Flowers growing on a hill
Dragonflies and daffodils
Learn from us very much
Look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name…
Lee Motherf***in’ Hazlewood??
Some Velvet Morning, the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood psychedelic-pop duet from 1967, used to terrify me as a kid. Mostly because I had no idea what was going on with this monstrosity. I still don’t. Therein lies the enigma of it all.
And like most 60s psychedelia, it doesn’t quite have to make sense. It exists for its own purposes. But let’s try examine it quite literally anyhow. Because that’s how we roll.
After an instrumental opening, Hazlewood begins with a dark fusion of his country baritone voice with midtempo, minor-key orchestrations. He sings about when the time is right (“some velvet mornin'”), when he ain’t completely lit (“when I’m straight”), he’ll come visit the person to whom he’s singing (“I’m gonna open up your gate”), and most likely tell them about this creature he met (“and maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra”), and all the ups and downs of that particular relationship (“and how she gave me life, and how she made it end”).
OK then. Not the first time a friend came by to bitch about a crummy relationship, but I’m with you so far.
And then the ethereal Ms. Sinatra floats in. The music turns calliope-esque, even abruptly changing from 4/4 to 3/4. Her clear, lilting voice floats like a cloud over Hazlewood’s brooding boo-hoo’ism, and she “opens the gate”, as it were, and reveals herself to the listener. First we start with a description of her homeland (“flowers growing on a hill, dragonflies and daffodils”). Then she tantalizes and offers up a host of secrets to be unearthed from her and her people (“learn from us very much”) but establishes clear stranger-danger boundaries (“look at us but do not touch”). And just in case we’re not quite sure who she is, we get a quick reminder (“Phaedra is my name”).
I have no idea what to make of this. Phaedra was a queen from Greek mythology, who was cursed by Aphrodite to fall for her husband’s son Hippolytus, after which she accused him of rape, and eventually Hippolytus was dragged to death by his own chariot horses. Thanks Mom!
All of which has nothing to do with what’s going on here, I’m sure. Maybe it’s the story of how some conservative suburban Dad got high and had a fling with a free-spirited hippie chick… OR, if you take “when I’m straight” in the most literal way, he was deeply closeted and cruised for a little Rough Trade, resulting in his inner conflict, guilt, what have you. Or it’s a take on the formation of the Irish Republican Army.
Who the hell knows.
As a Halloween song though, it makes for a fine entry. The back and forth between the two characters is engaging, and when in the final verse where they trade lines and musical motifs, there’s some kind of trippy battle of wills going on between them. However you approach it, Some Velvet Morning is a dreamlike musical exploration of some tangible feeling of love and loss, turmoil and confusion, and wistful recollection.
Some velvet mornin’ when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra
And how she gave me life
And how she made it end
Some velvet mornin’ when I’m straight…