"Battered Old Bird" as written by and Elvis Costello....
The landlady`s husband came up to town today
Since he left them both ten years ago to serve the ministry
The dark down road of his approach in constant rain was drenched
The tenant`s boy said "How d`ya do" then swore in French
Did you teach this little child these curses on my soul
You should both be shut down in the coal-hole
That`s the way to treat a child who cries out in the night
And a woman who teaches wrong from right

[Chorus:]
He`s a battered old bird
And he`s living up there
There`s a place where time stands still
If you keep taking those little pink pills

"Hush your mouth you hypocrite"
His humor cut her deep
The tight lipped leer of judgment
That had seen her love desert her just like sleep
"Filthy words on children`s lips are better, my dear spouse
Then if I were to speak my mind about this house"

[Chorus]

On the first floor there are two old maids
Each one wishing that the other was afraid
And next door to them is a man so mild
`Til he chopped off the head of a visitor`s child
He danced upon the bonfire
Swallowed sleeping pills like dreams
With a bottle of sweet sherry that everything redeems

[Chorus]

And on the second floor is the Macintosh Man
He`s in his overcoats more than out of them
And the typewriter`s rattling all through the night
He`s burgundy for breakfast tight
He says "One day I`ll throw away all of my cares
And it is always Christmas in a cupboard at the top of the stairs"

[Chorus]

"Well here`s a boy if ever there was
Who`s going to do big things
That`s what they all say and that`s how the trouble begins
I've seen them rise and fall
Been through their big deals and smalls
He`d better have a dream that goes beyond four walls"
You think he should be sent outside playing with the traffic
When pieces of him are already scattered in the attic


Lyrics submitted by dev0n

"Battered Old Bird" as written by Elvis Costello

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

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Battered Old Bird song meanings
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  • +1
    General CommentMy understanding is that this song is a somewhat romanticized tale of the building where Elvis grew up. The dialog in the last verse is presumably between his parents, addressing a young Elvis.
    hinthinton February 26, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI think this song is about a mentally-ill man who lives on the top floor of an apartment building, possibly in a converted attic which serves as a small apartment. He can hear everything that goes on in this place, and the verses are mostly comprised of his observations about the building’s other tenants and excerpts of dialogue from various conversations on which he is eavesdropping. The first two verses describe an argument between the building’s landlady and her estranged husband, a relationship which is full of bitter acrimony and resentment. The husband arrives to the child of one of her tenant’s, who proceeds to swear at the husband. He fires back that, were she a proper woman, she would have taught him “wrong from right”. The main reason I believe that this song is from the perspective of a mentally-ill, attic-dwelling neighbor, unseen but all-seeing, is because of the choruses: “He’s a battered old bird/And he’s living up there” suggests that he has had some sort of pain or tragedy in his life, and he now spends all of his time in his room, “tak(ing) these little pink pills” in his little world “where time stands still”. Maybe the “little pink pills” refer to a medication that is intended to curb the effects of his mental illness. The third and fourth verses leave the husband and the landlady storyline, going on to describe many of the building’s inhabitants: “two old maids/Each one wishing that the orherbwas afraid”, maybe suggesting that these are two lesbians who are engaged in endless bickering and fighting? As this house seems to be a gathering place for sad and troubled people, this would make sense to me; there was a man who everyone thought was “so mild/‘til he chopped off the head of a visitor’s child”. The narrator goes on to describe this man dancing on a bonfire, “swallow(ing) sleeping pills” and washing them down with “a bottle of sweet sherry” which carries the promise of redemption. On it’s face, this seems to be a story of a quiet man who snapped, killed the children of one of the other tenants in the apartment building, and then committed suicide by mixing sleeping pills with alcohol. Yet the narrator has much more insight and more vivid imagery about this occurrence than he does about the others. Both with the “old maids” and the estranged husband and landlady, he only knows them through their bickering, and reports to us only what he hears. Why is he suddenly so descriptive when it comes to this “mild” man who has apparently committed murder? I’ll return to that. The fourth stanza refers to “the Macintosh Man”, which is the title of a 1973 film based on a British novel from 1971, with a plot concerning the travails of a British secret agent. This is most likely just the narrator’s snarky way of saying that there is something sneaky about this man, as he’s always going places- as evidenced by his omnipresent “overcoat”- he writes all throughout the night and seems to have a drinking problem. Other than the detail about the “overcoat”, (which is explainable in that surely our narrator OCCASIONALLY finds ways to see these people with whom he is so obsessed) we are again getting only details based on what the narrator can hear: “the typewriter rattlin’ all through the night”, the drinking habits of the “Macintosh Man”, which the narrator presumably knows because someone who drinks from morning to night is not going to be a very quiet neighbor. In a line that I find to be quite touching, our narrator relates to us that the “Macintosh Man”, while talking to himself one night, said “One day I’ll throw away all my cares”. Is he so tired of the cycle of alcoholism, his constant reaching for “the cupboard at the top of the stairs”, that he is ready to take his own life? The fifth verse is the most harrowing stanza of them all, which starts with our narrator relating a few snippets of dialogue praising the good qualities of a young boy who shows great promise. However, the narrator says “that’s how the trouble begins”. What does he mean by that? This becomes clear as he embarks on a condescending tirade about all the people he’s seen “rise and fall” from his eternal observational perch in the attic. The tone he takes at the end of this song suggests that he possesses a true hatred for the endless parade of humanity who he can only see pass him by, but with whom he does not interact, and with whom he feels no kinship. He is revealed, here in the song, as an evil misanthrope. He mocks the “big deals” of the lives that pass by him, before ominously suggesting that, whatever these people do, they’d better do it “beyond these four walls”? Why would he say that? Well, the next line mentions a boy thought by his parents to be “playing outside”, (maybe the handsome, promising youth of this stanza’s first line?) but it is revealed in the final line before the last repetition of the chorus, that “pieces of (the boy) are already scattered in the attic”. That’s why you should pursue dreams that necessitate leaving this apartment building: this man is a misanthropic, voyeuristic serial killer. Furthermore, as regards the “mild” man of the 3rd stanza, considering the information we have now, do we really think that he is responsible for committing the crime of “chopp(ing) off the head of... (a) child”, a crime which seems eerily similar to the crime to which the narrator just confessed to us in the last verse. I mentioned that the narrator seemed to know more about his “mild” man than he did the other tenants. I think the narrator chose this “man so mild” specifically to frame him for murder, silencing him with “sweet sherry” and “pills” so he could not protest his own innocence. After all, the narrator knows that the drunk in the fourth stanza keeps his booze “in a cupboard at the top of the stairs”, and he keeps reminding us in every single chorus about his “little pink pills”. Elvis was in a dark place when he wrote this record, and there are some other brutal songs on here (“I Want You”, “Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”, but this one takes the cake. As a last comment, I’ve been listening to this song for 15 years, and only today when I listened to my vinyl copy of “Blood and Chocolate” and read the lyrics along with the record did I have this revelation about this song’s meaning. Does anyone agree? Am I missing something that would cause my whole theory to crumble? Let me know.
    fadetoflasheson August 16, 2018   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI think the reference to pills are directed at a neighbour, not him himself. i don't think he was a pill user
    uncomplicatedon June 19, 2007   Link
  • -1
    General CommentI really think this song is about where Declan (elvis) grew up. What I don't get is the constant pill reference...I've read a lot about him and I have never come across about any exposure to pill use when he was a child..anyone know anything about it?
    Icheadle1990on June 17, 2007   Link

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