Song Cypherin’: Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Messenger

This is something I’ve been thinking of doing for a while. The seed for this was planted a few months back when a bunch of us on twitter were discussing the meaning of some of the lyrics to DBT’s Goddamn Lonely Love. Now I had another song in mind originally but never did post that so I’ll just move on to this one which has been on my mind a lot more lately. I will eventually post the other, and likely do some more of these as I think about it. I’m hoping we get some sort of discussion going on here. In my opinion the thing that makes great songs great are the slight openness to the lyrics, the ability for the songs meaning to mean multiple things to multiple people no matter what stripe of life you are from. So this below is simply my interpretation of what the song means to me. Please chime in with your thoughts in the comments.

Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “The Messenger” is one of my all time favorite songs. Ray himself states that this was one of the first songs he wrote when he cleaned himself up and learned to fingerpick in the early 90s. To me the message of the song is one of finding contentment, not through material possesions or love or religion, but from within. To truly know yourself, and know your fears, and accept those things is the path to contentment the songwriter has taken. This gives the song an almost zen like quality. Let’s examine some specific verses:

I’m wearing old boots
high cuban heels
my soles they are worn
and I stand here by grace
my trousers are torn
and my jacket is borrowed
and I’m wearing my time
behind the lines in my face

My favorite thing about this verse is the double meaning you can take from the “my soles they are worn” line which could imply that the singer’s soul itself is worn. I don’t know if that’s the intent but that’s how I like to take it. As for the soles of his boots themselves being worn, to me this signifies a person who has done some serious walking, perhaps searching for something. Then you have the lines about standing here by grace, and wearing his time behind the lines in his face. This tells me this is a person who has been through some shit and came out the other side of it with more than a few wrinkles to show. This leads us into the chorus:

I am not looking for loose diamonds
or pretty girls with crosses around their necks
I don’t want for roses or water
I’m not looking for god
I’m not looking for sex

Now that combined with the opening verse really gives you a great intro to the narrarator. My take is he’s someone who has been troubled, and has been searching for contentment through many means such as money (loose diamonds), love (pretty girls with crosses around their necks), admiration (roses), religion, sex, etc… but he has found contentment on his own and he is no longer searching for these things. It’s been a long hard journey for him to reach this realization. This particularly becomes clear in live versions where he says he’s not searching for god now. Let’s look at the remaining lyrics:

now I’ve worn out my welcome
in certain small circles
in spanish bordellos
and confederate states
but there is an angel
in her leathers and kindness
who whispers my name
behind heaven’s gate

Chorus

and all the true believers
are out on the road tonight
no matter what happens
you know they’ll be OK
well the Rock and Roll Gypsies
was the last song they sang
by Hearts and Flowers
down in old Santa Fe

now I have a mission
and a small code of honor
to stand and deliver
by whatever measures
and the message I carry
is by Ranier Maria Rilke
he said “our fears are like dragons
guarding our most precious treasures”

chorus

That last verse….man that is one of my favorite verses in all of music. It really brings the entire meaning of the song home for me. “Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures”…WOW, what a line. It is from the book Letters To A Young Poet, which Ray claims was given to him and really made him reexamine how he was writing songs. But what does it mean? To me it means our fears are the things keeping us from finding our own “most precious treasures”, and in order to find contentment, we must conquer our fears. Now that is just one interpretation I’ve come up with, but it’s my favorite, especially in concert with the rest of the song. Now the lyrics I posted here are from the 1994 version on Loco Gringo’s Lament, during live performances, he often changes some of the lines around:

The most dramatic change is in the bridge in which he now sings:

and all the true believers
are out on the road tonight
and no matter what happens
well you know they’ll be OK
and to the rock and roll gypsies
may last song you sing
be by Mr. Townes Van Zandt
if your out in Santa Fe

I take this as a tribute to Townes Van Zandt who died in 1997. The original verse references the group Hearts and Flowers who I don’t know much about except they were an obscure group from Santa Fe and wrote the song Rock and Roll Gypsies which Ray recorded a version of on the album Delerium Tremolos.

Well, to finish this up, that’s my take on it. A song about a man who has been searching most of his life trying to find contentment and he has finally found it. Would love to hear what you all have to say.

