Luna’s “Lost In Space” is a classic happy-sad song, both musically and lyrically: it cannot be reduced to either of these names for moods. Rather, it explores a primal ineffable feeling prior to being divvied up by language into discrete names for moods (or diagnoses of a blessing or affliction). Structurally, it’s a very simple, even sparse song: verse chorus, verse chorus, instrumental interlude and chorus; 3 simple Lou-Reed-esque chords throughout—with no chordal variation between verse and chorus. Yet it shows how a lot can be done with very simple elements; even though the song doesn’t officially begin with the chorus, that’s what many listeners hear first.
Its musical and lyrical hook is the catchy sing along chorus, which you have to hear in time, with the music, to grasp the meaning, and the feeling, of.
You heard it all before, they said your case was tragic
You heard it all before, now they say it’s magic
The lyrics seem simple enough, and may even remind one of the fairy-tale of the Ugly Duckling who becomes the Swan, but “Lost In Space” goes beyond such a fairy tale “Happy Ending” to suggest the swan song, the final cry of the dying swan. While this simple “tragic/magic” end rhyme certainly seems more uplifting than were it the other way around—a feeling which is heightened by the musical arrangement’s brightening as is moves from the sadder, introspective, feel of the verses into this anthemic chorus (which Luna often played faster, and more rocking, live than it was on the recorded version).
Indeed, this end rhyme has been used so many times it has almost become meaningless (and certainly there are countless songs that render this rhyme ridiculous), and Dean even sings them in such a way. Part of Dean Wareham’s brilliance with these simple, understated, lyrics and vocal delivery, is to also point out the ridiculousness of such simple binary thinking/talking. It may take a few listens, but once hooked, the words “they said” and “they say” take on the primary emphasis.
They have changed, but your life may stay the same. As they change what they call you from tragic (the isolated hero who dies alone) to this magical, generative being, there’s always the possibility that this naming, this assessment or diagnosis, can, in fact, change your case, and maybe even your essence (if you believe you have one—which you may not, if you’re “lost in space.”)
But because “you’ve heard it all before,” it’s hard to believe what they said before (your case was tragic) or what they say now. The lyrics don’t exactly spell out why they changed what they say (or think): was it something you did or said? Or was it something they finally perceived (whether truer, or more illusory than their previous perceptions)? But does this change in their perception and/or conception of your case really suggest comfort (or even ‘hope’) for the “you” of the song?
As with many songs with catchy, sing along choruses, these lines are often the only lines of the song many casual listeners know, or have made it into long-term memory. They sink in, but on repeated listens, they call attention to the verses, especially if you’re looking for insights into unanswered questions about the significance of the chorus’s words.
The verses are certainly sad; perhaps tragic, but definitely ridden with pathos. The singer is non-judgmental and sympathetic with the struggle the “you” is going through, as if he’s also talking to himself. Since the sadness is at least as present in the second verse (after the chorus) as in the first, it shows how the chorus (despite their now calling you magic) didn’t really change much.
There is little lyrical variation between the two verses, but while the first verse is more like an impressionistic puzzle, the second verse hints at a story, or at least a situation that “you” are going through. It only takes one line to create the keystone that holds the lyrics together. As Dean slowly stretches the simple sentence “You need/ time off/ for good/ behavior” over four distinct musical phrases (with pauses between each phrase for the riff), the weight of this sentence is emphasized more than the other lines.
This forces me to hear this “everyday” phrase as I’ve never heard it before, with a suggestive richness and poetic ambiguity it conventionally lacks. It’s the only line in the song that expresses what “you” need, and lack. But these needs can be taken two different ways: “you need/time off” first suggests you need a vacation. But “you need time off for good behavior” comes from prison, in which “good behavior” can knock months, or even years, off your sentence. In the song, the sentence itself is excrutiatingly long, as the singer purposefully stretches the word “be-hav-ior” out, so it takes awhile for its mystery to sink in. But once I realize it comes from prison, the entire song—including the chorus—takes on a darker significance, in words at least.
