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Everybody's talking at him

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

EVERYBODY’S TALKIN' (ECHOES): AN ANALYSIS Fred Neil (made famous by Harry Nilsson)

The Words category of this blog will be launched with a song that I taught in my English Language and Literature class as an introduction to analyzing song lyrics. The song has no particular significance as a first effort besides the fact that I think the lyric is unappreciated.


This will be a long analysis, and I do not expect all people will find it to be particularly enjoyable reading. But for those with an analytical bent and a bit of patience, I believe a deep-dive into this song can be a very rewarding literary experience. This song, made famous by its rendition sung by Harry Nilsson in John Schlesinger’s 1969 American buddy drama film Midnight Cowboy, with Dustin Hoffman at Ratzo Rizzo (one of the great character names in film), expresses a sense of alienation that remains a iconic aspect of the modern urban experience. The voice, an individual singing in the first person, expresses a sense of disaffection with those around him, but also indicates he has a way to escape his world-weariness. A word on the songwriter: It is interesting to note that songwriter Fred Neil, who achieved some success in performing and recording in the late 1960s and is considered a pioneer in the folk-rock genre, later retired from the music world and went to live in the Florida Keys “in relative obscurity,” rejecting the trappings of fame a bit like the persona created in Everybody's Talking rejects what might be seen as urban life. While he had his own success, it was the triumph (and royalties) of this song, which climbed near the top of the Billboard charts and won Midnight Cowboy a Grammy, that perhaps allowed him to make the very decision to leave music and live a quiet life under the sun—among other things, fighting to protect dolphins. Harry Nilsson, who sang the film version of the song, is known as well for writing songs made into hits by others as he is by his own work. A versatile songsmith who worked in many colors, many of his songs have an underlying optimism that conflicts with the rough-edged, sneering or anti-establishment rock-and-roll image so many artists try to forge, although one might look to the many feel-good songs rock ‘n’ roll turned out in the 1960s as still alive in his work. His song Good Ol’ Desk is, adorably, a lilting tribute to how much he loves his desk. He was also known for his lighthearted theme song for the 1970s television comedy The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, in which the persona of a son sings lovingly about his dad: “People, let me tell you ‘bout my best friend / He’s a warmhearted person who’ll love you ‘till the end…” He’s also known for a range of “light” works such as the semi-nonsensical Coconut and the Monkees’s Cuddly Toy. On the other hand, he also composed reflective and moving ballads like One (made famous by Three Dog Night). If you know other intriguing things about the songwriter himself, please feel free to add these in the comments. I will now take my English Teacher’s look at this lyric and explore why I find it so effective.

Everybody’s Talkin' (Echoes) Harry Nilsson


Everybody's talking at me I don't hear a word they're saying Only the echoes of my mind People stopping, staring I can't see their faces 5 Only the shadows of their eyes I'm going where the sun keeps shining Through the pouring rain Going where the weather suits my clothes Banking off of the North East winds 10 Sailing on a summer breeze And skipping over the ocean like a stone (Wooh-Wooh…) I'm going where the sun keeps shining Through the pouring rain 15 Going where the weather suits my clothes Banking off of the North East winds Sailing on a summer breeze And skipping over the ocean like a stone Everybody's talking at me 20 Can't hear a word they're saying Only the echoes of my mind I won't let you leave my love behind I won’t let you leave my love behind No I won't let you leave 25 All lyrics are property and copyright of their respective authors, artists and labels. All lyrics provided for educational purposes only. Please support the artists by purchasing related recordings and merchandise.


EVERYBODY’S TALKIN' AT ME


While some songwriters adhere to a whole shtick around seeming opaque, if not obscure (I’m looking at you, REM), our best songwriters strive to drive home important ideas about life and living in a way that reaches all listeners on some level. Not all songs succeed in this, but here, in this song, is an exceptionally lucid expression of someone fighting disillusionment and finding escape or redemption. The song’s meaning is accessible and clear despite communicating a deep existential angst.


The speaker in Nilsson’s work seems to feel alienated and disconnected from modern society, longing for and even planning an escape. (As I will discuss, the music implies that this escape is successful, even though this is not explicit in the lyric.) This complex interplay, even contradiction, between lyrics and music gives the song a certain delicate complexity, like lacy patterns in ice forming over a puddle, and enhances the pathos of the song which, again, hints at inspiration and escape while simultaneously placing the persona in a grey, impersonal, lonely present.


