Songs We Take for Granted: America’s “A Horse With No Name”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 1, 2010
Last week’s episode of Breaking Bad began, as it pretty much always does, with something unexplained. This is one of the show’s hallmarks, and one fo the things I always liked about it–the way it dropped you into action without preface, trusting you to trust it to unravel at its own pace. In this week, Walt was driving through the Arizona desert, singing along with the radio, when a cop pulls him over for no clear reason. Like Walt, you panickedly start racking your brain for explanations to the cop’s presence–he was speeding, or he was at some sort of checkpoint, or maybe he had finally been ratted out to the police as the meth-dealing criminal that he was. Turns out he just had a busted windshield, which we knew about from previous episodes, but me, I was convinced that the whole thing was just a dream sequence. The reason why? The song Walt was singing along to on the radio: America’s “A Horse With No Name.”
America has taken a rather bad rap over the years for their brand of early-mid-70s soft rock, some of it deserved, much of it not. Most of the criticism stems from the fact that only once in their impressive run of AM Gold hits did they seem to go an entire song without writing one shudderingly bad line–“Sister Golden Hair,” basically a really really good Gin Blossoms song about a decade-and-a-half before the fact. Otherwise, America is remembered largely for their endless supply of lyrical clunkers, of alligator lizards in the air, of cause never being the reason for the evening, of not giving up until you drink from the silver cup and ride that highway in the sky. These lines might not have stuck out so much in the unprecedentedly fertile breeding ground for lyrical atrocity that was Top 40 pop in the Me Decade, but since, they have come to define the band in ways they like did not anticipate or desire.
“A Horse With No Name” isn’t quite their worst offender–that would almost certainly be “Tin Man”–but it’s probably their most infamous. The song’s odd phrasings, narrative non sequiturs and occasional just straight-up bad english have seen it draw the ire of noted comedians/social critics Richard Jeni (who observed “You’re in the desert. You’ve got nothing else to do. Name the freaking horse!“), Dave Barry (who named it one of the top two Bad Songs Involving Horses, along with Michael Murphy’s “Wildfire”) and my own father (who I’m pretty sure ranks it along with the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ it to the Streets” as one of the songs that Officially Killed Rock Music). It’s pretty hard to argue with any of them, as very few songs that contain lyrical observations like “There were plants and birds and rocks and things” or “after three days in the desert fun I was looking at a riverbed,” let alone hinge on a chorus like “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name / It felt good to be out of the rain” could be conventionally described as “good.”
But here, unlike with any other of America’s lingual desecrations, I think that the lyrical absurdness actually works in the song’s favor. Writer Dewey Bunnell has said that the song was partially inspired by travels he used to take through the Southwest desert growing up, and I think that kind of childlike wonderment (and equally childlike gaps in narrative and logic) is what makes the song so vivid. Randy Newman once opined that the song was “about a kid who thinks he’s taken acid,” and as little sense as that makes (and as strange as it is that Randy Newman was ever asked to sound off about “A Horse With No Name”), it feels about right. Had the song been released a half-decade earlier, it might have even gotten some respect at a hippie anthem, though by ’72, I guess folk-rock types were supposed to have known better.
More than anything, though, the whole thing just feels like a dream–more legitimately like an actual dream than maybe any other song in pop history. And that’s because while most artistic representations of dreams tend to focus on their surreal and symbolic aspects, “A Horse With No Name” nails the more important part–the odd sort of dullness that marks the great majority of them. While dreams certainly can be provocative, disturbing, even occasionally insightful, most of the time, they’re just irritatingly banal, something close to everyday real life, but with a loopier narrative and a slightly skewed sense of logic. And while a line like “The heat was hot / and the ground was dry / but the air was full of sound” seems redundant, simple, and nonsensical by regular logic, by nocturnal logic they may as well be a haiku.
The music helps with that. “Dreamy” is really the only word one can use to describe the gently-strummed, alternately-tuned two-chord pattern that runs throughout “A Horse With No Name,” aside from relatively synonymous descriptors like “hazy” and “entrancing.” The entire song has that feeling of unshakable alternate consciousness, like a dream you’re vaguely aware of being in but too lazy and disoriented to snap out of. The whole thing is tied together by the beauty of the chorus harmonies–the one part of the song whose merit is essentially inarguable–which float above the song with near-synesthetic powers of evocation. Nu-folk heroes Fleet Foxes often get compared to Crosby Stills and Nash, but for my money, “A Horse With No Name” is a far better reference point for their sound–just listen to those harmonies in the second half of “Mykonos” and tell me that you don’t hear the comparison.
I’d be curious to hear what Bryan Cranston has to say about “A Horse With No Name” now, after doubtlessly having to listen it for hours (not to mention needing to learn all the words) while filming the scene. In any event, much respect to the show for having him continue to sing along to the song as the cop pulls him over, and then only turn it down when the cop tries to talk to him. I would’ve done the same thing, Walt.