Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Dog Years" - An Analysis

One of the most maligned songs in the Rush cannon, Dog Years is a song found on Rush’s 1996 LP, “Test For Echo.” The song is ostensibly about the life of a dog, and the lyrics are light-hearted and seemingly frivolous, all of which makes for a song that is often criticized by the fans of Rush, who have come to expect deeper and more meaningful words from their favorite band. To quote two opinions recently given on the Rush message board: “I hate the lyrics. I think they are embarrassing;” and, “The only mistake [Rush] made on Dog Years was writing lyrics.”

I have often argued that the reason many Rush fans don’t like Dog Years is because they don’t really understand it. It’s not, in fact, a song about a dog, and there are actually a number of very clever phrases in the song that only seem flippant because they make vague references that the average listener doesn’t get. I will look at each section individually and provide an analysis of what I think the song is saying. The lyrics, for anyone who cares, were written by Rush’s primarily lyricist, drummer Neil Peart.

In a dog’s life
A year is really more like seven
And all too soon a canine
Will be chasing cars in doggie heaven

I can agree that the last line is problematic. Regardless of the point Peart is trying to make, there’s just no good reason to ever use the phrase “doggie heaven.” Then again, Rush has always tended to have a typically goofy Canadian sense of humor, so the use of this silly phrase really shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Be that as it may, this opening stanza is simply setting the stage for the extended metaphor that Peart makes throughout the song – a metaphor connecting “man” and “man’s best friend” and referencing the number seven. Convention says that a dog year is like seven human years. Thus, dogs age much more quickly than humans, and end up dying, on average, at about age 11 or 12 – which, if you multiply by seven, corresponds roughly to the average age human beings tend kick the bucket and head off to “people heaven.”

It seems to me
As we make our own few circles ‘round the sun
We get it backwards
And our seven years go by like one

Here, in the second stanza, the first connection to the human condition is made. As we make our own few circles around the sun, our time seems to fly by – we live in dog years; seven years go by like one.

Dog years – It’s the season of the itch
Dog years – With every scratch it reappears

This is the first chorus. That first phrase, “It’s the season of the itch,” is an obscure one. What is Peart trying to say here? My opinion is that he is making a vague reference to one of Marilyn Monroe’s most famous films: “The Seven Year Itch.” This is the film that produced the iconic image of Monroe with her white skirts billowing up over her torso. The phrase itself is one used by psychologists to refer to how married couples frequently begin to have trouble near the seventh year of marriage, and start “itching” for something else.

The connection, then, to the “dog years” outlined in the first stanza of the first verse is obvious and twofold. First, there is the connection to the seven years of a dog year. Secondly, there is the connection with the word “itch,” which draws to mind a scratching dog. This image is continued in the second line: “With every scratch it reappears.” Like a dog, no matter how much we “scratch,” we can’t make the “itch” go away – in other words, no matter how much we fight against it, time moves inexorably onward - seven years (the season of the itch) go by like one.

This chorus, I believe, is an incredibly complex and clever reference, pulling together the themes of the first verse.

On to the second verse:

In the dog days
People look to Sirius
Dogs cry for the moon
But these connections are mysterious

Here, Peart is again talking about the struggles of humanity. In the “dog days,” people look to Sirius. Another clever, yet vague reference here: Sirius is the name of the brightest star in the night sky. It is known as the “dog star.” The point, of course, is that some people look for comfort in astrology.

The stanza, of course, also has yet another clever twist, because the phrase “People look to Sirius,” when sung aloud, sounds like “People look too serious.” In other words, people take life way too seriously, particularly during the “dog days” of life.

The second part of the stanza has another clever play on words: “Dogs cry for the moon.” The expression “cry for the moon” is akin to “ask for the moon.” In this phrase, I think “dogs” can mean people, and thus some people “cry for the moon” – that is, they want everything – because they think that will soothe their discontent. But all this, Peart affirms, is “mysterious.”

It’s a play on words because, taken literally, he’s also talking about dogs howling at the moon, a fact of canine life that is mysterious to human beings.

It seems to me
While it’s true that every dog will have his day
When all the bones are buried
There is barely time to go outside and play

This second stanza of the second verse is an extended play on words that can be taken literally about dogs, or metaphorically about humans. For a dog, by the time he has buried all his bones, there’s barely any time left to get out and play. For a human, by the time he has “buried all his bones” – that is, by the time he has taken care of all his daily business – there is never enough time for anything else.

This, of course, fits the overall theme of “dog days” and looking too serious and life flying by like dog years.

The third line, of course, also includes another double entendre, because it can also be understood as our own bones being buried after we die. We spend our lives so busy, but once we are dead, there’s no more time left. Thus, it’s an encouragement not to waste one’s life. It reminds me of a phrase my friends and I used to say in college when debating about whether to stay up late and have fun, or go to bed early because we had class the next day: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

Dog years – It’s the season of the itch
Dog years - With every scratch it reappears
Dog years - For every sad son of a bitch
Dog years - With his tail between his ears

This second time through the chorus extends it by adding rhyming phrases. This particular part of the song gets a significant amount of criticism by many Rush fans. They miss the vague and clever reference to the Monroe film, mentioned above, and they assume that “season of the itch” is a meaningless phrase written only to create a nice rhyme for “son of a bitch.” They also argue that “With his tail between his ears” is a nonsense line that is, again, only given for the purpose of rhyming. What does it mean, after all, for a dog to have his tail between his ears? Dogs’ tails go between their legs, not their ears, right?

