the tide rose too far
we weren't afraid, 'cause we know what you are
and you know that we know what you are

awful atoll
- o, incalculable indiscreetness and sorrow!
bawl, bellow:
Sibyl sea-cow, all done up in a bow

toddle and roll;
teeth an impalpable bit of leather
while yarrow, heather and hollyhock
awkwardly molt along the shore

are you mine?
my heart?
mine anymore?

stay with me for awhile
that's an awfully real gun
I know life will lay you down
as the lightning has lately done

failing this, failing this,
follow me, my sweetest friend
to see what you anointed in pointing your gun there

lay it down! nice and slow!
there is nowhere to go, save up
up where the light, undiluted, is weaving in a drunk dream
at the sight of my baby, out back:
back on the patio watching the bats bring night in
- while, elsewhere, estuaries of wax-white
wend, endlessly, towards seashores unmapped

last week our picture window produced a half-word
heavy and hollow, hit by a brown bird
we stood and watched her gape like a rattlesnake
and pant and labour over every intake

I said a sort of prayer for some sort of rare grace
then thought I ought to take her to a higher place
said: "dog nor vulture nor cat shall toy with you
and though you die, bird, you will have a fine view"

then in my hot hand
she slumped her sick weight
we tramped through the poison oak
heartbroke and inchoate

the dogs were snapping
so you cuffed their collars
while I climbed the tree-house
then how I hollered!
cause she'd lain, as still as a stone, in my palm, for a lifetime or two

then, saw the treetops, cocked her head and up and flew
(while, back in the world that moves, often
according to the hoarding of these clues
dogs still run roughly around
little tufts of finch-down)

the cities we passed were a flickering wasteland
but his hand in my hand made them hale and harmless
while down in the lowlands the crops are all coming;
we have everything
life is thundering blissful towards death
in a stampede of his fumbling green gentleness

you stopped by, I was all alive
in my doorway, we shucked and jived
and when you wept, I was gone:
see, I got gone when I got wise
but I can't with certainty say we survived

then down, and down
and down, and down
and down, and deeper
stoke without sound
the blameless flames
you endless sleeper

through fire below, and fire above, and fire within
sleeped through the things that couldn't have been if you hadn't have been

and when the fire moves away
fire moves away, son
why would you say
I was the last one?

all my bones they are gone, gone, gone
take my bones, I don't need none
cold, cold cupboard, Lord, nothing to chew on!
suck all day on a cherry stone

dig a little hole, not three inches round
spit your pit in the hole in the ground
weep upon the spot for the starving of me!
till up grow a fine young cherry tree

well when the bough breaks, what'll you make for me?
a little willow cabin to rest on your knee
what'll I do with a trinket such as this?
think of your woman, who's gone to the west

but I'm starving and freezing in my measly old bed!
then I'll crawl across the salt flats to stroke your sweet head
come across the desert with no shoes on!
I love you truly, or I love no-one

fire
moves
away

fire moves away, son
why would you say
I was the last one?

clear the room! there's a fire, a fire, a fire
get going, and I'm going to be right behind you
and if the love of a woman or two, dear,
couldn't move you to such heights, then all I can do
is do, my darling, right by you


Lyrics submitted by do i run rare?

Only Skin song meanings
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103 Comments

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  • +11
    General CommentI haven't had a great deal of time yet to think about this song, so I don't have much of an accuratish interpretation. But early this year for school in English I read T. S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland', Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs. Dalloway' and Michael Cunningham's 'The Hours'. The storyline and emotion behind this song is I think not quite the same, but gosh, there are similarities... read them if you haven't, they are at least incredibly clever...

    Anyway, as to the storyline, here is the raw first impression I have - probably in some things wrong, but just putting it out there. I will think about it more and post later, (nearly holidays!).

    The first part is definitely a reference to war... a man standing under violent attack. The description is dreamlike, surreal, horrifying... everything is vivid and exaggerated. This, as well as the context, suggests that this is an image of a man who was in the war, but is now home... suffering post-traumatic flashbacks or such.

