Close Reads – “Star Witness” by Neko Case

So yeah, I’m breaking form here and doing a close read of some lyrics. For shame. And equally so that this is a clear attempt at SEO shenanigans (since I update this blog so frequently :)). So let me just complete such shenanigans: Star Witness meaning, the meaning of Star Witness, Star Witness Neko Case lyrics meaning interpretation awesomeness iPod economy largest city by population how to pirate music.

Ah cheap. But I’m really being kind of profane. This is in fact a lovely, absolutely serious song, and the lyrics are, in fact, better than many poems I have read. Please listen to the album cut at youtube here. Or you can try this live version. I’ll wait.

I mean, she’s just magic, right? Okay so here’s the text:


My true love drowned in a dirty old pan
Of oil that did run from the block
Of a falcon sedan 1969
The paper said ’75
There were no survivors
None found alive

Trees break the sidewalk
And the sidewalk skins my knees
There’s glass in my thermos
And blood on my jeans
Nickels and dimes of the fourth of july
Roll off in a crooked line
To the chain-link lots where the red tails dive
Oh how I forgot what it’s like

Hey when she sings, when she sings when she sings like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey when she moves, when she moves when she moves like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey there there’s such tender wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight
Hey there there’s such tender wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight

Hey pretty baby get high with me,
We can go to my sisters if we say we’ll watch the baby”
The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain
And I would do anything
To see you again

So I’ve fallen behind…

Hey when she sings, when she sings when she sings like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey when she moves, when she moves when she moves like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey there there’s such deadly wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight
Hey there there’s such deadly wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight

Go on, go on scream and cry
You’re miles from where anyone will find you
This is nothing new, no television crew
They don’t even put on the sirens
My nightgown sweeps the pavement
Please don’t let him die

Oh, how I forgot…

Let me begin with a little caveat. I don’t know about you, but I immediately think this song is about a car accident. But I found this clip of an interview with Case where she clarifies that this is in fact about a shooting she saw in Chicago. The pitchfork link is dead, but here is the url regardless and the bit from the interview. I’m trusting it:

http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/interviews/c/case_neko-06/


Pitchfork: From Fox Confessor, on a song like “Star Witness”, I’m guessing there’s a car accident involved but the details are sketchy.

Case: I spent a while on that song. It’s about an actual event that occurred in front of me. It wasn’t actually a car accident but someone being shot to death. That was a real event that happened in Chicago.

Pitchfork: What happened?

Case: It was one of those things where there’s gang violence and somebody gets shot right in front of you, and you live it and it’s horrible. And, of course, it doesn’t make the news because the kid is black. Nobody gives a shit except for his family, and you see how much nobody gives a shit and it’s fucking heartbreaking. He wasn’t even the kid they were looking to shoot. He was just some kid who they mistook for somebody else and they shot him. I saw it happen. I didn’t make the song about me either. The song is pieces of different people but the event is in there.

I feel that I’m in a bit of a tricky position, because I want to see the shooting in this song, and at times I do, but in the end this still ends up being a love song about death and regret and not a song about gang violence, senseless murder, class and race divide, empathy, etc. And I want to recognize what is unfortunate about this, because there is a wealth of love songs about death and regret and a serious dearth of the latter, at least in the realm of folk music (for a really great poem about the difficulties of sympathy across racial lines, read Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”). But, I respect the artistry Case brings to this, the “pieces of different people,” which creates a very tangible sense of assembly to the lyrics, and that is the primary richness with which I most engage them. So I am going to read these lyrics the way I first did, as a story about a car crash.

The title: Star Witness. Of course, this most directly points to the real source of the lyrics. But as we take the title against the lyrics themselves, it’s primary role is in establishing one level of engagement on the part of the speaker. What I hope to get at in this read is the way the speaker of the song, much like he of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” approaches the subject from two very different vantages, namely as the narrator with authorial power and then as the somewhat helpless object of the narrative, the subject to whom the story happens. “Star witness” has a kind of snide irony to it, which is mostly a result of the pop-legal tone of it against the deeply personal content of the lyrics. In this way, the title could be spoken out of either vantage and is really, ironically because of the irony🙂, one of the sincerest moments in the song, since it is the one place where both vantages of the speaker seem to meet. Perhaps this will make more sense as we get deeper in.


