With most of my songs, I don't sit down with an idea to write about. I'm usually just messing around on the guitar and sometimes something interesting will come out. Then I might start singing random syllables, words, phrases, just to see if the song is trying to say something.
With this song, I was strumming an A minor chord and shifting the bass note around, and the words "What is this world?" came out of my mouth. I liked the philosophical thought, and after a little more random gibberish I tacked on a description of this cruel world, "where lambs are led to slaughter."
Hey I had a line! Now I needed a rhyme. I came up with "Who is this girl? She's Satan's only daughter."
Ah, that sounded kinda cool!
Chords for a chorus (F C Em) just came organically, and the way I strummed with an alternating C-B-C-B note over the top was a nod to the Pixie's song "Where Is My Mind?"
Over this chorus I sang "I don't care... Mary air raid." I have this on tape from 2003!
At this point, I had no idea no idea what that all meant or what the song was eventually going to be about. I thought it was going to be another song about longing for unrequited love, like my song "Summer Came."
Then it took a scary twist, which makes sense because those verse chords are pretty scary.
Who is this girl?
Is she Satan's only daughter?
No matter how she cries
Her tears are never water
Who is this boy?
Was he born to love to slaughter?
"Hallowed be thy name."
He prayed before he shot her
I was thinking of Johnny Cash's "Delia's Gone" and I had just read all of Cormac McCarthy's books, so I had gothic violence on the mind.
But I didn't really love this. I kept messing around.
As soon as "Mary air raid" randomly became "rosemary" I had an epiphany. Wild rosemary is one of the most evocative scents for me, because I associate it with the happy part of my childhood.
When I was 7 years old, we had moved to Pasadena, California. Back then, my brothers and sisters and I used to play out in the yard and down the street. This was back in those days when kids roamed free and unmonitored from afterschool to dinnertime.
There was a scent that permeated the air around my favorite place in the yard - a deep, mysterious, reassuring dark-green smell. To me it was just the scent, the taste, the feeling of afternoon. Later in life, I recognized what it was. The long hedge that separated our yard from the next-door neighbors was rosemary. That’s why the beautiful, rich smell of rosemary evokes for me the wonderful mystery of childhood.
On the other side of that rosemary hedge lived a teenage kid named Claude. He was kind of creepy, and would tell us there was a crocodile pit in his garage and yeah, watch out, or you might get thrown in. We were pretty sure he was lying, but we always steered clear of him and his side of the hedge.
So now a concept had formed: rosemary. I set out to write lyrics as evocative as the scent.
I ditched the boy and Satan's daughter and turned back to setting the opening scene with the world I was born into, asking the biggest questions we all have: What is this life and why are we here? Why do we suffer so much? Why do bad things happen to good people?
What is this world
Where lambs are led to slaughter?
No matter how I thirst
I cannot reach the water.
The line about the lambs has a double-meaning, a faint echo of the earlier version with the boy who was "born to love slaughter." Innocent lambs are often sacrificed, and they are also sometimes led, by cruel people or circumstances, to violence. Some become killers, of others or themselves. The circle goes round and round.
As a kid, I used to feel most free when I'd take long bike rides, back in the day when you could just go wherever the sidewalk led, untethered by mobile phones. I'd ride for what seemed like miles, but were really just big blocks. Back then you could explore into the neighborhoods beyond, seeking adventure and hideouts and racing down hills as the wind running past your ears drowned out all the other sounds.
Somewhere in the middle of these long afternoons of free play and careless bicycle rides, an ill wind blew through my home and my rosemary yard, whispering a dark word: “divorce.” A new man started coming over. He wasn’t bad at first. He was tough yet charming, with a threat of violence just behind his icy blue eyes.
Later, my new step-dad would make good on this threat.
It turns out the crocodiles were real.
I wrote the rest of the lyrics for Rosemary with this idea in mind - the passage from happy to troubled childhood. The "scary air," well, that comes from growing up in the Los Angeles area, where smog alerts were as common as sunshine. And later, as the final twist on the song came into being, it meant inhaling smoke to get high, a new form of escape.
I don't mind
Breathing the scary air
No I don't care
The scent of rosemary
I've got time
I'll ride my bike for miles
When I get home they'll feed me
To the crocodiles
But I don't care
The winds in my hair
The trees are so high
The scent of rosemary
So the lyrics mirror different eras in my youth. I was a carefree 7-year old. And I was a teenager getting high after school. Free for a while, but eventually I'd have to head back home where the hungry jaws of trouble waited patiently.
The final verse evokes where this road can lead.
I wait outside
Holding the needle in my hand
The scent of rosemary
Whenever I pass a rosemary bush, I crush some needles in my hand so I can be magically transported back to my 7 year-old world. But the needle in this verse may be a different kind. And "goodbye" may mean running away from home, or the final exit with a deep bow from this cruel world.
Watch the music video for "Rosemary"
Like all my songs, I like to leave some (or a lot) of things open to interpretation, even to myself. My lyrics have more symbols than actual stories. So, in all truth, I'd rather not tell you what "Rosemary" is about and let it mean to you what it may. But, dear Patron, I want to open my heart to you, because you are one of the few who truly care.
With love and the blessed scent of rosemary,