Is that what it’s really about? Fleetwood Mac’s Man of the World

This is usually an occasional series in which, inspired by their being played on Sounds of the Sixties, I pick apart the lyrics of a big Sixties hit record for the real meaning concealed behind the seemingly innocent lyrics. Today being a Thursday, this is obviously not so.

Something recently put Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 no 2 hit, ‘Man of the World’ into my head. The band are better known for the Buckingham-Nicks era that made them into world-wide superstars, but which provided a lot of questionable music to follow the early Californiated rush. For a short time I was into them, but for a much longer time I’ve greatly preferred the earlier, Peter Green-led blues band period.

After a couple of singles that fringed the top 30, the Mac had their big year in 1969, with the slow, walking-blues instrumental, ‘Albatross’ and the heavy acoustic/electric work-out of ‘Oh Well (Part 1)’ both hitting number 1. In between came ‘Man of the World’.

These days, I have a vivid visual association with the song, following an early 2000s appearance in Chris Tarrant on TV. For those who don’t remember the programme, Tarrant had taken over the format established by Clive James, which was to present clips from television and adverts from other countries. It was mostly aimed at sparking a laugh, and usually very successful at it. Occasionally, it turned very serious, as in the case of an (I think) Australian drink-driving commercial.

The ad started off in the middle of a game of rugby, progressing in brief cuts to the showers, the bar, one man drinking and laughing, and them driving home in his not-overly flashy car. Intercut with these scenes were similarly brief shots of a boy aged about six playing at the bottom of a garden, his dad stood near the back door.

The music to the commercial was ‘Man of the World’. One verse plays as the car speeds up, the song timed exactly to have one specific line tie up with what happens. It’s an image that I can’t get out of my head, that I never will be able to unsee, being as I was then a stepfather with a stepson not much older than the boy playing in the garden, oblivious of the speeding car hitting the curb, the driver losing control, the car somersaulting in the air, the boy kneeling, looking up in one last instant at the spinning car flipping over the hedge and dropping down on him…

Then the scenes of the aftermath: the running father, already screaming in fear and desperation, crying out his eyes, his own life as he cradles the limp little body, and I can’t even type that here, so far away in time and circumstance without my own tears starting again, and the driver, shaken, dazed, struggling from the car, seeing what he’s done, what he’s responsible for, what could have been avoided so easily but which now can never be undone.

It was unbelievably powerful and it’s very hard to listen to the song without that association. Sometimes I can manage it, most often not.

But the verse that was used to underline that commercial is why I’m writing today. The chorus, though it was not a chorus in any conventional self, is Green addressing his listener. Let me tell you about my life, he offers, they say I’m a man of the world. The music is low-key, built around a wandering guitar, until the middle eight, where suddenly the band’s full force is unleashed, and Green sings:

And I need a good woman

To make me feel like a good man should

I don’t say that I’m a good man (and a car somersaults…)

It’s that next line where I pause to consider. Because as Green sings it, there are two words at the beginning of the line of which I have never been certain, two words whose two possible alternatives create a gulf in the meaning of poor, desperate Green’s confusion about himself and his hopelessness. It’s why this song becomes an Is that what it’s really about? Not because there’s a meaning other than that which appears on the surface, but because there are two meanings and I don’t know which one is true.

Of course I could look up the official lyrics, settle the question, but I would rather in this case remain in ignorance and doubt, seeing into both words  as possibilities.

Because the line, in it’s simplest form is: Oh but I would be if I could.

Or is it, as it might so easily be given how Green sings: Or that I would be if I could.

One is regret, one is an infinite well. The commercial made it clear that it understands the meaning to be Oh but I would be if I could, with no possible way to any longer be that good man as opposed to merely being the man of the world.

But from the first time of hearing this song, as a Golden Oldie on Radio 1, some time back in the Seventies, I heard those words as the alternate or that. I don’t say that I’m a good man, or that I would be if I could…

Perhaps it says something about me that I can hear those words and not the simpler, more reassuring line. This is something I’ve never discussed with others, never debated who hears which, and why. How many of us hear which line?

So for once I have no hidden, far from innocent meaning to expose. There is a hidden, far from innocent meaning to this song all along, but it may well be on the surface. I could know which, but I will no more look to learn than I will ever forget that image of the moment between two halves of a life, as the world closes in on one who will never have the chance to become a man of any world.

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