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Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Messenger (live with Gurf Morlix)

  • Brad

    September 18th, 2010

    Reply

    Great song and a great writeup. I liked your interpretation of the last line. I always thought it meant that we create fears around the things we value most to guard against losing them. We fear failure because we value our pride and our view of ourselves. We fear success because we value our lack of expectations. We fear intimacy because we value our privacy and a steady emotional state. Could be viewed either way though. RWH is the man.

  • Adia

    September 20th, 2010

    Reply

    Excellent thoughts on a deep subject. Could only disagree with one line. He’s sober and not looking for Four Roses (bourbon) and water.

  • Dravidian

    November 19th, 2010

    Reply

    I like what you’ve done but interpretation of lyrics can be a slippery slope. I believe RWH as maybe the best songwriter of our time, certainly one of the best anyway. I’ve tried parsing out which of his stuff is my favorite but I just can’t do it. How could I not include Ballad of the Crimson Kings, The Gods of Mexico, Dust of the Chase, The River Bed, Stolen Horses, and on and on. I’ve often been tempted to ask him after a performance about a particular lyric but let it go. I let his stories paint pictures and bring back to life a time since past. I just hope he achieves the recognition and fame he deserves while he is here to enjoy it.

  • Conn

    June 22nd, 2011

    Reply

    I too find personal meaning in this song. Just to clarify one of the lines, it’s “Four Roses and water”, not “for roses and water”. Four Roses is a brand of bourbon, which underlines that he’s not looking to get lost in whiskey anymore.

  • Conn

    June 22nd, 2011

    Reply

    Sorry, didn’t see the previous poster’s clarification.

  • Bill Harrell

    March 29th, 2012

    Reply

    Is the quote, “Our fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures” literal or interpreted from Rilke’s writings? Can you tell me where it is found in Rilke’s writings?

  • Rickimac

    June 29th, 2013

    Reply

    Thanks for doing this. As far as the line “our fears are like dragons…..”, I am pretty sure he is alluding to one of the tenets of AA. That is that your secrets will kill you, so people have to tell “God and another person” their deepest darkest secrets…(step 5 of the 12 steps)
    Being a person also in recovery, this is what came to my mind I,mediately.

  • Mike Cooke

    January 16th, 2014

    Reply

    Great thoughts. I learned a lot.

    I was interpreting the lyrics not so much as a man that has struggled through much to reach contentment — rather as the journey of a man that has reached resignation. Money, love, fame, god, sex … he’s given up on all those. He’s lowered his expectations to an angel (wife? woman?) that whispers his name.

    And yet at the very end, he betrays that he has not quite given up completely. He has a mission and a small code of honor and he wants us to know about our fears being dragons keeping us from precious treasures.

    Perhaps even he, as he deals with his own fears, will find a breakthrough. Maybe he will find that there is meaning in love and God and other things. After all, he does want to “see what’s next” according to the variation on the chorus the last time he sings it.

    Ultimately, it is hard to give up on life — hard to truly get to the point of believing that it is all meaningless. That is the message I get.

    And it seems right. I have other desires and they have means of fulfillment. I get hungry and their is food. I have sexual stirrings and there is the opposite sex. My longing for meaning can be treated the same way — that there is ultimately a means of fulfillment for that too. It encourages me not to give up looking and explains why meaninglessness is so hard to accept.

  • PrimeTimeChuck

    May 16th, 2014

    Reply

    I have found out through RWH’s blog and my own research that Rilke may not be the poet who actually uttered the ” our fears are like dragons” quote. Ray said he contributed it to Rilke because he thought that Rilke deserved recognition for his book “Letters To A Young Poet.” This is the classic example of a musician creating his own myth/legend for an artistic purpose… ala Bob Dylan. Dylan has been known to do this while giving interviews. He almost never answers the same question the same way. I believe it to be the mark of a great wordsmith to have a vivid imagination and vision for things.
    It appears the quote came from a ancient mystic philosopher name “Runi” aka Natsume who appears to be a Islamic hero of some sort.
    But it also appears Ray Wylie’s tall tale has had his desired effect, because Googling the quote will turn up the quote being attributed to Rilke 8 to 1 vs it being attributed to Runi.
    Letters To A Young Poet by Rilke is indeed a life changing book for anyone of higher intellect who reads it. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

  • Traces of Texas

    December 3rd, 2014

    Reply

    I just wanted to point out that the lyrics do not mention “heaven’s gate,” as you’ve posted above.

    What Ray says is:

    There is an angel in her leathers and kindness
    And she whispers my name
    As she smiles at my fate

    Carry on

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