At the end of last month, in my post about Procol Harum’s “A Salty Dog,” I mentioned today’s song, which shares something in common with the earlier song. Both tell tales of shipboard shenanigans that lead to a fugitive life on some remote island. The Mekons’ song is emphatically a monologue/narrative by/about Fletcher Christian, who led a mutiny on the Bounty in 1789 and settled on Pitcairn’s Island. I’ve seen three films about the mutiny with the role of Christian played, respectively, by Clark Gable (1935), Marlon Brando (1962), and Mel Gibson (1984). I don’t identify particularly with Christian as portrayed in those movies, but I do strongly identify with him as portrayed in the Mekons’ song, sung by Tom Greenhalgh.
The story has its romance, certainly. Christian’s mutiny was supposedly caused by Lt. Bligh’s unreasonable demands and general contempt for his crew, which certainly stirs up one’s feelings against authority and in favor of a more dashing and engaging figure (which is the case in the casting of the duo in all the films). There’s also the subplot of Christian falling in love with a “native girl” in Tahiti and wanting to remain with her in a kind of sensual paradise, the kind, we’re to imagine, that would be impossible in fussy, repressed England. All to the good, I suppose. It’s a nice escapist fantasy and Hollywood plays up to it well.
The Mekons, however, take a rather pointed psychological approach to Christian, showing the kind of schizoid tendencies that may have inspired his mutiny, or which with, in any case, we can identify as they indicate that the tensions that cause us to want escapist fantasy are not easily satisfied. That, in essence, there is no escape from ourselves.
“Sometimes I feel like Fletcher Christian / Staring out across the sea / Torn apart by duty’s shackles / The twisted tongues of loyalty.” That’s a grabber, alright. Can one escape one’s sense of duty, ever? Can one escape the feeling that one should be doing something meaningful? Feeling “like” Fletcher Christian becomes an existential state, one in which the “heroism” of Christian becomes a standard against which we measure our level of contentment, but that heroism is fraught with cowardice, of sorts, and a desire to elude duty and even to commit crime for the sake of individual freedom. “Well, we took drugs and tore our uniforms / And gave our captain up to the sea.” It’s a great line, a great delivery, the part of the song where I admit a bit of fellow feeling. The line points to the “drop out” ethos, the search for a life free of constraint and of uniform lifestyles, but also suggests—if we think of “our captain” not as Bligh specifically but as the seat of our own reason—the peril of setting one’s own ideas and spirit adrift.
“Sometimes I feel like Fletcher Christian / In paradise with the tables turned”—lines that point to the dream of Christian as someone who fled modern life and its toils for a life more paradisiacal, a kind of Rousseau-like fantasy of l’homme naturel. “Yes, and I can feel the tattooist’s needle / I can feel my neck and ankles burn”—a deft paralleling of self-inflicted tattoos (the badge of island culture) with the shackles on ankles and the noose on neck that would await him back in civilization.
The accordion gives the whole song a kind of bluesy sea shanty air, with violin adding a touch of highwayman style derring-do. And Greenhalgh, with that slightly adenoidal voice that always gives me a charge, sings it with real passion, as if the state of feeling like Fletcher Christian is a fate that haunts him, daily.
Then there’s the part that rings with the kind of insight the Mekons regularly bring to the post-punk culture they so brilliantly represent: “Through the sun and sea my skin is peeling / But that don’t make the pictures fade / Those shapes and symbols, I know their meaning / The shameless riches of another world.” Here the escapee is haunted by the world he left behind—i.e., capitalism, kids. All the things, the possessions, the comforts, the status symbols, the signs by which we endorse the life we supposedly lead because we want to, or have to, or wouldn’t know what to do without. And here’s Greenhalgh/Christian telling us how it feels to go cold turkey, to have to do without and try to forget.
Then comes the kicker, and it’s fitting enough to cite these lines when on vacation, as I am now, and away from home and “the usual”—the verse that closes the song on a note of tragic equivocation, the bite that keeps on biting: “If I return, they’re sure to hang me / So I guess I’ll have to stay / And if I should croak out in the darkness / No one will know—I got away!”
With a vacation, of course, the sentiment is more like: “so I guess I must return,” as all things must come to an end. But in Christian’s position, there is no return (though there are rumors that he did; other statements that he was murdered on Pitcairn, others that he died by some other method) because that would lead to death, and yet, dying “out in the darkness”—in some limbo between paradise and hell—is a way to elude both justice and history. No one will know he got away with it or what became of him. It’s a wonderful indication of why so many of us fear “escape”—who will know, who will share in the thrill of it, who will lend the feat credence?
Yes, we can go off the grid, but in doing so we choose silence and exile and cunning, and leaving no trace.