A Little Bit of Mystery Goes a Long Way

Bert Jansch

The most interesting bits of life are the ones we don’t understand. Isaac Asimov once pointed out “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”. It’s a rare person indeed who doesn’t take delight in working things out, and for that the starting point has to be the unknown.

For example, a couple of years ago I bought a compilation CD of the music of Bert Jansch. He is the sort of guy that gets name-checked from time to time when musicians discuss their influences, and is often referred to as the Hendrix of the acoustic guitar; apparently Jimmy Page aped his style and even ripped off the odd arrangement. So having heard the name in a few of the right places I went out and bought the first compilation of his I could find. One of the tracks on the CD is called Poison, with fantastically rolling, almost staggering guitar phrases and chipped, jagged harmonica accentuating the rhythm. As is usual for me, it wasn’t until I had played the CD many times that I really latched on to just how good this song is, and actually listened hard to the lyrics.

And what lyrics they are! One line in particular stands out: the pay-off line to the chorus and indeed the whole song:

“I tell you now that your creator is a-running out of ideas.”

Isn’t that a fantastic line? The way Bert delivers it is strong but careworn, like a cynic who has learned his lesson the hard way. It goes deep. It is not the voice of youth but of bitter experience and I simply don’t fully understand what it means, and I love the fact that I don’t.

The point is that even a rational empiricist engineer likes a little mystery in his life. Can you even begin to imagine the boredom of knowing everything? The brain needs the unknown to chew over once in a while. You can take any example, from something as prosaic as a half-finished crossword to the religious significance of imagery worked into a painting by an Old Master. Some examples are a little too obvious and self-absorbed, like the star-gate sequence in the film version of 2001, and I think the most enjoyable are usually the most low-key.

At this point in the first draft of this article I dived into other examples of song lyrics that baffle me, but it all became self-indulgent and tedious without adding any further illumination to the argument I am trying to make. Suffice to say that in general the hope of eventually attaining insight on something previously unclear is what makes this particular game worthwhile.

So finally, returning to Bert:

“I tell you now that your creator is a-running out of ideas.”

At the moment I have no definite idea what it really means. I have plenty of theories of course, about what Bert really wants to say. There’s a good chance that unknowable ambiguity is exactly what he was after. But the way it is phrased, ‘I tell you now that…’ indicates there is some certainty buried in there. He at least knows what he means. Perhaps, as the disappointments and loses of life pile up one after the other, he sees no happy ending, or even how one could exist. Could it be that there is no chance of redemption? Even God has run out of ideas.


2 responses to “A Little Bit of Mystery Goes a Long Way

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