“Radio’s on windows rolled up, and my mind’s rolled down.”
My friend Brian mentioned this John Prine line the other day, and I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it ever since. John Prine does this kind of stuff. He can create a phrase that bends a mind the way BB King bends a guitar string. The line comes from Long Monday.
So what’s going on here? What makes the line work?
Having the rest of the verse for context will help. (I’d suggest giving it a listen as well; reading a lyric without hearing the music is like reading a comic without looking at the pictures).
You and me, sittin’ in the back of my memory
Like a honey bee, buzzin’ ’round a glass of sweet Chablis
Radio’s on, windows rolled up, and my mind’s rolled down
Headlights shining like silver moons rollin’ on the ground
Before we get too deep, it’s worth quoting something attributed to Prine by American Songwriter:
If you start a song with pictures, and set the scene physically, the listener will be open to poetic, complex language. But if you start with abstractions, they will be lost.
Every line in this song starts concretely. Prine keeps us grounded in the real world, and then he can shoot us off just about anywhere he likes.
The first line starts with “you and me.” It doesn’t get much more solid than the speaker and the person he’s talking to. A memory is abstract at the end of the line, but everything else feels solid. He’s even got us sitting in the memory, and if we’re sitting in it, it must be solid.
The next line, the honey bee circling Chablis, is an even clearer picture.
The third line is the one Brian hit me with, “Radio on, windows rolled up, and my mind’s rolled down.” If he simply said, “My mind’s rolled down,” we’d be lost. But he gives us the radio and window first. The pictures give context for a phrase that should be nonsense.
John said in an interview with Paul Zollo, “I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better; the more they become part of the song, and they fill in the blanks.” This line is a good example of that. What does “my mind’s rolled down” mean? Survey ten John Prine fans, and you’ll get ten different answers. Another example of letting listeners contribute is that all of the song’s details scream “car,” but has he used the word car; has he told us the make and model? Nope. It’s “You and me, sitting in the back of my memory.” As listeners, we get to decide what’s going on in this song.
I don’t know much about how John created the images he uses in his songs. He’s such a legend at this point it seems like at least some of his songs popped out fully formed, but it’s good to remember that these lines are just metaphors.
When I learned about metaphors, I was told a metaphor is when you say one thing issomething else. If I wrote the “mind rolled down” line that way, I might say, “my mind is a rolled-down window.” Prine skipped all that “is” malarky and just made it so. How do we know his mind is a car window? It’s doing car window things. It’s rolled down. Not only is this more concise and elegant, but as a bonus, I can almost feel the fresh air blowing through his brain. Saying something is doing a thing something else usually does is technically called a verb metaphor.
The opening line is a verb metaphor too. Usually, people sit in the back of cars. John Prine has us sit in the back of a memory. A cool thing is those words “sittin’ in the back of my . . . ” actually conjure the car up without needing to name it. For fun, here’s a Venn diagram of the whole deal.*
It’s always a bit of wonder what John Prine does with his words. None of the language he uses is fancy. (A lot of it wouldn’t be out of place in a “Dick and Jane” reader). He performs a kind of sleight of hand with his words. If you watch closely, there’s no reason you can’t adopt some of his tricks for yourself.
*I think Venn diagrams are fun. Don’t you?