Let’s start with the title of the song, which is also the first line and then returns as the initial line of the last stanza (20), there reinforcing its cold characterization of the singer’s world. Since “everybody” is involved, there is a sense the speaker is alone, isolated, an observational outsider to society. However, he is also at the center of the action, because people are “talking at” him (not to each other). Society has not excluded him so much as that he has lost touch with it and is no longer able to make connections with other people—even as they seem to direct their attempts to communicate towards him. But the connotations of “talking at” are crucial. Whereas “talking to” a person indicates the talker is aware of their audience and making an attempt to impart a message, presumably in a language that will enable communication, “talking at” implies the talker (here, “everybody” other than the singer) is self-absorbed, not cognizant of the need of the listener to understand; there is a sense the words being spoken are meaningless babble, at least to the target of the words, and thus through this metaphor of being “talked at,” the singer expresses a deep estrangement from those around him.


Indeed, this idea is returned to in many elements of the lyric, clarified especially in the second stanza. The speaker “can't see [the] faces” of the others (5), and their eyes are shadowed (6), so putting aside their incomprehensible language, he also cannot receive information about what they are saying from their expressions. The implication of darkness in the “shadow[ed]” eyes (6) might add an ominous or even malevolent tone to his being observed, as the others are hiding their intentions as they stare at this curiosity, the singer. He seems alien, lost and unable to connect to his community.


Indeed, the people around him seem aware that he is different, because they are “stopping” and “staring” (4)—we must assume, staring at him. The fact they “stop” indicates something about him is arresting their movement, is notably or significantly different; the lack of a conjunction makes this a little asyndeton, emphasizing even more the sudden focus of their attention and their blank looks. Then the alliterative ‘s’ in the two verbs, combined with continued sibilance in “see,” “faces” and “shadows of their eyes” (5–6) increases the sense that they are judging him as an aberration and that they disdain his otherness. At the same time, he seems critical of these watchers; they are operating as a faceless mass and their lack of communication may be flaw of theirs, not his own misunderstanding.


The use of dialectical terms like “talkin’” (1) and “stoppin’” (4), which drop the ‘g’ (one name for this is actually “g-dropping”), may indicate a casual tone; up against the idea that society considers him to be “improper,” this hints at an anti-establishment stance of the speaker, which would be only understandable in his situation. (Also, consider that g-dropping is common in the folk and rock genres, which have their own anti-elite, anti-establishment history.) Alternatively, it may offer the idea that the words are flowing over the listener without effect; he is unbothered and not feeling harmed by the miscommunication. Still, he dwells on it, elaborating with “can’t hear a word they’re saying.” The breezy piano and strings beneath belie the darkness of the lyric, leading to the feeling the speaker is intentionally resisting their malaise.


What does the speaker hear? Merely “the echoes of [his] mind” (3). On the one hand, he is isolated and only hears his own thoughts. But this also might start to hint at a deeper pain that this isolation has caused in the singer. Echoes imply emptiness and loneliness, a lack of other things to fill the space, like meaningful human connections. Taken at full strength, it might indicate some sort of brooding or mental anguish. So despite the casual or dismissive tone concerning the empty words of the people around him, the singer seems to feel real effects from his plight.


Thus in the first stanzas, Nilsson expresses both the meaninglessness of his current lifestyle and the inanity of those around him.


The tone changes markedly into the refrain, and the music leaves its uncomfortable endless loop, repetition of the minor 7th [composing friends, please correct me here]…and with a flourish the strings seem to take off into a clear sky as he intones his leaving (7). Not just desire to leave: There is a concreteness and immediacy to his intensions, stated with high modality—not “I wish I could go,” or even “I will go” some time in the future, but “I’m going.” Assuming this is not just an escape further into his own mind, a la Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, he has found and planned this imminent escape.


The music and lyrics change color markedly in tandem as he describes his destination and his journey, which are full of light and movement. The sibilant consonants through the refrain echo the various forms of wind and water he will be experiencing (winds, breeze, rain, the ocean) and engender the freedom of this new life.


