From A Horse To A Place With No Name

Michael and Dr. Freeze
Michael and Doctor Freeze

A couple of weeks ago, much excitement was generated by the leak of the full “A Place With No Name,” a track Michael recorded in collaboration with Dr. Freeze in 1998.  Most are aware that this song is really just a lyrically re-written cover of “A Horse With No Name,” the 1972 hit by the group America-but with an interesting twist.

That very twist is what I would like to focus on today.

You see, I’m a staunch believer that anytime an artist chooses to “cover” or “sample” an earlier song, there must be a good reason why they were drawn to the original in the first place. That song in its original form must have spoken to their soul in some way. However, in general, I am not a huge fan of these types of re-makes. I believe in the old school adage of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Classics are classics for a reason, right? I’ve never been a huge fan of sampling, re-mixes, and in general, the whole art of reworking something that was already perfect to begin with. I cringe, for example, every time I hear Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” a song that basically did the same thing Michael is doing here. Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” is, after all, just “Werewolves of London” with a different title and different lyrics. It isn’t meant to be a rip off, of course. Kid Rock knows his audience “knows” the original song. It is intended, rather, to draw on the power of collective memory. The song is about longing for the innocence of the past, and it alludes to references that those of his generation will instantly identify with-including that unmistakable riff of “Werewolves of London.”

Still, even if I “get” it from an artistic standpoint, I cringe, nonetheless.

But these kinds of covers and re-workings of past classics do serve a purpose. They help to keep the original relevant by introducing it to new listeners. And, in some cases, they are able to expand upon the song’s original meaning in some very interesting ways.

This is where we come to Michael Jackson’s “A Place With No Name.”

Even With The Songs Michael Didn't Write, It Was His Ability To Interpret and "Connect" With Them That Created Such Powerful Performances
Even With The Songs Michael Didn’t Write, It Was His Ability To Interpret and “Connect” With Them That Created Such Powerful Performances

But before we dissect his version, we need to take an in-depth look at the original, where it begins. What was it about this song “A Horse With No Name” that spoke to Michael? I don’t know how much hand he actually had-if any-with the lyrical re-writing, but I will delve into that aspect of it in just a bit. However, what I’m talking about here isn’t necessarily about the lyrics. Even if we assume that Michael only recorded a song brought to him intact by Dr. Freeze (which I don’t think is the case, given the fact that they reportedly collaborated on the track for weeks) it still comes down to the interpretation. Michael was a masterful interpreter, even of the songs he didn’t write himself. You always knew, somehow, that his soul was connecting with that song-and connecting with the heart and soul of the original songwriter in a way that defies logic to explain it. In fact, an idea that has been teasing at me for some time is to write a blog about the songs that Michael didn’t write but should have. Just listen when Michael sings a song like “Man In The Mirror” or “I’ll Be There.” That is what is meant by masterful interpretation; the kind that inspires a listener to do so much more than just hear the song. It is what takes the song past the ears, and straight to the heart.

For such a connection between singer and song to exist, the artist has to feel the song in their heart. They must connect with it on an intuitive, spiritual level.

So exactly what was it that attracted Michael to the America classic “A Horse With No Name?”

Well, no discussion of this track’s origins would be complete without directing you to this wonderful piece from Damien Shields. This is a must-read to fully understand the background of how this track came together. So if you haven’t already, please take a few minutes to visit Shields’s blog, and read this history (I will wait patiently, lol):

http://www.damienshields.com/michael-jacksons-a-place-with-no-name-the-story-behind-the-song/

And here is the original interview with Dr. Freeze where he first spoke of his collaboration with Michael (the page is in French, but can be translated into English):

http://mjfrance.com/actu/index.php?post/2011/01/29/Interview-exclusive:-Dr.-Freeze-fait-des-r%C3%A9v%C3%A9lations-sur-le-prochain-album…/3234

I was a kid when “A Horse With No Name” was a hit. I didn’t understand it then (and, like many, am still grappling with its many various interpretations to this day) but something about its beautiful, mystical lyrics always appealed to me.  I loved horses when I was a child, and I was fascinated by the American desert. And if we take the words to heart of songwriter Dewey Bunnell, that kind of childlike, innocent interpretation is really all that’s needed to understand the song, despite several decades’ worth of interpretations that range from everything to its being about heroin use (based on the slang term “horse” for heroin) to a metaphor for life’s journey (an interpretation I somewhat agree with, but I do not think it is the whole picture).

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQzW6wz2JQk[/tube]

In response to the constant, nagging questions of whether the song was about drugs, Dewey Bunnell addressed the song’s origin in this piece excerpted from the booklet notes of Highway Highlight:

The America album was released in Britain to moderate response. Though “I Need You” was discussed as an initial single, Warner Bros. asked the band to come up with another song that would break them on the radio. So, five months after the album came out, they went into a small London studio and demoed four new tunes. Among them was an enigmatic Bunnell number with a catchy rhythm that was initially called “Desert Song.” Much to the band’s surprise, that was the song that Warners chose to release.

