Rock Music Lyric Interpretation

Lyrics from rock music is equally suited for interpretation as are dreams and fairy tales. The Hill and Hibiscus Flowers is a story inside the sleeve of Timeless Flight, by Steve Harley. I've come up with some thoughts on it although sometimes people don't like poetry to be interpreted because they often think of it as reductive. But the intention is only to hint at its meaning using the typical method of interpretation of dreams and fairy tales, namely, to amplify the images by using images from religion, alchemy, et cetera. The fact that this works, even in those cases where the author has no knowledge of the factual background from comparative religion, et cetera, only goes to show that mythological imagery resides within the collective unconscious as inborn archetypes. This analysis is somewhat tough to chew; there is a lot of "alchemy," et al., but that's typical when interpreting fairy tales. However, it highlights a very significant problem of today's world. First, here is the story:

The Hill and Hibiscus Flowers

We were sitting, gently passing time and pondering the huge climb ahead of us and wondering, "how can we ever succeed where no man has succeeded before us?"
  We asked each other many questions and discovered many new and exciting answers and we felt like pioneers already.
  The sun was high in the cloudless, royal blue sky and was punching relentlessly into the back of our heads so that soon we could no longer speak but only sit in silence, gazing in hope at the forbidding monument before us. It was the big, red smell, as it drifted in divine yet ominous wafts into our distant homesteads, that first drew us towards the Hill.
  And it was the Great White Bush with the voice of Age and Wisdom that encouraged us to stay and to fight.
  "Sit beside me," said the White Bush, "and we shall talk of Miracles and … Water."
  "Will we find the water we need to save the thirsty plant-life of our homesteads here, O Great White Bush?" we asked in hope.
  And he said to us: "The water of which you speak is at the top of the Hill. There is enough water to give new life to all your dying plant-friends; water precious enough to give them all life such as is enjoyed only by the Giant Red Flowers that dominate the Hill. But no man has ever before reached out his hand far enough to cup and retrieve the water. You must see, your quest is impossible."
  "But we are pioneers," we spoke. "We have the strength of youth to fight the Hill and to retrieve the water that will restore plant-life in our homesteads."
  "You are youthful, yes; but your hope and juvenile determination are not enough to overcome the big, red smell of the monumental Hill. It will beat you off before you are within reaching distance of the water, for it has a far greater strength, that of Philosophy. And in a battle against the wisdom of maturity, what help will your youthful hope be to you?"

And at this we were angry as only insulted young men can be angry and we fought the old Bush with words of faith. The Bush continued to teach but we were no longer listening. Our hungry minds were fixed on the Hill.
  We set out then into the throbbing heat and were at once blinded by the red, red glow and nauseated into a daze by the big, red smell. We clutched each others' hands and we bowed our heads and charged with faith in our hearts and, for an instant, we believed we could make it and gather the water and save the dying world we had left behind.
  Halfway up the Hill we rested semi-consciously and talked of our Wind of Change before it became a raging hurricane. Then, without warning, a great wind came unto the Hill and swept us in one human ball into the air and down the Hill. We tumbled helplessly to the bottom and came to rest beside the Great White Bush.
  We were again angry and agreed instantly to recommence our quest.
  But the Great White Bush spoke to us saying: "You are in pursuit of an illusion, my young and determined friends. The big, red smell will prevent you at all costs from collecting the Water for your suffering plant-friends."
  "But", said one of us, "I'm a ratepayer, I can pull a few strings."
  And the Bush asked: "What makes you say such a wild and innocent thing?"
  "My Father told me this."
  "But listen, you again are in pursuit of an illusion."
  And he could see our strange and sudden stupefaction at his words of Age and Wisdom and he then said: "I have seen the land of Burns through the eyes of Rimbaud; I have seen calm and unutterable peace such as you'll never know; I have seen all your dreams and heard all your schemes and I tell you, you'll see when you grow."
  And he then said: "I have talked with your fathers who have told me of the old times, good times. And I have told them that there are no old times. When they are gone they are dead. There are only new times, now times. And in now times the red smell is big and sweet, but to you it is frightening. But you are so young …
  "And I want you to know that maybe one day the big, red smell will be blown away by another Wind of Change and the Hill will dissipate and leave you with water and peace … like a Miracle. But again the wind will become a raging hurricane and the strange, red smell will return, sweeter than ever before. And again you will search for the final answer, the Great Illusion you so constantly pursue.
  "You must learn," said the Bush, "that the pain of disillusion is greater still than the pain of hate."
  And he repeated: "You are in pursuit of an illusion."
  Then he reached to the earth beside him and handed us an Hibiscus flower and told us: "Inhale the sweet, red odour. Be my best friends, go now, please."

