Welcome back to #200SadSongs. This week, Aussie rockers Jet take us away from romantic heartbreak and to family tragedy with Timothy, the haunting close to their debut album.
It often felt, when it came to lyrics, that Jet adopted the Burroughs “cut-up” technique but with various lines from throughout the rock and roll history book (halfway down the back row, top shelf, near the “nature” section, nope, further down – you’ll see it, it’s a big book). Let’s face it, people certainly weren’t poring over lyric sheets for the likes of Cold Hard Bitch and Rollover DJ, nor did the band have any misconceptions over this. They blended sounds, styles, phrases, progressions and “yeeaaaahhhhs” from AC/DC, The Beatles, Oasis, T-Rex, the Rolling Stones and everyone in between – and they were extremely successful because of it.
But tucked at the end of their debut album, Get Born (itself a Dylan lyric), is a tender little tune called “Timothy”, and those who listened closely over the years may have been compelled by some of the lines. “It’s not what it seems, but it is” goes the chorus, and while it would be tempting to write this off as nonsense akin to “slowing walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball”, it’s actually a nice little signpost that there’s something deeper going on.
The band’s lead singer Nic Cester explained the coded song back in 2004, and you can sense his trepidation even in this transcript of his quote:
“It’s kind of haunting, a haunting way to end, which we kind of liked. The song is actually about, Chris [Cester] wrote it about… there was a brother that would have been older than Cam [Muncey], our guitarist. And at a few months old [Cam’s brother] died. It started from a conversation Chris had with Cam, with Cam saying sometimes he felt like sort of a replacement child. We never play it live. Cam doesn’t like us to. We thought it was a good song and we wanted to put it on the album, but it’s sort of a taboo song now.”
Also on The Big Smoke
- 200 Sad Songs: #184 Bananarama – I want you back (1988)
- 200 Sad Songs: #185 Frankie Cosmos – Anxiety Attack (2014)
- 200 Sad Songs: #186 Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone again (Naturally) (1972)
- 200 Sad Songs: #187 The Get Up Kids – Hannah hold on (2002)
“Timothy, I took your place” is the opening line, and it’s striking how much empathy Chris Cester writes with, while (understandably) working within a rather coded, and delicate framework. Lines like, “never used your legs to walk round in this whole big mess” are heartbreaking when you know the back story, as is the variant “never used your head to find out what this whole thing meant”. Timothy not only never got to physically explore the world, but he didn’t even get to comprehend it. “Missed your photo, missed your birthday too” gently confirms that Timothy lived only a few months, while the more oblique “Timothy, we found your spaceship” points to his crash landing, and the grief and confusion surrounding this.
The most brutal line in the song – in the band’s whole career – is the stark, “she cried in the kitchen to let you go.” It paints an entire world; a mother collapsed and grieving, a son years later still feeling like a consolation prize. No wonder they didn’t play this song live – it cannot help but be cheapened by whatever stadium rock anthems surround it on a setlist.