We’ve already discussed the meaning of the first two lines. The third line is my favorite in the whole song, because like so many of the other phrases, it’s a clever play on words – the dog/human connection again. The poor dog is a “sad son of a bitch,” and the poor man, living in the dog years, is also a “sad son of a bitch.”

The fourth line connects to the one before it. It’s not the dog with his tail between his ears, but the human with his tail between his ears. And what does it mean for a human to have his tail between his ears? It can be taken a couple of ways. First, it could be understood as a clever way of saying the “sad son of a bitch” has “shit for brains” – his “tail” (i.e., his rear end) between his “ears” (i.e., inside his head). It can also be taken as a different kind of insult; the “sad son of a bitch” has his “head up his ass.”

I prefer that last one myself, and it fits the context of the song a bit better.

I’d rather be a tortoise from Galapagos
Or a span of geological time
Than be living in these dog years

Just in case you might feel that Peart is being a bit too hard on the “sad son of a bitch,” this bridge of the song makes clear that Peart, himself, is the one living in “these dog years” with his “tail between his ears.”

This bridge has also been a frequent target of criticism, either because “Galapagos” makes for a cumbersome word in a song, or because the point is not clear. What the heck does a tortoise from Galapagos (wherever that is!) have to do with anything? the frustrated Rush fan might ask (and I’ve personally heard this complaint). Of course, Galapagos is an island off the western coast of South America, and is the place Charles Darwin visited that helped inspire his work in evolutionary science. Tortoises, which are found in abundance on Galapagos, are famous for having extremely long life spans. One famous tortoise was given to the royal family of Tonga – an island in the South Pacific – by Captain Cook in about 1777. It didn’t die until the Beatles were a pop sensation – in 1965.

The second phrase – “a span of geological time” – is a bit more explicit.

The third phrase, of course, makes the point clear: I’d rather live for a really long time than have this fleeting human life, which passes like dog years.

In a dog’s brain
A constant buzz of low-level static
One sniff at the hydrant
And the answer is automatic

This is the first stanza of the song’s third verse. Like the rest of the song, it’s a play on words that can refer to both a literal dog and a human being. In reference to a dog, the meaning is fairly clear. In reference to a human, I think it can be understood much more deeply as a reference to how we spend so much of our lives on “autopilot.” This fits with the theme of the “sad son of a bitch,” struggling through the “dog days” of his fleeting life on earth.

It seems to me
As well make our own few circles ‘round the block
We've lost our senses
For the higher-level static of talk

This second stanza makes the implication in the first stanza clearer. As we humans make our own few “circles ‘round the block,” we miscommunicate and we run on autopilot, missing the important “conversations” going on around us – the “conversations,” of course, being the important events in life. More directly, I suspect, Peart is lamenting the loss of intellectual discourse in popular culture.

In the end, despite its frequent criticism, I think Dog Years is one of Rush’s most clever lyrical efforts – a song where nearly every line is a play on words, an extended metaphor, or a double entendre.

Perhaps some will still think the lyrics are bad for a rock song. To finish the first quote given above by the critical fan on the Rush message board: “I hate the lyrics. I think they are embarrassing. I also understand them. I still think they are embarrassing.”

Well, I suppose you can’t please everyone. I’m drawn to the song because the lyrics are meaningful to me – I often feel the same feelings described in the song – and as a wordsmith, I have a deep appreciation for the cleverness of the way those feelings are expressed.


Mouse said...

Snike remark number one!

I interpret the third verse differently. The first stanza references the simplicity of the dog's existence - hydrant sniffing and such, everything is very straight forward.

The second contrasts with it the inherent overcomplication typical of the human condition - a departure from the basic sensory-driven lifestyle of the pooch to modern higher-mind contemplations and all the trivial inanities of speech in which we now tend to engage.

/It seems to me
As well make our own few circles ‘round the block
We've lost our senses
For the higher-level static of talk/

cheers. :)

Scott said...

Thanks for the input! I can certainly see how the third verse can be interpreted the way you have suggested.

Jeff said...

This is a very astute and thoughtful analysis. My compliments!

Scott said...

Thanks Jeff! Glad you enjoyed it. I had forgotten about this post. It was nice to revisit it.

Ray said...

I know this blog post is about a decade old now (how fast these dog years pass...), but I'd still like to leave a comment because of how much I appreciate this analysis. Almost every Rush fan I talk to hates on Dog Years, especially for the lyrics. It feels like everyone listens to this song on a very superficial level, so I felt really vindicated when I found this post.

You actually interpreted the song really similarly to how I do. The "season of the itch" line is still pretty puzzling, though. I kinda feel like it loosely refers to the hedonistic treadmill. We spend our short lives scratching that itch of wanting something more, but of course - we'll always be left grasping for more. Even after reaching a goal, even after we finally scratch that itch, it reappears.

Regardless, thanks for making this post. It's always fun to look a little more into the lyrics of bands we love.

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Ray. Glad you enjoyed it.