The band went into Morgan Sound Studios (where Beckley had played bass on demo sessions a few years before) to record the song, with Samwell producing and Kim Haworth brought in on drums. At Samwell’s suggestion, “Desert Song” was retitled “A Horse With No Name.”

A tune as famous as this one deserves a detailed explanation, though Bunnell suggests that its meaning has evolved over time: “I was messing around with some open tunings–I tuned the A string way down to an E, and I found this little chord, and I just moved my two fingers back and forth, and the entire song came from basically three chords. I wanted to capture the imagery of the desert, because I was sitting in this room in England, and it was rainy. The rain was starting to get to us, and I wanted to capture the desert and the heat and the dryness.”

The imagery came from Dewey’s childhood: “I had spent a good deal of time poking around in the high desert with my brother when we lived at Vandenberg Air Force Base [in California]. And we’d drive through Arizona and New Mexico. I loved the cactus and the heat. I was trying to capture the sights and sounds of the desert, and there was an environmental message at the end. But it’s grown to mean more for me. I see now that this anonymous horse was a vehicle to get me away from all the confusion and chaos of life to a peaceful, quiet place.”

http://www.accessbackstage.com/america/song/song005.htm

In another interview, Bunnell stressed yet again that it was an environmental song, not a drug song, and that people were trying to read too much into it:

“Here we are still trying to explain that damn song that’s 37 years old,” says with some exasperation. “It was a travelogue in my mind, an environmental song to some degree. We were part of the hippie era of save the earth, and I’ve always been attracted to nature and the outdoors. I had spent time as a kid in the Southwest and fell in love with the desert. So there I was in England reminiscing, pining for that vast wilderness called the desert. And, no, the horse wasn’t heroin.”

http://www.marinij.com/marinnews/ci_9747565

Bunnell describes it as a song with an environmental message, which I think is important in establishing at least part of Michael’s attraction to it. In 1972, this would have been at the height of the ecological awareness movement that resulted in the forming of Earth Day as a national day of observance. In its simplest interpretation, it is a song about the beauty of earth and how humanity takes it for granted.

If you compare the first verse of “A Horse With No Name” to Michael’s “Earth Song” there are some interesting similarities, not so much lyrically, perhaps, but definitely in terms of theme:

“A Horse With No Name,” 1st Verse

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

“Earth Song,” 1st Verse

What about sunrise
What about rain
What about all the things
That you said we were to gain…
What about killing fields
Is there a time
What about all the things
That you said was yours and mine…
Did you ever stop to notice
All the blood we’ve shed before
Did you ever stop to notice
This crying Earth this weeping shores?

This similarity in theme is even more apparent if you add into the mix the official 1995 video of “Earth Song,” which begins by depicting a lush, Edenic setting where we see nature in all its splendor-before it is destroyed, and turned into a barren wasteland, the “killing fields.”

Michael's "Earth Song" Shares Some Common Themes With America's "A Horse With No Name"
Michael’s “Earth Song” Shares Some Common Themes With America’s “A Horse With No Name”

In both “A Horse With No Name” and “Earth Song” the first verses depict a kind of idyllic setting, the only difference being that in “Earth Song” the narrator is already looking back on this perfection wistfully as something lost, whereas in “A Horse With No Name” the narrator is experiencing this beauty first hand (but with the knowledge that it will end). It’s also interesting that in “A Horse With No Name” the barren wasteland, or “desert” is celebrated as a place of beauty and life. But I think there is an important difference. In “A Horse With No Name” it’s acknowledged that the deserts have come about as a result of the planet’s natural evolution:

After three days in the desert fun 
I was looking at a river bed 
And the story it told of a river that flowed 
Made me sad to think it was dead… 

whereas in “Earth Song” the message is about man’s destruction of the planet.  Unlike “A Horse With No Name,” there is no life or beauty to find in the desert wasteland that man has created. However, Bunnell also drives this point home when he states, several verses later in “A Horse With No Name”:

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 its life underground 
And a perfect disguise above 
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground 
But the humans will give no love

I think that Michael certainly would have felt an attraction to the song’s environmental message. But there is something else here as well; something that goes beyond a mere environmental message (and, indeed, Michael’s re-working of the song maintains no trace of its environmentalist roots). In both the original and in Michael’s re-working as “A Place With No Name” it is also a song about transcendence, both literally and physically, as well as spiritually and metaphorically. In both versions, the narrator transcends his physical existence and enters realms that are both mystical and fantastical. The only difference is in the methods of transport-and where they end up.

Peyote
Peyote

Before I get into that, I would like to return briefly to the ever popular drug interpretations. There is one that somewhat makes sense, given the song’s context, and that is the idea that at least some of its references could be argued as a peyote trance or shamanic vision. (It is generally agreed that the “rings” referred to in the song are those left from ancient peyote rituals). Native American tribes of the American Southwest used peyote, not as a recreational drug, but as a means of expanding consciousness and bringing about the heightened sense of awareness necessary for true communion with the spirit world. Since the American desert and the peyote culture have been inextricably linked for thousands of years, there could be at least some validity to this interpretation.