My true love drowned in a dirty old pan
Of oil that did run from the block
Of a falcon sedan 1969
The paper said ’75
There were no survivors
None found alive


I think I’ve been tepid, generally, about openings these days, and I will continue with that here. This is to-the-point, quite quickly and powerfully establishes, with a little bit of play, what’s going on. “My true love drowned,” is really the way anyone should start a story. It’s a little confusing, however, because the scene most immediately evoked is one of car repair and not a moving accident, an oil change gone terribly awry, and I can’t see why Case starts with this misdirection except to establish more of a sense of culture, that this was a person who loved cars, that these are the kind of alt country people the story is about, something more firmly established in the third verse. What’s more important to me here, however, is how Case leaps off one final stone from the title, “the paper said ’75 / there were no survivors / none found alive.” The reference to the “paper” and the subsequent language of papers is perfectly in step with the title and establishes the publicness of this event. Also of note is the “falcon” sedan, which foreshadows the “red tails,” and then, more centrally, the “wolves.” More on that when we get there.

This sense of the public works in very subtle ways. Again, I think it gets at the true source of the lyrics (of a shooting), but Case quickly works it into something else:


Trees break the sidewalk
And the sidewalk skins my knees
There’s glass in my thermos
And blood on my jeans
Nickels and dimes of the fourth of july
Roll off in a crooked line
To the chain-link lots where the red tails dive
Oh how I forgot what it’s like


These lines bring us extremely close to the action and the characters. “Skins my knees,” details like “glass in my thermos / and blood on my jeans” are harrowing, fragmented snippets of the aftermath and very strongly resemble the acute, if disoriented, feeling of “waking up” after a car accident. It’s personal the way someone’s body is personal, and yet, there are layers outward from that privacy. First, the sidewalk: we are in a neighborhood. Second, “nickels and dimes of the fourth of July,” which evoke both a neighborhood and a nationhood, this shared event, currencies and parties—it’s a strangely public detail to have so close to “blood on my jeans,” and the effect, for me, as the change “rolls off in a crooked line” is a kind of separation, a feeling of alienation from that publicness, or at least, a feeling of that publicness as being surreal, incongruous. In a more strident way, the values and promises the community and country have established for the speaker, in this moment of terror, are receding away. And to where do they recede? They recede to the “chain-link lots,” which is a kind of end-of-society, the edge, you know, and beyond that edge the “red tails dive.” The image here is really quite magnificent, how nature is standing right there at the end of things, and there’s a danger in that, as though the speaker has crashed right through a wall of societal protection and sees in that wound the unthinking (and beautiful) nature that, essentially, is waiting for her. Or, really, for him. And, in a slightly perfunctory way, this shakes her to remember something important, which I read as her love for this man.


Hey when she sings, when she sings when she sings like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey when she moves, when she moves when she moves like she runs
Moves like she runs
Hey there there’s such tender wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight
Hey there there’s such tender wolves ‘round town tonight
Round the town tonight


And we leave the scene and enter the chorus, which is both a musical and literary chorus. Whoever is speaking seems to change here, to reference Prufrock again, is calling out “let us go then.” The person singing these words is collected, entirely oriented, and seems to understand something of great value the earlier speaker couldn’t have even hoped to have understood. It’s a godlike voice, and the great value of the tone here is the matter-of-fact way it’s delivered. We seem to be watching the earlier speaker run as though by a magic looking glass from heaven, and there is nothing good or bad about the earlier speaker’s state, but rather, that she simply is—the narrative is playing out, the earth is turning, and that’s how it must be. It’s eerily flat in tone, though of course, as it’s sung, it is sweet, sweet, sweet. The inexorable feeling of this is doubled with the latter part of the chorus, “hey there’s such tender wolves ’round town tonight.” A quick note on this, many lyrics I found hear it as “deadly wolves,” but if you ask my ears, it’s “tender.” This is really such a lovely layering as well. I mentioned the “red tails” early, flying at the edges of society, humanity, and now that animal power has, like the chorus, infiltrated the heart of the song. We see the wolves slipping in and out of the streets in that darkness as though they were busying themselves gathering something. Perhaps souls? Maybe that’s a bit heavy, but the inference stands. Now I sort of see this as serving two primary functions. The first, in a more straightforward way, is that the wolves are here to claim the person that has just died/we fear is dead (a little sketchy given the end of the song, but damn if I have time to get into it), the “true love.” Second, however, is that they are catalyzing this transformation in the speaker, the “she” that is running, and we guess that at the other side of this transformation is the “she” that speaks in the chorus with all that wisdom. It’s a characteristically mythic thing for Case to do, and I think, personally, this is when she is the best at it.


