The lyrics (McKagan’s own explanation for the song appears at the top of the lyrics)
Have a listen if you’ve never heard this before.
Here’s a song that practically begs for biographical/historical analysis. One could probably pinpoint fairly accurately who inspired the song, but it’s not necessary to do so. Even if you know nothing about McKagan and Barragan (and even without benefit of the headnote provided on the lyrics), one can do a strong explication. Focus on the song itself, not the life and times of its author–that’s the role of analysis, not explication. Some poetry and songs are so confessional that it’s nearly impossible not to include the author’s biography in your analysis (Sylvia Plath often presents this problem), but don’t feel that it is necessary to do so.
That said, I will try to refrain from geeking out here.
Note: These are the “official” lyrics that once upon a time existed on McKagan’s site. Now, two caveats: as with all acts of orature, the live productions of the song tend to differ from the studio version. Second, there is a line in the background vocals that does not appear in the official lyrics. I’m not 100% certain what is being sung there (either in the studio or live); if I nail down the lyrics, I’ll add the commentary below. It’s *something* that ends in “…thoughts of you,” but my ears are in such condition that I don’t trust myself enough to hash out the rest.
McKagan’s and Barragan’s “Missing You” dramatizes the conflict between the speaker and an unnamed addressee, who is almost certainly a close friend or companion of the speaker, given the level of familiarity apparent in the word choice and tone of the song. The opening lines of the song convey what is an initially vitriolic tone. The first line is the most striking, as it posits the first of several inversions. “Atonement” refers to unity and harmony with others; even in a religious sense, which is probably where the word is most commonly used, the sense is one of unifying with the deity. Yet, the first part of the line references being “home alone,” which does not indicate unity with another; furthermore, the remainder of the stanza “So sick and tired, of being fucked up and lied to/I hope your dreams come true,” heightens this sense of discord and frustration (3-4). Most likely, “atonement” refers to making amends or reparations, in this instance through isolation; exile, of course, is an old and familiar form of penitence, and it seems to be the kind of “atonement” signified here. Significantly, the atonement is “eternal”; thus, we know that the exile is probably permanant on some level, though why remains unclear until the latter half of the song (1). The sound structure of the line tends toward unity, if the context does not, as McKagan and Barragan rely on an internal rhyme between “home,” “alone,” and “atonement” to tie the sound of the first line together (1), and scansion reveals a very unified A,B,B,B end-rhyme scheme that is not reproduced anywhere else in the song. Much of the song is built on inversions of expectations, such as in the chorus: “I won’t be missin’ you…I hope you’re turning blue” (6-8). Here we have a song about not missing someone and an overt wish for that someone’s death, where we might normally expect to find “I hope you aren’t blue,” as in sad or depressed; instead, McKagan and Barragan invoke the tendancy for human skin to turn blue when the blood is deprived of oxygen–cyanosis– in “I hope your turnin’ blue” (8). When combined with the images in the remainder of the chorus, where we see confirmation of addiction: “…you lied; you were gettin’ high” (7), the angry death wish implies that the addiction is probably to heroin, though heroin is never itself mentioned explicitly in the song, as one of the most common physical descriptors for a heroin overdose is cyanosis. The implications of the chorus also provide insight into one of several refrains in the song, which reads “The lines were clearly drawn” (18). At least two implications are present here; first, the “lines” serve to confirm the conflict between the speaker and the addressee: each stands on one side of the “line.” Most often, lines are “drawn” to figuratively represent the outside boundaries of a speaker’s tolerance or comfort. Here, we have been shown several times that the addict had crossed these imaginary lines with lies (ostensibly about the addiction itself), particularly in the bridge, where the speaker remarks “I used to ask you how long you were gonna carry on/ when you lied I knew you were gone” (16-17). The verb tense of “used to” underscores that the speaker is no longer asking; the line, perhaps, was crossed in the lie. The second implication of the “lines” is somewhat more clever, as it plays on the heroin use itself, as “lines” are but one of the ways of ingesting heroin (though the reference to turning blue certainly suggests injection, rather than snorting). Thus, the heroin itself (or the lines of heroin) becomes the battle lines that separate the speaker and addressee.
The remainder of the song tends to shift the tone away from the anger and bitterness that pervade the beginning of the song, as well as moving away from the inversions present in much of the song. The tone of the latter half of the song is instead increasingly wistful and melancholy. First, the speaker suggests that the addressee is not the first of the speaker’s associates to fall to the same addiction: “All my heroes gone…as my nightmare carries on and on” (13-15)*. Moreover, as this “nightmare” is more than a mere dreamscape, as the speaker points out that “Facts [are] darker than fiction” (14). The mournful mood is further highlighted in the revelation that the addressee, who heretofore seemed to be present to the speaker, is dead. In the early, angrier portions of the song, the addressee appears to be alive; the verb tenses in “I won’t be missin’,” “I hope your dreams come…,” and “I hope you’re turnin'” all seem to point to a future for the addressee, however bitter that wish may be. In the final lines, however, it becomes clear that the addressee must be dead; the speaker has only “Sad memories of you,” which, he acknowledges, will slowly fade (19). The mournful tone continues as the speaker notes that “The world will carry on, without you” (20) and “Now that you’re gone, I’m gonna carry on” (21). By the song’s end, it is clear that the speaker is without hope; the threats of exile and forgetting come too late to save the addressee, which helps to explain why the speaker exists ” home alone” in “eternal atonement” (1). The atonement, perhaps exile from the addressee, appears to have at first been a choice, but is made permanent in the addressee’s death.
The language employed in the song tends to support the overall conclusions, as usage is familiar and informal, such as “missin’,” “gonna,” and “fucked up.” Likewise, the structure of the song tends to support the overall context, particularly in the shifting tone. The early, angrier portions of the song** are replete with strong end-rhyme such as “true,” “blue,” “through,” and “you.” The mournful ending tends toward softer, drawn out end-rhymes such as “on,” “gone,” and “drawn,” which serve to slow the song down and soften the tone.
*It is difficult not to see this as an allusion to McKagan’s life; by the time he recorded “Missing You” in 1998, several of his heroes, including Johnny Thunders and friend West Arkeen, had succumbed. Indeed, heroin is absolutely everywhere in McKagan’s story; he points out in American Hardcore that he left Seattle in the early 80’s in part to get away from the heroin that was so pervasive in that music scene (only to end up, he notes elsewhere, somewhat wryly*** I imagine, in a band with three junkies) (Blush 264).
**Musically this is underscored by distortion effects that sound for all the world like angry insects.
***Not the “wryly” that I assume was meant as a pun on Believe in Me, an album chock full of references to consuming “rye.” Oy vey.
Last Word: You can easily see where context is significant in this explication; not all readers would necessarily recognize the connections between cyanosis and heroin, so even when working “just the text,” elements of the reader’s world will affect the interpretations included in the explication. Granted, the vitriol involved in “I hope your turnin’ blue” should prompt some consideration, even if you don’t immediately catch the connection, so don’t blow off what you don’t recognize, but don’t assume you’ll always “get the reference” immediately either. Likewise, I have no idea whether or not McKagan and Barragan would agree with my assessment of “lines” nor exactly what they intended, and it really doesn’t matter (though, I may eventually ask just for grins). Explicators need not worry over intent–only what is present.
Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Los Angeles:
Feral House, 2001.
McKagan, Duff and Michael Barragan. “Missing You.” Beautiful
Disease. Recorded 1998 at Pimp Studios, Hollywood, CA.