Eid Ma Clack Shaw

“Eid Ma Clack Shaw,” the second song on Bill Callahan’s 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, starts with minor chords on a piano:

An ominous beginning to be sure! Callahan sings the song’s first line a cappella: “Working through death’s pain.” It’s a heavy line to match the foreboding nature of the opening chords from the piano. After Callahan sings the first line, Bobby Weaver begins playing a funky groove on the bass; a bizarre combination of ingredients to the song so far! Callahan starts singing again over the bassline and the piano and drums join in as well:

Last night I swear I felt your touch
Gentle and warm
The hair stood on my arms.

With Callahan already talking about “working through death’s pain” and now these lines about someone touching him who is absolutely not there, Callahan is going full-blown goth. It’s a good old fashioned ghost story! The song’s opening has the feeling of William Wordsworth’s poem “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known.” One of a series from Wordsworth called the “Lucy poems” which examine the poet’s feelings about a girl named Lucy who died young, this poem ranks high on the spooky scale. It’s told from the point of view of a man riding his horse, going to visit Lucy. As he rides, “Upon the moon I fixed my eye,” he ruminates on Lucy and how she is always “Fresh as a rose in June.” He enjoys letting his imagination go free:

In one of those sweet dreams I slept,
Kind Nature’s gentlest boon!
And all the while my eye I kept
On the descending moon.

The moon foreshadows doom as the narrator quickens his horse’s pace, increasing the tension for the narrator and the reader. He nears Lucy’s cottage and he suddenly:

“O mercy!” to myself I cried,
“If Lucy should be dead!”

The poem ends with those lines without telling the reader if Lucy is actually dead. Instead, we only know for sure about the narrator’s own feelings. The more he thought about Lucy, the more the dread within him increased to the point that he couldn’t help but imagine that Lucy was dead. This aligns with the opening of “Eid Ma Clack Shaw.” The song’s narrator says that he is “working through death’s pain,” presumably because the death of a loved one is a real thing for this narrator as opposed to Wordsworth’s narrator. The reminder of this death causes the narrator to feel the presence of someone in the room with him, even imagining a touch. With this, Callahan whispers, “How?” He repeats the same one-word question twice more, each time with increasing disbelief and agitation.  He continues with another bout of repetition:

Show me the way
Show me the way
Show me the way
To shake a memory.

The memory is haunting him and he asks for relief. Who is he asking? A new lover? God? The listener? He repeats the insistent questioning again before moving on to the next verse:

I flipped my forelock, I twitched my withers
I reared and bucked
I could not put my rider aground.

The song’s narrator wants to literally shake this memory off of his back as if he is a horse. Callahan has employed horses as a metaphor in his work before as seen in “Let Me See the Colts,” previously explored by Recliner Notes. Other Callahan horse songs include “To Be of Use,” “35,” and “Everyway.” In these instances, the songs’ employ horse imagery is used or horses are referenced in some way, whereas in “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” the narrator wants to transform into a horse. That’s the only way that he can try to rid himself of being haunted. Alas, it doesn’t work as Callahan finishes the verse by singing, “All these fine memories are fucking me down” as horns blast in the background. Callahan continues the song with a new verse:

I dreamed it was a dream that you were gone
I woke up feeling so ripped by reality.

The song has taken a curious turn. Previously, the narrator said that he was “working through death’s pain” and he imagines the touch of someone in the room who shouldn’t be there. But now he says that he “dreamed it was a dream that you were gone.” Is the beginning of the song depicting the dream he had in which “you were gone”? Or is this referring to a new lover? The dream made him feel “ripped by reality,” as the listener too is feeling torn in half by this thrashing around of perspective. Callahan continues the verse:

Love is the king of the beasts
And when it gets hungry it must kill to eat
Love is the king of the beasts
A lion walking down city streets.

Previously, it was the song’s narrator imagining himself as a horse, but this time he imagines love as a lion, “the king of the beasts,” who “must kill to eat.” Associating this type of violent, animalistic imagery with love shows the narrator’s savage state of mind. He is confused and pushing back against his feelings in extreme and severe ways. 

The song’s peculiar musical accompaniment continues with the piano providing jabbing, minor chords as the bass and drums support with a complex rhythm. Callahan then sings:

I fell back asleep some time later on
And I dreamed the perfect song.

With the words, “the perfect song,” horns come in again, and Callahan sings the phrase loudly as expressing a grand epiphany. These lines force the listener to wonder if Callahan is dropping any kind of authorial separation and revealing his true feelings in this moment of the song. And what is a “perfect song”? Is it the song we are currently listening to? This odd little chorus continues as Callahan sings, “It held all the answers / Like hands laid on.” The horns stop immediately with Callahan advancing the strange story: 

I woke halfway and scribbled it down
And in the morning what I wrote, I read
It was hard to read at first but here’s what it said.

Tension builds as we wonder what revelations will come forth from Callahan’s dream. Will we find out about who has been haunting Callahan? Will there be more brutal animal comparisons? Will we learn about how to cope with death and be shown the way to shake a memory? What will this perfect song be that holds “all of the answers”? After deep intake of breath by Callahan, he sings the perfect song that he dreamed:

Eid ma clack shaw
Zupoven del ba
Mertepy ven seinur
Cofally ragdah.

