Interpretations:Exquisite Dead Guy

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Interpretation 1[edit]

It's true that "exquisite corpse" used to be all the rage among surrealists, and Flansburgh said in one interview that TMBG have actually written or attempted to write songs by playing this game. However, I don't think the game has much to do with the actual meaning behind this song -- it seems more like a phrase the Johns decided they liked and stuck it on here. I suspect the song is about the narrator's father, or some other deceased male figure that figured heavily in the narrator's life. The father and the son were never close in life, and Junior kept a lot of things bottled up inside, but now the narrator is seeing all these things that remind him of Dear Old Dad -- maybe it was triggered by a museum exhibit in a display case? Suddenly Dad is everywhere the narrator looks, and he even seems to be talking, mouthing the same old words of disapproval, but the narrator knows his father is dead and out of reach. How is he supposed to let Dad know the way he feels about him? The question is so important he must ask it again, shouting this time. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talkcontribs) 23:22, February 28, 2004

Interpretation 2[edit]

I've always thought (with not one jot of evidence) that this song was about Paul McCartney musing upon his relationship with John Lennon after the latters murder. Though its really another of Linnell songs about the dangers of fans obsessing about celebrity. The giants did this first with humour in the Famous Polka and again with the darkly melodic I'm your boyfriend now. The brilliant arrangement harks back to the barber shop stuff they messed around with on Birds Fly. Exquisite Dead Guy was the best track on Factory Showroom and should have been the single. --(mr tuck) 13:10, February 1, 2006

I don't think there's a regular radio station on the planet that would play this song if it had been released as a single. Ha!! --MisterMe (talk) 08:47, 25 May 2020 (EDT)

Looking back at the song it's easily in my Top 10 Giants songs. (Mr Tuck)

Interpretation 3[edit]

I was reading about the Mafia yesterday, and found out that an official that is assassinated for trying to reign in the mob is called an Excellent Cadaver. A link? --(lehmanap) 11:07, May 30, 2006

Interpretation 4[edit]

I get the sense that this song was in fact written as an exquisite corpse, under the surrealist game where one person makes a line, then the next person makes one. ~Christina Miller, January 2007

Interpretation 5[edit]

I realized the other day while listening to this song that, as a really simple and silly interpretation, it could just be about some guy who has this random dead guy hanging around him (a zombie of sorts, perhaps) and in particular, the line "how'm I s'posed to let you know the way I feel about you" - he wants the guy to go away, but how is he supposed to tell the guy that when he's dead and can't hear him? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talkcontribs) 01:50, January 8, 2008

Interpretation 6[edit]

For some reason I always felt like when they get to the "how'm I s'posed to..." section that it's actually the dead guy talking...or, rather, thinking. It's like when a shy person hangs around you but isn't very interactive. He may be really nice, a real catch, exquisite...but if he's too bottled up then he might as well be a dead guy. maybe john wrote it remembering feeling like a dead guy who hangs around somebody but can never muster up the courage to tell them how he feels, or just never could express it for one reason or another. maybe he knows what it's like to be the dead guy, but also knows what it's like to be the living guy, and that's how he can sing from both perspectives. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talkcontribs) 14:42, January 27, 2008

Interpretation 7[edit]

I always pictured the "How'm I s'posed to let you know ..." as the "dead" guy as well. Here's the way I always saw it ... I feel like it's about a man going to great lengths to get the attention of a woman ... going so far as to fake his own death. Of course, then the display case would just be TMBG's embellishment of just how deranged he is in being unable to express his feelings. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talkcontribs) 16:41, May 7, 2009

The "Exquisite Dead Guy" is Jesus Christ *[edit]

Try a Christian interpretation (although I'm not Christian): the "exquisite dead guy" is Christ. He's on display in all the churches, and it wouldn't be too far a stretch to have an image of Christ rotating in a display case somewhere. The singer is imagining that Christ is appearing to him in unusual ways: he thinks that Christ is talking to him, and sees him floating in the air outside his apartment building. He imagines he hears Christ asking him, "How am I supposed to let you know the way I feel about you?", i.e. "I've been trying for centuries to tell you that I love you, but you people won't listen."

