I work in a place that plays canned music on the loudspeaker all day. To be fair there is a decent amount of variety (although at the time I write this, in mid-December, there is nothing but Christmas music. But that’s another article) a mix of current pop songs and classic rock. But there are several songs that play in heavy rotation – at least once a day and sometimes twice a day. One of those songs in America’s Horse with No Name.
Now of course I’ve heard this song many times before. It was a mainstay on soft rock and easy listening radio for years. I’ve always thought of it as an innocuous little ditty that is catchy but ultimately forgettable. But now having listened to it every day (sometimes multiple times a day) for a year now my feelings have changed and I believe I have a better perspective on the meaning of this classic American (literally and figuratively) ballad.
Horse with No Name is a shining beacon of mediocrity. It is a rallying cry for those of us who are perfectly fine with just being okay. If you’re like me and you’ve strove for greatness but found yourself smack dab in the middle of mediocre-town and looked then said to yourself, “Fuck it, this’ll do.” Then America is your band and Horse with No Name is your anthem.
First a brief background.
America (the band) was a moderately successful folk rock band from the 70s. This was at a time when singer-songwriters like Jim Croce, Billy Joel and Jackson Browne were making acoustic ballads with introspective, pseudo-poetic lyrics that were both honest and heartfelt. This was incredibly popular. And so this spawned a slew of imitators that aped the sound and mimicked the lyrical style in every way except depth. America (the band) was one of those imitators.
Horse with No Name was the band’s first single and it was pretty successful. It went Gold – not too shabby – and it’s easy to see why. The tune itself is quite catchy. It is a slow, galloping guitar riff with an endlessly hummable chorus done in a Neil Young-esque style. In fact the band has acknowledged Young’s influence on the song.
But I’m not here to talk about the tune; I’m here to talk about the lyrics. It is in the lyrics that Horse with No Name’s relentless middle-of-the-roadness really comes through and makes it something more than just a catchy tune.
Let’s start with the chorus:
I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
Straight forward enough, gives you all the basics: the narrator is in a desert, doesn’t like rain, has a horse and can’t be bothered to give it a name. You’d think if you’re crossing a desert you’d give the animal your riding at least a nickname if nothing else – but screw it he can’t remember his own name so I guess the whole name thing is not really an issue.
And that brings us to the first bit of “fuck it, good enough” entries in this song. And that is the sentence construction “there ain’t no one for to give you”. A grammatically incorrect gem of a verse that screams, ‘meh, it fits with the beat so who cares?’
Oh, but the total disregard of caring gets so much better.
On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound
My God! There is so much not giving of a shit here I just can’t stand it.
Plants and birds and rocks and…things. Things! Can’t be assed to come up with just one more descriptive item. Just…things. Beautiful. Fuck it – rhymes with rings, moving on.
And then we get to “a fly with a buzz”. I guess he heard that while riding his horse with a clop and while looking at a bird with a tweet.
But wait! Now we come to the pièce de résistance of giving up completely: the heat was hot.
My friends I have half-assed things before in my life – hell, I’m half-assing this article right now – but I have never written with anything as banal as “heat was hot” and thought I’m keeping that in the final draft. Hats off America (the band) you win the half-assed sweepstakes.
But wait there’s more. I’ll skip the second verse, not because there isn’t great mediocrity there, but simply because I’m eager to get the beautiful inanity of…
After nine days I let the horse run free
‘Cause the desert had turned to sea
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
there was sand and hills and rings
The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love
Yes, now we get to the wonderful attempt at poetic resonance and artistic closure. First repeat “plants and birds and rocks and things” because it worked so well the first time why not use it again? Also saves time with thinking new stuff up. But let’s pause and see where we are in the narrative.
The desert has given way to sea and with it the profound revelation that the ocean is just a desert in disguise with all is life underground. If of course you ignore all the life in the – you know – water. This then leads to the understanding that cities are full of loveless humans and…things.
This ending is meant to be, as I said, profound and meaningful. And it is – provided you are a suburban, teenage boy trying weed for the first time. “Whoa man, the ocean is like, a desert in disguise, and people are loveless cuz they don’t name horses anymore. Hey Travis, do we still have Ho-Hos in the pantry?”
I could go on – but in the spirit of being mediocre I’ll stop here. In the end I think we really need to celebrate the beautiful half-assery and abundant uncaring that is epitomized in Horse with No Name and take hope in the knowledge that you too can just do a minimal amount of work and someday – possibly – you too can find a small, fleeting bit of popularity. Take heed underachievers! Being just okay can be good enough.
So let’s raise a glass to America (the band) and their glorious song Horse with No Name and say proudly, “Fuck it, that’ll do.”