Here were a couple of  such interpretations I found on the Song Meanings website:

Here are some terms to know to understand the meaning of this song:
Horse = Heroin
Rings in the desert — this refers to Peyote, a small cactus located in the desert which can often be cut open to expose several rings, or it’s sold as a button. Anyways, this cactus contains a psychoactive substance known as Mescaline which is nothing like a Heroin high, it’s very much a hallucinogenic experience. (LSD but more spiritual, a lot of Natives used this to speak to spirits)
This was obviously an explanation of one’s experience combining Mescaline with Heroin.

For my interpretation I’d say the song goes like this:

First part of the journey – Starting of the trip
Looking at all the life – Admiring the beauty of nature
Sand and hills and rings <– Mescaline
Fly with a buzz – the ringing noise that signals the beginning of your experience
Sky with no clouds – Starting to exist in a different dimension
Air full of sound – The music you can hear in your ears coming from your soul/mind.
Been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain. – Rain = The pains and frusterations of modern society, he’s no longer bound by it, he’s in the desert, in solitude, amongst another world.
In the desert you can remember your name ’cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain – You can be within yourself and discover who you really are without being influenced by others.

ManAmongHipposon May 21, 2011 

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However…there’s another metaphorical horse that fits the lyrics of this song even better than the creaky old drug interpretation: the shaman’s horse, which is another name for the sound of the drumbeat that carries the shaman into a trance state, into the otherworld on a visionary experience. Such a horse has no name because it isn’t flesh and blood, it’s a spirit horse made of sound. 

To me the song is about a kind of vision quest in the desert…or else a mundane trip that (due to a little too much sunlight or too little water) became a visionary experience to the traveler, and caused a spiritual awakening.

FlagShinyAeonon June 14, 2012   

http://songmeanings.com/songs/view/7112/

Most Native American religious practices are based on the concept that, in order to achieve true enlightenment or communion with the spirit world, physical suffering is to some extent necessary. The body must be purified by enduring a trial that causes some measure of physical discomfort. Thus, all sacred rituals usually involve prolonged periods of fasting, and/or enduring prolonged physical hardship and discomfort, such as withstanding the intense heat of a sweat ceremony or spending days alone in the wilderness, devoid of food or water.  It is universally believed that only through such physical sacrifice can true transcendence take place. This was also, of course, the original, if misguided philosophy behind the 1960’s counter-culture and its use of hallucinogenics to provide “enlightenment”-until the abuse of these substances for purely recreational purposes eclipsed any religious or spiritual purposes these substances might have had.

In any event, it is not so much important how the journey is begun, but rather, the journey itself that becomes the central focus of the song. This is why I say it doesn’t so much matter whether we believe this is a literal song about a trip through the desert, or whether it is simply a metaphor for a life’s journey. I think it all amounts to the same in the end.

I wanted to go back, briefly, to some of the various interpretations offered up by readers on the Song Meanings website. These are a few of my favorites, which I think offer up much more thoughtful and intelligent analysis than the usual “It’s just another drug song” dribble:

The lyrics could be the result of hallucinatory flow from a drug trip, a trip down memory lane, self-stimulation arising out of intense boredom/gloom on a rainy day or a combination thereof. Accounts of what transpired during the song’s creation include recollections of artist Dali’s desert and Escher’s horse as well as references to memories of time spent as a youth around the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts and being affected by the endless rain where the band had been staying. Maybe drugs, maybe not. From the surrounding circumstances, I presume the lyrics were recollections of previous experience expressed metaphorically in song and not a drug-induced hallucination or recollection.

In 1975, I was stationed at 29 Palms, CA and recall eerily similar experiences while exploring the desert with several colleagues. My experience might have resulted from influence of the song lyrics (it was a favorite) and a book I had just read – A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda. My interpretation of the song’s meaning is a literal reading of the lyrics. A young adult man, cooped up inside due to continual rain, recalls a time in the desert when he was looking at all the life and the first thing he met was a fly with a buzz. One of the most memorable sounds in the desert – of which there are few – is the buzz of large flying insects particularly dragonflies. The song was created at a time when references to drugs were pop culture so why not.

He goes through the desert on a horse with no name – with no purpose in mind, no cares, no worries, no deadlines, no stress, nobody but himself and nature, soaking in the experience (nostalgically) enjoying the scenery in solitude in a place where he could remember his name – who he really is, or wants to be – because there was nothing to remind him of being cooped up inside out of the rain and perhaps the fast life in the rat race. That was pretty much the scene – and the allure – of my numerous treks into the desert. The heat was hot and the ground was dry as hell where it seemed nothing could survive yet the air was full of life – the desert’s or his own. Looking at a dry river bed and the story it told of a river that flowed made him sad to think it was dead. I recall seeing animal bones and skulls just like in photos and being amazed at the pure white bleaching by an unrelenting sun. But, after nine days, he let the horse run free because the desert had turned to sea. Desert rain causes flash floods (lost an acquaintance to one) and just as quickly stops, the sun comes out and everything looks refreshed and rejuvenated.

