Song of the Day #592: ‘The Road to Ensenada’ – Lyle Lovett

Last September, during a Lyle Lovett theme week, I singled out one song from his album The Road the Ensenada and promised to highlight two other songs — the album’s best — on future dates. I fulfilled half of the promise in November, when I featured ‘Her First Mistake‘ as a Song of the Day. Today I complete the mission.

For my money, the title track of The Road the Ensenada is possibly the finest song Lovett has ever written, and among the finest I’ve ever heard. That’s high praise for a relatively simple song but Lovett is no stranger to high praise, at least from this corner.

I believe the song’s success owes as much to its production and performance as it does to its construction. Lovett isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary here, either lyrically or musically. He has written far more adventurous and clever songs. But he sings this one like it’s the last breath of a dying man and the haunting instrumentation supports that elegiac tone.

I suspect the song itself is about death. The narrator lies sick and broken waiting for the arrival of a loved one who doesn’t come. The second half of the song (following “no sign of you”) seems to be a reminiscence of his own travels, when he left tamer country to head south. The line that puzzles me is the chorus’ repeated “You ain’t no friend to me.” Who isn’t? Or what?

I’m sorely disappointed in the Web’s offerings about this song. None of the album reviews I found single it out, none of the “song meaning” sites feature it. How can a song this good, and this meaty, go ignored? Maybe this blog entry will serve as a net that brings in fellow fans to appreciate and interpret the Lyle Lovett masterpiece.

As I lay sick and broken
Viva Mexico
My eyes just won’t stay open
And I dream a dream of home
I dream a dream of home

Where there’s coffee on the table
And kindness in your hand
Honey I’ll help you when I’m able
But right now I’m feeling bad
Right now I’m feeling bad

Listen to your heart that beats
And follow it with both your feet
And as you walk and as you breathe
You ain’t no friend to me
You ain’t no friend to me

The road to Ensenada
Is plenty wide and fast
If you head South from Tijuana
Then I’ll see you at last
I’ll see you at last

But my eyes they open slowly
And they look around the room
The old man he seems worried
And there ain’t no sign of you
There ain’t no sign of you

Listen to your heart that beats
And follow it with both your feet
And as you walk and as you breathe
You ain’t no friend to me
You ain’t no friend to me

You can offer to the righteous
The good that you have won
But down here among the unclean
Your good work just comes undone
Your good work just comes undone

The sisters at the borderline
They’re holding out their hands
They’re begging me for something Lord
But I don’t understand
I don’t understand

So it’s adios to Alvero
Tell him to stay between the lines
And if he sees that Gabriella girl
Tell her I’ll look her up next time
Say I’ll look her up next time

Because the road to Ensenada
Is plenty wide and fast
And this time through Tijuana
Well it won’t be my last
It won’t be my last

Listen to your heart that beats
And follow it with both your feet
And as you walk and as you breathe
You ain’t no friend to me
You ain’t no friend to me
You ain’t no friend to me

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12 thoughts on “Song of the Day #592: ‘The Road to Ensenada’ – Lyle Lovett

  1. peg says:

    I did a little searching and read that this album was right after his marriage to Julia Roberts ended and some of the songs reflect his pain over the breakup. Maybe “you ain’t no friend to me” has something to do with it??

  2. Amy says:

    Well, what a treat this is to discover at the end of a long day. I can’t even offer a ballpark figure of how many times I’ve listened to this song, as it is one of those I would often play on a loop. Despite the fact that I’ve overplayed it so, my eyes never cease to sting with the onset of tears by the time Lovett sings that final “you ain’t no friend to me.”

    Many years ago, I offered the song up to my AP English class to seek out the insightful interpretations of the wise students gathered there. We had no definitive answers, but the song certainly sparked a great discussion. One interpretation I recall especially liking was that he is addressing himself throughout the song and with the refrain. Rerferring to himself in the second person, the speaker bemoans that “[his] good work comes undone” and that he has been no friend to himself as he has embarked on this journey to Ensenada, literal or figurative as it might be.

    The verse that always gets me:

    “So it’s adios to Alvero
    Tell him to stay between the lines
    And if he sees that Gabriella girl
    Tell her I’ll look her up next time
    Say I’ll look her up next time”

    Who is that Gabriella girl, and how will he be able to look her up next time? Will there be a next time? Is she already dead? The advice to “stay between the lines” I find always unbearable poignant. I want to read the novel that explores the relationship between our speaker and Alvero.

