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United for Peace of Pierce County - ANNOTATED SONG: Mark Knopfler’s ‘Punish the Monkey’ (2007)

Significant commentary upon contemporary society continues to be appear in popular song, though in forms that are more and more oblique and that seem to get less and less airplay.  --  “Punish the Monkey,” a 2007 song by Mark Knopfler, is a case in point:  when was the last time you heard it on the radio?  --  An interpretation of the song with line-by-line annotation posted below concludes that “Punish the Monkey” is a powerful if subtle indictment of a society that has lost its moral claim to legitimacy.[1]  --  NOTE:  When I began this commentary a few years ago, it was easy to find and listen to “Punish the Monkey” on YouTube and Google Video; finding it now is more difficult, but it can be heard in an adulterated but not unpleasant version here.  --  This development seems to fit the theme of the song, somehow....


[Lyrics with commentary]

By Fran Lucientes

** Mark Knopfler X-rays the era **

United for Peace of Pierce County (WA)
June 10, 2009


"Punish the Monkey" is the seventh track on Mark Knopfler's eighth solo album, the melancholy "Kill to Get Crimson," released on Sept. 17, 2007. The album's title comes from a line in one of the album's songs, "Let It All Go," in which an artist nearing the end of a successful career tries to discourage a young acolyte from pursuing the artistic life, unless, he allows "you’ve been created/To answer the call." "You don’t want/This rickety rackety life/It’s seat of the trousers/It’s all sink or swim, son . . . You here behaving/As though I’m a saint/Get a job with a pension/Don’t ever mention/You once had a craving/For the brushes and paint."

Like "Let It All Go," "Punish the Monkey" is a supremely dispiriting song. Written from the point of a world-weary, cynical bard addressing a victim of injustice who is himself guilty and corrupt, "Punish the Monkey" describes the plight of someone resigned to taking the blame for an unspecified but evidently conspiratorial crime. The song is deeply ironic. It portrays a society that professes to be ruled by law but which is dominated by ghostly but powerful interests beyond the law's reach. Faced with their power, the song's protagonist can only turn to the law, but his only hope is to mitigate his punishment. With luck, it seems, he may avoid jail time and endure the stasis of enforced retirement merely ("a quiet life from here on in").

Specific commentary on lyrics follows. NOTE: When this song came out, it was easy to find on YouTube and Google Video. Now the copyright police have succeeded in removing the soundtrack from these internet sites.


By Mark Knopfler

They’re driving long nails into coffins
You’ve been having sleepless nights
You've gone as quiet as a church mouse
And checking on your rights
5 The boss has hung you out to dry
And it looks as though
They'll punish the monkey
Let the organ grinder go

You’ve been talking to a lawyer
10 Are you going to pretend
That you and your employer
Are still the best of friends?
Somebody’s going to take the fall
There’s your quid pro quo
15 Punish the monkey
Punish the monkey yeah
Punish the monkey
And let the organ grinder go

Here comes a policeman
20 He won’t be sidetracked
He’s asking about a smoking gun
He’s after the fact

It’s a quiet life from here on in
You’ve drunk your poison cup
25 The telephone is ringing
But you’re not picking up
Time’s up said Lord Flunkey
And everybody knows
They’ll punish the monkey
30 They'll punish the monkey yeah
They'll punish the monkey
And let the organ grinder go

Oh punish the monkey
Punish the monkey yeah
35 Punish the monkey
And let the organ grinder go

Oh punish the monkey
Punish the monkey
Punish the monkey
40 Yeah they'll punish the monkey

Note: The lyrics above are transcribed from the album track; they differ slightly from the liner notes.



Line 1. They’re driving long nails into coffins. The metaphor signifies dealing serious and permanent harm to an antagonist, since a coffin connotes death. The key word here, though, is the first one -- the seemingly unexceptional third person plural personal subject pronoun “they,” which represents never-to-be-identified ghostly powers with which the protagonist contends, but whose mastery of the situation the equally corrupt narrator acknowledges with world-weary cynicism.

Line 2. You’ve been having sleepless nights. Sleepless nights are the archetypal sign of consuming anxiety, in literature generally more associated (as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth) with guilt than with mere paranoia.

Line 3. You’ve gone quiet as a churchmouse. Originally a German expression (kirchenmaus). Proverbially, churchmice are poor; the earliest use of “pour as a church-mouse” in the OED is 1731; Thackery also uses the expression in Vanity Fair. Since poverty connotes powerlessness in contemporary society, the metaphor works in Knopfler’s song.

Line 4. And checking on your rights. Where else but with a lawyer (l. 9)? The irony of the song derives from the injustice of the situation: the party ultimately responsible for the wrong (the “organ grinder,” or “the boss” [l. 5]) is going unpunished, while the mere agent (the “monkey”) is inculpated. A society that claims to be ruled by law is really ruled by power. But rather than seek vengeance or some other form of rectification, the shadowy protagonist has internalized the cognitive and moral régime that governs his society. He both rejects it, but also accepts it in a half-hearted, equivocal way.

Line 8. And let the organ grinder go. The organ grinder was a feature of nineteenth-century life, thanks to the invention of the mechanical organ, a musical instrument which required only the turning of a crank to play music. The mechanical organ was one of the first machines to produce music, and was thus popular with the lower classes -- so popular that hundreds of them flooded the growing urban centers of the industrial world, managed by pathetically untalented but entrepreneurial spirits who sometimes employed monkeys (often white-headed capuchins), parrots, dogs, and even dancing bears to enhance the attractiveness of the performer. Since the music performed was only in a remote sense the music of the organ grinder, this symbol suggests a wheels-within-wheels power structure in which even the person calling the tune is an agent of still more distant forces. Thus punishing the monkey while letting the organ grinder go is not merely a symbol of punishing a less culpable party while letting off a more culpable one, it is also a symbol of a society in which the causes of events can no longer be determined, what Thomas Merton called “a dream world” in which “[w]e do not know ourselves or our adversaries. We are myths to ourselves and they are myths to us” (Thomas Merton, Cold War Letters (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), p. 29; cited in James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008], p. 19).

