FACT-CHECKING “THE ACE OF SPADES”

 

Ah, Lemmy, we miss you already.  Many a night of mine was spent in The Salisbury, or Jilly’s, listening to your back catalogue.  Just like Kenny Rogers, you also get the sceptical treatment from me.  Thing is, I was turning over the words in my head, and something just didn’t add up…

(lyrics courtesy of Google Play)

If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man,
You win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me,
The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say,
I don’t share your greed, the only card I need is
The Ace Of Spades
This song is quite obviously about life being a gamble, and the desire to take risks, and have a reckless and fun time.  But dig beneath the surface, and we can turn it into a mathematical problem (“Hurrah!” I hear you cry).  There are a few specific instances in which the Ace Of Spades would be the only card you need, but I’m not sure that those instances are the ones given below.
Playing for the high one, dancing with the devil,
Going with the flow, it’s all a game to me,
Seven or Eleven, snake eyes watching you,
Double up or quit, double stake or split,
The Ace Of Spades
It sounds like we’re talking about Blackjack / Pontoon here, but it doesn’t entirely make sense. I’m unsure of the meaning of “seven or eleven” here, as in Blackjack you might talk about an Ace (of any suit!) being worth 1 or 11.  “Snake eyes” is a roll of two dice, getting a 1 on each die. So now we’re talking about the use of dice, too… I don’t know what this has to do with Blackjack, or the Ace of Spades, but I did find out about a dice-rolling drinking game called 7s, 11s & doubles, that Lemmy could be talking about.
You know I’m born to lose, and gambling’s for fools,
But that’s the way I like it baby,
I don’t wanna live forever,
And don’t forget the joker!
The joker doesn’t play a role in most casino games, although it can be a Wild Card.  Maybe that’s the point – that it’s wild and dangerous, and represents taking whatever chances you can.  We only get one go at life, and would we want more than that?
Pushing up the ante, I know you got to see me,
Read ’em and weep, the dead man’s hand again,
I see it in your eyes, take one look and die,
The only thing you see, you know it’s gonna be,
The Ace Of Spades
The Dead Man’s Hand refers to a two pair hand in poker, made up of the black eights and the black aces.  According to legend, this is the hand Wild Bill Hickok had when he was shot dead during a poker game.  “Seven or Eleven” also has a meaning related to the Dead Man’s Hand, according to an early 20th-Century superstition.

Songwriters: Clarke, Edward Alan / Kilmister, Ian / Taylor, Philip John
Ace Of Spades lyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

So it actually seems that the song has nothing to do with Blackjack at all.  My interpretation is that it’s about living a dangerous and exciting life, much like that of Wild Bill Hickok.  Knowing that death could be around any corner, and laughing in its face anyway – sounds a bit like Lemmy: “I will be killed by death. I might be killed by too much booze, women or music, but it’s not a bad way to die.”.  Well, I’ve learnt a lot.  Mainly that there is no hidden mathematical message in the song (sorry, numerologists!).

I’m glad I put the time into figuring this out.  A song that I’ve heard thousands of times, yet never knew the tale behind it, or fully understood the metaphors.  But the reason it’s such a successful rock song is that its catchiness and appeal rely on its brevity.  Maybe some people don’t even listen to the lyrics, but the song is recognisable & powerful, and unmistakably Motorhead.  And just as per my last foray into literary analysis, here’s the track on YouTube:

 

 

KENNY ROGERS – THE GAMBLER

 

This is one of my favourite songs (I do like a bit of Kenny Rogers), mainly for the meaning I attach to it (it was part of some advice a friend gave me before I delivered a speech to a packed-out lecture theatre).  And because it’s a song I hold in high esteem, I feel it deserves the sceptical treatment.  It’s jam-packed with beautiful metaphors. So let’s take a look at it, line-by-line:

(Lyrics courtesy of lyricsfreak.com)

On a warm summer’s eve
On a train bound for nowhere
I met up with the gambler
We were both too tired to sleep
So we took turns a-starin’
Out the window at the darkness
The boredom overtook us,
And he began to speak
A nice way to set the scene.  I’ve been that person on the train many a time, awkwardly avoiding eye contact with other passengers, until one of us summons the courage to see what will happen if they break the very British taboo of engaging in conversation with a stranger.
He said, “Son, I’ve made a life
Out of readin’ people’s faces
Knowin’ what the cards were
By the way they held their eyes
So if you don’t mind me sayin’
I can see you’re out of aces
For a taste of your whiskey
I’ll give you some advice”
Our stranger has some valuable advice to impart: his experience has taught him to get the measure of other people, to suss them out and use that information to his advantage.  He can tell from our traveller’s demeanour that they are down on their luck.  He’ll pass on some information, but only as part of a fair exchange – the gambler knows which currency to use to get a good deal.
So I handed him my bottle
And he drank down my last swallow
Then he bummed a cigarette
And asked me for a light
And the night got deathly quiet
And his face lost all expression
He said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right
The trade takes place and our gambler begins his tale:

Our traveller has to take life seriously and learn to make the right decisions to get what they want in life – to game the system.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for counting
When the dealin’s done
It’s important to recognise which risks are worth taking, which ones are not, and to realise when you’re about to get conned.