  We were young and could not speak. We returned solemnly and slightly wise to our homesteads believing the answer must surely lie elsewhere. The Hill looked peaceful, at least.

The sun is relentlessly punching down and causes drought at the homesteads. Although the sun has other connotations, in this context the sun is probably portraying the male principle of collective consciousness, i.e., the conventional consciousness which we digest when young and which concerns the different aspects of our worldview and our habitual way of thinking, et cetera. The sun of collective consciousness is very strong at the end of the second century. In fact, at twenty, after school has washed away any sign of unique personal views, the individual will only repeat what their parents or what their friends say, or what they read in the paper. When asked about their opinion on anything it's very hard to bring them back to one unique conscious personal reaction. This, of course, is very detrimental to the growth of the individual, that is, the "suffering plant-friends" of the homestead. The rigid and outdated spirit of Christianity, et cetera, which once was a life-giving force, will because of its supreme ascendancy not leave room for spontaneous expression from the unconscious of the individual. The problem lies with the typical frame of mind of the collective which is induced within the individual. A drought is occasioned where people lose the meaning of life as they find it hard to believe in the modern myth, anymore. The dying plants need the "Water" which is the living water (using a simile by Jesus) residing within the collective unconscious. The latter is the feminine counterpart of the spiritual father-world and is represented by the sacred Hill and its Hibiscus flowers. The Hibiscus is a large, red, showy flower, a symbol of the feminine organ and the collective unconscious which creates an ominous, yet alluring smell, inciting the ambitious young men to do something about the drought by retrieving the living water from the source of life itself. C.G. Jung talks about this typical confrontation between the conscious world of the ego and the unconscious in "Mysterium Coniunctionis," and elsewhere. For instance (Ibid, p.359):

The confrontation is expressed in the alchemical myth of the king, as the collision of the masculine, spiritual father-world ruled over by King Sol with the feminine, chthonic mother-world symbolized by the aqua permanens or by the chaos.

Sol is Latin for sun and the aqua permanens is the one and the same water which the youths are yearning after in this actual story. In fact, the story is alchemical in appearance as the red smell "…has great strength, that of Philosophy", perhaps alluding to Hermetic Philosophy and its great concern; the red sulphur which certainly has a pungent smell and was the alluring but dangerous prima materia of the alchemists. This substance is a symbol of drivenness. The odour drives the men to climb the mountain. The red Hibiscus with its ominous smell seems to have the significance of the underlying factor of inner life. Comparatively, M-L von Franz in "Alchemy: An Introduction" says:

[Sulphur] is an active substance, a corrosive substance, a dangerous one on account of its evil smell. As you know, in folklore the devil always smells of sulphur […] Thus you could interpret sulphur as drivenness, a state of being driven […] It may not [necessarily] be sex, but another kind of drivenness; it could be ambition and the power drive, or something else […] Therefore it has the double aspect of supplying the original impetus […] and is positive and negative at the same time.

To me, the Hibiscus has a "devilish" quality, too. But, as is evident within the actual story, the Hibiscus and its smell has an ambivalent quality, that is, although the smell is ominous, it is also tempting and will provide the water which will replenish the fountain of life. The red smell is sweet, yet "frightening." This was the case also with the prima materia, i.e., the red sulphur of the alchemists. The goal was to extract the Red Elixir from the gross, pristine matter of red sulphur by way of the process of circular distillation. This red elixir had the capability of turning any crude matter into even more quantities of the red elixir, which is similar to Jesus' doings in the gospels, where he turns ordinary water into vine.

