This is an extra-credit assignment for my daughter, who is in 7th grade. Her groovy reading teacher has asked his students to write a paper giving their interpretation of the lyrics to “Seen All Good People”. She’s allowed to solicit opinions from anyone, which is good, ‘cause I got nothin’. My contribution so far has been, “Something about a chess game?”
My daughter’s idea is that it has to do with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. That seems far more likely, but until I go to the library and pick up a copy, we can’t back it up.
The hard part is, the teacher wants every line of the song to reflect our interpretation in some way. (Am I supposed to believe “'Cause it’s time, it’s time in time with your time” actually means something? I interpret that to mean, “Lots of people used drugs in the seventies.”)
Furthermore, the teacher’s version of the lyrics don’t quite jibe with what I’ve found online. http://yesworld.com/lyrics/TheYesAlbum.html
Below I’ve quoted a few lines, with the teacher’s version in parentheses.
Make the white queen run so fast she hasn’t got time to make you a wife. (make you wise).
Just remember that the goal (gold)
Is for us all to capture all we want
Send an Instant Karma to me, (instant message)
Initial it with loving care.
Frankly, if you can make anything coherent out of either version, I’ll be impressed. But being impressed by Dopers is what I’ve come to expect! So please take a shot at this if you think you know what it’s all about.
It’s “make you wise” and “Instant Karma.” I’ve always thought it was “goal,” but the lyrics in the sheet music (in Yes Complete Vol. One) have “gold.” They also have “instant comment,” however, and that’s certainly wrong. The John Lennon reference is obviously intentional; note also the backing vocals chanting “all we are saying is give peace a chance.”
Oops. I just realized that the recent remastered CD has printed lyrics which appear to be correct, and apparently it is “wife.” I’ve been hearing that wrong for 34 years. The CD agrees with “goal” and “Karma.”
Hmmmm… I always thought it was Don’t surround yourself with yourself,
Move on back to squares
(not “move on back two squares”), as if the person being addressed had wandered off the board (life) in a depressive funk and needed to pull themself together and get back in the game. What could “move on back two squares” possibly mean?
Good luck to your daughter. I’m with you – the song mostly means people did a lot of drugs in the '70s.
“There are so many different ways to look at it. Every time I would think ‘Cause his time is time in time with your time’ I was trying to say that I will do anything that is required of me to reach God. And I think that whoever is listening to it should feel the same thing, that they are in tune and in time with God.”
–Jon Anderson, quoted in the book Yesstories: Yes in Their Own Words
Instant karma does not mean “instant message”, which was not a catch phrase in 1972 (I have the original vinyl in my hand, but, sadly, no lyrics) Instant karma is, for example, saying something bad about someone then spilling your coffee in your lap a minute later.
You also need to remember much of their music was influenced by psycho-active or “mind-expanding” chemicals. So, there may be no logical explaination for some phrases.
I remember reading about how they came up with the lyrics for Roundabout it was a drive in the country on LSD.
Well, the consensus seems to be that the lyrics are drug-influenced ramblings that don’t mean anything, which may not be completely wide of the mark, but that’s not very helpful to Dung Beetle’s daughter. doomraisin is right that Jon Anderson’s lyrics are inclined to be more about the sound of the words than any concrete meaning, but I think we can reasonably tease a coherent theme out of the song without too much reaching.
We have a chess game, which is a pretty obvious metaphor for life. The song begins by advising us to “Take a straight and stronger course to the corner of your life”–to be conscious of a goal in life and to direct our energies there. Jon Anderson’s comment makes it explicit that the goal is to reach God. The stuff about the White Queen running so fast is right out of Alice: the chess pieces have to run as fast as they can in order to stay in the same place. “Don’t surround yourself with yourself” is obvious: being isolated and self-involved won’t help you reach the goal. I don’t know about “move on back two squares”–it could mean “step back and reevaluate your path,” or it could be a warning of what will happen if you surround yourself with yourself–that you will lose ground. “Instant Karma” means that your actions will produce the consequences you deserve, and if you act with “loving care” your karma will be good and advance you towards your goal.
With “Don’t surround yourself with yourself,” the singer is asking his lover to remove the barriers to her heart, to open herself up to his love. The chess metaphor is that you can protect your valuable pieces (such as your Queen) by surrounding them with your other pieces. But in doing so, you hobble the potential power of that piece. The Queen has the unique power to move in a straight line in any direction, but it cannot jump over other pieces, even its own. Likewise, an otherwise great person who will not allow herself to be loved, or is too guarded to be loved, is emotionally hobbled.
The singer sets his own example of allowing himself to be emotionally vulnerable by using chess metaphors: “Move me onto any black square / Use me any time you want.” To him, it’s not a matter of one person winning and another person losing; it’s about capturing another person’s whole heart, without reservation (“Just remember that the goal / Is for us all to capture all we want”). Whether you capture the Queen or the Queen captures you, in love unlike chess you’re both winners.
My WAG…this references the movement of pawns. While normally they move one space at a time, their initial movement can be two squares. The implication could be that the subject is a pawn (in whatever sense) and that he shoud start over from the beginning.
I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day
so satisfied I’m on my way.
Could this be a refference to turning the other cheek? When good people turn the other cheek he has done his job.
The singer is the pawn, whilst his love is the queen seems to fit well. Jon Anderson is so far out there that he’s usually in a different universe so any more insite probably needs a budhist monk, the Dalhi Llama, and several substances unknown outside the native tribes of the Amazon.