It may seem like a strange title, but it derives from an actual episode in the intriguing life of Samuel Clemens. Click on the “Play” icon above to hear a streaming version of the song (right-click to download the mp3), and check out the sections below for the whole story behind the song.
Steve: I’ve always been fascinated by Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. His acerbic writing grabbed me at an early age, but his life was equally fascinating, underscoring that you can be both immensely successful and immensely tragic. So much of Clemens’ life was formed by death and alienation, from the early demise of his father to the death of his younger brother in a steamboat explosion, to being predeceased by his wife and three of his children (one in infancy and two adult daughters). He was immensely self-critical, being unable to prevent himself from turning the powerfully cynical microscope with which he looked at his fellow humans on himself. This tendency towards self-flagellation was compounded by a life full of actual mistakes, particularly the squandering of his fortune on poor investments.
In 1895, Clemens conceived a plan to get his family out of debt. He would travel around the world on a lecture tour. The tour itself would be lucrative, as would the resultant travelogue, later published as Following the Equator. None of this would have been his first choice. He enjoyed the adulation he received on stage, but found it enervating, and of course a writer who is on stage is not writing. He was pushing 60, his wife was in ill health, and traveling was arduous in those days; circumnavigating the globe was a commitment. One of his daughters, Clara, accompanied him and his wife on the trip, but he would endure a long separation from the other two, Jean and Susy. As it turned out, the separation from Susy would be permanent. As the conclusion of the trip saw the Clemens party arrive in England, Susy contracted meningitis and died, blind and delirious, back in Hartford.
All these things were crystallized for me one night when watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Mark Twain. It is not Burns’ best work, having a somewhat slow and stately pace, but a photograph from the “Following the Equator” tour struck me powerfully—a shot of Clemens in India, sitting atop an elephant. The look on his face seemed to say, “What the hell am I doing here?” I would link the photograph, but it doesn’t seem to be online, and to my eternal frustration Burns did not include it in the documentary’s companion book. Clemens’ mood in India swung (as it did in all other places) between elation and depression, and he quite liked the country, staying there about two months, but I may well have read his expression correctly. From Following the Equator:
By and by to the elephant stables, and I took a ride; but it was by request—I did not ask for it, and didn’t want it; but I took it, because otherwise they would have thought I was afraid, which I was. The elephant kneels down, by command—one end of him at a time—and you climb the ladder and get into the howdah, and then he gets up, one end at a time, just as a ship gets up over a wave; and after that, as he strides monstrously about, his motion is much like a ship’s motion. The mahout bores into the back of his head with a great iron prod and you wonder at his temerity and at the elephant’s patience, and you think that perhaps the patience will not last; but it does, and nothing happens. The mahout talks to the elephant in a low voice all the time, and the elephant seems to understand it all and to be pleased with it; and he obeys every order in the most contented and docile way. Among these twenty-five elephants were two which were larger than any I had ever seen before, and if I had thought I could learn to not be afraid, I would have taken one of them while the police were not looking.
Elsewhere, he was a bit more positive:
We wandered contentedly around here and there in India; to Lahore, among other places, where the Lieutenant-Governor lent me an elephant. This hospitality stands out in my experiences in a stately isolation. It was a fine elephant, affable, gentlemanly, educated, and I was not afraid of it. I even rode it with confidence through the crowded lanes of the native city, where it scared all the horses out of their senses, and where children were always just escaping its feet. It took the middle of the road in a fine independent way, and left it to the world to get out of the way or take the consequences. I am used to being afraid of collisions when I ride or drive, but when one is on top of an elephant that feeling is absent. I could have ridden in comfort through a regiment of runaway teams. I could easily learn to prefer an elephant to any other vehicle, partly because of that immunity from collisions, and partly because of the fine view one has from up there, and partly because of the dignity one feels in that high place, and partly because one can look in at the windows and see what is going on privately among the family.