Hey pretty baby get high with me,
We can go to my sisters if we say we’ll watch the baby
The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain
And I would do anything
To see you again

So I’ve fallen behind…

Kind of like the beginning, I think this verse’s primary role is to establish a kind of culture, which is so like that found in Raymond Carver’s stories it’s almost uncanny. I’m not entirely certain what’s happening here other than some sort of memory. But it might be read as a last hoorah, a throw-caution-to-the-wind, a running, certainly, and a hiding out. There’s a subdued but deep and pained feeling that the speaker is trying to save her lover, that they’ve got nowhere to go, but she has a plan. The line I really don’t get, and which I think is weak, is the third. I can’t figure out if they are having some kind of quiet fight, which she regrets, or what. The “look” on the face is nothing I can see at all. Regardless, whether this is some limbo flight or a memory of their relationship, it is the only, and, thus, most important actual connection we see between the speaker and her lover.

And the chorus again. How weird. If this were a poem, these three sentences in my read wouldn’t exist.


Go on, go on scream and cry
You’re miles from where anyone will find you
This is nothing new, no television crew
They don’t even put on the sirens
My nightgown sweeps the pavement
Please don’t let him die

Oh, how I forgot…

Notice how this last verse modulates—it really ups the ante musically and practically holds your tears at gunpoint. We’ve run so far we are miles out, perhaps, on the other side of the chain-link lot, finally in that void where nature rules. And the lesson here is that of a kind of natural order, that this is “nothing new.” It’s a powerfully lonely moment in the song, and Case really achieves that by undercutting the previous public quality of this event, “no television crew / they don’t even put on the sirens.” There is no fanfare, no baroque displays of cultural ritual to mollify what is, in the end, something that happens everyday and, eventually, to everyone. It’s a tricky move, but what I really think Case is doing is moving, in this single verse, from the very human “scream and cry,” spoken by that more authorial voice directly to the she who has been running and who now, at the other end of this movement, is only metonymically imaged as a “nightgown [that] sweeps the pavement,” an angelic or ghostly image of someone who has all but evaporated. This is very complex stuff, very artfully designed, but what makes it absolute magic, to me, is that penultimate line, “please don’t let him die.” Case has spent all this time setting up these structures, layering voices, tracking a character as she runs herself physically and emotionally into nothing, and she cuts through all of that with this final, direct plea. It’s so heartbreaking, so steadfast and true. She works for that line and deserves it. It isn’t a caption. She doesn’t just say directly what she was “getting at all along,”–she is enacting a drama of what can and cannot be said, what can and cannot be honestly felt. In many ways, this plea is what the speaker “forgot,” so we feel, at the end of the song, an actual sense of achievement. A release. A forgiving.

7 thoughts on “Close Reads – “Star Witness” by Neko Case

    • Thanks JM! That’s really nice of you! I’m glad people are finding their way here. It’s such an awesome song, this Case song.

  1. “The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain”…I always thought of this line as her submission to her sexual desire for this person. She’s sexually and emotionally taken with this guy and her desire gets the best of her. A dog with a collar and leash. This song feels like a backward glance at a teenage romantic tragedy.

  2. The paper says 75, but it was a 69, so the official story about what’s happened is off. Ford only made Falcons until 1970, for what it’s worth. The next line “there were no survivors” is from the paper, but the paper is unreliable. So I think “found” is the key to the line after that. The narrator’s chiming in with a nudge and a wink,” well…none found, anyway.” But someone did walk away, whatever’s happened wasn’t an accident, and the star witness is the killer.

    The rest of the song is events leading up to or following the murder. Not necessarily in chronological order, because she’s confused/conflicted about what she’s done. The conflict is all over the song, “tender wolves”, “go on scream and cry…please don’t let him die.”

    Anyway, I know I’m a bit late adding on here, but that’s my two cents.

  3. I love this so much. Neko’s one of my favorite artists ever and reading such a indepth analysis of her words makes my heart jump for joy. I’ve attempted a reading of Neko on my own site but never one with this much depth. Amazing, simply amazing.

    • Thanks, lovely praise! I’ll check out your site. I love your name by the way–spent many summers hearing that🙂.

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