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PJ Harvey III (of III)

23 March 2008

Take Me to the Bridge

After this cathartic/angry/pained pay-off, the song quiets down again. “Sheela Na Gig” is not really a story song, but it has a definite narrative. Picture this: scene changes, enter HEROINE, back home, alone, or talking with some other women, after being jilted, perhaps on an island in the South Pacific during World War II (while the guys are off singing “there ain’t nuthin’ like a dame”):

Gonna wash that man right out of my hair (just like the first one said he didn’t care)
Gonna wash that man right outta my hair (heard it before—-no more)
Gonna wash that man right out of my hair (turn the corner, another one there)
Gonna wash that man right out of my hair (heard it before…)

This polyvocal, interior monologue (or dialogue) juxtaposes the campy public cliché and the more private, personal parentheticals (I, for one, hear parentheses in her delivery of the lines in this ‘bridge’ of the song, which sonically recalls “White Light, White Heat”). Even though Harvey quotes this line from the ROGERS & HAMMERSTEIN musical South Pacific (which was popular during the time American women were washing their greasy factory jobs out of their hair), her recontextualization of this mass-cultural ‘folk motif’ becomes self-consciously theatrical, comic yet convincing, as she breathes life into the image of the proud, jilted woman by laughing at the near impossibility of escaping the Sisyphusian eternal recurrence in revolving-door mosh-pit of non-monogamous ‘shopping around.’ The heroine in South Pacific would never say “turn the corner—another one there” yet alone the line added when Harvey repeats the song’s bridge (“Gonna take my hips to a man who cares”).

Since the men have initially expressed interest in every case, they can’t validly fall back on the conventional claim that they weren’t attracted or even that she’s bad in bed. Harvey doesn’t even have to claim these men are bad in bed (for being bad in bed, in this song, becomes one with being too judgmental). Harvey gives us two accounts of the initial encounter that don’t necessarily contradict each other. In the “turn the corner—another one there,” account, she’s not actively pursuing these men at all, but is simply ‘busy bein’ free’ (to quote JONI MITCHELL’s “Cactus Tree,” with which “Sheela-Na-Gig” has some affinities) and practically forced to deal with these men who aren’t very good at the sport of caring (Harvey’s song does not mention the word ‘love,’ or even the word ‘trust’ which, as HAL HARTLEY’s film puts it, is its necessary precondition; but neither does she mention the words ‘sex,’ ‘lies’ or ‘videotape’). The men are scathingly, yet truthfully, objectified (after all, they did it first), and if not exactly dehumanized, at least presented as ‘all the same’ (a drama which recalls JOE JACKSON’s poignant, “It’s Different for Girls,” in which that phrase, spoken by a woman, stings Jackson as sharply as “exhibitionist’ stings Harvey 13 years later).

In the “gonna take my hips” account, Harvey both expresses her lust (or is this desire?) as well as objectifies herself. This line reminds us (in case we had forgotten due to the more docile or repressed South Pacific stance) that the speaker is one who has been called an exhibitionist. Only an ‘exhibitionist’ would say ‘gonna take my hips,’ and one with a charming, or ‘brutally sharp’ tongue and ruby lips that can pronounce a ‘meaningless’ phrase halfway between “mmmm” and “oooh” while her work-strong arms are playing a mean guitar, at that. SEAMUS HEANEY (in his poem “Sheelagh na Gig (at Kilpeck)”) can try to put words in her mouth. Another guy might ask, “do girls really talk that way?’ A girl might say, “I wish I could rock that way!” I don’t know if there’s a video to this song, but I doubt it would be an improvement on the word/sound picture this song paints.

Taken together, these two accounts suggest an alternative to the way the division of labor and desire between male and female has been (mis)represented and played out in history as well as in her personal life. “Turning the corner” and “taking my hips” could be the same action, and male desire and female desire may be exactly the same. Both male and female make ‘the first move’ and labor and desire are one, at least for Harvey’s speaker. If this sounds too good to be true, it may well be. But it’s not too good to care.