In case we missed it, he repeats it again:

Eid ma clack shaw
Zupoven del ba
Mertepy ven seinur
Cofally ragdah.

As he sings, strings are rampaging around in the background, blaring the importance of this discovery by Callahan. Of course, he’s pulled the rug out from under the listener, showing the true trickster that he is. Despite this, he remains straight-faced, singing all along with great conviction the gibberish in front of him on the lyric sheet that was supposedly copied down in the middle of the night. He sings as if these nonessential words do, if fact, hold all of the answers. It’s a hilarious turn to the song and yet it reminds us of a common occurrence. The note that one writes to oneself in the middle of the night. Then upon awakening, the note is illegible and filled with impenetrable nonsens. We’ve all woken up in the morning thinking that a dream held answers. As we start to examine the dream and the supposed conclusions it provides, everything starts to immediately evaporate; meaning blows away like sand in the wind on the beach. Anything that feels real in the specific context of the dream dissolves away into emptiness, leaving us with hollow feelings. 

It’s happened to that rascal Callahan as well as he told Uncut magazine

“I have dreamed melodies that made my heart weep and I have dreamed lyrics that would shatter the world. When I wake they run back into the woods.” 

Callahan the prankster finishes the song by singing the gibberish-filled verse a few more times all while repeating, “Show me the way / To shake a memory.” He knows there’s no real way to shake a memory if your brain won’t let you just as the narrator from “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known” cannot stop calamity once it has inhabited his thoughts. Dreams hold no answers in the light of day. 


Writing about “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” provides an opportunity to share a vivid dream I had while I had COVID (recognizing that, for some, hearing about someone else’s dream is like drinking spoiled milk). It started as dreams usually do in the middle of the action. A group of boys are staying at one of their houses for a sleepover to celebrate a birthday. The boys are about 13 or 14, so not old enough to be driving. It’s summer so there’s no threat of school in sight. It’s a warm night and the boys are in the house, plotting how to sneak out. They talk about the things that they can do once they are out of the house. They discuss the places they’ll go and how they’ll make their way through the dark town that sleeps as they sneak. Places they want to visit include park gazebos, the fire station, and various stores around town.

The dream shifts. It’s the same group of boys, except they’re no longer boys. Now, they’re young men in their late teens or early 20s. It’s a similar setup as they are in the same town on a summer night except it’s not a sleepover. Instead, they are hanging out late into the night and early morning as sometimes happens to young men of that age. They also discuss escaping the house they’re in, but, in this part of the dream, they don’t have to sneak out. They can come and go on their own accord. They begin talking about what they could do in town, considering dares and pranks such as swapping signs of one store with another. The extent of the antics they contemplate grows to minor destruction. One young man tells of a wish he always wanted to fulfill of pushing a long, stacked-up group of grocery carts through the front door of the grocery store in the middle of town. One of the men — not quite a survivalist, but someone who has been trained in how to stay alive in the wild for extended time periods — says that he is up for doing something real that night, but not anything that would financially harm someone who didn’t have money to pay for it. Instead, he suggests that they limit their activities to inflict a small amount of damage to landlord types, those who profit off of the toil of others without sharing any of the burden themselves. 

The dream shifts again, but instead of staying with either of these storylines, the perspective crosscuts between the two as the boys prepare for their night in the town and the young men make ready for theirs. Their movements are bustling as they put on appropriate clothes and arrange whatever accessories they need, whether it’s flashlights for the boys or a rope with a grappling hook for the young men. The pace of these preparations is rapid and builds tension as in a montage in a movie. If this dream is a movie, it’s been made on actual film stock because it becomes unspooled and rolls out of the machine. The stories no longer hold on to one timeline as they spill into one another. Flashes of the boys out in the town morph into glimmers of the young men in the summer night. 

At this point, I realize that I have control of the dream. I have the ability to focus attention on one narrative or the other. If I wanted to concentrate on one character, I could also do that. I begin imagining consequences for their actions (e.g., parents being informed or the police becoming aware). Complete storylines could be deepened such as the young men eventually forming an underground group of activists that perform increasingly larger pranks at the street-level in the style of Bansky or larger, eco-terrorist activities in Monkey Wrench Gang fashion. I only had to choose as I am in complete command of the direction of the dream. At this point, it is less like a movie and more in the order of a video game in which I had dreamed an entire world for both narratives and I only had to select a specific option to proceed.

It’s then that I realize that the music that’s been playing the entire time is a Bill Callahan song, “All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast.” It’s not the actual song, but a kind of extended version in which the haunting, repetitive nature of the musical accompaniment continues on and on with Callahan’s singing the title phrase at specific and appropriate moments in the soundtrack of this dream. 

I wake up realizing that I had dreamed a dream that had been created by my own brain to find a narrative, in this case two similar narratives, to align with the tone of Callahan’s song. So I was dreaming a dream specifically to write a post about a Bill Callahan song for Recliner Notes. I immediately wrote down the notes from the dream above, but of course, all of the original meaning has vanished. Reading the notes later, the dream feels distant, like a letter found in a box in an attic, written by someone else from another time. The dream recalls the unforgettable words courtesy of Bill Callahan:

Eid ma clack shaw
Zupoven del ba
Mertepy ven seinur
Cofally ragdah.

Image: Martin Vorel, 29 July 2021, 20:12:35, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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