Water is the essence of life. The ocean is a desert with its life underground and a perfect disguise above. One can see nothing for miles in the open sea much like in a desert. Beneath the surface, however, it teems with life. Under our cities is the rich earth/soil we exploited and gave nothing back to – lament during a time when environmentalism was in its nascent stage.

It truly is a great song.

FlagHammerinHankon May 08, 2010 ****

Hmm…well until the writer steps forward and tells us exactly what he meant then we will never know. [Actually, he has, many times]All we can do is guess and then laugh later.
I think that maybe, just maybe, the desert is the new lifestyle that the singer is experiencing, a lifestyle involving money, fame, ECT….Possibly the horse is his old self, when he didn’t have a name or any fame. Now he’s on the horse, (his own self-identity), and in his new identity of fame he’s riding through the desert, a desert where no one really cares about who you really are, they just love you cause your rich, famous, and have a band. At first the desert felt good cause prior to the desert he was in the rain, probably back home somewhere in BFE. No one knew him; he wanted fame; it was dark and gloomy because he didn’t ever imagine that he would get there. He steps into the desert and at first it feels good to be out of the rain. In the desert they don’t remember your name, as in they don’t give a dam about who you really are, your self-identity, “Just give us more good music”. Then he goes on to say that there ain’t no one for to give you no pain. At this point the fame has led to callousness and he could care less about his fans and the money. 
Now, that being said we can all laugh about it cause maybe he was on lsd when he wrote and there was no meaning to it whatsoever. Or, there could be a Native American theme to it as that is what the album cover is about. I’ll bet if the song-writer read these comments on this site he’d laugh so hard he’d wet his pants.

Flaggedj50weLLson February 26, 2012

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For me this song is about soul searching, and the anxiety and loneliness that comes with it.

“On the first part of the journey 
I was looking at all the life”

This refers to the part of life before finding out who you really are. You just assume things are as the are (including yourself).

The horse with no name refers to a person going his own way, perhaps against the stream, not accepting the label of identity that has been stamped on him by others (society/friends). It’s about forgetting everything you know about yourself and going into the ‘desert’ not knowing who you are.

“And the story it told of a river that flowed 
Made me sad to think it was dead”

Here a reference is made to a person looking back at his old life, amongst the people, and realizing how far this life was removed from who he/she actually is and what he/she really wanted. 

“The ocean is a desert with it’s life underground 
And a perfect disguise above”

Eventually one comes to accept the ‘fake’ world as it is, and starts living a kind of a double life. One in the true world (the desert), and one where society lives (the ocean)

Flaggeddevuluson April 12, 2012 ****

I’m amazed at some of the inability of people to see or understand that this song is about someone’s very personal life journey out of a painful childhood and the ease with which people will avoid the key messages that have to do with human experience and emotion. 

On the first part of the journey…. as in when you’re a child you’re aware of everything alive around you and you suck it in like a sponge. The sky was clear with no clouds = no sadness.

After two days…my skin began to turn red….he began to get burned…the abuse and neglect starts and the story it told of a river that flowed and made him sad to think it was dead…parents stopped loving.

The desert is a place with very little life…representing his isolation, but one can figure out who they when they are alone and away from the abusers. There’ ain’t no one for to give you no pain.

The horse with no name is the protective barrier or adopted identity in which a person will disappear into when no one is feeding or nurturing the real person and a person loses their identity. But in the desert you can remember name cuz there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.

After nine days he let the horse run free…after some soul searching and therapy he let the protective barrier down and didn’t need it anymore…he finds himself and self love, and found the ocean …where life exists though it can be a cover because under the cities lies a heart made of ground, but the humans will give no love. He discovers that his parents didn’t have the capacity to love him for the person he was meant and would eventually be.

He survives to tell the story.

We all have our stories.

FlagBostonSamuelon August 07, 2013 
These are only from the first two pages of the website, so it’s easy to see that almost everyone has some idea of what they think the song “means.” It’s also easy to assume that almost every interpretation probably has at least some validity to it. And thus, we can also see how each interpretation, in its own way, could have been a valid reason why Michael felt drawn to the song. As someone who had certainly had his own issues of dealing with a painful childhood, and all the vicissitudes of fame and of having a name that everyone knew, we can certainly see how almost any of the interpretations above could just as easily be Michael Jackson’s life story.
One thing I would like to touch on, though, is the lyric often interpreted as:
In the desert, you can remember your name
Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain…
Throughout the years, I had always heard the line as:
In the desert, you can’t remember your name
and recently I have run across some discussions that debated that very issue. It depends, ultimately, on whether the “t” is ever pronounced, and most people seem of the opinion that it is not (but it’s hard to tell). This would be an important detail to know for certain, since the one word changes the meaning of the line completely (is being able to remember one’s name a good or bad thing?). It’s also important because the idea of a “name”-those labels we affix to things and to ourselves-is the whole crux of the song. In America’s version, the horse has no name, and the narrator seems to be celebrating either a sense of newfound anonymity, or a newfound ability to proclaim his identity (depending on whether we go with “can” or “can’t.”). Similarly, Michael’s version is about a place with no name-thus, a place that cannot be identified on any map; perhaps a place that doesn’t even exist geographically. Although the object has changed, the basic theme has not. We are still dealing with issues of identity and labels.
This brings me to another comment on the Song Meanings website that I thought was interesting:

Alright guys…this may be a different interpretation because this is related to actual social theory, but it makes way more sense then the heroin idea..When we are around society, what society constructs in turn constructs us (we are middle class because they say we are; my name is blah because they said it is). When we are away from society (in a desert, for example) without society, then the uncontrolled idea of identity escapes…So here: the beginning, he recognizes “birds and rocks and things” because he knows the social terms… When he gets to the point where the sun is burning him, it’s because that’s something uncontrolled by society (he would call it a sunburn if that was a case; my skin is red is describing the events, not the social construction). When he eventually recognizes the birds and rocks and things again at the end, it’s because he realizes the term doesn’t really matter for these items; it’s the actual concept that matters, so it is that idea once more.Yeah, I’ll admit: I read too much rhetorical theory for anyone’s comfort. But it makes way more sense than heroin or madness, thank you very fucking much.

FlagBakedGoodieson March 17, 2012runners

Just to expand on what this reader was saying, I always found the line “there were birds and rocks and things” an interesting construct. None of the descriptions are especially specific (the birds could be most any bird that dwells in the desert; the rocks could be most any rock) but this is in keeping with a certain sense of childlike naivete and awe. Finally, as the reader above notes, he dispenses with conventional labels altogether and simply uses the phrase “and things” as a kind of convenient catch-all, a sort of “etc” to the list of amazing desert wonders he is seeing. This is the kind of writing that I, as an English teacher, would normally reprimand my students for. I could see myself drawing a line through “things” and writing, “You need to be more specific.” But here, oddly enough, it works. We don’t need to know every detail because he has already painted the desert scene for us, and from there, we need only fill in with our own experiences and knowledge of what a desert scene looks like. It is, after all, as much “our” journey as his. And, as the reader above very cleverly pointed out, it marks a sharp distinction between his state of mind where the conventional names of society still have meaning, and where that meaning ceases to exist. Of course, “things” also provides a convenient rhyme for “rings” in the next line, but I believe it goes deeper than that. Great songs, like great poems, are usually working on several levels simultaneously-technically, figuratively, and thematically. I also agree it is interesting that when he could have just said he has become burned by the sun, he says instead, “my skin began to turn red.” Not only does this conjure a much more graphic image, it also goes back to the idea of someone who has now become disconnected from all conventional names. A child who has never lived among civilization, for example, would not know to say he was sunburned. He would only be able to say, “My skin has turned red.”

So not only have identity and labels been stripped away, but all adult sophistication and convention, as well.

However, before we can begin to discuss how Michael’s version both maintains and expands upon these themes, it’s important to note whether Michael, in fact, had any hand in the lyrics to “A Place With No Name,” or if this was simply another of his great interpretative performances.

It seems to me that Dr. Freeze has skirted the issue a bit, only stating that he brought the song to Michael and that they collaborated on it. While he has given Michael a lot of credit for their collaborative efforts, it is really vague from his interviews exactly who contributed what. Of the three songs he collaborated on with Michael (Break of Dawn, Blue Gangsta, and A Place With No Name) he has said, “I did all the music, and he only had to learn the lyrics” but has also said it was a track they continued to work on together for many months (and that Michael was still working on it as late as 2004 and 2008).

I have to wonder if at least some of the lyrics aren’t Michael’s own, and I will tell you why I think so even though I may be going a bit on a limb. Not only do the lyrics cover several core themes that Michael returned to over and over, but they are written in a very straightforward, non-metaphoric style that was one of Michael’s trademarks as a songwriter. This verse, in particular, seems to me to be pure Michael, in both style and content:

She started likin’ me kissin’ me and huggin’ me
She didn’t really, really want me to leave
She showed me places I’ve never seen things I’ve never done
This place really looks like a lotta fun

I seen the grass and the sky and the birds
And the flowers surrounded by the trees
This place is filled with love and happiness
and not a world could I wanna leave

So then I went in my pocket took my wallet on out
With my pictures of my family and girl
This is the place that you choose to be with me
When you thought you could be in another world…

Of course, any time you are dealing with what is essentially a creative collaboration, it can become tricky trying to pinpoint who contributed what. But just as we can now safely say that Michael contributed far more to “We Are The World” than Lionel Ritchie (in essence, this was essentially a Michael Jackson song for which he graciously allowed Lionel Ritchie an equal co-writing credit) and even Siedah Garrett has stated that Michael contributed far more to “Man In The Mirror” than most realize (she revealed at the Chicago Symposium that he kept sending her back to the drawing board until he was satisfied with the song’s bridge), Michael was never the type of artist that you simply gave a song to, and expected him to jump through the hoops, recording it like a good boy. If he didn’t like a song, he didn’t do it. But if he saw potential, he would keep working on it-or forcing the writer to work on it- until it became the perfect track he envisioned.