Reinforcing this could be the rhythm phrase that is used repeatedly throughout the song. I read it as: BA BA da, BA BA BA da da. Try treating this as a Morse Code message, with BA = long, and da = short. There are a few ways to interpret this:

  • BA BA da = dash dash dot = 'G'
  • BA BA BA da da = dash dash dash dot dot = '8'


  • BA BA da = dash dash dot = 'G'
  • BA BA BA = dash dash dash = 'O'
  • da da = dot dot = 'I'


  • BA BA da = dash dash dot = 'G'
  • BA BA = dash dash = 'M'
  • BA da da = dash dot dot = 'D'

With a little bit of poetic license, I like to think the message is "G O D", with the final BA being used in both the 2nd and 3rd letter:

  • BA BA da = dash dash dot = 'G'
  • BA BA (BA) = dash dash dash = 'O'
  • (BA) da da = dash dot dot = 'D'

It's a stretch, but possible. What do you think? – Wdfarmer 11:15, 19 July 2009 (UTC)

I was just going to simply erase Wdfarmer's interpretation, but couldn't stop laughing. --DJose 20:28, January 26, 2011

... and a follow-up:[edit]

Have you noticed that "How am I supposed to let you know the way I feel about you" is preceded the first time by a gentle harp, and then it's accompanied by a blasting organ when it's repeated? Those instruments fit in well with a religious theme. If Jesus is speaking, might we also hear the golden harps of heaven? — Wdfarmer 07:30, 16 February 2010 (UTC)

Interpretation 9[edit]

Vladimir Lenin? He was apparently preserved after his death. The part that goes "How'm I s'posed to let you know the way I feel about you?" could be about a Communist who cannot describe how he/she feels about Lenin, or about the same person wishing he/she could talk to Lenin. --(mm) 19:16, November 12, 2011


I enjoy the dissonant harmonies in the vocals. The Buh Buh...etc.... (E-D#), (E-F#), (B-A), (E-D#). --Mkpiano 13:01, February 1, 2012

Unintentional Death[edit]

Even though the meaning of this song is sort of laid out on the ground, I want to take a stab at it. Here it goes.

The singer of this song accidentally caused the death of a coworker of his (they both probably work in construction or some other dangerous line of work), and now he is haunted by his ghost. He keeps seeing his corpse (the "hanging from a skyhook" part makes me think that the dead guy was accidentally hung). The bridge is from the point of view of the dead guy. He doesn't blame the singer for his death, even though the singer feels otherwise, but doesn't know how to tell him.


This song feels like a sketch by Kids in the Hall. Not a specific one, but it definitely has similar vibes to the work of that group.

A Dead Famous Person[edit]

This song has always to me seemed like a song mourning the fact that a famous person that the narrator(maybe even Linnell himself) liked a lot or idolized. The person is dead, and so Narrator can never tell him how he feels about them. Can never express how his life was changed by them or their work, and can never impart upon him how exquisite they see them as. The verses, "hanging from a sky hook", and "rotating in his display case" to me just seem like the darkly whimsical word/themeplay that Linnell is famous for.

I think this interpretation came to me because this song makes me think of Lou Reed, and how much I wish I I could talk to him and just tell him how much his music has affected my life. But I can't. He's an exquisite, dead... guy

Interpretation Somethingteen[edit]

I recently had a thought about this song. We know the backstory of its inspiration coming from the Exquisite Corpse game, but upon reflection I think the song directly invites us, in a clever sort of way, to play it with Them. The song's verses are really short, the first two just little snapshots about the/an exquisite dead guy (display case, high rise) over a cello. Then after the bridge, intro reprise, etc., it comes back for a final verse with the cello part, though this time with no lyrics. It dawned on me this might have been an explicit choice so the listener could imagine their own exquisite dead guy verse there, just like the game is played.