If you’re a model prisoner (like, say, James Brown was, when he formed a gospel band in prison to “sing songs for the Lord!”), you can get such time off, but you need an authority figure to testify on your behalf that your actions (or even inactions) can be deemed worthy of “good behavior.” You need to show signs that you have “reformed” in ways that he, she, or they, take as evidence for your fitness to return to the “real world” while you’re waiting for your case to come up. How you ended up in prison doesn’t matter (were you falsely accused? Or caught red-handed?), but now that you’re here, can your actions be called “good behavior?”
That’s the question!
Let The Hearing Begin
Judge: In considering the case of this subject, is there any evidence to suggest that this case is fit for being a productive member of society, of making an honest buck? We will hear initial arguments from the state and from the prisoner’s advocate:
Prosecutor: By his own admission, this case is lazy, and even crazy…
Judge: On what grounds?
Advocate: Those lines were never uttered in the first person…they were uttered in the second person
Judge: Objection over-ruled. The appellant clearly speaks of himself in the second person. (to Prosecutor) Proceed.
Prosecutor: He laziness is evident in his perpetual yearning for “something else”
he can’t even name. Even his fantasy heroes who he once looked to as exemplary role models seem tame to him. He would rather be “crazy” than “tame” and thus cannot contribute to society in a functioning, or even productive, way. This case is “lost in space,” and will not listen to the advice of those who are trying to help him. His actions present no evidence of any rehabilitation, and clearly his sentence should not be shortened.
Judge: We will now hear from the advocate:
Advocate: The Prosecutor neglects to take into account all the evidence. The defendant is clearly overworked. He certainly acts tame: he’s tired, and needs time off, in order to continue to perform his exceptional, and exemplary—and even magical—duties that he has performed in the penitentiary.
Judge (wearily): On what grounds?
Prosecutor: The appellant is “tired” because he doesn’t work enough. He tires himself on dreaming of “something else”….
Judge: Objection Over-ruled. Immaterial. Delete that from the transcript (to advocate): Proceed:
Advocate: Let me address that. It’s true the appellant has admitted under duress he’s both tired and lazy, but only because others have called him lazy. He was bearing false witness against himself. We need to take the environmental factors into account. No matter how hard he tries, and works, it’s still not good enough for some (glowers at the prosecutor). After all, the term “lazy n-word,” (which is still used today, even in this penitentiary) was first used to describe people who worked 60 plus hours a week in contrast to compulsory 24/7 slave-labor! If this prison claims to be truly a facility of rehabilitation, rather than simply of punishment and confinement, we need to consider the appellant’s justifiable tiredness in the light of his good behavior. The defendant’s actions have clearly been harmless and his work ethic has been exemplary!
Prosecutor: While my esteemed colleague certainly argues eloquently and passionately on behalf of the appellant, he weighs the appellant’s needs much more heavily than his actions and achievements. If we set this legal precedent, we’d consider the needs of much more disruptive prisoners to be greater than their actions, and open up the streets to clearly unreformed mass-murderers and rapists.
Advocate: The appellant, as the prosecutor himself is well aware, is not a mass murderer or a rapist. That’s a slippery slope argument. When he’s finished all his required duties, he keeps to himself, writing and reading, and, when allowed, plays his guitar. The prisoners and guards have been amazed by his brilliance.
Prosecutor: But he exhibits a failure to commit to any specific role in society, and lacks a sense of personal grounding that makes him unable to function in social settings!
Advocate: Not if his needs are considered as well as his abilities. Have you read his manuscripts? Have you heard his music? Record labels and publishers are interested. They say it’s magic!
Prosecutor: There’s a thin-line between magic and madness. Even if we grant that he’s magic, that doesn’t mean he’s employable or could even function as a freeman in society. I will conclude with a quote from no less of an authority figure on civic society and poetry than Shakespeare:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1, 12-18)
The appellant, however, is not even able to do this. He may know there’s something more, but he can’t even give it a name, much less a “local habitation.” Sure, publishers and record labels are interested, but he doesn’t even like that his heroes are being sold. I rest my case!
Advocate: He doesn’t have to give it a “name” if he can give it a song! Furthermore, he doesn’t like the way they’re being sold; there’s a crucial difference. He’s passive; he understands he needs someone to sell him. He’s letting me sell him.