So perhaps we can safely say that whether Michael actually wrote the lyrics to “A Place With No Name” is really a moot point. I still believe that his attraction to the song (both the original and this cover) stems from those very identifiable themes that he was working through for most of his recording career; certainly through most of his adult solo career.

Keeping that idea in mind, in what important ways does “A Place With No Name” compliment and expand upon the original “A Horse With No Name?” And where does it become uniquely “Michael?”

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAdQGKmJR4Y[/tube]

In the first verse, we already have a modernized, updated version of the “horse.” Instead of riding a horse, the narrator is in a vehicle-a Jeep-which breaks down. The straightforward, narrative style again reminds me of some of Michael’s best work in this vein, such as Dirty Diana. It also reminds me of just how often car breakdowns have been a convenient catalyst both in Michael’s personal and professional life. (After all, it was a famous car breakdown that kicked off “Thriller”-and an even more fateful car breakdown that led, in real life, to his encounter with the Chandlers).

We know that in Michael Jackson’s world, a car breakdown always means trouble. Or a convenient excuse for an adventure.

However, if our first introduction to him in this song is as a rider of sorts (just not a rider on a horse) it is nevertheless not the vehicle which becomes his manner of transport, but rather, a mysterious woman who emerges from the mist to then take him by the hand.

The place where she takes him has no name, but judging from the description, it is glorious.

But who exactly is this mysterious entity? Is she a flesh and blood woman? An angel? A Skinwalker? http://www.rense.com/general77/skin.htm

Each of the above could lend their own twist to the song’s ultimate meaning, and all could be equally valid. I have listened to the track a number of times now, each time envisioning a different set of circumstances, and each one lending a slightly different interpretation.

If the woman is a mystical figure, or angel, it seems very likely to me that the place she is leading him to is Heaven. (Perhaps the Jeep’s rocking wasn’t just a flat tire, after all; perhaps there was an accident and he has died?).

In any event, the blissful paradise she has transported him to sounds suspiciously a lot like the ideal world Michael had envisioned in song after song, and indeed it seemed, at times, the world for which he had made it his life’s mission to create:

As she took me right through the fog
I see a beautiful city appear
Where kids are playin’ and people are laughin’ and smiling and
No one’s in fear

She said this is the place where no people have pain…

But as much as I like this interpretation, it doesn’t fit the very real, sexual aspect that is then introduced:

She started likin’ me kissin’ me and huggin’ me
She didn’t really, really want me to leave
She showed me places I’ve never seen things I’ve never done
This place really looks like a lotta fun…

Well, she doesn’t sound so much like an angel now, at least not the heavenly variety. What had seemed at first like a vision of some heavenly paradise now just seems like a very imaginative romp in the hay.

water balloonSo was this, in fact, simply a flesh and blood creature who rescued him from his broken down car and proceeded to show him a world of bliss (if, albeit, cloaked in some very metaphoric language!)? It’s not a preposterous interpretation. Michael has been known to write lyrics and poems that equate the idea of “bliss” on several levels, both sexual/romantic and platonic/Edenic.  His song “Speechless” (which, perhaps not coincidentally, comes out of this same era) is a great example. The song would seem to be one of his great romantic ballads, but in actuality, according to an interview he gave in the early 2000’s, it was actually inspired by having a water balloon fight! How could such romantic lyrics as those of “Speechless” come out of a water balloon fight? It’s not as far fetched as it seems. In Michael’s creative world, bliss as a state of being all derives from the same center, and there is a very fine line between those things which inspire bliss.

 “Out of the bliss comes magic, wonderment, and creativity”-Michael Jackson. 

Or, in other words, we can safely say that “A Place With No Name” is all about being in “The Happy Place.” (Shane said I must give him credit for that one!).

But whether we go with the version of an angel transporting him to heavenly bliss, or an illicit road affair simply transporting him to a sexual one, both are jolted back to reality by the same verse, and it is the verse that admittedly is presenting the most puzzlement for me.
So then I went in my pocket took my wallet on out
With my pictures of my family and girl
This is the place that you choose to be with me
When you thought you could be in another world…
Clearly, the photos symbolize a connection to the narrator’s reality; the life and the people he has left behind in order to become a part of this beatific new world. But is it a decision made with regret, or without? And does this signify that he will ultimately make the decision to go back to his girl and family, or is he past the point of no return? The lyrics leave it a bit ambiguous. But either way, Michael seems to be exploring a common theme here (for him) of moral choice and consequences. Perhaps the guilt he will feel, or the “sacrifice” of giving up his family and girl, is all a part of the trial and sacrifice that must be made to arrive at this place. Or perhaps it will be a consequence, a cross he has to shoulder for his transgression.
Robbie Robertson’s song “Skinwalker” tells of a similar mystical encounter with these seductive but deceptive creatures:
[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNH0BxT6WtE[/tube]
Which brings me to the Skinwalker interpretation (not a far fetched one, since this is supposedly a mystical-like woman who appears from out of nowhere in the desert). Native American legends of Skinwalkers often depict them as appearing in male or female form. to seduce unsuspecting victims. But in most cases, they are in reality witches who use deception to trick and, ultimately, entrap their victims.
The lyrics to Robbie Robertson’s “Skinwalker” tells a tale that is very similar in some ways to that of “A Place With No Name”

