“Monkey on a Wire” by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson – An alt-country post-industrial updating of “Sixteen Tons”

monkey on wire

A great song and interesting video with animation that on the surface seems to speak of the “workaday” life of many of us in the modern world. The Kinks sang “All life we work but work is a bore, if life’s for livin’ what’s livin’ for?” This song portrays that “work” as something of much greater potential for disillusionment and dehumanization than mere boredom presents.

They make no sounds,
They ring no bell
Leaving no traces,
They got no tales to tell

They find no home,
They make no love
Casting no shadow while balancing above

Oh oh here I go me and my desire
Everyone’s got their own monkey on a wire

Oh oh down below, leader of the choir
Is waiting for the next monkey on a wire

They keep no fear, no second prize
Walking like Jesus with voodoo in their eyes

They come in green, they leave in black
Holding dead roses with bullets in their backs

Oh oh here I go me and my desire
Everyone’s got their own monkey on a wire

Oh oh down below, wrapped up in the fire
Waiting for the next monkey on a wire

They make no sound, they ring no bell
Walking like Jesus goin’ straight-on into hell

Oh oh there you go, you and your desire
Everyone’s got their own monkey on a wire

Oh oh down below, leader of the choir
Is waiting for the next monkey on a wire

Oh oh down below, wrapped up in the fire
Waiting for the next monkey on a wire

Waiting for the next monkey on a wire
Waiting for the next monkey on a wire

What then, is the song’s meaning? Before I venture at that below I would like to point out that it’s roots seem to be in the song “Sixteen Tons” from 1946 and attributed to the great Merle Travis, who in case you didn’t know is the source for the term “travis picking” in guitar playing. Since I see the roots of the song in Sixteen Tons I have added several videos that provide a brief historic introduction to that song. Following them I offer my interpretation of “Monkey on a Wire.”

The main lament of the song “Sixteen Tons” is quite clear in the chorus:

You load 16 tons,
And what do you get?
Another day older,
And deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me,
Cause I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store

It should be fairly obvious that this chorus bears a striking similarity to “Monkey on a Wire” with its chorus,

Oh oh here I go me and my desire
Everyone’s got their own monkey on a wire

Oh oh down below, leader of the choir
Is waiting for the next monkey on a wire

The main characteristic of both songs, is the dualistic view of life that is portrayed, through the separation of body and soul in each song. In “Sixteen Tons” this dualism is portrayed quite literally with the man made of “muscle and blood and skin and bones” but whose “soul is owed to the company store.” In “Monkey on a Wire” this dualism is portrayed spatially with the concepts of below and above. The man’s body is “down below” enslaved by the “leader of the choir” but his “desire” (soul) is up above as “their own monkey on a wire.”

Of course a main message of both songs is to show the injustice of the enslavement of the bodies and souls of men. In “Sixteen Tons” this is shown in the continuous cycle of backbreaking work and unending indebtedness to “the company store” and thus no positive gain from the years of labor. I think “Monkey on a Wire” paints presents a more totalitarian systemic injustice, and more emotionally shows the inner disillusionment and degradation of life under such a system. (It is possible that the song is metaphorical, meaning that it could be using a totalitarian system as a picture through which life and it’s societal demands or even spiritual oppressions can be viewed. I follow a fairly literal view of the “post-industrial” life situation as portrayed in the words and video, but the overall meaning would probably transfer as a valid pattern for viewing life in general.) So, with that caveat noted, back to the cheery subject of the dehumanization of life:

They make no sounds,
They ring no bell
Leaving no traces,
They got no tales to tell

They find no home,
They make no love
Casting no shadow while balancing above

The picture here is one of barely even existing, lacking all the main things that life consists of: communication, music, stories, place, love. They “leave no traces…casting no shadows while balancing above” meaning that their “soulical” existence that is only preserved “while balancing above” is essentially meaningless because it is as if they do not actually exist in true reality. The monkey on a wire is thus an escape, a means of preservation in this dire reality, but one that does not provide a real solution. The “leader of the choir” is not at all disturbed by their means of escape, because they are still enslaved. He is merely “waiting for the next monkey on a wire.”