Line 10-12. Are you going to pretend/That you and your employer/Are still the best of friends? The role of citizen has all but disappeared, replaced by those of employee and consumer. “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It . . . has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism in the icy water of egotistical calculation” (Marx and Engles, The Manifesto of the Communist Party [1848], trans. Samuel Moore, in Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy edited by Lewis S. Feuer [Garden City, NY: Anchor Books/Doubleday & Company, 1959], p. 9).

Line 13. Somebody’s going to take the fall. To “take the fall” is to be arrested for a crime when others are going unpunished, thus diverting attention and public anger. The “fall guy” acts as scapegoat. In April 2007, self-described New York Times language maven William Safire promoted a search for the origin of this expression, a search that goes on. No usage prior to 1904 has yet been found; some speculate that the expression arose separately more than once. Cf. Lighter's Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Random House, 1994).

Line 14. There’s your quid pro quo. In Latin, quid pro quo means “something for something,” and in legal terms represents the concept of an exchange capable of being the “consideration” that can create a binding contract. Whether such a thing exists can be a legal issue in many situations where a favor and an illicit activity take place, and courts are often called upon to determine whether a quid pro quo relationship between the two exists. In this case, the unjust punishment becomes itself a quid pro quo giving rise, both the victim and the narrator seem to feel, to an obligation that can potentially be exploited to earn “a quiet life from here on in” (l. 23).

Line 19. Here comes a policeman. But the situation is still unresolved, and the machinery of justice is in play.

Line 2o. He won’t be sidetracked. In modern literature the archetype of the incorruptible agent of the law is Javert in Victor Hugo’s *Les Misérables* (1863) – incorruptible but uncomprehending, and when he famously encounters a choice (whether or not to apprehend Jean Valjean) in which to act lawfully means immorally and to act morally is to act unlawfully, he chooses to commit suicide rather than modify his beliefs. In global terms, the behavior of contemporary society can be compared to that of Javert.

Line 21. He’s asking about a smoking gun. The smoking gun is the irrefutable proof of guilt. The notion (though not the phrase; Doyle uses “smoking pistol”) first appears in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Gloria Scott,” a Sherlock Holmes story published in 1893. In U.S. politics, it was the Watergate scandal that fixed the expression in public memory, when it was used ad nauseam in July-August 1974 by both defenders and inquisitors of President Richard M. Nixon.

Line 23. You’ve drunk your poison cup. Socrates’s decision to drink hemlock rather than escape unjust punishment, dramatized multiple times some 2,400 years ago by Plato (Apology; Crito; Phaedo) is a foundational moment in the history of Western philosophy. What is impressive is Socrates’s attitude as he continues to philosophize to the end in the same calm, dispassionate manner: “As he spoke he handed the cup to Socrates, who received it quite cheerfully, Echecrates, without a tremor, without any change of color or expression, and said, looking up under his brows with his usual steady gaze, What do you say about pouring a libation from this drink? Is it permitted, or not? We only prepare what we regard as the normal dose, Socrates, he replied. I see, said Socrates. But I suppose I am allowed, or rather bound, to pray the gods that my removal from the world to the other may be prosperous. This is my prayer, then, and I hope that it may be granted. With these words, quite calmly and with no sign of distaste, he drained the cup in one breath” (Phaedo, sections 117b-c, trans. Hugh Tredennick, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including the Letters, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961], p. 97). Here, of course, invocation of Socrates’s self-sacrifice is tinged with irony.

Lines 25-26. The telephone is ringing/But you’re not picking up. Neither fleeing nor fighting, the protagonist is in inhibition or freeze mode –- a state that is notoriously bad for one’s constitution. “Described by Kagan and associates (Kagan, Snidman, Arcus, & Reznick, 1994), behavioral inhibition refers to a temperamental trait that is characterized by a tendency to be cautious, quiet, and behaviorally reserved in unfamiliar situations. . . . Longitudinal studies, which have followed children from early infancy to early adulthood, generally suggest that behavioral inhibition may be related to the subsequent development of anxiety related disorders” (Jasper A.J. Smits, Conall M. O’Cleirigh, and Michael W. Otto, “Panic and Agoraphobia,” in Michael Hersen, Jay C. Thomas, Daniel L. Segal, Frank Andrasik, and Robert T. Ammerman, eds., Comprehensive Handbook of Personality [John Wiley and Sons, 2005], p. 122).

Line 27. Time’s up said Lord Flunkey. This line has puzzled commentators. It contains an ingenious oxymoron that sums up in two words Knopfler’s analysis of contemporary society, since a flunkey is “a person who behaves obsequiously to persons above him in rank or position” (OED). The word flunkey emerged in the late 18th century as a contemptuous term for a footman or other male servant in livery, at a time when democratic ideas were in the air. To act as a flunkey, then, is to grant preeminence where none is merited. To combine this with the honorific “Lord,” a word connoting legitimate dominion over subjects, is to coin a devastating image for the moral void at the center of the global power structure (cf. l. 28: “everybody knows”) today. James W. Douglass called it “a kind of systemic evil that defies speech” (JFK and the Unspeakable, p. xv). Defies speech – but, in this extraordinary song, yields to it, accompanied by the incomparable guitar playing of a musician rated as the 27th greatest guitarist of all time (Rolling Stone,] Sept. 18, 2003). Knopfler, born in Glasgow, Scotland, and now living in the Chelsea district of southwestern London, will turn 60 on Aug. 12, 2009.