I can’t think of any song that better answers the question NEIL YOUNG asked in “Cowgirl In The Sand”—-“When so many love you, is it the same?” in part because Harvey doesn’t answer it directly, and certainly doesn’t stoop to mere rebuke. But since the history of male lyric poetry (and song lyrics) has obsessively grappled with that question, Harvey’s exhibitionist ‘answer’ can imply a series of questions like “Who are you to presume that so many really love me?” “Can anyone really get to the bottom of the riddle of difference and sameness?” “What’s all the fuss about?” or statements of more fulfilled, less thwarted, desire and personal or social harmony that she expresses in other songs. Though Harvey crams at least as much into “Sheela-Na-Gig” as Dylan does in some of his most lyrically adventurous outings, she knows there’s only so much she can put into “Sheela Na Gig.” Yet there’s more, though maybe less than might seem, on a purely verbal level at least; for the only words we can assuredly attribute to Harvey herself here are, “He said….He said.”

The Coda (& The Song’s Most Enigmatic Verbal Hook)

He said, wash your face, I don’t want to be unclean
He said, please take your dirty pillows away from me
He said, wash your breasts, I don’t want to be unclean
He said, please take your dirty pillows away from me
(instrumental climax, and abrupt end…no fade out).

Though there’s debate on whether she says “breasts” or “face,” to me it sounds more like one of those primal irregular phonemes from which both words could be derived. The more gender-specific “breasts” are already implied with “dirty pillows,” but the emphasis here is at least as much on the dirty adjectives. The battle over the value of the word ‘dirty’ is acutely at stake here. While Iggy can say “I’ve been dirt and I don’t care,” Harvey clearly cares enough to want ‘a man who cares.’ She doesn’t deny that she might be ‘dirty’ (or plead ‘my clothes are dirty, but my hands are clean’), nor does she explicitly call attention to the double meaning that conventions have made intrinsic to the use of the word, the way the descriptive meaning becomes conflated with, and even trumped by, the purely connotational use: “you’re a ‘dirty girl’.” The latter usage ties the word back to ‘exhibitionist,’ but even the purely descriptive use of the word suggests either that Harvey is literally caked in dirt (like the album cover of THE SLITS’ Cut) or simply that Harvey is “earthy.” The body, even if sometimes we feel it as a bag, an alien form, is inescapable earth, and therefore this eternally recurring male not only fears the female speaker’s body but also his own.

Why does Harvey wait until the coda to sing this? Are the words drowned by the crescendo and rhythmic accelerations, or do these elements serve to underscore the meaning? I feel they’re more dramatically emphasized, but since these lines are the most specific and direct words attributed to the male, I can understand why some argue that the music clothes them, as if they’re so painful for Harvey that a merely verbal response is inadequate, as the extended amplified version of the song’s initial non-verbal hook takes over, before the song’s abrupt end. Such an aesthetic interpretation of the song assumes that the ‘word’ is more naked than the flesh, that “in the beginning was the word,” (as institutional Christianity, with its patriarchal and anti-chthonic ideology, propounds) and flesh, as well as music, comes later (though music, especially in a song as structured and even conventional as this, isn’t strictly speaking the flesh any more than it is the word, it is no less so). The phrase “dirty pillows,” like the phrase “word become flesh,’ starts from a false premise, an abstract beginning (like money).

As the song is both naked and clothed, one could ask whether Harvey is really an exhibitionist. She never denies, nor admits, that she is one in this song. She presents her actions and herself, and shows how men jump to abstract, generalizing conclusions.
Harvey’s song, though verbally brilliant, uses other forms of technology to put the words in their place (the song both starts and ends instrumentally). She doesn’t want, or need, to write a book arguing on behalf of the ‘mother goddess’ against theories propounded by Jerman and Weir. Some (Riot Grrrls perhaps) could claim that Harvey doesn’t go far enough because she doesn’t really defend the Sheela-Na-Gig in herself, but neither is Harvey reduced to silence, as “Sheela-Na-Gig” goes further than a merely verbal argumentative defense.