“Sixteen Tons” was not nearly so hopeless in its situation, for two reasons. The first was that the lie “St. Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store” is really a statement of sarcasm, and thus a declaration that his soul, and even his body, cannot be enslaved. He is essentially more than a beast of burden of “muscle and blood, skin and bone” because he was “made out of mud.” This alludes to the creation of man by God from the ground as narrated in Genesis. Therefore man was not made for enslavement by men, but for freedom under God. He thus can rise up against injustice with his “fist of iron, the other one’s steel, And if the left don’t getcha, then the right one will.” Of course the picture here is the rising up of trade unions that sought the fair treatment of laborers and most will agree began as a positive force against injustice.

But “Monkey on a Wire” does not seem to present any “earthly” solution. It seems rather to be quite hopeless in its deadly portrayal.

They come in green, they leave in black
Holding dead roses with bullets in their backs

In fact the picture is of a rather “hellish” situation:

Oh oh down below, wrapped up in the fire
Waiting for the next monkey on a wire

They make no sound, they ring no bell
Walking like Jesus goin’ straight-on into hell

It is puzzling though, whether Chambers and Nicholson have embedded here a hidden solution by comparing the “story” of the poor persons living out this dualistic below/above existence, with the “story” of Jesus, especially according to lines 4-7 of “The Apostles’ Creed.

4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:

5. The third day he rose again from the dead:

6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:

7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:

Jesus certainly overcame hell, so is “Monkey on a Wire” saying that ultimately the enslaved laborers will also overcome, not just in their present escapist soulical existence of “balancing above” but in a full bodily resurrection, ascension, and return for judgment and justice? There is one other line that contributes to the question.

They keep no fear, no second prize
Walking like Jesus with voodoo in their eyes

Many of us, including myself, find it uncomfortable to think of Jesus and “voodoo” in the same sentence. I do not know much about or believe in voodoo although I do know that there are different types of it, such Haitian Voodoo or Louisiana Voodoo. I think that the intent of the lyric is merely to allude to a hidden and mysterious primal power that Jesus had, and the laborers with their “Monkey on a Wire” have if they “walk like Jesus.” Thus they may also overcome. Therefore, ultimately, they “have no fear” of the “leader of the choir” and they will not settle for a “second prize” of a mediocre dualistic existence because there is a real first prize of a liberated life. (It may also be that “voodoo” actually just signifies what Jesus was “possessed by” which we all should know was love!)

This raises many more questions, some of which I will list here.

  • Is the dualistic “below/above” existence really “made tolerable” even if there is no present hope for an earthly solution?
  • Is the song really hinting at and hoping for a future earthly solution such as that expressed in “The Lord’s Prayer” with the words “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words is the hope for body/soul integration in a just society in the “kingdom of God” that is in some sense coming now and will one day fully come the ultimate hope of the song?
  • Is the song meant to be a reflection on the nature of the “kingdom of man” as inevitably tending toward a “Babylon” that invariably makes trade with the souls of men and thereby becomes susceptible to God’s judgment? (See Revelation 18:13)

The way the song ends, with the repeated refrain “waiting for the next monkey on a wire” seems to present a somewhat ambivalent ending.

This ambivalence is seen because of two observations:

  • First, each new “Monkey on a Wire” is essentially another witness of the liberation that is the “inalienable right” of every person and the inevitable victory of the Kingdom of God. This possibility is supported in the video where the young man sees the evidence of the monkey who has infiltrated and thus become a witness against “the system.”
  • Second, although the “leader of the choir” is waiting for the next monkey, he is in essence waiting for another person that will contribute to the critical mass that is involved in his own demise and judgment in the justice of God.

