Lyrics analysis by Bob Wagner (Dr Bob)
Ah, Elmeg. The greatest of Goose songs, in my humble estimation. Not necessarily for jam-there are so many great ones-but *song*, yes. Marc Komito, in a recent review of the 11/19/22 show with Trey, deemed Elmeg the “crown jewel”. Indeed…And there’s plenty of evidence that Rick, the author, thinks of it as being extra special. It’s perhaps his most intensely personal song,
First, some background. Travelers and Elmeg the Wise are parts 1 and 2 of a trilogy; part 3 has not yet been performed. Elmeg was written c. 2013, in the St. John’s Revival era. SJR played a few shows in March 2014 and then dissolved (when Rick moved to Colorado?). Then Rick stored this treasured tune in his back pocket for years. It appears on a setlist from Garcia’s 1/28/17 but no recording circulates. The earliest appearance on nugs is 6/2/18 in beloved Covington, KY. It was played on 2/7/19 at The Intrinzik in Montrose, CO (there is video on the venue Facebook page). I’m told Peter and Rick performed it acoustic in a tweener set in the midst of their set with the Rumpke Mountain Boys at Birds of a Feather in 2019. And then came that stupendous 4/26/20 aGOOSEtic (Orebolo, really) video from The Solarium, followed by the Goosemas bustout 2020 at Rockefeller Center. Since then it’s been played maybe 4 times a year, and almost always on special occasions or by special request. So on the shelf for years, then performed only occasionally, as a special treat.
And it’s special to yours truly, as well. When, during the lockdowns, the April 26, 2020 aGOOSEtic from The Solarium occurred, I had been listening to Goose for a few months and had attended one short set. It was the jamming, naturally, that reeled me in. Then, locked down in my residence, I watched the Goose acoustic trio streaming from the solarium at their residence. Watching stripped down versions it dawned on me that the songwriting/lyrics and singing were really special. It was my true gateway to Goose obsession, a malady from which I’ll never recover. And Elmeg was at the heart of it. I was intrigued by the lines “and on his breath red leaves they flew, their branches shook the autumn through” and “the voice beneath the quill”. To me this conjured images of Elizabethan or Shakespearean verse.
But what does it all mean? And if it’s so good and it’s a decade old, why does it not appear on an album?
There are clues in the Rick and Peter interview in Andy Frasco’s podcast #63 that aired on Oct 2019.https://www.worldsavingpodcast.com/episode-63/
Rick is asked what are his "most favored or heartfelt two lines”, and after mulling a bit says that would be the end of Elmeg (Oh yeah!, Peter exclaims) “Keep my hands sewn on…” Later in the interview, Rick is asked what he’s written that really “transports” the listener. “There’s a whole album that I wrote, that I haven’t recorded and have barely performed it.” Why? Talking about touring, “I write when I have **stillness**,and it’s not stillness-it’s rare that I’ll have a wave of being able to write anything on the road.”
**Stillness**. Rick’s choice of words (emphasis added). Stillness is dominant in Elmeg! It’s at the beginning, near the end, and permeates throughout-accompanied, as one might expect, by silence, quiet, and solitude. Take a um…gander at the constant stream of serenity coursing through Elmeg:
“Still on the hilltop…no words were spoken, silence, still…and it was quiet in that moment…in this moment they lay still…keep my hands sewn on Lord, I need them still…”
And so, a place of tranquility-which happens to be the condition the author needs to write effectively.
Taking it from the beginning:
“Still on the hilltop
in ancient Rockaway
Come down off of your home (or holding?)
Step to my loving arms once again”
I’m hearing it, in most versions at least, as Rockaway, rather than "an ancient rock awaits." Rockaway I presume is a mythical location, perhaps in England. There is a Far Rockaway on Long Island, NY with a well known Rockaway Beach. Rick has family that is from Long Island, so perhaps he borrowed the name. Perhaps. We do know that part of the song Travelers, that precedes Elmeg in the trilogy, takes place on a shore. “Step to my loving arms once again” indicates that the first person narrator is embracing something, and has done so before. Likely this is the destination in the end of Travelers “and so I’ll return to the place I know.”
"Well I stumbled upon
The likes of an ageless man carved into a tree
I placed my hand on the bark and asked if I may walk the unseen
You see, I have come here on my own
In search of an honest place to call my home”
The Elmeg the Wise icon represents the wisdom and spirituality of the ancients. The protagonist has come to a space to find a pathway, likely an internal one, that is available only to him. Stumble appears in many Goose songs, eh?
"And on his breath red leaves they flew
Their branches shook the autumn through”
This emphasizes the stillness-it’s so still that the breath of Elmeg moves the leaves and branches, and it demonstrates the power of Elmeg. And in this context we must consider the opening line of Travelers “That breath is closer now”. Is this referring to the breath of Elmeg, which seems to be the destination? Could well be.
"No words were spoken, silence, still
He led me to the standing hill”
Again, the stillness and quiet is emphasized. Elmeg will help you find the pathway but will not explain it-you have to experience it yourself. A standing hill might provide the best vantage point to see things clearly.
"And it was quiet in that moment's steady pull
I heard a voice beneath the quill
Of every doubt that fills my head
In this moment they laid still”
And then the verse is repeated, but with “I trusted the voice beneath the quill” rather than “I heard a voice…”
We must note that these verses also appear in Travelers. They are followed by, in Travelers but not in Elmeg, “Failure creeps back again, I guess that’s just the shape I’m in”.
One might surmise that these verses depict artistic inspiration-specifically, writing. In a place of inner peace, free from external distractions, the author gets inspiration for writing-“the voice beneath the quill.” The epiphany in Elmeg is that self-doubt is overcome-“of every doubt that filled my head, in this moment they laid still.” In Travelers a never ending battle against self-doubt is implied, as these verses are followed by “Failure creeps back again…”
Alternatively, one can take a broader view. Great poetry is often sufficiently vague and ambiguous that the reader/listener can read what they want into it, and apply it to their own experience. “The voice beneath the quill’ need not be literal-it could just be metaphoric for any message, artistic inspiration, or enlightenment. In any event, self doubt must be overcome.
"Keep my hands sewn on, Lord
I need them still
I’m not through"
The uplifting chorus, which segues into a huge jam and is then reprised to close the song. “Lord” emphasizes spirituality. The task is not completed-in fact it’s always an ongoing process-and one needs a steady hand to see it through.
There’s great insight into Rick’s songwriting process in the Carina Immer interview that appears in El Goose Times #7. Talking about the Borne video that she made, “he’s exhausted from these components in life letting him down and getting in his way. He has a clear idea of what his purpose is…but he needs to make peace with what he’s gone through and where he’s at before he fulfills it…something he has suffered with a lot is writer’s block…I wanted to show him trying to be a perfectionist and avoiding the darkness within him.”