Song of the Day #723: ‘Between the Bars’ – Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith released Either/Or, his most celebrated album, in 1997. It hewed closely to his self-titled album in style and sound, but his songwriting reached a new peak.

Several songs from this album (including today’s SOTD) showed up on the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant’s film Good Will Hunting. Smith also wrote an original song titled ‘Miss Misery’ for the film and was nominated for an Oscar.

One of the most surreal moments of the ceremony had Elliott Smith dressed in a white tuxedo joining hands with Celine Dion (who had performed the theme from Titanic) to take a bow in front of tens of millions of people worldwide. He described it later as like “[walking] around on the moon for a day.”

Memorable tracks from Either/Or include ‘Angeles’ (I posted a nice cover version early last year), ‘Rose Parade’ (about Smith feeling out of place during that event… perhaps a very small-scale version of how he felt at the Oscars) and ‘Say Yes’ (a heartfelt love song, and the rare upbeat song in his catalog).

‘Between the Bars’ is a haunting track and one of my favorites in Smith’s catalog. I’d love to hear some interpretations of this song because I can see it going one of two ways… it’s either about somebody helping out a suffering friend, or it’s a personification of substance abuse as an escape.

The repeated “drink up, baby” line has me leaning toward the second interpretation.

I’m also curious to hear your thoughts on the meaning of the title phrase, “between the bars.”

Drink up, baby, stay up all night
The things you could do, you won’t but you might
The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see
The promises you’ll only make

Drink up with me now and forget all about
The pressure of days, do what I say
And I’ll make you okay and drive them away
The images stuck in your head

People you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore
That push and shove and won’t bend to your will
I’ll keep them still

Drink up, baby, look at the stars
I’ll kiss you again between the bars
Where I’m seeing you there with your hands in the air
Waiting to finally be caught

Drink up one more time and I’ll make you mine
Keep you apart, deep in my heart
Separate from the rest, where I like you the best
And keep the things you forgot

The people you’ve been before that you don’t want around anymore
That push and shove and won’t bend to your will
I’ll keep them still

3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #723: ‘Between the Bars’ – Elliott Smith

  1. Amy says:

    Seems to me “bars” has three possible meanings – and that Smith wants to evoke all three. First, and most obviously, they’re the bars within which the speaker/singer is drinking. Second, they are the bars of the musical composition he is dedicating to that endeavor. Finally, they are the bars of the prison he is metaphorically creating for himself, and might, someday, have to face in a literal way.

    I don’t get the either/or. The songs seems a blatant song to self – the “id” on the shoulder singing to the “ego,” drowning out whatever good angel might have at one point had a shot to offer a healthier alternative.

  2. Dana says:

    I go with your second interpretation. Seems to me the speaker in the song is the bottle of booze that the person takes with him and from which he continues to drink “between the bars.”

  3. Yasmin says:

    I personally think that it’s alcohol singing to him or the way he see’s alcohol. “Drink up, baby” obviously about drinking. “The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see”, how good he could be, but he relies on drinking as an escape… almost as if alcohol is mocking him, because he won’t stop being an alcoholic so he will “never” see the potential he could be. “The promises you’ll only make”, could be a promise that he made to stop drinking but he can’t stop relying on alcohol as a way to make him be happy. “Drink up with me now & forget all about the pressure of days”, drinking causes memory loss if you become drunk (in most cases). “Do what I say and I’ll make you okay”, if he drinks, he’ll forget about his feelings when he isnt drunk. “Keep the things you forgot”, when you get drunk, you usually forget what happened, therefore alcohol will remember everything he went through when he was drunk. “People you’ve been before that you dont want around anymore, they push & shove & wont bend to your will, ill keep them still”, he thinks about who he used to be & he doesn’t want to remember his past, and his past keeps pushing at him, but drinking will cause him to forget about those people and be happy.

    I think this song is about an alcohol addiction because Elliott was an alcoholic.

    This is all just my own interpretation.

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