Prosecutor: He’s projecting his own depression and passivity onto his heroes. This also reveals his delusions (and choice of heroes who died young or tragically). Survival demands being tamed, whether someone else sells you or you’re able to sell yourself!
Defendant: He’ll get over it, once he’s out of this prison. I, too, rest my case.
Judge: Court adjourned. A decision will be made on whether the appellant is granted his shortening of sentence “with all deliberate speed” (http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/6-legacy/deliberate-speed.html)
A Work Song or An Introvert Anthem?
Of course, we don’t have to see the “you” as being in an actual prison (just as we don’t have to see “Unchained Melody” or “I Shall Be Released” as about an actual prison). Placing it in the context of any work in the so-called “free world” could also give it a local habitation and a name. In such an interpretation, the need for time off is simply the need for a vacation, or what I like to call “homework.” The “time off” becomes part of the job--especially if it’s your job to create magic (a “crazy” job, but apparently the only one some of us can get).
As one who has spent my entire adult life laboring in the culture industry, rather than in prison, I personally hear “you need/ time off/for good/ be-hav-ior” as a defense of the dual-activities that both the teaching and music businesses demand. For instance, as a musician, you have to both perform and compose. As many musicians will attest, relentless touring can get in the way of actually writing and recording the music, but at the same time recording and writing the music can get in the way of performing. You’re working all the time, but these two roles are very different. Ideally, they can feed each other symbiotically, as many create their best records while taking a brief break from a lengthy tour (i.e. Revolver and Rubber Soul, as but two examples), but “time off” from a tour booker is often “time on” for a music publisher or label who wants a new magical song. Without a balance between the two, it’s easy to feel “lost in space.”
Likewise, in the college teaching industry, there’s a symbiotic relationship between the activities you perform in the classroom itself, and the homework (so-called “prep” of syllabi, or reading lists, and grading papers and emailing students). Most of us never would’ve been employed as college professors had we not written books, and in order to write books, we need “time off” from teaching to exhibit good behavior as an effective mediator of classroom discussions. And, ideally, the kind of discussions one can facilitate as a teacher feed back into the writing one creates. Without a balance between the two, it’s easy to feel lost in space (which is why some of us can teach college exceptionally well, but cannot teach high-school with its long hours, and little room for the kind of intellectual and creative homework that allows us to be “magical” in the classroom to people who appreciate it!).
In this sense, the song takes on a very personal significance for me, as a plea for understanding---whether or not that was Dean Wareham’s attention—but I know others who have highly personal, and very different interpretations of the song.
I can understand why some see this as an anthem of early 1990s “slacker culture,” the archetype of the lost-in-space 20-something sitting in a coffee shop with a huge unpaid college debt trying to figure out what the hell to do with their life—but it can be so much more. For me, much of what I say about “prison” becomes all too true of the “lost in space” reality I’ve been living as a context-less homelessman over the past year, but the song is not simply a complaint (and certainly having the privilege of covering the song with Dean & Britta themselves brought some “magic” into the potential tragedy of my life).
Conclusion: “It Must Appear In Other Ways Than Words”
Though much of my interpretation emphasizes the sadness and pathos in the lyrics, I still conclude it is a “happy-sad,” or even “sad-happy" song. If the “tragic/magic” rhyme is ridiculous, Dean’s rendering of it reveals the necessary ridiculousness of such binary thinking that may be the only thing that can save one from being lost-in-space.
Aside from the word “magic” in the chorus, there may not be many words to suggest the magic, but after the two verses are finished, and the second chorus ends with the word “magic,” the final 33% of the song is devoted to a beautiful instrumental (that is itself both happy and sad), before returning to the final chorus. This chorus, perhaps more than any of the words in the song, is evidence of the “magic” that can (perhaps) transcend the potential tragedy in the lyrics—so when the chorus returns after the solo, there is a sense of transformation there hadn’t been earlier. I wouldn’t call it a classic “happy ending,” like conventional romantic comedies, but at the very least it’s a “problem comedy” which “must appear in other ways than words” as Shakespeare’s Portia puts it (MV, Act 5, Scene I, Line 139).