It is curious the place where he is going has pouring rain, which, sung on a blue note, might indicate the singer is subverting the positive message of escape with something uncertain; yet the rest of the section does not hint at a darker undertone, so we can take this note to bring out the rejection of society, the breaking of convention that will allow him to “bank” at odd angles through the sky at a whim and to “skip[] over the ocean” (12).


The singer will leave his bland and empty life and go somewhere where there is a “summer breeze” he can “[sail] on” (11), where he can seem to fly and “[bank] off” winds (10) as they propel him forward, where he can and “[skip] over the ocean like a stone” (12). The feeling of weightlessness and open horizons to the verbs flying, sailing and skipping,and references to light (“sun…shining” [7]), contrast sharply with the land of people whose faces are not visible (5) and whose eyes (and motivations, perhaps) are shadowed (6). Here he is not judged; there is no struggle to understand or be understood. He gains complete control of his environment of wind and water—and we might note that he skips over the surface of the water in limitless flight; he is not dragged below. What a sense of liberation and overwhelming relief from the words in stanzas one and two.


The sun that keeps shining through the rain might indicate this is a place where optimism conquers difficulty. The sun “keeps” shining, reflecting his own character as someone who faces a grey and foreboding world with a positive vision.


Especially poignant is the clever inversion of the conventional idea of changing clothes to fit the weather, “going where the weather suits my clothes” (9). With this metaphor (it feels like a paradox, but is not one), the singer indicates he is not changing himself; he is going to a world that suits him better as he is. (Even the choice of “suits” stresses this idea of a more appropriate environment, with its subtle double-entendre). There is less of a sense that he is escaping at all costs, and more that he is in control of his destination. This adds to the sense of intention and agency mentioned above.


After the singer is set free and specifically after skipping over the ocean, there is an extended line of music that allows the ambiance of this stanza to continue, allowing the listener more time to experience the ease of this new life.


Let’s dwell on Nilsson’s scat section for a moment (13). The bridge here includes a unique vocal timbre and wordless vocables, and we might make all sorts of things out of it. The performer is known, as it happens, for what might be seen as seemingly experimental vocal expressions in his songs, including hits such as One and lesser-known ditties like Good Old Desk. He likes to explore the voice as a musical instrument, but in this song perhaps simply wants to portray someone who is having a great time singing and doesn’t care what he sounds like, or to capture the wonder and freedom of “skipping over the ocean.”


Now, in the coda of the song, Nilsson suddenly switches into the second person. “I won’t let you leave my love behind.” One the one hand, this is not a contradiction to the rest of the song; the singer might be revealing here that his pain and isolation have been caused by being abandoned by a lover. His love still exists; the other person has somehow turned their back on it. And by cutting the sentence short in the final line (“I won’t let you leave…” []), he paints even stronger a picture of someone literally walking out on him.


Perhaps this loss of love is the entire cause of his feelings of alienation; when we are rejected in love, the world can feel like it goes on without us; no one knows our pain, so the words they speak to us are meaningless to us in this moment of grief. I must say I find this ending potentially disappointing, because it threatens to reduce a treatise on an aspect of the human condition, the difficulty of communicating true feelings or making meaningful connections, or the alienation of one from the group, into just another lost-love song.


I would like to allow the idea that these last lines are just filler that was added to cover the ongoing melody of the song. But as students of poetry, we must see every line as meaningful. So this song becomes an expression of how the loss of a loved one can lead someone to feel estranged from society as a whole, to feel as if they are misunderstood. It is certainly true that those experiencing the pain of lost love might even feel that their anguish is so obvious to others that passers-by cannot help but stop and point out or even ridicule the one in pain.


Thus does the lyricist, Fred Neil, with the aid of Harry Nilsson’s vocalization, create a poetic and complex picture of a man who feels he does not fit his world, but finds there is a place he can go—where he is already going— where he fits perfectly, where “the weather suits [his] clothes.” The song balances alienation with self-actualization and anguish with hope; it should perhaps go without saying that this is a notable accomplishment.




Image: Craiyon


Believe it or not, this analysis was written for this blog. To learn more about the motivation for "The Words" sections of the blog, see the post There Is No Language.

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