Epicurus on a Motorbike – A Critique of Grace Cathedral Hill


Grace Cathedral Hill by Colin Melloy – Performed by the Decemberists

Note: It is encouraged that you listen to the song before reading this exposé.

The song Grace Cathedral Hill, upon first listen, is a whimsical, affectionate story beginning with a young man and his distressed girlfriend who seek solace by visiting a church and lighting a holy candle.  As this seemingly simple love story develops over an evening, it comes to illuminate the intrinsic human enrichment found in contemporary life in contrast to a traditional theology lingering from a past age.

Grace Cathedral Hill
All wrapped in bones of a setting sun
All dust and stone and moribund
I paid 25 cents to light a little white candle

The opening lyrics describe the cathedral “All wrapped in bones of a setting sun”. Mentioning bones in connection with a church cathedral evokes the image of the bones of saints, or relics, associated with European cathedrals in the Middle Ages. But these bones are the current remnants of an ancient religion. The “setting sun” not only sets the scene for the story but includes the narrator’s impression about this institution. Following with “all dust and stone and moribund”, restates his sense of decay surrounding the church. His girlfriend, experiencing some unstated anguish, has them light a candle at the church. The cost of this act, though diminutive, is paid for with legal currency. With the last line of the verse, the outside world begins to leak in.

For a New Year’s day
I sat and watched it burn away
Then turned and weaved through slow decay
We were both a little hungry so we went to get a hotdog

It is New Year’s day. He watches the candle burn away with no effect on him and likely little relief for her. Then “I turned and weaved through slow decay” furthers his impression of this church (or taken metaphorically, all churches and traditional religions) slowly decaying.

The “hotdog” line of the second verse snaps us from the poetic imagery of a dusty medieval structure to the crass baseness of the moment, “We were both a little hungry and we went to get a hotdog.” It may seem that the poet has fumbled the lyric, abandoned his lofty vantage, possibly through incompetence. It is a jarring clash from a moody introspective on the crumbling grandiosity of a Gothic Christian theology to the introduction of a desire for a most common, lowbrow repast. However whimsical the juxtaposition, it introduces an immediate, sensual world, punctuating their leaving of the shrouded, mystical, ethereal order of religious ascetic. The intent again is contrast as the last line of the verse injects the outside world. Is it always immediate, fundamental human needs that imposes upon spiritual reverie? We know that this obtrusive hunger will be temporary satisfied with the lowly and always available hotdog.

Down to Hyde Street Pier
The light was slight and disappeared
The air it stunk of fish and beer
We heard a Superman trumpet play the National Anthem

The trip to Hyde Street Pier for a hotdog embraces the Epicurean experiences available in modern life. This is a world of sensations, and every sense is engaged. The implied taste of the hotdog, the visual change of daylight to dark, the malodorous smells of the harbor, the sounds of street music all confront their sensibility.

We have abandoned the mythologized saints and martyrs, the lingering beliefs and ideals of our ancestors’ society. In our world we find the trivial, the mundane and even the profane with a “Superman” trumpet rendition of the National Anthem. But it is immediate and real, with an alluring existential buzz. This is our reality, not ideal, certainly not high minded. But when experienced as a sensual mosaic, it can be a very agreeable, even soothing part of life.

Some way to greet the year
Your eyes all bright but brimmed with tears
The pilgrims, pills and tourists here
Sing 53 bucks to buy a brand new halo

The emotional distress of the girl is still present. We are reminded that even the church’s spiritual imperative cannot exist separate from the monetary realities of the objective world. Money is repeatedly associated with church functions. Lighting a candle involves 25 cents. Then the “pilgrims, pills and tourists” lament the $53 cost of a new halo. The song does not suggest a corrupt or greedy church, but acknowledges that even this enduring “spiritual” institution has always existed in a financial and political reality.

Sweet on a green eyed girl
All fiery Irish clip and curl
All brine and piss and vinegar
I paid 25 cents to light a little white candle

The same dichotomy that is found in experiencing modern life is reflected in the character of the girl. She is portrayed not as ideal, as popular songs often will, but as a physical entity. Like the contrast found on Hyde Street Pier, she is similarly portrayed as cute (green eyed, clip and curl) yet as a real living creature (fiery Irish, piss and vinegar). Again this dichotomy between femine idealism and human realism is both accepted and embraced. Interestingly this later disparaging line, “of brine and piss and vinegar”, occurs at the same structural location in this verse as the earlier verse’s depreciating reference to the pier which “stunk of fish and beer”.

The chorus:

And the world may be long for you,
But it’ll never belong to you
But on a motor bike
When all the city lights blind your eyes tonight
Are you feeling better now?
Are you feeling better now?
Are you feeling better now?

In the chorus the boyfriend tries to depersonalize and distance her suffering with a philosophical overview that life is not about possession or control. His actions suggests that the joy of life comes from experiencing it. His sensual remediation concludes with the exhilaration of a nighttime motor bike ride through the “blinding lights” of San Francisco, further advancing the Epicurean ethos of the healing effects of enjoyment and appreciation of life. This last interposition seems to work. His compassion is emphasized by the repeated verse “Are you feeling better now?”

Our daily experience is an immersion in transient interactions that are the products of a complex social and technological order. In this song these ordinary sensual experiences, compassionately applied,  manage to accomplish what contemporary Christian sanctuary alone did not. It wasn’t until experiencing the fortuitous pleasures of modern community life (fast food, music, social assembly) and the sensory stimulation of machine age mobility that her human anguish was eased and her spirit revived.

The millennia old conflict between supernatural belief and objective philosophies has grown naturally from the human thought process. Both have appeal and both will likely always be with us. This simple story in song personalizes and  encapsulates those ideas without acrimony or antagonism while humanizing the contention through nonpartisan characters in a loving relationship.

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