Elvis Costello’s first album My Aim Is True was released 36 years ago yesterday. And that got me thinking about one of the songs on that album “Watching the Detectives.” So I got my guitar out and fiddled around with it. Soon I checked online for the lyrics, which are fairly complicated; I certainly didn’t have them memorized. And one line really stood out, “He stares at you, and you mash a cigarette.” But that isn’t what anyone but me thinks the line is.
Let me explain. “Watching the Detectives” was the song that made me take notice of Costello. And it was that one line about mashing a cigarette that caught me. I thought that it was a wonderfully simple description that perfectly brought to mind those old Humphrey Bogart detective movies. I’d never heard the term before, but it was right: people mash their cigarettes out when they are done. So was I wrong when I thought that? Who knows! I’ve listened to every version I could find this evening and none of them are any more clear than this one:
Opinions on the whole line are varied. No one I’ve found agrees with me on the line. In fact, no one agrees with me on “mash.” Everyone else has “match.” But note that not one of the following lines makes any sense:
- You snatch a chill, and you match a cigarette
- You snatch a chew, you a match his cigarette
- You snatch a tune, you a match a cigarette
- He snatches at you, and you match his cigarette
My line probably is wrong, but it doesn’t appear to be as wrong as all of these. Also, the next lines follows it thematically, “She pulls his eyes out with a face like a magnet.” The song has two narratives: the guy trying to get the attention of his girl friend and the TV detective show the girl friend is watching. So at this point, more or less the same thing is happening in both narratives. He’s staring at his girl friend as she puts out her cigarette. And on the screen, some detective is salivating over a femme fatale.
It could be about the room temperature, tobacco product types, a song request, or snatching at you, whatever that might mean. And it could be that the two people are comparing or exchanging cigarettes. God knows that Elvis Costello doesn’t make the issue any easier. But really: “snatch” and “match”? Really?! What ever it was, I’m at least sure that Costello is a good enough writer to have avoided that.