In the alchemical version, as the process gets started, a black cloud will become visible at the horizon, heralding the stage of nigredo which is a kind of psychic death, sometimes bordering on psychosis, and which will in the end lead to a renewal of life. This black cloud, however, does not show up in the story. This psychic death will not occur, as is explained in the story, since the adventurers are so young. They have the spirit of youth which is the "Wind of Change." The life force of the youngsters need not be renewed yet since they are carried by the youthful wind of change. This is the wind which sweeps them away from their idealistic quest of retrieving the water of life for the benefit of mankind. And they come tumbling down the Hill.

The "Great White Bush with the voice of Age and Wisdom" resembles a well-known figure. He appears like the Ancient (Head) of Days in Daniel 7 and 1 Enoch "whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool." It is probably the same person as the burning bush in Exodus 3. The appearance of this figure hints at a deep-going insight underlying the story, since this is probably an image of the centre of personality, the self (cf. C.G. Jung: "Aion"). Another thing seems strikingly authentic, too. After the adventurers have been rejected by the Hill and have suffered a profound and frightening experience, they resort to nullities like: "I'm a ratepayer, I can pull a few strings." The White Bush rightly states that this is silly. But this is exactly what people who have had a profound experience of the unconscious regularly do, to come to terms with their experience. For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas, after having suffered an onslaught by the unconscious resorted to ridiculous word-games. M-L von Franz says ("Alchemy: An Introduction", p.198):

His explanation seems to me very superficial. First he makes a play on words […] and there is a sudden very nasty lightheartedness. It is a compensation for having been pulled too deeply into the emotions […] I have noticed that practically every time when somebody has fallen too deeply into the unconscious. It is a defence mechanism of a weak consciousness against a too-overwhelming experience […] Here we have such a flat reaction […] they adapt to reality in a superficial, flat way and if you meet them they bore you. You have the feeling they have become boringly normal — all the gist and vitality of the personality have gone. Here, thank God, it is just a temporary phase…

The Great White Bush incessantly does the job of diminishing the unconscious by saying that these youths are in pursuit of an illusion. He also says that there are only "new times, now times," i.e., only the future exists. This is the right thing to say to young people poisoned by the unconscious (the alluring red smell). This is necessary in order to evade an invasion by the unconscious which would be extremely dangerous to the frail and young mind which has not yet strengthened consciousness enough to be ready to stand up to the unconscious. The message is, however, clearly two-sided. Although he urges the men to leave the area and to give up their pursuit, he states that some day the strange red smell will return. He says that, for now, the Hill will dissipate (i.e., the unconscious powers will be reduced) and instead the youthful wind of change will carry them through life. However, the unconscious will come back at a later time and the confrontation will be yet bigger. The Great White Bush summarizes the problem in a surprisingly clear way when saying that they will be left with water and peace, for a time, but again the strange, red smell will return, sweeter than ever before. The two-sided nature of the message becomes obvious when The White Bush finally says that they are in pursuit of an illusion, yet at the same time hands them a Hibiscus flower and tells them to inhale its odour. He does this in order to encourage them never to forget what they have experienced. His intent is clearly that they shall come back when they are ready to stand up to the forces of the Hill.

In fact, this is typical. When being young, especially poetic people are often confronted with the forces of the unconscious. There are actually very many artist who have gone under because of this circumstance. Normally, people leave this condition of things and exchange their youthful dependence on the unconscious (a kind of dependence on "The Mother," actually) for a new attitude hinted at in the story as: "…leave you with water and peace … like a Miracle." A young person who doesn't free himself of the poisoning spirit of the unconscious will remain in a dependent state and remain a so called puer aeternus — an eternal youth. Or, if he is psychotically disposed, he will actually succumb, as was the fate of certain rock stars. The problem of the puer aeternus is actualized in today's world because of exactly this thematic concern of this story, namely the meaningless life of the adult father-world. People sometimes have a hard time adapting to the outer world because it is a "Bull Ring Life" as the author formulates it in a song on the same record. Incidentally, in Japan there is the phenomenon of okatu which means that often young, talented people decide never to grow up and instead they sit down and build airplane models, or whatever, for the rest of their life.

