Leading up to our recent election, I found myself writing songs more and more about politics. Political songs are unusual for me, but the nice thing about writing a song every day is that it freed me up from taking any of it all that seriously and really allowed me to have fun and try new things. The election, our current president, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were so much on my mind that it even crept into my Moby-Dick songwriting, and for “Stubb and Flask kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him,” I even broke my general rule of recording the songs I wrote earliest first.
As the title suggests, the chapter begins with Stubb and Flask killing a Right Whale on Ahab’s orders, which is highly unusual for a Sperm Whaling vessel. We’ve heard much up to this point of the inferiority of Right Whale oil (“lump of foul lard,” as Stubb refers to it), and the lesser honor of killing less carnivorous and more docile Right Whales. Understandably then, Stubb and Flask are upset and confused by Ahab’s orders. Flask mentions overhearing Fedallah telling Ahab about a charm worked by simultaneously hanging a Sperm Whale head off the starboard side and a Right Whale head off the larboard side — such a ship could never capsize.*
Stubb worries that Fedallah will “charm the ship to no good,” and they spend most of the rest of the chapter discussing their suspicions that Fedallah is actually the devil. Out of this conversation comes an interesting story about a governor selling one of his governed to the devil and the devil giving the man cholera, thereby infecting the rest. This speaks volumes not only about the duties of a leader but also of the pitfalls of putting too much trust or responsibility in any governing body. I’m also drawn to the line, “And if the devil has a latch-key into the admiral’s cabin, don’t you suppose he can crawl into a port hole?” Stubb and Flask are the Pequod’s staunch feudalists, and the thought that it would be harder for the devil to corrupt an admiral than a sailor is exactly the reason anyone is following Ahab at all — some sort of divine justification of power. And it’s no surprise, as punishments for mutiny are so severe that a ship at sea is, in a way, the last bastion of monarchy in an otherwise democratic society. One is left to wonder how far Ahab would have gotten without these traditions of power and law.
How did Bush, Cheney, et. al. get so far with their agenda? Where is the war crimes tribunal? Who will answer for Abu Ghraib? When did we lose control of our country? Did we ever have it? Like it or not, we let all this stuff happen, and I can’t help but squirm when thinking “How did we get in this boat in the first place?”
*I got away with calling the Pequod “the nation” in the song because the ship is named after a Native American nation that was exterminated in our country’s early history.
Ch 73: Stubb and Flask kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk over Him
Shadows long to the starboard side,
Are we charmed to perdition?
And ain’t the devil proof
Of deeper meaning?
See the weight of commerce pull,
Balanced only by murder.
And see the balance
Threaten to whelm us.
There’s a storied governor
Made a deal with the devil,
So one’s infected now
And all will perish.
Blessed by the inspiration
We’re doomed to watch the nation
Go down, down, down.
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea September 13, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea October 1, 2008