Last week we started reading Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater. We left it at a slow moment, about to tip into another frenetic rock piece. Let’s get in there!
Scene Five: Fatal Tragedy
We have another speaker here, whose words are recorded by out speaker. He laments the death of Victoria, though he doesn’t know the whole story. The song is kind of heavy-handed with its message: “without love, without hope, there can be no peace of mind.” Who is that message meant for, though? It could be for us, in which case it is what it is: a heavy-handed message from the band to us that we should have love and hope in our lives. But how the hell do you just get those things? Our journeys will have to be, in some way, like the speaker’s. In every city there’s something wrong.
I haven’t talked about the cover yet, have I? You may recognize the style, if you didn’t immediately recognize the artist’s work on its own. It’s by Dave McKean. Here is is again, if you don’t want to scroll up:
McKean is probably best known for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman. He also did Arkham Asylum with Grant Morrison. He is very into fucked-up faces:
McKean does not just mess around. If the cover of this album is what it is, it’s that for a reason. And what is it? It’s a collage that makes up a person’s face. I remember that being big in the 90s, with people doing magazine covers using computers to put together hundreds of images to make one larger image. McKean, presumably, is just making art here. But either way, the image of the album is about how a person is many people, which we talked about last time. This song highlights that. As soon as the speaker goes out into the city again, he meets his story again. He can’t escape it any more.
We can’t do anything without hope or love — including “turning back.” The speaker can’t turn back. Does that mean he doesn’t have hope or love? I asked above who that’s a message for. Maybe it’s for the speaker? Maybe it’s Victoria’s message, in which case it’s perhaps not the most practical advice.
6 of Swords
One of the most positive swords, this card was called “Science” by Crowley in his deck. The card depicts a journey in a boat, surrounded by swords. If you think of the swords as ideas, this card shows us forward progress driven by ideas. Some descriptions say the card implies a combination of skill and intuition. That would certainly describe the speaker’s main mechanism now. He’s wandering the city, but the parts that are significant. He’s in the walking ritual now, like a Dadaist’s tour of the city, letting everything become meaningful. Until, finally, there is meaning. Cities don’t hide their meaning; we create it as we traverse the streets every day. A city can have a spirit, but it is a huge amalgamation of all the people in it, and all the people who have ever been in it. The speaker is meeting that spirit, but like some unthinkably large god, he can only see parts of it — the parts that are Victoria and her story. This is the point where we should remember, if only for a second, that there are other stories that aren’t being told here. The speaker is stumbling through hundreds of ghosts he does not see in the pursuit of the one he does see. Which is an image for all of us, I suppose.
Beyond this Life
This was definitely my favorite song back in high school. It’s got the yelling, baby.
The song telescopes again, with the speaker reading an old newspaper. We have to be immediately suspicious, both because we have a number of different speakers — the journalist, the witness — and because of the distance the newspaper adds. Where is the speaker getting this?
Notice, too, the ambiguity: “standing by her was a man / nervous, shaking, gun in hand / witness, says he, tried to help / but he turned the weapon on himself…” Who is “he?” The line is clear enough, on one level: there are two men, the witness and the killer. But it’s odd how vague it is. The repetition of “he” blurs the line here, leaving us unsure of who is who. And then the song itself wavers back and forth, between this driving but basically pragmatic description and a slower, dreamier meditation on our identity and our deeds, and how they intertwine. That’s going to come back to bite us in the ass, I promise.
Finally, in a different driving sound, we hear what Victoria wanted and, supposedly, what she told the killer. Note, too, that there are two weapons for some reason, and the note “could have been a suicide letter.” This song is very, very careful to set the stage for later. It appears to be absolute and concrete. But it isn’t. Because perception is a hell of a thing.
10 of Pentacles
An earthy, practical card for a song that is, mostly, a practical retelling of events. But the 9 of Pentacles would indicate an ending. This card, as a ten, indicates a new beginning. The stage is set for the next act. The speaker is only getting started, and the story is not over yet. Seeds have been planted, to use the imagery from the card. They take time to grow, and they take even longer to root themselves into the scenery. But once they are there, it’s nearly impossible to get them out without exposing them first. The card shows the result of effort, over time, perhaps from many people. The speaker is getting the first taste of results. But, too, the story itself was the result of many people working together. Dramas usually are — the victim had to know the attacker, and a relationship of some terrible kind had to form. There were others, blind to some things and perceptive to others. No drama comes out of thin air. This takes us back to the city and how this story is a part of its story.
Scene Five: Through Her Eyes
This song begins with inarticulate singing from a female vocalist, tantalizing us that maybe Victoria will speak now. It makes sense, as the speaker thinks he’s uncovered the answer, the story. But if so, why is Victoria still here and still struggling to speak?
We actually just get more of the speaker’s words. Note the song title is that we see through her eyes, not that we hear her words. The speaker reveals something of himself, finally: he has suffered a loss, and that makes him able to empathize with Victoria’s story. He’s already using her story to understand his own, which is exactly what we do with stories.
He really believes he has the answer here. The final session is not to get more answers, but to grieve. Victoria is like a loved one, now, or a part of himself. Understanding her death, if not the circumstances, leads him to need to grieve. And through that grief, he will understand himself. Which is absolutely right. We do understand ourselves better in, or after, our grief. It is hopefully one of the last ways we will understand ourselves, but it’s on the schedule.
King of Wands
The kings are supposed to use their powers for good. This king continues our wand imagery from last week. The speaker has power now, and it is a spiritual power. He is honor-bound, now, to use it. He has to tell this story, to let people understand where they live and how they live. But the first step to controlling that kind of power is self-knowledge. The king has it — the speaker is gaining it. If he flies off the handle now, he’ll accomplish nothing. He gathers himself up. He understands the terrible value of grief, and he prepares to use it.
Scene Six: Home
This is the longest song on the album. And with it, we’re at the end of the post. There’s so much more! So this is definitely a place to stop. Sorry about that, but we’re getting up there again.
The speaker tells us what he wants here, accompanied by psychedelic sitar music. The imagery is still powerful but more abstract. The city reappears directly, calling the speaker into something he doesn’t understand yet. The past is catching up, and the speaker’s “demons” are returning — the haunting is grabbing hold now, in the way it has grabbed hold of everyone else. This would be the passage through death that adventurers go through. Call it the “dark night of the soul” if that works better for you.
The speaker switches here, by the way. It’s not too subtle. I’m not sure if it’s a different singer or if they’re just using filters here. But this person is the person who was desperately in love with Victoria. He had intimate conversations with her, and thinks of her as a temptation. He’s lying to family, fooling everyone. We don’t exactly know how, but we know it’s happening. And, like any good murder ballad, there’s a sibling rivalry involved here. Finally, the speaker realizes there’s more to learn and that he can’t stay away.
King of Swords
The king of swords is smart and patient and clever. He works out plans, and he deduces the plans of others. If the song introduces a doppelganger, with two entities both fighting inside the speaker’s mind, then they’re all kings of swords. They twist words around, get caught up in cleverness and deception, and generally make things complicated. At the same time, the speaker now needs to parse all this stuff, when he thought he was already done. Getting the answers obsesses him now, making him another double of the obsessed speakers in this song. The plots-in-plots mess here turns one king into another.
We’re getting to the bottom of everything. Notice that, so far, there have been no cups, and the only trump is Judgement? Everything here is quick and flashy, like the swords and wands, or else it’s rooted to the ground, like the pentacles. The blood runs deep in the city’s earth, but it had to be put there by something sharp and hot.