I was aware of neither of these passages when I saw the picture, and by the time I had read them and confirmed my initial impression the song had long since flooded into my mind and been written. Indeed, the song came with shocking ease. As we reach further songs here you will hear some that we struggled with (together or individually) for months or years, but almost all of “Mark Twain” came in minutes, the only exception being the middle, “ghost story” section, which came later, after further reflection about Clemens and his relationship to his family—Susy was among the “bunch of girls” in question and did indeed ask the famous storyteller “not to say,” but being a reflexively contrary fellow, Clemens did anyway.
That is as far as I will go towards specifying the allusions to Clemens’ life and philosophy in the song, hoping that my version of the author will speak for himself. I hoped to point up some of the great contradictions in his character, contradictions of which he was all too painfully aware.
I feel I should say something of the music itself, such as the G-A7 progression that animates the verses, but I have little to say except that the music came as fast as the words, and that this is the way it sounded in my head. I hoped that the pregnant-sounding A7, which seems to want to resolve somewhere more comfortable and doesn’t, conveys the speaker’s basic anxiety at his situation.
Rick: Collaborating with Steve requires one to become a student of history. His passion for the subject pervades a lot of his lyrics — as will be obvious as the Ballads of the Republic category fills up (as an aside, for my part I’ve kept the songs about physics, math, and science to a minimum thus far; the likes of Jonathan Coulton (example) and TMBG (example) do a fine job of that. But you never know.)
In any case, knowing him as I do, it was no surprise to get a Mark Twain lyric. The elephant was unexpected — but trust me, I’ve seen more peculiar-sounding ideas than that come over the transom. I had a handful of suggestions and chord-tweaks here and there in the development of the song, but most of my contributions were in the recording, arrangement/backing vocals, and production phase, which I’ll address in the Recording Notes.
Recorded in Dec 2009 at Rick’s Home Studio (a.k.a., living room)
Steve: Lead vocals
Rick: Acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, drum programming, vocals
The recording process started with an acoustic guitar rhythm track against a metronome (which is typical). Steve put down about four full takes of the lead vocal – although the goal was to only double it in the final mix, having the extra takes gives us a bit more flexibility to “comp” tracks by assembling the final tracks using the best parts from each take.
Steve ad-libbed several lines during the song’s play-out, including “I’m lighting out” and “I’ve been there before myself,” both inspired by the concluding paragraph of Huckleberry Finn, but only the former made the final version. We discussed the background vocals a bit and Rick put down a few tracks, but the takes from that day weren’t quite right, so we rerecorded them a few days later.
I (Rick) admit that I went the lazy way on this one, using a synthesized bass. When you’re working on a time-budget and doing all the instrumentation, it’s easy to succumb to the simplicity of not having to set up the recording equipment, set levels, and do multiple live takes to get the bass part just right. Using the synth allowed more time to be spent on the other tracks and mixing. I’ll use a real bass some of the time, I promise.
After writing the drum track and recording the electric guitar, it was still missing a little depth. A little Hammond organ and the “bells” that show up in the middle and end sections (which double the guitar part) seemed to be just what it needed to finish it off.
Mark Twain Rides An Elephant
So far away
I’ll run away
Telling truths the times I lied
The secrets that you try to hide
False faces that you invent
That’s why Mark Twain rides an elephant
I never knew
Had touched her, too
Counting cars on Hartford streets
The tiny lies, the small deceits
That’s why Mark Twain rides an elephant
- I’m on the outside looking in
At the face behind your skin
On the outside looking in
You can’t hide from yourself
Nor anyone else
You run away
Told a ghost story to a bunch of girls
Though she begged me not to say
Told a ghost story to a bunch of girls
We’re all ghost stories, anyway
Scratched out in pen
Till the comet comes again
No apologies for being me
For all the things she couldn’t see
Don’t think these things are meant
But they’re not coincident
And if nothing’s heaven sent
No help from the firmament
That’s why Mark Twain rides an elephant!
- You run away or write it down…
I’m lighting out, lighting out again…