Don’t put make yourself vulnerable by revealing what assets you have, take stock of your own situation in private so that others cannot take advantage of you.

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die
In your sleep
Experience will teach you how to make the best of every situation.  You can use some of what life throws at you to your advantage, and some thins you have to just let go.  And sometimes that means making unpleasant and ruthless decisions.

Whatever situation you find yourself in; you can choose to make the best of it, or not.  Life’s a gamble and you have to learn the odds.

Life, and death, are uncertain and inevitable.  Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst, and play whatever hand you’re given.

And when he finished speakin’
He turned back toward the window
Crushed out his cigarette
And faded off to sleep
And somewhere in the darkness
The gambler he broke even
But in his final words
I found an ace that I could keep
The old gambler has given his advice, lived his life to his satisfaction, and now his time has come to die.  He succeeded at life, and death, and so broke even.

Our traveller takes on board the gambler’s advice, and sees a moment of purpose in the gambler’s death.  His legacy will live on in the wisdom he gifted to the traveller.

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em (when to hold ’em)
Know when to fold ’em (when to fold ’em)
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

Songwriters: SCHLITZ, DON
The Gambler lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

And here it is, on YouTube.  I’ve had this on repeat so, so many times.  Resist it, I challenge you!

 

I SAW SOMETHING

 

One of the aspects of living in a large city is that you see things that just don’t happen in the rest of the country.  My parents, who live in a tiny village in the Home Counties, complain about neighbourhood problems frequently, and I don’t even bother comparing their plight with the myriad social ills that you can find in the middle of Manchester.

One of our biggest problems is homelessness. The council doesn’t seem to have control of the situation at all – there were numerous protests (read: campsites outside the Town Hall) last year, and the main result of this was the Council invested more in moving the protesters on. Social housing is difficult to find; the wait can be years. What is someone supposed to do in the meantime? And what if you have a crisis that needs to be dealt with now? Most of the shelters have closed down, and yet many of the people who need them probably wouldn’t fare well there either. Rules on behaviour, alcohol, drugs, pets, curfews etc, etc, just don’t fit with the erratic lifestyle of someone with a set of other problems that have led to their situation. And so the only place left is the streets.

We can’t solve the addiction and mental health problems by providing more homes or relaxing society’s rules. But we can make progress on homelessness by tackling those social problems that make it more likely.

There are a number of settlements around the city; along the canal banks, under the Mancunian Way, up near UMIST, and plenty more. These people live in clusters of tents, because it’s better than a shop doorway. Seeing homelessness has become so commonplace now, that if I were to give every homeless person in the city centre a quid, I’d easily blow a month’s salary in a day (and I have a reasonably well-paying job).

All Human Life Is Here
All Human Life Is Here: a tent village beneath the railway arches (on the left of the shot) on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal, overlooked by the Manchester Hilton.

Living on the streets is not good for you, mentally or physically.  Statistically, the homeless are more likely than the general population to have ill-health generally, to have less access to healthcare, and to die prematurely.  I’m actually amazed that in the decade-and-a-half that I’ve been here, I didn’t see a dead homeless person; until last week.

I was walking towards my boyfriend’s house late at night, and up ahead of me on my route, I could see something that looked wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  As I got closer, I could see a man in a sleeping bag slumped in an unnatural position against a shop front.  He was lying in a way that one wouldn’t be able to relax and sleep in, and he wasn’t responding to either of the two police officers stood by him, radioing in what they’d discovered.  All signs indicated that this poor chap was no longer alive.

I don’t know what he died of, and it doesn’t matter much to me.  Another human has left this earth, a human who took a humble place and yet was still a part of the society that shapes all of us.  As I walked home, I felt shock and sadness, and I wanted to put down what I had seen on paper.  So I did what any self-respecting hipster would do, and wrote a poem about it.  Here it is:

Tonight it is hot.
Hot enough for me to stroll semi-clothed through the city centre.
And yet,
A shiver runs down my spine.
In front of a shop that sells kitchens for more than the value of my one bedroom flat,
A homeless man lies slumped and still.
Two doleful police officers stand watch,
Waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
This is Manchester, in 2016.

If that man lives on only in my words, then a part of him does remain. I never even knew his name, and yet he changed me.