She broke down on a highway
Miles from nowhere, it had no number
She was lost a long way from home
She was fed up with the routine
She got trouble with her man
She blew town with a vengeance
Painted desert, peyote rain
Lord don’t let me go insane

Skinwalker, skinwalker
Who am I? Who are you?
I was only passing through
Skinwalker, skinwalker

A strange encounter to be sure
He was wicked, he was pure
Hear him calling, he’s calling for you
Come with me into the mystic
Come with me into the night
We can live, live forever
Painted desert, peyote rain
Lord don’t let me go insane
Skinwalker, skinwalker

Skinwalker, skinwalker
Through your eyes I can see
You have left your mark on me
Skinwalker, skinwalker

Painted desert, peyote rain
Lord don’t let me go insane

Skinwalker, skinwalker
He takes you to a sacred place
Drinks a tear off your face

Skinwalker, skinwalker
Talk to the spirits
Talk to the wind
Skinwalker, skinwalker
Ceremony of the cloud people…

If, in fact, the narrator in “A Place With No Name” has been taken by a Skinwalker, then he has been entrapped by a femme fatale who would make Dirty Diana seem like an angel by comparison. Why? Because if we buy this interpretation, it essentially means she has killed him with love-the very thing that, perhaps not coincidentally, did destroy Michael in life, as many vicious people turned his own love against him.
Each interpretation is interesting in its own way, but all fall short of truly explaining a song that, in many ways, is as elusive and mysterious as the “she” who appears from out of the mist. The only thing we can say with certainty is that it is definitely a song about transcendence and finding a place of bliss-however permanently or temporarily. But unlike its more metaphoric predecessor, it does not seem concerned half as much with “the journey” as with the arrival.
Perhaps The Biggest Difference Between Michael's Version and America's Original...It Is Less About "The Journey" And More About "The Getting There."
Perhaps The Biggest Difference Between Michael’s Version and America’s Original…It Is Less About “The Journey” And More About “The Getting There.”
It is about getting to that place where pain no longer exists, and where such mundane concerns as names and labels no longer apply.
It is about getting to a place that defies all names.
And ultimately, it may not be a real “place” at all, but rather, one that resides within us all along.
As Michael wrote in “Heaven Is Here”:

Reclaim your Bliss

Once you were lost

But now you’re home

In a nonlocal Universe

There is nowhere to go

From Here to Here

Is the Unbounded

Ocean of Consciousness

We are like ripples

In the Sea of Bliss

Come, let us dance

The Dance of Creation

Let us celebrate

The Joy of Life

And

You and I were never separate

It’s just an illusion

Wrought by the magical lens of

Perception

Heaven is Here

Right now, this moment of Eternity

Don’t fool yourself

Reclaim your Bliss

12 thoughts on “From A Horse To A Place With No Name”

  1. Fantastic, Raven!! Wow, so much insight and it’s great to place the 2 songs together as you have done and look at them crefully. Frankly, this song of MJ’s is pretty confusing to me, esp. the part where he gets out the photos from his wallet. I mean the refrain is “Take me to the place” etc–so it seems he wants to go there! On the other hand, how do we interpret the wallet episode?? Setting aside the woman who comes out of the fog, the place with no pain, no fear, playing children and smiling, laughing people seems like a wonderful place that MJ would want to be in and want us all to be in. A place where there is bliss (and thanks for the quote from Dancing the Dream). So what is going on with the photos?

    “This is the place that you choose to be with me/ When you thought you could be in another world…” Who is ‘you’ and who is ‘me’ here? I am assuming he is talking to the photos when he says this–saying to the family and girl–this is the place you choose to be with me–i.e. I am going to be in this place and I need you to be there with me, not in another world (a world of pain, fear, sadness etc).

    Not sure where the kissing woman comes in though. It’s confusing. Maybe she is a fan?? lol.

    1. It’s a strange twist, for sure. The woman who is “kissing and hugging” him is the same one who has brought him to this place. In typical Michael fashion (and this is what leads me to have such a big question mark about the lyrics) it seems as though he isn’t exactly rebuffing the advance, but nevertheless, is somewhat repelled by it (as if it has somewhat spoiled what had been such a perfect experience up until then). This motif’ is one we see time and again in his songs, where lust is never celebrated for its own sake, but rather, becomes a tale of moral dilemma and consequence. But since he doesn’t make the choice to turn back, it becomes somewhat confusing. We’re left unsure of what choice is being made-or if there is a choice.