    "Then there was a silence you took to mean something:
    mean, run, sing/ For alive you will evermore be/ And the plague of the greasy black engines a-skulkin'/ Has gone east/ While you're left to explain them to me/ ...It was a dark dream, darlin', it's over/ the firebreather is beneath the clover... " - not only an incredibly powerful comment on mortality, these lines show the way his mental condition and memory of the past consumes him, and the way he now shares them with the speaker, the woman. "Clear the room! There's a fire, a fire, a fire..." shows the way this perception permeates his reality, and the song progresses to show how the woman has come into his life to comfort him and to help him forget... almost like a mother, but it's clearly a romantic relationship - "Fire... moves... away/ Fire moves away son/ Why would you say/ I was the last one?"

    She goes out to find something that will heal him. There are lots of references in this part of the song... and much writing that just creates an image to emulate a feeling. It's so incredible. I like how she says "Rowing along, among the reeds, among the rushes/ I heard your song, before my heart had time to hush it!/ Smell of a stone fruit being cut and being opened/ Smell of a low and of a lazy cinder smoking" - this talks about the reason for the woman's attraction to him. She is enthralled by his story. It is tragic... the image of cutting open a fruit, death, to serve an eater, is profound. Maybe she is caught rowing along the river of his depth and his intensity... the fact that he needs her, and she needs him... fascinated by him, sorry for him?

    "Scrape your knee; it is only skin/ Makes the sound of violins" starts to show the death in the situation. There is detachment from reality, a fascination with pain and brokenness brought on by the extreme pain of the situation. Perhaps it questions the way society views humanity... losing its sense of the value of life, people are thrown away as objects, 'threshed' by humanity. There is a verging insanity when you compare injury to music, as if the subject's experiences have made it so he is numb (though it torments him mentally and emotionally... there's the painful conflict...) and it suits the theme so wrought with the feeling of internal and actual death.

    When it says "Knowing how the common-folk condemn/ What it is I do, to you, to keep you warm/ Being a woman, being a woman", this sheds more light on the nature of the relationship, but it is here that I'm hesitant to interpret for fear of being embarrassingly wrong. Anyway, if you've read Virginia Woolf's work, this reminds me a lot of Lucrezia Warren Smith: married to Septimus not because he loved her, but because he needed her as an 'anaesthetic'. Only the speaker here, I think, isn't married... she comforts him 'as a woman' and in so doing is condemned by society. But she does it to try to make him better. Also hesitant to use the label 'codependent', but it bears some similarities. No doubt if this is right there are some references in the song that I'm missing... and wouldn't like to explore besides. Anyway, that's just the impression of it in my reading... not going to psychoanalyse it...

    Well, here's a stanza that fascinates me: "But always up the mountainside you're clambering/ Groping blindly, hungry for anything:/ Picking through your pocket linings - well, what is this?/ Scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?" Sassafras is used as a painkiller, a stimulant and a medicine for various diseases. Sisyphus is, in Greek mythology, a king punished in the underworld by being set to roll a huge rock up a hill throughout eternity. This is the frustration and hopelessness of the situation... he can't recover, he's stuck and it's not his fault... and he's addicted to whatever will numb him further. It is sad. It is unfair. It is tragic.

    The part with the spiders and the cherry trees... won't delve too deeply into that, but it is beautifully phrased and again illustrates death and hopelessness, the way the man is discarded.

    "Are you mine?/ My heart?/ Mine anymore?"... it does affect the speaker deeply. She is committed to him, but it breaks her too... in joining with him, she enters his world. That's why - and here's something I'm not sure about, but anyway - I think she is overwhelmed and leaves him - "See, I got gone when I got wise/ But I can't with certainty say we survived". And then she comes back in the only ray of hope in the end "And if the love of a woman or two, dear,/ Couldn't move you to such heights, then all I can do/ Is do, my darling, right by you" - recklessly facing the portrayed hopelessness of their reality by sticking with him. That seems to be her only answer: "We have everything/ Life is thundering blissful towards death..."

    H'm, I can be really verbose. Sorry. I'll blame it on this being a long song :-) Skipping through bits to get to the point...

