Friday, December 12, 2008

Jet, Suffragette

My friend Tim Lucas wrote to me last night asking me what I understood to be the meaning of Paul McCartney’s song “Jet,” a song that can be found on Paul McCartney and Wings’ highly regarded album Band on the Run (released December 1973). I answered his query about “Jet” with a rather lengthy response. Shortly after receiving my response, he emailed me back urging me to re-post my email as a blog entry, given all the work I’d put in to it. To be honest, the response didn’t take me a whole lot of time, but having been laid up with a terrible cold the past few days and as a consequence not having the energy to blog for the past several days, I thought I’d honor his suggestion and post my response to him as today’s blog, which hopefully might have the additional benefit of getting me back into the habit of blogging again. I apologize to everyone for having been silent for the past few days, but there have been extenuating circumstances. Hopefully today’s post will make up for my absence from cyberspace.

I’ve tweaked a few things and added some additional thoughts, but what follows is the gist of what I wrote to Tim earlier today. The first set of lyrics below (beginning “Ah Mater . . .”) are the set of lyrics Tim had a specific question about. [Addendum--6:43 p.m. CST: See Tim's comment below. As he indicates, he'd always misunderstood "much later" as "Paul Schrader," and one of his motives for writing to me was to ask me if indeed he had misheard the lyric.] I think the image I’ve included with this blog entry is entirely appropriate, as it is the cover of Rolling Stone No. 153, dated January 31, 1974, featuring Paul and Linda McCartney—an issue of the magazine published just a few weeks after the release of Band on the Run.

Tim -- I’d always heard (I say “always,” although I don’t know from what point I heard this claim) that “Jet” was, in part, a satirical jab at David Bowie and the then trendy androgyny of so-called “glam” rockers. My understanding is that the title “Jet” serves as a dual reference, one to his then wife Linda (as suggested by the lyrics “Jet, I can almost remember their funny faces/That time you told them that you were going to be marrying soon,” and “Jet/A little lady/My little lady . . . yes”) but also as a cloaked reference to Bowie by way of a play on words to the song “Suffragette City” (1972)—a verbal wordplay similar to Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.” According to lyrics reprinted in the 25th Anniversary Edition 2-CD set of Band on the Run, the lyrics are:

Ah Mater want Jet to always love me
Ah Mater want Jet to always love me
Ah Mater . . . much later

“Mater” is the Latin word “mother,” of course, but I think "Mater" is also an old-fashioned British usage for “mother” as well.

Just to confirm this interpretation I did some checking on release dates and such. I pulled out my 30th Anniversary 2-CD Edition of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust—the Ziggy Stardust period being the one in which Bowie was really pursuing his androgynous image, although he had already by this time posed in a dress on the cover of the album The Man Who Sold the World—and it indicates in the liner notes that the 7” single of “Starman”/”Suffragette City” was released on 28 April 1972, that is, well over a year before McCartney began recording Band on the Run in Lagos, Nigeria. Bowie’s album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, was released 6 June 1972, and Bowie started doing his famed act of simulating fellatio on Mick Ronson's guitar during a stage show on 17 June 1972. Subsequently, the cultivated androgyny—and homosexual subtext—of “glam” rock was born (most certainly you know of Todd Haynes’ 1998 film Velvet Goldmine).

Hence I think there’s some to support this interpretation; most certainly particular lyrics support this line of thought. For instance,

And Jet I thought the major was a lady suffragette

“I” (McCartney?) is saying that he initially mistook Bowie to be a female, a “lady suffragette.” “The major,” is a reference to the “Major Tom” of “Space Oddity” and “lady suffragette,” as I indicated earlier, also refers to Bowie via the song “Suffragette City.” And the line,

And Jet I thought the only lonely place was on the moon

would seem to refer to “Space Oddity” as well (“Here am I floating round my tin can/Far above the moon”). In contrast, lines such as, “Jet with the wind in your hair/Of a thousand laces/Climb on the back and we’ll go for a ride in the sky” would seem to refer both to Linda McCartney and his band (their band), Wings.

I think this general line of interpretation is born out by other songs on the album Band on the Run, which may carry allusions to many other songs contemporary to that period, although I haven’t done extensive research on this topic. For instance, I think the title song, “Band on the Run,” alludes to another band popular at the time, particularly in 1973, the year Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was released:

Well, the undertaker drew a heavy sigh
Seeing no one else had come
And a bell was ringing in the village square
For the rabbits on the run

The lines, “the undertaker drew a heavy sigh” is an allusion to Pink Floyd’s “Time” and the lyrics

The sun is the same in the relative way, but you’re older
And shorter of breath and one day closer to death

The reference to “a bell was ringing” alludes to the famed alarm clocks on Dark Side of the Moon, while the line “For the rabbits on the run” refers to “Breathe”:

Run, rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun

The entire album may be filled with such crafty allusions, but again, I haven’t done extensive research on the subject.

Hope this has been of some use.

Sam

Addendum, 7:06 p.m. CST: My wife Rebecca confirms that "mater" is indeed a common British vernacular term for "mother": she says, read your D. H. Lawrence.

2 comments:

Tim Lucas said...

If anyone's wondering, I've always heard the line "Ah Mater, much later" as the mondegreen "Ah Mater... Paul Schrader." I don't even think Paul Schrader was a household name at the time the song was released... even in MY household!

ariadni said...

The word mater is an ancient greek word (if anyone is interested)