  2. Raven, that is a geat comparison of America and Michaels rendition. Very inspiring to take a closer look at the songs and also thanks for the lyrics. I didn’t know all the lyrics and also thought it was – you can ‘not’ remember your name .
    Horse with no name is one of the few songs I find that the lyrics perfectly match the music.
    In that respect it would seem impossible to change the lyrics and get the same feel from the song . But here comes Michael Jackson with his own version which to me is as good as the original. What makes Michaels version so good is not only the lyrics, which may not be his, but are definitely ‘his’ themes- it is his vocal interpretation that is as ‘Michael-ish‘ as can be, making this song perfect in every way.

    I do not think it is a coincidence that the song with these lyrics and theme was offered to Michael .
    As you said there are some recurring themes in his work-songs and poems etc -that can be found in this song. Although Michael said that his songs are not necessarily auto biographic and he specifically names the songs that he deems autobiographic, the theme of travelling, being on the road, escapism and always wanting to move or be somewhere else is not only a theme of his songs but also of his life. Even when he was not touring anymore he was still on the move and he said that he loved sleeping in hotels even if he was near home. As for the difference between America’s and Michaels version.
    I think Michael reversed a necessity into a comfort and made travelling , the journey, his home . And by making it his home he took everything he needed at home with him on the road. including family and friends. Many people said they travelled to meet him on the road and almost everyone who knew Michael closely went on tour with him . He even had a – not so secret- rendezvous with Lisa, by then his ex wife on the road on history tour. That makes these lyrics intriguing
    .
    ‘So then I went in my pocket took my wallet on out
    With my pictures of my family and girl
    This is the place that you choose to be with me
    When you thought you could be in another world… ‘

    I believe for Michael the journey was also the destination, there was no distinction between the two.
    Maybe just maybe, after all the travelling,which in recent years thanks to Sneddon , was more like a homeless man than as a choice, he got tired and wanted to settle down because of the kids.
    And that is when his journey ended.

    This essay asks for reading at least twice.
    Thanks Raven for writing so elequently about this song.It is very deserving. I could not find it these days on youtube, its always taken down. Hope its released soon before the next buzz takes over.

    1. I always heard the lyric as “you can’t remember your name” which, to me, makes more sense in keeping with the song’s theme. After all, the horse has no name, either, and the entire song seems to be playing on the idea of achieving a certain kind of anonymity, where things like names no longer matter.

      But every single print version I have come across of the lyrics shows the line as “you can remember your name.”

      If you listen closely, there is no “t” pronounced but this could also be a matter of accent and phrasing.

  3. Yes, I agree, great comparison, Raven!
    I have this album of Robbie Robertson & and the Red Road Ensemble with “Skinwalker” and I hadn’t listened to it for years. I never thought I would listen to it again in connection with Michael, lol. But thank you for this experience.
    I have another album of Robbie Robertson called “From the Underworld of Redboy”. Do you know it? The interesting thing about it is that it has a little booklet in it with pictures that look desert-like, but you cannot say for sure whether it’s really the desert or whether it’s the bottom of the sea…
    It has another song called “Peyote Healing”, but it is sung in some Native American language, so I unfortunately don’t understand the words. I always wanted to know what he sings about.
    Interesting connections, though… I like this kind of elaboration of art.

    1. I’m not familiar with “From the Underworld of Redboy” but I bought Robbie Robertson & the Red Road Ensemble CD years ago at a powwow (I guess it was in the mid-90’s). It was a favorite CD of mine for many years, and I incorporated a lot of the songs into my own free style dance performances.

      It’s funny, but the song “Skinwalker” came instantly to my mind when I heard “A Place With No Name” and its narrative.

  4. I see the seductive woman as “fame”. She appears in many of Michael’s songs, luring him away from his true inner self and private life:

    took my wallet on out (examining my life)
    With my pictures of my family and girl (my private life)
    This is the place (in the spotlite, fame) that you choose to be with me
    When you thought you could be in another world (quiet life)

    1. That’s an interesting interpretation. It goes back to what many have said, also, about the original America song (although Bunnell was hardly famous at the time since the song is from their debut album). I believe Michael was somewhat torn between two selves, one which was his public self and persona (the image and the stage performer) and one that was his private, true self which in some ways, although not completely disparate, bore little resemblance to the other.

    1. That link is already included in the article. The thing is, I’m not buying it completely. I believe he probably did present to Michael a complete song, but then as he says, they continued to collaborate on it for many months (and Michael continued to tweak it for several years afterward). My theory is that Michael may have been at least a partial contributor to the lyrics. But there is no way to know that for certain.

      1. I also wanted to clarify that I’m not trying to imply that I think Dr. Freeze is lying. I’m sure he is telling the truth about presenting it to Michael as a completed song. I am just theorizing that Michael may have contributed more (or, as he did with Siedah Garrett, “suggested” more) than he is being given credit for. I have discovered this to be a pattern with many of the songs for which he is not credited as the writer, but still contributed a lot in the way of suggestions and tweaks of lines. (“Thriller” is a good example). And some of these lyrics do sound like Michael’s style to me, but I am only guessing, of course. I just believe that, given how closely they worked on this song together, it is very possible that it became more of a co-authorship.

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