Today’s song is a bit of an anomaly. Leastways, I don’t think of Robyn Hitchcock, with his irreverent, absurdist wit and odd, surreal imagery, as the kind of guy who would pen a heartfelt, even heartsick, love song. But that, sure enough, is what he did on “She Doesn’t Exist.” It’s not just a love song, it’s a “that’s all over now” love song that’s all about the reason the love has died even as it manifests just how irreplaceable the love was.
And it seems, like as not, it was unrequited love; like, they were together and it didn’t work out but only now does he realize . . . she was the one. The kind that inspires all those feelings of “it coulda been, it shoulda been, it woulda been.” If not for . . . And there come crowding in all the reasons that love really doesn’t have its day or isn’t really the main thing or the only thing. Or, maybe even, not the only love.
When I first heard this song, from 1991’s Perspex Island, around 1998 or so, it really hit a nerve. Or at least I believe it did, in retrospect. The song has its finger on the ultimate melancholic realization: “I tell myself it would be different now / I wouldn’t treat her that way / I wouldn’t be me if she wasn’t her / And it’s far too late, anyway / She doesn’t exist anymore.”
It’s that title idea that really seals the deal. I would be different, things could be different, she’d see and we’d know and, and . . . but she doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not just saying there’s a shelf-life on one’s passions, it’s also about the window of opportunity for becoming someone’s lover. There’s that period of complete, or almost, receptivity. You can’t lose! Then there’s that period in which it’s only too clear, you did. “She”—the one you wanted or the one who was so sweet on you, either way, doesn’t exist anymore. “A fadograph of a yestern scene” as our man JJ might say.
And those “la la la la”’s that come in, thanks to Michael Stipe, carry such a burden of wise and weary sadness. One has to remember the song begins like it's borrowing from the great tradition of put-down songs by the likes of Dylan or Costello: “These days I just couldn’t care less.” You have to start with that assertion because it’s very important that the singer be tough enough to make that declaration. A resounding fuck it to whatever he was when in the relationship: “I used to ring you and put down the phone”—makes me think of EC’s “every time I phone you I just want to put you down.” But by the end he’s going to be a guy trying to salvage his soul by going “la la la la” to himself. Because even the “far too late anyway” may be BS. I mean, it probably is, but that doesn’t mean this poor sap really believes it.
The only verse I don’t think much of is the one about perfume and the moon. There Robyn is maybe being a bit too ordinary. This is the guy who wrote things like “Sleeping with Your Devil Mask” and “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” but it seems like he’s trying to write a song someone else could sing, meaning not some weirdo like he is.
Anyway, the last verse makes up for it, sandwiched between the refrains with the la las. “Only inside you the ghost of a love / That is wordless and painful and old / There’s no one else in the whole outside world / That matches to her in your soul.” If that’s true, you’re fucked, buddy. But, what’s more, if that’s true, the “her” is already ghostly, a revenant of a love from “once upon a time”—“wordless and painful and old,” like the kind that has been with you from birth, with you all the way till your dying day. We’re in the land of the anima here, the female principle you’ve got along for the ride, who resides in your soul and “no one else in the whole outside world” matches to her. Not even this chick you’re bemoaning. She’s just the latest—perhaps the most poignant—of its manifestations. Which is why the “inside/outside” dichotomy is so strong there at the end. It’s too late for that “she,” and “these days I just couldn’t care less” because there’s this ghost of a love that goes with me. And yet.
She coulda been, if only she still existed. Or ever had.