Note: This post is throwback to something I wrote back in 2009 on an old defunct blog, but that I always liked, so I am sharing it here. I have edited it a couple of times as the video for the song has been made available, and then unavailable and then back again, on YouTube.
Lyle Lovett is one of my favorite songwriters. It is about his quirky way of expressing the simple, and his way of exploring that area where country, blues and gospel intersect and overlap. It the discovery of his music that gave me what I needed to fearlessly explore country for what there was to appeal to me there, and eschew the final shackles of genre that were holding me back from appreciating music in a completely free way.
“If I Had a Boat” (off of Pontiac (1988)) is a song regarding the bitterness of lost love though it may not seem that way from a superficial examination of its lyrics. Musically it is a simple song, a finger-picked progression high-up on the fretboard with a walking bass-line that does not change really for the refrain or verses – just reinforcing the last line of each that delivers the little punch or point of the song/verse with a pleasing resolution of the progression. There is a dobro in there and some simple drumming as well to develop the ambiance of the song.
It opens with the refrain as if the song had already started, had been being sung perpetually.
(and) If I had a boat
I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I’d ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat
It is silly, and I think it was meant to be – this image of a man riding a horse on a boat. I imagine not too big a boat, actually – though I guess there is nothing in the song to say one way or another. I always imagine a boat just big enough for a horse with a man on it, though I guess for it to be able to “go out on the ocean” we’d hope it’d be a boat of sufficient size to deal with those oceanic swells – but I am being too literal in my imaginings. It is beside the point. The point is the silliness, a man on a pony on a boat. What does this even mean? Perhaps the verses can shed light on it for us.
If I were Roy Rogers
I’d sure enough be single
I couldn’t bring myself to marrying old Dale
It’d just be me and Trigger
Here is where we get to understand what this song is about. The lyrics suggest a retreat from a(n even legendary) romantic relationship, preferring instead the steady companionship of a horse. (Note that Roy Rogers had Trigger stuffed when he died). The desire for the boat and the ability to escape across the ocean that it represents and the companionship of the pony is a retreat from more complex adult desires. There is something child-like about wishing for a boat and pony, and in their absurd combination. It sounds like something a kid would say, and the rejecting Dale Evans underscores that infantilism – an urge to return to sexual latency – in other words, “Girls? Yuck!” The cowboy allusions in the song also have the same effect. They are the superheroes of the mythical West.
The cowboy references continue in the second verse where the replacement figure for Dale becomes Tonto. . . Kind of. . . Actually, the allusion gets kind of mixed up and turned around and it is less clear who the singer is meaning to associate himself with. He does not say “The Lone Ranger,” but he says that the “Mystery masked-man was smart / He got himself a Tonto.” Here it seems that “a Tonto” is like Trigger for Dale in the first verse, a replacement for a woman (which has that homoerotic undertone that I like). Yet, by verse’s end, it seems to have switched, because “Tonto he was smarter / And one day said kemo sabe / Kiss my ass I bought a boat / I’m going out to sea.” Again, a relationship is dissolved in favor of escape and retreat, out of bitterness for doing “the dirty work for free.” The replacement figure in this lyrics becomes the one who needs to escape the relationship. The phrase “dirty work” is also pregnant with meaning, referring literally to whatever violence and violations the Lone Ranger and Tonto committed in their adventures, but I am convinced there is a sexual reference there as well. “Dirty work for free” can totally refer to sex (again with that homoerotic undertone between the Lone Ranger and his sidekick) and the resentment stemming from lack of recognition and being a sideline character – that is, being taken for granted.
The third verse is the hardest to parse, I think. The reference to being “like lightning” is easy enough to figure out, ephemeral, powerful, quick, uncatchable. The reference to not needing sneakers is about how as lightning he could “come and go wherever [he] would please” not having to slip or sneak off, but could be free of the obligations of relationships, coming and going boldly, without worry or regret. Again, the primary desire being expressed here is to escape the potential complexity and loss of adult relationships, preferring the more base emotion of fear (“And I’d scare ’em by the shade tree / And I’d scare ’em by the light pole”) as means of establishing control of the situation. “But I would not scare my pony on my boat out on the sea” he sings, reinforcing that control, the safety and separation of being on his pony on his boat – fulfilling a childish desire.
I love this song. Simple and quirky in the way that I love many of Lyle Lovett’s songs, but still obfuscating what might be an unhealthy desire, but an understandable one nonetheless – a lament for something simple and pleasurable and reliable, but ultimately unattainable and (for me at least) too isolated and insulated from the pleasures of adult relationships.
I really love the video for this song. It is as simple as the song is. I love the disruption of the “video illusion” in certain scenes where Lovett’s lip-syncing is ruined by his laughing. I also love the reminder of what his hair used to look like. I remember a time when his hair was what people most mentioned about him (well, that and his marriage to Julia Roberts).