    "Last week our picture window produced a half-word/ Heavy and hollow, hit by a brown bird/ ...Said a sort of prayer for some sort of rare grace/ Then thought I ought to take her to a higher place/ ...Then how I hollered!
    cause she'd lain, as still as a stone, in my palm, for a lifetime or two/ ...Then, saw the treetops, cocked her head and up and flew..." - this relates so strongly to the imagery in 'The Hours'. The reference to the wasteland a bit later on makes me think it could be intentional - even so, it fits thematically, incredibly well. An image of death, and ressurection... think on that a while, it's powerful and links to so many things. The same imagery is in this: "Take my bones, I don't need none/ Cold, cold cupboard, Lord, nothing to chew on!/ Suck all day on a cherry stone/ Dig a little hole, not three inches round/ Spit your pit in the hole in the ground/ Weep upon the spot for the starving of me!/ Till up grow a fine young cherry tree..." - death to bring life, but it's still wearying and terrible.

    It's this kind of exploitation of people that has destroyed the man, and she is in the line of the damage. So she leaves. But she can't stay away, and she comes back to him. That's where the song ends. It's a mess, they're stuck in the middle of a war that is endless death that never seems to die in its own immortality - but they have each other....

    So... anyway, I am not one to analyse the intention behind a work with haste and say that I am right. I don't want to read Joanna wrongly through her words, not knowing her personally, or the situation she wrote from. But looking at the text alone, I would say it's sybolic and deeply personal... a feeling relating to parts of her own relationship with somebody, which is encapsulated well in the metaphor, whether all parts of it are accurately linked to events in her life or not. It could relate to many things. If not in her life, someone who could relate to it would be a person in a relationship with someone who is broken, but she longs to make him better, he needs her, and it breaks her too but she can't leave - trying to take the blame off him. Or it could have nothing to do with a relationship, and be a narrative whose feeling relates to one Joanna had felt... maybe she was fascinated by the hopelessness or feeling of death, or yearning, or those things, and related it to something else.

    Don't know. Haven't thought deeply enough to know, and haven't got enough background. But certainly it is a really human song. It stirs you, it's deep and the way it's musically executed is incredible. It does get you thinking... there is so much there...
    Anneliseon December 08, 2006   Link
  • +4
    General CommentThis is such a spectacular song. Nothing I can say will do it any justice.
    Klieserberon September 04, 2006   Link
  • +3
    General CommentFound this in an article:

    "It was the last song she wrote, and the one where, perhaps foolishly, she attempted to weave together all the various threads and 'ghost characters' in her tale. 'It was an attempt to encapsulate everything, and to find some measure of grace.' In her 2004 Arthur interview, Newsom described her patchwork method of writing songs: 'I have little objects and every once in a while I take them out of my pockets, lay them all in a row and I like the way they look next to each other, so that’s a song!' Here the row of items goes on for pages. Most revealing, perhaps, is Newsom’s admission that the last few verses of the song—where the long-suffering female protagonist promises to do right by her darling—are the only place in the whole album where she just made stuff up, where the song steps away from poetic autobiography. 'I was hoping for a good resolution, but I felt helpless and foundering at the end. And so I reached for this fiction, because I didn’t know how to end the song in full truth. Otherwise, it would go on forever.'"
    Anneliseon January 24, 2007   Link
  • +2
    General CommentIt's obviously about lovers who are in a very strong relationship.

    I can't quite make out the way the relationship twists and turns. The song starts with some sort of air... battle? So, I was thinking World War 2, but as the song progresses, the boy grows older and takes up a gun. So, possibly it starts in WWI and progresses to WWII.

    The main girl dies....I think? Or perhaps the man dies and then that's what "kills" her. I can't figure that out.

    If I had to guess, I'd say that she's some casualty of the war he grew up to fight in. Probably by (fire)bombing.
    HadjiQueston December 02, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General CommentMany of the songs on the Ys album remind me of childhood forgotten or outgrown. In many ways all of the songs deal with questions of maturity, of losing innocence, and of uncontrollable events. To me, this song seems to be about death and rebirth, but in the context of a relationship.

    The beginning of the song seems to be about reckless youth and a superficial ideal about life. In many ways you could say that it's about previous ideas of immortality that young people have. That is, when you first enter a relationship, you expect it to last forever and you take many things for granted. But circumstances change and you cannot save the relationship from change so it falls apart.