    Ultimately, I find this song so powerful because it suggests a rich and detailed world that is just hinted at in the enigmatic verses here. That it concludes the album (save for the bonus track) makes it all the more haunting.

    I absolutely adore Lyle Lovett; have I ever mentioned that before? Oh, and I’ve listened to the song four times while writing this comment. And I just want to listen to it a dozen times more. What is that all about?

    • Douglas Wood says:

      Just stumbled upon this thread and am so pleased to see others have responded as strongly as I to this song. I can’t think of a sadder tune, or a more lyrical, rich and enigmatic one. It’s like a great, minimal short story– in fact I wonder if perhaps it’s based on something literary with its intriguing references to names of other places and characters. The only song I would place right up there with this song in terms of its painful beauty is “Waiting for the Rain” by Wendy Waldman.

  3. Amy says:

    This is a lovely live version:

  4. Dana says:

    Well, my trial has kept from commenting, but better late than never, especially when it’s on a great Lyle song like this one. I can’t say it’s my favorite Lyle song, but it certainly is up there in the top 10, maybe even top 5.

    I’m confounded by the song’s meaning, but I like Amy’s student interpretation. I think it’s a self-exploration—about family, love, loss, and, of course, the metaphor of moving through life as one moves down the roads of Texas to Mexico. The lyrics are great, the music is great. Lyle is great. What else can I say?

  5. tdavis says:

    Tijuana is love.

    “listen to your heart that beats, and follow it with both your feet, and as you walk and as you breathe you aint no friend to me” — hard to grasp.

    But maybe..

    Life as a musician has many … benefits? and temptations, Gabriella, the girls at the border with their hands out, for something.

    I read this that he gave up that ‘free’ life, hoped for coffee at the table, and lost.

    Love is illusive to someone who thought they found it but lost it, on the road to Ensenada.

  6. Josh says:

    I’m awfully glad that I am not alone in admiring the exquisite power and beauty of this song while remaining perplexed about it’s elusive meaning.

    I have often thought, as others in posts above, that it’s a dialog with oneself, one taking place in a sickened state of delirium, but with one added character sitting (and striding) next to him: Jesus. “You can offer to the righteous all the good that you have won, but down here among the unclean, all your good just comes undone.” And in the speaker’s sickened state, he is angry and taunting God and death: “You ain’t no friend to me.”

    I try to imagine the room in Mexico where he “lay sick and broken” and can visualize a crucifix and a table-top sculpture of Jesus. “My eyes they open slowly, and they look around the room. The old man he seems worried…”

    By no means do I offer this as “my interpretation” but simply a few interpretive impressions that keep returning. As with other posters, I am gripped by this superb work of art and continually seek to understand just what it is that grips me. I don’t mind the journey. I even wonder if Lovett really knows.

  7. Ralph says:

    I found a video of Lyle performing this while promoting Clark Guitars. I preficed the song by mentioning that Cole Clark is also a personal friend of his. He goes on to say that they go or have gone Bike riding in Baja. Maybe this song is the reflection of a crash ‘n’ burn? Either way, I’ve had this album for at least 6 or 7 yrs and recently this song mezmerizes me..over and over again.

  8. J Wheeler says:

    I wonder about a drug connection. I don’t know anything about Lyle Lovett’s habits or history, and it may be about a fictional character, but somehow it seems intuitive.

  9. Mike says:

    Enigmatic Lyle Lovett – like a poet or painter – interpret it as you see fit – whatever it means to you. Isn’t he just great. One to clear up – Lyall is a friend of Bill Collings of Collings guitars and it is during a trip with Bill to Mexico that the song evolved.

  10. Phillip says:

    I have always felt from the first time listening to this haunting song that it is about a man dying and that “you ain’t no friend to me” must refer to the fact that for a dying person, the world of the healthy is so far removed from their current perspective that it has a strangeness to it. Maybe the best way to understand what I am getting at is for you to read Leo Tolstoy’s classic novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. I assume that the narrator of the song is getting medical treatment in Ensenada, and that the opening verses portray him in his hospital bed thinking of home, as he is waiting for a visit from the person to whom the song is addressed.

  11. Lyle says:

    Ain’t no “friend” because they are so much more; not less.

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