For the moment slipped right through him
Combed his hair, combed his hair
Knew the feeling of contentment
The actors' actor
The actors' actor
Smiled a smile uncomprehending
I took his time, took his time
Wore a hat, so he'd impress her
They took a ride
They took a ride
As I could wait for hours
I could wait and never fall down
Never fall down
Never fall down
He is down beside the river


Lyrics submitted by atomsplitter, edited by Cutecarton

Barnaby, Hardly Working song meanings
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7 Comments

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  • +1
    General CommentI've always liked this song, but I have no real idea of it's meaning or inspiration. I agree that last line, "face down beside the river" is ominous and suggests death.

    There's a novel by Charles Dickens titled, Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty. I haven't read it, but it apparently recounts a murder and the title character, Barnaby is a simpleton.
    optionshifton June 17, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentWhat a shame no one's taken on these lyrics. I've always found this one of Yo La Tengo's most enigmatic. Puzzling.

    Clearly, the protagonist is preparing for a date. "They took a ride" would suggest he got there.

    Then there's the switch from "he" to "I", just before the startling ending.

    As for the repetition of the last line...is he dead? I just don't know...
    foreverdroneon September 15, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentBarnaby is the name of a protagonist of a short story by Melville. I found it dreadful and do not recall it at all but it is a place to hunt for meaning, if one is so inclined.
    1fishon April 14, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General Commentactually that story is "bartleby the scrivener", not barnaby. although i can understand the association: given the similar-sounding names, and the "not working" theme.

    melville wrote about the guy who refuses to do anything at his job, and always says "i prefer not to." (and very little else) a very funny story, in its grim way. a role crispin glover was born to play.

    i have a feeling the title is a jerry lewis reference. i may be totally offbase on that--not being into his films, i really have no idea--but one of them was called "hardly working"
    mandcon April 28, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentBartleby the Scrivener sounds about right...with the 'not doing anything' theme..

    "I took his time, took his time" - sounds like something the owner of the Law office would say to Bartleby

    "Wore a hat, so he'd impress her
    They took a ride
    They took a ride
    As I could wait for hours"


    and this is Bartleby jacking off in the office after hours, he's only making love to the women in his head. The owner has to wait outside for him, but has no problem with this.
    acorm88on April 27, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General Comment"Wore a hat so he'd impress her" is an echo of the Kinks' "Muswell Hillbilly" ("wore her Sunday hat so she'd impress me") with a slight echo of the epigraph to "The Great Gatsby" ("wear the gold hat if that will move her")
    stormvilleon June 25, 2014   Link
  • 0
    My InterpretationThis is one of the most beautifully cinematic songs from YLT, along with the more recent, "you can have it all." Barnaby is a fascinating character, perhaps inspired by the protagonists from Thomas Hardy's victorian-era stories. A flawed character who tries so hard but ultimately "falls down" in his pursuits. The solo guitar line almost echoes tragedy. In later retrospection, he finds peace in solitude. The final line can be symbolic or literal, the inevitable analogy of the river following the course of his life and death. A melancholy song though if you've heard them perform it live, is actually more uptempo and almost 90s indie-punk.
    Cutecartonon October 09, 2015   Link

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