Gene Clark's Matryoshka doll: My Marie (part 2)

A dream still in his mind

It's only a dream
I'd love to tell somebody about this dream
The sky was filled with a thousand stars
While the sun kissed the mountains blue
And eleven moons played across rainbows
Above me and you

‘One Rainy Wish’ – Jimi Hendrix

The "it was all just a dream" trope is an all-too-common storytelling device. From soap operas to movies like The Wizard of Oz and popular TV shows like Newhart, Dallas and Roseanne, it has been used for various purposes to varying degrees of success. Used recklessly or gratuitously, it can come across as a cheap gimmick; a convenient but cynical escape hatch for a problematic narrative. When, however, it is used with taste, sincerity, and for purposes of uncovering deeper meaning it is an effective tool, for who among us has not awoken from an all-too-real dream and, depending on the dream itself, been either relieved or devastated by the reality to which one has awakened?  Dreams are intensely personal experience created from the deepest recesses of our unconscious minds, conjured up at a time when we at our most vulnerable.  Oftentimes, our first thought is to share the dream with someone else.  Invariably, the spoken recounting of the dream lacks the emotional wallop experienced in the dream itself; outside the fairy-dusted dream-world, a straight recitation of the events may prove frustrating, insofar as what had enthralled the dreamer may seem ridiculous, or even unintentionally comical, to the listener.  Dreams are, perhaps, the ultimate experience for which the saying “you had to be there” applies.

But there is a way defy that barrier: through the transformative filter of art. In the epigraph used above, Jimi Hendrix expresses a desire to share his dream with others.  Without music, some might dismiss the imagery as dopey, drug-induced sci-fi fantasy (and they would also be quite wrong). In the context of the song, Hendrix’s sensual, sincere vocal delivers the lines as though he were painting an aural picture for the listener, while his flittering, hypnotic guitar lines and Mitch’s Mitchell’s choppy, frenetic drumming creates the appropriately dreamy backdrop.  One is effectively drawn inside the mind of the dreamer.  In ‘One Rainy Wish’ Hendrix has successfully communicated the otherworldly beauty of the dreamer’s personal experience for all to behold.

Dreams to remember

There’s not too many words that I could say/‘cause I can’t describe my love for you this way
‘Tomorrow is a Long Ways Away’ (1964)

There is a charming irony in these lines, insofar as the man who wrote them would ultimately spend the remainder of his life using words and music to describe his feelings of love.  Over the course of the next 27 years Gene Clark would employ an ever-evolving lyrical style to express these seemingly ineffable feelings.  But within these changing approaches Gene always anchored his writing in reliable, go-to themes (e.g. pride, loss, separation) and images (nature, the sea) which obviously held some significance for him.  One gets the sense that these themes, separately or collectively, were the source of an endless font of inspiration. Another one of Gene’s go-to themes was dreams, and by extension, the “it was all a dream” trope.  One of the earliest (and most effective) examples of Gene’s use of the trope was ‘Through the Morning, Through the Night’: 

I dreamed just last night you were there by my side
Your sweet loving tenderness easing my pride
But then I awoke, dear, and found you not there
It was just my old memory of how much I care.

The juxtaposition of the dreamer’s romantic idyll with the stark reality to which he has awakened is made even more poignant when we realize the words are directed at someone who is no longer there. “Dear,” a term of endearment used during the couple’s ill-fated romance – and still uttered reflexively in spite of their separation – is now rendered obsolete by the morning light and the remembrance of loss.  Gene describes a deeply personal dream space and used his music to draw you inside his mind: a place where he, like Hendrix, has defied the notion that “you had to be there.”  In ‘Through the Morning, Through the Night,’ you are there.

In the case of ‘My Marie,’ written circa 1987 with Pat Robinson, Gene’s grasp of dreams and visions – within dreams and visions – reveals as much about the author as the characters described therein. The complexity of the narrative employed here is stunning in its detail and execution: each stanza acts as a gateway to another story inside it.  Gene has, in effect, created a veritable Matryoshka doll in song.

The first verse feels as if it were drawn from a screenplay, with situational awkwardness that’s somewhat reminiscent of  Annie Hall: the narrator bumps into his past lover, Marie, who is accompanied by her current lover: “I saw you down in the underground/With a knight in tarnished armour/You looked a little harder/But there was softness in your smile.”

A Matryoshka doll, cut in half.
Set in a New York subway and at least in part based on real events, it is the sort of wince-inducing reunion everyone has experienced at one time or another: seeing an old lover with his/her current partner. The sexual tension, not to mention testosterone-fuelled posturing, is palpable in the narrator’s brusque dismissal of the current boyfriend as a “knight in tarnished armour.” From the chivalric, fashion-savvy Clark, whose Prince Valiant haircut and songs of courtly romance had long ago cast him in the role of the proverbial knight in shining armour, it’s a cutting rebuke indeed.

For her part, Marie looks “harder”; apparently age (or possibly hard living) has taken its toll on her beauty.  This line, attributed to Pat Robinson, communicates the idea that it’s been some time since the former lovers have seen each other. In contrast with the harder-looking exterior, the softness of Marie’s smile betrays happiness at seeing her former lover. 

The next lines reaffirm the narrator’s feelings for Marie, undimmed by time: “The magic spell you weaved so well/Still lives in me unbroken/My love for you unspoken/And it's been there for a while.” Here, more of the back-story unfolds, but leaves more questions in its wake.  Did their past relationship end because he was unable to adequately express his “unspoken” feelings? Maybe the couple were undone by his fear of commitment? Did Marie become tired and move on to the tarnished knight? One thing that is not open for interpretation is that this chance meeting has solidified the reality of the narrator’s love.