The word “unclean” has an anachronistic feel; it can evoke Biblical talk of lepers in the Middle East, ‘the cradle of civilization’ where Judaism, Christianity and Islam were founded. It’s even tempting to suggest that the man Harvey is singing about is a Muslim Fundamentalist, since this song was written at the end of the cold war and the beginning of the Iraqi war, when many Brits and Americans were increasingly demonizing Islamic fundamentalism (after all, “we need an enemy” as WILL OLDHAM put it). The Bush Crime Family was successfully able to use the Burka as a ‘wedge issue’ that lured some people who would’ve otherwise have been against a ‘war-for-oil’ to, albeit reluctantly, accept the war in the name of liberating Middle Eastern women from a repression that could even pose a threat to our way of life, including the advances American women had made in their fight for freedom and equality (as if, in this one instance, Bush was speaking for the other, more sexually connoted, bush, despite his more characteristic pandering to the equally repressive Christian fundamentalists). Sure, the image of raving Muslim fundamentalists with weapons of mass-destruction taking over America and forcing women to wear veils is scary, but one need not appeal to the fact that Harvey would later pose (and I maintain with no irony) in a Burka herself in order to reject such an anti-Islam suggestion in “Sheela-Na-Gig.” For Harvey, there were more immediate threats to her freedom (and, yes,”Sheela-Na-Gig” is at least as much a freedom song as “We Shall Overcome,” not a song about freedom, but a song of freedom).

If anything, the song challenges the Western ‘religion’ of Capitalism at least as much as anti-Western, ‘pre-modern’ traditionalist Islam. The man who tells her she’s an ‘unclean’ exhibitionist is the same one who spews the song’s most enigmatic in meaning, yet clearly contemptuous in tone, phrase: put money in your idle hole.

The Idle Hole, The Idol Hole

The second and third time the chorus repeats, Harvey tags on this additional line, presumably also spoken by the male. While most agree that Harvey is singing “idle,” a Google search shows that I’m not alone in hearing an ‘audio pun’ in this song (similar to, say, The Temptations’ singing “and when he died all he left us was alone.” Or is it “a loan?” Why not both? You’re only forced to choose on the page, just as some page-poets end up being forced to choose between “tear” when they read aloud). Both meanings work well in this context, and don’t ultimately contradict each other, whereas “hole” clearly works much better than “whole” (as a side note, one person claimed to have misheard the phrase as “Idaho”). I’ll take the “idle hole” as the primary meaning; as either mouth or vagina, the potential meanings of the word ‘hole’ parallels the earlier meanings of the word ‘lips.’

The vaginal interpretation becomes more obvious given that the “Sheela-Na-Gig” carvings emphasize the woman’s genitalia. The image viscerally suggests stuffing the woman’s bleeding with a dollar-bill as a tampon (an image more striking than the ‘tampon in the teacup’ image championed by the art teacher in Ghost World). In the ‘religion’ of capitalism, money is often considered ‘cleaner’ than the female body. For those who argue that idle hands are the devil’s plaything, an idle ‘coochie snorcher’ may be even more heretical in conjuring a “Captain Saint Lucifer.” To this male, female desire and the life-giving power (what poet LISA ROBERTSON would call “earth monies”) has little currency. Put money in it! Get ye to a (capitalist) nunnery! “First I look at the purse!”

After all, this is the age of “the opposite of sex,” and of women who are allowed to achieve more success than ever in the man’s man’s man’s world on the condition that they don’t show up in the workplace all ‘happy and bleeding,” not that this is a bad thing for others. But in “Sheela-Na-Gig” it comes off as a repressive parthenogenesis, where the “masters of war” have made many men afraid to “bring children into the world” (at least until we go electric enough to make money).

Is it really safe to presume that Harvey intends this line to be spoken by the male? Just exactly who’s zooming who? The pronouns may be more ambiguous and suggestive than they at first seem. There are at least three interpretive possibilities worth considering:

1.The male tells the female, “put money in your idle hole”
2.The female tells the male, “put money in your idle hole”
3.The female tells herself, “put money in your idle hole.”

In the second interpretation, the woman is actively rebuking the man, as if PJ or “Sheela-Na-Gig” herself is telling the man, “you have failed to back up your claim of being able to care for me as much as you said you were,’ it’s arguably more empowering for the woman, as Harvey gives words to the otherwise silent, enigmatic, goddess-carving. But it would sacrifice the pun on ‘idol.” Furthermore, the man’s ‘hole’ hasn’t exactly been idle while the woman’s has. This interpretation precludes too many of the suggestive possibilities of the first.