Nevertheless, the meaningless father-world can only regain its impetus by gathering water from the source, i.e., the collective unconscious — where the red smell derives from. So although the young are not up to the task today ("hope and juvenile determination are not enough to overcome the big, red smell") the White Bush is anxious to have at least one of the heroes back at a later state so as to get this necessary heroic deed carried out. This is known in alchemy as the circulatory movement of the spirit or circular distillation. It also occurs in world myths or within dreams of individuals where, for instance, a wonderful place is infested with poisonous snakes. The message is that the individual should know that this place is dangerous and that he should flee the place in order to evade the tragic fate of the puer aeternus. But the wondrous quality of the place is emphasized in order to entice the individual later to return, when he has grown up, strengthened his individuality and ego-consciousness. When the adult returns, typically during the second half of life, he will be equipped with better understanding, the sharp sword of consciousness with which he will stab the serpent, if necessary, like the hero is in the habit of doing. This is called transfixio within Hermetic philosophy. But, more importantly, with adults the kernel of personality will have coagulated, i.e., there exists something solid inside which is unshakable, a steadfastness of personality which the individual can retire into in times of hardship. Within mythology, the hero's return could imply a transfixion of the serpent, but, actually, it's rather complicated; the nigredo, which I mentioned, implies that the hero himself is transfixed or is swallowed by the wingless dragon, or whatever. In fact, the mythological serpent is, somehow, overcome or "transfixed" already at this stage pictured within the story, since the primary "circular movement" has begun. Generally speaking, it concerns the problem of extracting the spirit from the unconscious, i.e., extending the conscious spirit, which is why the youths have become "slightly wise" in the story. In alchemy and in mythology this is when the bird (or the winged dragon) breaks free from the wingless dragon (the Mother-dragon) and flies high upon the wind, strengthening the light of consciousness. But he will falter in the end, and he will lower himself to the primeval source of life, again. This circular movement is done many times when applied consciously at a later stage.

The "Miracle" in the story deserves attention. This is when the Hill dissipates and the youngsters are left with the boon of "water and peace." The boon is, within mythology, acquired when the hero kills the dragon, thereby attaining freedom of the spirit, leaving behind a naive dependence on "The Mother-goddess." But this actually occurs in the story by way of a "miracle." I envisage the Hill as a monumental dragon which exudes a seductive and treacherous vapour that threatens to turn peoples heads so that they become enslaved by the Mother-dragon. But this dragon is actually overcome in the story as it dissipates and the youngsters get to quench their thirst. But this was not really accomplished by the hero himself. Probably it was the Great White Bush who was responsible for this development. This is interesting. It's like an intervention by the self. Anyway, it's a success-story.

I suspect that poets are very occupied with the problems concerning the "fountain of youth," as can also be seen from the song All Men Are Hungry where the author says:

Was in a frenzy from the Midnight air when I saw the light
I realized only children can live upon a Timeless Flight
it made me hungry for youth and it made me sad and made me laugh
to think that as we live and learn we only follow God's path
All the men are hungry, all the men are in search of Time
All the men are hungry, all the men are in search of Time.