    But it's not just a simple song about growing apart. It's also a song about growing mature over a long period of time and realizing 1) morality 2) transience and 3) helplessness.

    "you stopped by, I was all alive
    in my doorway, we shucked and jived
    and when you wept, I was gone:
    see, I got gone when I got wise
    but I can't with certainty say we survived"

    To me that is really a powerful stanza. It shows that the narrator is growing older and has left many things behind, but in addition to leaving just things external from her self behind, she has also left much of herself behind.

    "are you mine?
    my heart?
    mine anymore?"

    In many ways a lot of the Ys album is about self discovery as well as an inability to comprehend or grasp current developments. It's a strange time between being a new person and being the person you were. In many ways it's a liminal space in development much like going to college and wondering if you have a home or if you're still a child.

    "all my bones they are gone, gone, gone
    take my bones, I don't need none
    cold, cold cupboard, Lord, nothing to chew on!
    suck all day on a cherry stone"

    This line makes me think of rejecting the past or the foundation you've built your life on, the bones being the basic structure of the body. For example, moving away from a relationship that used to be important to you or moving out of the house, etc. This results in a long period of rebirth and rediscovery, which has traditionally been associated with fasting. Also 'sucking' also ties into the sucking motion of babies.

    "but I'm starving and freezing in my measly old bed!
    then I'll crawl across the salt flats to stroke your sweet head
    come across the desert with no shoes on!
    I love you truly, or I love no-one"

    But ultimately the song is cyclical. While there are themes of motion, in reality it's all a repetition of thoughts over and over again only in variation. In many ways there is no escape, there's no traditional linear progression. She rejects her foundation but then seeks it out again. She wants to grow and find a new path but becomes nostalgic.

    The reptition of the 'fire' imagery suggests time and how you can't stop it. In that sense there are two progressions to this song. There is the linear fire that pushes and presses and cannot be delayed that represents time. Then there is the circular birth and rebirth that represents emotions.

    The title "Only Skin," I take to be a contridiction itself. Because the wound isn't 'only skin,' it's something deeper. But the older version of the narrator looks back on her past and feels like it was so long ago that it should have healed now, that she shouldn't care so much about it. Yet, at the same time, she can't help but feel nostalgic and hurt. It's the same as when you're young and skin you knee and your mother tells you that it's 'only skin,' but that doesn't stop the wound from hurting.
    fatalismon January 03, 2007   Link
  • +2
    General Commentthis song help me every day
    ePtiion February 19, 2013   Link
  • +1
    General CommentSorry about my excessive post-script tendency... my misspelling of 'resurrection' and 'symbolic' were driving me crazy, had to correct it :-P Mum wanted to go for a walk with me, so I hadn't time to check it. It was raining outside, by the way. Very lovely!

    So yes. This song makes me think. It's not one of those things that you connect with and appreciate for how it speaks truth and life to you... but it is so clever and so deep that it may be one of my favourites, anyway.
    Anneliseon December 08, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentIt is really difficult for now to articulate..The lyrics have definitly something common with T.S Elliot or W.B Yeats. Yes, theye were "professional" poets, and Joanna is "not that intellectual" when we compare..But...but in my opinion both T.S Elliot or Yeats, or Walt Whitman and for me Newsom, opens the same gate...The gate of some forgotten memories of us, as individuals..These lyrics, with a very complex harmony of vocal and compisition, build a fragile palace of (at least my) childhood. But it is much more than being a nostalgic journey...
    manastinon December 28, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentWow. It posted three times. Oops... too bad you can't delete on this site. Sorry to the general public, whose curiosity and time have been exploited with a small quantity of worthlessness, and especially to those for whom mess is a disturbing and confusing issue. In this case it cannot be erased; it must be lived with. I wish you all the best with that :-)
    Anneliseon December 29, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Comment"It's the same as when you're young and skin you knee and your mother tells you that it's 'only skin,' but that doesn't stop the wound from hurting."

    now that was nice...aren't all the mothers same?
    manastinon January 07, 2007   Link

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