The third interpretation, however, can supplement the first. Harvey could actually be taking the man’s advice even as she challenges its callousness, whether the ‘money’ means words, or literally, money. If “put money in your idol hole,” suggests “put words in your mouth,” this line can also refer back to what’s at stake in the song’s intro, in complicating the relation between ‘showing’ and ‘telling.’ Although Harvey can’t be accused of the “show don’t tell” mode in this song, the words “look at these” take on a different significance if one considers that these words, though uttered in the song, are not necessarily spoken by the character in the song. Looking back on the beginning of the song after having heard it in its entirety, one could argue that Harvey is actually putting words in her own (as well as “Sheela Na Gig”’s) mouth (or in her own non-verbal actions), as Harvey has come to realize the limits of music without words. This interpretation may even shed light on what the man was criticizing her for; that she wasn’t playing the word game before she wrote this song. In this interpretation he’s accusing her, in these lines, of “showing and not telling” (in his accusations of her exhibitionism, or of taking too many poetry workshops that try to beat ‘telling’ as well as ‘rhyme’ out of one). Words, like money, thus can ‘clean’ the pillows, in this interpretation, without necessarily killing them.

“Put money in your idle hole” may also become the new “wake up and smell the coffee” and “line your purse.” In giving birth to this song, she commodifies and sublimates her lust in creating this sublime object that can be idolized. In this interpretation, money means money and only money (and not, say, a penis). The men are all about the money even if they think they’re about sex. The men might even be made of money (which they made by singing “Shake Your Money Maker,” or sampling “I got a woman…. She gives me money when I’m in need,” or even “For the Love of Money…a woman would sell her precious body.” By telling a woman to put money where her vagina is, the man could be saying ‘don’t expect me to support you for your good looks, or even pay for your dinner.’ The kind of man Harvey’s attracted to is not content to fall for the kind of woman who, however pretty, feels her place is only in the home. Some feminists claim that the man’s callous rebuke could be (unwittingly) liberating, even though it’s expressed as a demand rather than permission. Harvey herself may take it that way, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt; yet the pain is that of a woman liberating herself from chasing an identity that the male-dominated music industry demands. The hole through which she sings has more social currency than if she were to be a ‘purely physical’ exhibitionist, and potentially has more staying power and would allow her to grow dignified and old like JONATHAN RICHMAN or the Sheela-Na-Gig carvings.

Some could criticize Harvey as an apologist for the capitalist system if, indeed, she is accepting (however reluctantly) the male’s advice, or giving similar advice to herself. But “Sheela Na Gig” so poignantly exposes how such advice can tear one apart (or ‘slice one in half’ to paraphrase COURTNEY LOVE), that such a criticism could hardly be justified, at least if it’s uttered by anybody in civilized, capitalist, society. Money isn’t really the root of anything, “Sheela Na Gig” reminds us; men invented it, like they invented a desexualized male god, in order to cover up the ‘idle hole.’ “Sheela Na Gig” is less a plea for understanding than a dramatization of a plea for understanding, but it is certainly not a resignation to the ways of the so-called world. While KURT COBAIN sings “I’m not like them, but I can pretend,” Harvey’s ‘pretending’ cuts much deeper, is no mere playing dead strategy (as in L7’s biggest hit). She’ll play this game, and even by the rules the man thinks are his; she’ll live in the world (but outside of existing conceptions of it)—but if she does in fact put such money in her idle hole, she also knows that she can take it out again.

As an alternative to the non-musical manufactured pop sex-goddesses, “Sheela Na Gig” may have been a pillow too dirty for the mainstream music industry that would embrace an ALANIS MORISSETTE (or later a SPICE GIRLS and PUSSYCAT DOLLS), but taken as a ‘whole,’ it presents us a ‘hole’ that can never be entirely filled, never entirely gotten to the bottom of, not with words or even non-verbal technologies (sex, music, money, or caring). Its fertility is only partially expressed through its double meanings. It shows us that caring is in accepting the hole, the ‘nothing’ that some call, the existential void, some call G-D, or ‘tea and oranges that come all the way from China’ (which was originally ‘constant comment’ that could come from her vagina). Ultimately, this groundbreaking song (which is nonetheless deeply rooted in traditions) helps rewrite the mystery of love (and the more than love that is really part of love). Thank you PJ. I’ve only yet begun to pay you back.