The chorus, so memorably and movingly sung by Gene, presents the emotional core of the song: a personal epiphany presents the possibility of redemption: “I can't believe it's really you, my Marie/Have you finally realized where you want to be/I've known for some time/Somewhere down the line/You were meant to be with me, Marie.”

And with that, the next Matyroshka doll is opened: the character of Marie is fleshed out in the next verses.  We learn she is a painter, last heard living in an art commune. Marie’s fellow artists seem to understand, possibly from having been rebuffed on previous attempts to get to know her, that she is a complex character whose past is better left unexplored.  “The last I heard your painted word/Lived with canvas dancers/Who ask you for no answers/To the questions you deny.”  Why is Marie reluctant to answer questions about herself?  Is she suppressing her feelings, in denial about something? Is she haunted by the breakup as much as the narrator? Or is that merely a hoped-for characterization that’s been foisted upon her by him?

It is at this point that Gene’s poetic hand really flexes its muscle.  Yet another Matryoshka dolls is opened. Now we learn of Marie and her art, but from two different viewpoints:

You bring the darkened walls to light
While the city rolls in slumber
Reflecting what you remember
From the ages you've survived.

One can see Marie standing alone in a loft, painting obsessively through the night, committing to canvas the totality of her life’s experiences.  

We have travelled quite a distance from the opening scene in the subway, haven’t we?

And then another Matryroshka doll is revealed: the focus and tone takes a sudden shift, whereupon we are transported inside the narrative that is captured on canvas within Marie’s work of art itself:

The Drummer Boy
by William Morris Hunt, circa 1862
Your brush it swirls through worlds now lost
To wars of greed and passion
And to the few who do survive
There is no satisfaction.

The angry sons who pound the drums
Of dogma and religion
Know nothing of your vision
That true love never dies.

Greed and passion can fuel both wars and romances.  Inside the mind of the narrator/dreamer, Marie’s war painting constitutes a metaphor for her (and by extension, the dreamer’s) experience of romance: battles are fought, strategies employed, yet it is clear that neither combatant ever claimed victory, Pyrrhic or otherwise (“There is no satisfaction”).  No wonder Marie has ended up with a Knight in Tarnished armour.  He is a wounded warrior himself, a damaged suitor with baggage of his own.
With the metaphor identified, the soldiers in Marie’s painting – who pound drums and fight for God and country (“dogma and religion”) – are suddenly stripped of their significance, their passions made unimportant when at last the true meaning of Marie’s art is revealed: “True love never dies.”

Suddenly there is a shift in focus, another Matryoshka doll opens and the narrator presents a succinct mini-autobiography:

I've plundered through a fortune
Just to take a beggar's wages**
While I try tried to write the pages
Of the book of many lives. 

This verse gives us a sense what has befallen the narrator in the time between his breakup with Marie and their subsequent reunion. Then, another sudden shift takes us back to the song’s opening scene, in which the former  lovers have emerged from the subway to the street above (notice the Knight in Tarnished Armour is no longer a concern).

So here we meet on a one-way street
In this village full of clutter
And you know that no one knows your plight
You know there is no other. 

The clutter represents the detritus of two lives lived apart, filled with unfortunate situations (“plight”) and blown opportunities.  I believe the reference to Gene’s masterwork No Other was intentional, possibly as an in-joke but more likely as a self-effacing assessment of his career and its many unfortunate sidetracks.  It also serves to reinforce the idea that Marie is his one and only love.

And so we reach the final Matryoshka doll, the song’s final verse, in which it is revealed that each of the dolls that preceded it were merely an illusion conjured up by an unconscious mind: 

The mirror of the morning
Finds a poet half-awakened
With/In a song that was mistaken,
And/In a dream still in his mind.

The chill of his shocked awakening is palpable, especially when heard in the context of the handful of surviving live performances (Gene’s definitive performance of the song at Mountain Stage in 1988 is a moment of pure transcendence; one of the finest of his career).  It would be easy to see ‘My Marie’ as just another one of Gene’s sad, tragic songs of lost love, a complex evolution of the “it was all a dream” trope as discussed earlier in ‘Through the Morning, Through the Night.’  I mean, let’s face it, Gene wrote from this perspective on a regular basis.  But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that much hinges on the word “still” in the line “a dream still in his mind,” insofar as it presents the possibility that the sentiments expressed in the dream were neither illusion nor delusion.  This dream is very real, very much alive.  No longer are we talking about a dream as something experienced inside the mind of a sleeping man, it is a dream to which he aspires.  And with the new morning there is still a chance to right the historical wrong, to speak aloud that which had up till now remained unspoken: true love never dies.


* Set in a New York subway and at least in part based on real events...
“We were talking about Marie, one of Gene’s old girlfriends, and we were spending a lot of time talking about the Chelsea Hotel.  We were on a New York kick, kind of.  She was living at the Chelsea Hotel.  She was an artist.” 
Pat Robinson, 2009

** I've plundered through a fortune/Just to take a beggar's wages
Although uncredited, Gene’s brother, Rick Clark, claims to have written these lines.


Rich said…
Wonderful, thought-provoking analysis. I have spent the better part of an hour listening to a long version which includes the "angry sons..." verse. Brilliant stuff. So sad (for us) that Gene wasn't able to record a final "studio" version. So very, very glad we have what he did leave. Long may you live Gene. We will never forget.