from the desk of H. Bowie...

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"If I Had a Boat"

A song written by Lyle Lovett in 1986

This has always been my favorite Lyle Lovett recording.

The singer starts with the chorus, which is then repeated after each verse. Both musically and lyrically, it starts out as a simple children’s song, with gentle, bright finger-picking on the guitar.

If I had a boat,
I’d go out on the ocean.
And if I had a pony,
I’d ride him on my boat.
And we could all together
go out on the ocean,
Me upon my pony on my boat.

The chorus is clearly from the perspective of a young child. Each line is simple and short, the rhyming consisting only of the repeated use of the word “boat.” Note that Lovett’s singing is straightforward, sincere and heartfelt.

With the first verse, though, Lovett shifts gears, taking a slightly older, more ironic perspective.

If I were Roy Rogers,
I’d sure enough be single.
I couldn’t bring myself to marrying old Dale.
It’d just be me and Trigger.
We’d go riding through them movies,
Then we’d buy a boat and on the sea we’d sail.

Now the singer is not just talking about horses and boats themselves, but about how those things are reflected in our culture. The observation that stands out is the comment about Dale, Roy Rogers’ wife, which is so far the longest line in the song, putting a point of emphasis on this unexpected observation.

The following verse ventures further into Western culture, and edges closer towards adulthood.

The mystery masked man was smart,
He got himself a Tonto,
'Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free.
But Tonto he was smarter,
And one day said 'Kemo Sabe,
Kiss my ass, I bought a boat,
I’m going out to sea.'

Note that the tone is now miles away from where we started, no longer that of a child’s nursery rhyme. The verse ends with the imagined scene of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion, turning on his supposed master, rejecting his subordinate relationship with him, and instead saying even he is headed out to sea.

By now it should be clear that the song is about freeing oneself from entangling, binding human relationships of all kinds. And so what started as a simple, fanciful image from childhood has evolved into a reflection of hundreds of years of men’s lives and stories, of going out to sea, and riding off into sunsets, and pursuing dangerous work that makes it difficult or impossible or risky to pursue “normal” familial bliss. And so while this is a simple song that lasts barely more than three minutes, it resonates with whole canons from the likes of Howard Hawks and Raymond Chandler.

One more verse remains.

And if I were like lightning,
I wouldn’t need no sneakers,
I’d come and go wherever I would please.
And I’d scare 'em by the shade tree,
And I’d scare 'em by the light pole,
But I would not scare my pony on my boat out on the sea.

Here the singer imagines himself as a wraith-like figure, no longer able to relate to other humans except by frightening them. As the song’s conclusion, this feels like an admission from Lovett that the sort of disentanglement from human affairs described in the song is a dead end into which the protagonist can only disappear.

And so, in the context of the album Pontiac, as its opening track, the song seems to briefly consider the possibility of withdrawing from romantic relationships altogether, then ends by rejecting the notion as a bad idea: a perfect introduction to the rest of the album, which then dives back into the complex world of adult relationships in all their wildly entertaining glory.

By the way, the song is also featured prominently – both in its original version, performed by Lyle Lovett, and as a cover sung by Karen Elson – in the 2014 film Still Alice. In the context of that film, the song works as an aural analogue to the action on screen, where the main character, Alice Howland, is suffering the slow mental deterioration that accompanies Alzheimer’s disease. And so the song becomes a playful, gentle way to think about the gradual withdrawal from normal human relationships that Alice is undergoing in the film.

See also this analysis of the song from The Middle Spaces blog.

August 19, 2015