Artists are dependent on the fountain of life which is the unconscious since this is where they derive their inspiration from. It's their intuitive source. Computer programmers, however, don't need this source since they have completed a course and acquired a conscious tool which they utilize in a mechanical way to solve their technical problems and make a livelihood from. Artist, however, have no conscious algorithm which produces their pieces. No, they have to remain close to the unconscious which, of course, is a dangerous and alluring place. That's why so many artists, poets and musicians have gone under with insanity, or one way or another. Mind you, I'm not making an analysis of the actual author here. I'm not arguing that any of this applies to him, but it certainly applies to the typical "artistic" personality which has always existed with mankind and whose responsibility it is to retrieve "Water" from the source to quench the thirst of the "suffering plant-friends." Traditionally, they are named shamans. Today, however, many artists reduce their trade to mere aesthetics.

In the song cited above the author realizes that "only children can live upon a Timeless Flight." So, again, he takes a stand against the Puer Aeternus, which is, I would say, proper. He realizes that he is "hungry for youth," which is what all people are who have caught a glimpse of the unconscious; the immense wonder of the Hill. But he infers that there is no way that the "hungry men" can live on this "timeless flight" and bathe in the fountain of youth, anymore. I think that the line "All the men are hungry, all the men are in search of Time," concerns the hunger for this fountain of youth; the Hill and Hibiscus flowers. Relapsing into alchemy, one can mention the image of the hungry lion which resides within men. The alchemical green lion can be a destructive force as it may inundate consciousness with violent, discontented desires. Most men, however, don't realize their hunger; that they are "hungry for youth," and that deep inside them they are "in search of Time." Most people live by a conscious mechanical means and suffer regressive setbacks by overdoing drinking, et cetera. With unconscious persons the regressive periods often concur with heightened sexual activity or alternatively, a depressive mood. This is because the unconscious is like that well-known anima-image (cf. C.G. Jung: "Aion") by Paracelsus; he pictures her as Melusina, a beautiful woman having a serpents tail as lower part of the body. In simplistic terms, a regressive person would be snared by her tail, whereas a conscious person would resort to introversion rather than regression, and begin relating to the upper half of the Melusina, and, for instance, talk with her (i.e., retrieve the spirit from the unconscious). But this is simplistic, of course, since instinctuality may not necessary be the tail of a complex, but is sometimes a quite natural expression.

Although the theme seems to concern the notion of leaving the Puer Aeternus behind, going along with the wind of change, thereby causing the dissipation of the Hill and the adaptation to adult life and its responsibilities, the author is underlining that the hunger of youth is still there; the scent of the Hibiscus is still there - emphasizing that the Hill must not be forgotten although it is left behind. This is highly significant. M-L von Franz says in "C.G. Jung: His Myth…"(ch.II):

[He] describes the two poles of his existence as "No. 1" and "No. 2." The former was his own human ego, but the latter was the activated, and therefore, perceptible, unconscious […] The world of No. 2 was "another realm… in which anyone who entered was transformed and suddenly overpowered by a vision of the whole cosmos […] In his school years Jung was not yet able to make a clear distinction between the two personalities, and sometimes claimed the world of No. 2 as his own […] Well acquainted with the "inner light" and the darkness of their No. 2 through the use of hallucinogenic drugs, many lose their foothold in No. 1 and so are destroyed. To the extent that they turn their backs on the darkness of three-dimensionality, they also lose the "little light" of ego-consciousness, the only thing they have which can guide them forward into the future […] When in his youth Jung decided to direct all his efforts toward keeping alive the "little light" that he carried with him in his dream like a storm-lantern, he made another decision which also sets him apart from the average young man. Most people, when they decide — because of pressure from the environment — to grow up and leave behind the romantic dreams of their youth and enter the battle of life with the little light of the ego, forget and repress the existence of the unconscious. Jung, however, took a conscious decision not to deny No. 2 or to "declare him invalid…"

So, in conclusion, the moral of the song text and the Hill-story goes along with this pattern of leaving behind, but not forgetting, and touches on the deep archetypal patterns of the father-world versus the fountain of youth. This story exposes, in a surprisingly lucid way, an important and typical problem of today's world, especially as regards young people. It's hard to know whether it concerns the development of the author or whether it is an intuitive description of the problem of the collective. The ability to do the latter is, namely, a special talent which artists have.


© M. Winther, 1999.