Ironically, the “leader of the choir” is perfectly content with this situation, since he does not believe in the possibility, let alone the prophecy of his eventual judgment. He may even become the preacher noted in the song ‘The Harder They Come” by Jimmy Cliff:

Well they tell me of a pie up in the sky
Waiting for me when I die…

Well the oppressors are trying to keep me down
Trying to drive me underground
And they think that they have got the battle won

Karl Marx saw that religion acting as the “opiate,” can cause people to tolerate the intolerable, and therefore as the reason that it should be cast off.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

The problem with the view of Marx, from a biblical viewpoint, is that by not believing in a transcendent God that does hold humans accountable, and who brings them to judgment both within history and at the final apocalypse, Marx cannot see that God does make a real difference in existence. The book of Revelation is the manifesto that Marx should have studied, where it shows how the witnesses against the unjust system, even if they become martyred, eventually are vindicated. In the words of “Monkey on a Wire” the “voodoo in their eyes” allows them to “go straight-on into hell” and come out victorious.

19 And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned, crying out,

“Alas, alas, for the great city
where all who had ships at sea
grew rich by her wealth!
For in a single hour she has been laid waste.
20 Rejoice over her, O heaven,
and you saints and apostles and prophets,
for God has given judgment for you against her!”
21 Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,

“So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,
and will be found no more;
22 and the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters,
will be heard in you no more,
and a craftsman of any craft
will be found in you no more,
and the sound of the mill
will be heard in you no more,
23 and the light of a lamp
will shine in you no more,
and the voice of bridegroom and bride
will be heard in you no more,
for your merchants were the great ones of the earth,
and all nations were deceived by your sorcery.
24 And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
and of all who have been slain on earth.”

Of course this small excerpt does not suffice to present or defend what I am claiming regarding the reality of God and his judgment on the Babylon’s of men. And to prove that God was the instrumental cause of the fall of evil civilizations and revolutionary movements is probably also nearly impossible. Suffice it to say that evil civilizations and revolutions have fallen, and if there is a God, he surely had something to do with the fact that they are never ultimately sustainable within the moral universe that he created. In “Monkey on a Wire” it seems that in the ending refrain that “the leader of the choir” is “wrapped up in the fire” signifying that he is already in the place of God’s judgment even though he may be ignorant of the fact. In the words of Soren Kierkegaard,

“…whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes insane.”

The German theologian and Lutheran bishop Hanns Lilje wrote a commentary on the Book of Revelation while in prison under the Nazis. In summarizing the message of revelation he stated the following:

“The world does not stand still. All that opposes Christianity and makes faith difficult is not conquered by moving into a new consciousness of existence. But, just as surely as death confronts man with a question which the Christian knows is answered by the resurrection from the dead, so surely also the world is not “altered’ by the fact that man has learnt to look at it differently, or has found a different point of view from which to judge it, Something really happens: God attains his end.” (The Last Book of the Bible, p. 284)

Hanns Lilje knew that different view of life, was not a real answer. Intolerable problems need real solutions. It is interesting that “Monkey on a Wire” does not seem to present a “gnostic”  or in the words of Hanns Lilje a “new consciousness of existence” solution. (I interacted with gnosticism in another post, where I included a short but scholarly video discussion of gnosticism.) As I mentioned earlier, the lyrics may not sit comfortably with some of us, but they may point toward the only solution beyond mere escapism.

They keep no fear, no second prize
Walking like Jesus with voodoo in their eyes

They make no sound, they ring no bell
Walking like Jesus goin’ straight-on into hell

I am not oblivious to the possibility that Jesus goin’ straight on into hell could be viewed as defeat, and that “no fear” and “voodoo” in their eyes could signify a literal type of possession or hypnotism rather than my interpretation of voodoo given earlier  as some hidden primal power or even love. This either/or is really only to ask and answer the question whether the death of Christ was part of his defeat or part of his victory, a question that the Apostle Paul was fully aware of, since the Jews and Greeks both stumbled on the very concept of a savior that was crucified. But Paul knowingly staked his life on the side of victory, knowing that in a sense Jesus “became” the Savior and Lord by being crucified.

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

To the reader:

I always appreciate any thoughts, questions, implications, or critiques. Therefore, any of these from the reader are greatly appreciated. Many thanks in advance! “Likes” are also much appreciated because it helps me know if I’m posting things of interest to you.

So, what do you think? Do you see what I see…or do you think I took the ball and ran?

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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