Alley Cats: My Obsession With a Song

This is a gorgeous song that I listen to on repeat, mostly because the song is about grief. I’ve loved it since I first heard it a few years ago, but it has taken on a new meaning for me since Mom passed. And although I’ve alluded to this song before, I want to dissect it here, just for fun.

Alley Cats by Hot Chip (Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard)*

Two people are alley cats
We have an unhappy cat
He is restless, needs attention, loses patience, seeks affection
Monkey grooms, blossom blooms
Do you dig germs, The Germs?
Well we wear each other’s heads like hats
Speak in tongues like alley cats
Cradle them in both our laps
When we lie alone
Wear each other’s heads like hats
Speak in tongues like alley cats
Cradle them in both our laps
And we die alone
Well we sleep inside a blanket-y bed
Planted like the crocuses
In the song my mother said
She wanted us to sing
We sleep inside a blanket-y bed
Planted like the crocuses
And I wish my mother could
See the ring I got
Oh oh there is no pain I know
Oh oh there is no pain I know
Oh oh there is no pain I know
The other night you said you might try to kill that thing I love
It is too strong for you, it is encased in glass and stone
The other night you said you might try to kill that thing I love
It is invincible, it is encased in glass and stone
You painted a song, you painted a song
It started when I was young and now it is in my lung
You painted a song, you painted a song
It started when I was young and now it is in my lung
Two people are alley cats
I get to thinking about our cat
He is restless, needs attention, loses patience, seeks affection
Monkey grooms, blossom blooms
‘Do You Dig Worms?’ The Worms?

Here are the lyrics again, but with my interpretation included:

Two people are alley cats

Two people, presumably in a relationship. Each person is a fighter, survivor, loner, orphan, homeless.

We have an unhappy cat
He is restless, needs attention, loses patience, seeks affection

“We” refers to a couple who has this thing between them that they love, this pet, this love, which isn’t doing well right now.

Monkey grooms, blossom blooms
Do you dig germs, The Germs?

Sounds like a nursery rhyme, with germs being a reference to childhood. The monkey represents an animal who’s like a human being (and vice versa) and who lives on instinct and nurtures himself, while the blossom blooms refers to the flowers (crocuses) his mother sang about (in future lyrics).

Well we wear each other’s heads like hats

Their heads represent the other’s thoughts? That they use for the other’s protection? Not sure I get this but it sounds like they try to manipulate each other to get what they want. Perhaps they project their fears onto each other, but I’m not sure how that is a source of protection. Maybe a defense mechanism.

Speak in tongues like alley cats

They speak to each other in a language only God can understand… I’m not sure if they can understand it themselves, if they have self-knowledge or can effectively communicate with each other, but God understands.

Cradle them in both our laps
When we lie alone

They nurture these thoughts and feelings together when they make love or cuddle together, implying that they do understand each other on some level.

Wear each other’s heads like hats
Speak in tongues like alley cats
Cradle them in both our laps
And we die alone

The last phrase is how it was written on songmeanings.net, but I think it’s wrong. I believe it’s a repeat of “When we lie alone,” as he sang in the previous verse. I don’t’ think it’s “we die alone,” because that changes the meaning in a way that I don’t think was intended by the writers. But who knows?

Well we sleep inside a blanket-y bed
Planted like the crocuses
In the song my mother said
She wanted us to sing

They rest in a nurturing environment of love together that’s built on a foundation he got from his mother, who sang a song about this flower from the iris family, a “showy and solitary” flower (that’s the description I found) that blooms in late autumn, early winter, so it represents something beautiful that blossoms during cold or difficult times, how growth comes from pain. Saffron is harvested from the crocus, which comes from the female reproductive parts of the flower. His mother wanted them to sing this song because she loves her son and wants him to experience love.

We sleep inside a blanket-y bed
Planted like the crocuses
And I wish my mother could
See the ring I got

He wishes his mother could see the token of commitment he got for his lover.

Ooh oh there is no pain I know
Ooh oh there is no pain I know
There’s no pain I know
There’s no pain I know

Being a recovering alcoholic, my first interpretation of this verse was that the speaker is a drug addict, and he escapes pain through drugs. With this interpretation, his addiction created a barrier between him and his lover. Then, upon closer listening to the rest of the lyrics, I determined that this part is about the love he feels for his lover, and how there’s no pain in this blissful feeling of love he has for her. But now, after the death of my own mother, I hear it as the voice of his mother’s soul. She’s saying her soul is at rest now, she’s at peace, she knows no pain.

The other night you said you might try to kill that thing I love
It is too strong for you, it is encased in glass and stone
The other night you said you might try to kill that thing I love
It is invincible, it is encased in glass and stone

His lover wants to get rid of this old wound of his, his grief, but it’s too strong for her because it’s buried deep inside him, behind something he protects with hardness. The stone also represents his mother’s burial… I’m not sure about the glass in a literal sense, but it could represent the wall he’s built around this old wound of his. He loves his sadness, but his lover wants to get rid of it, because it comes between the two of them, keeps them from getting closer. She’s (his lover, who I’m assuming is a woman, but could be a man–I don’t know anything about Joe Goddard’s personal life) battling a ghost.

You painted a song, you painted a song
It started when I was young and now it is in my lung
You painted a song, you painted a song
It started when I was young and now it is in my lung

“You” represents his mother, who sang him lullabies, wrote or told stories, created a reality for him that he learned from birth and which he now sings, or creates, and lives in today. It’s inside him, he breathes and lives it. This is the reality he now lives in with his lover. This is the most gorgeous part of the song, I think. It’s so raw and so deep, and expresses so beautifully how his mother nurtured the artist in him that grew up to create soulful, inspiring music.

Two people are alley cats
I get to thinking about our cat
He is restless, needs attention, loses patience, seeks affection
Monkey grooms, blossom blooms
‘Do You Dig Worms?’ The Worms?

Another reference to the difficulty between him and his lover, and the love they need and want to nurture. And another reference to the nursery rhyme, or lullaby, that his mother sang, but instead of “germs” from childhood, he makes a reference to death and decay, which is the death of his mother. Worms may represent this thing that eats away at the two of them in their relationship, but worms also improve the soil for better growth, so the worms could also represent this difficulty that they endure (like the alley cats, or survivors that they are) which allows them to grow stronger.

*There are other members of the band, but according to songmeanings.net, these are the two who wrote this song. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

I’d read that Joe Goddard wrote this song was about the death of his mother, and that Alexis Taylor co-wrote it, but that his parts were really just about the cat he shared with his wife. While I don’t think he wouldn’t write a nonsensical song–since they write plenty of fun, whimsical songs–I think he was being facetious. This song is clearly about so much more. Other interpretations could be debated, and I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it at that and just appreciate it for what it is:  a song I find tremendous comfort in during my time of grief.

Here’s the album/recorded version of the song, followed by a live version:

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