Interpretations:Pencil Rain

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Final exam[edit]

Have you ever endured a three hour long final exam?

Then you know what this song is about! —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 08:19, January 16, 2005

This song, to me, refers to taking standardized tests. The final verse is the moment that the proctors tell the students, "Pencils down," and they all clatter to the desks. At that moment the test is over, and the fate of the student is decided. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 23:04, April 1, 2005
Hear hear! —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 08:37, April 17, 2006

Morse Code[edit]

In the instrumental bridge, the morse code in the background translates to "Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores," which is a line from the spanish song "Cielito Lindo," or "Pretty Little Sky." The morse lyric reads, in english, "Ay, ay, ay, ay, sing and don't cry." This seems to relate to the song Pencil Rain because this lyric is telling the sky not to cry, or not to RAIN. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 17:06, March 8, 2005

Interpretation 3[edit]

Taken more literally, the song is about soldiers awaiting the start of a battle in which they are expected to die. The grandiose music and expressions of pagentry and nobility belie the fact the soldiers can do little except wait to be shot at. The narrator further adds to the dissonance by substituting pencils for bullets (both are filled with "lead"). In the end, their "nobile cause" is merely "perishing in the pencil rain", or being killed. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Rljenk (talkcontribs) 15:43, April 2, 2005

"Finale of Seem"[edit]

"Finale of Seem" is a line from the poem "The Emperor of Ice Cream" by Wallace Stevens. The poem is all greek to me, but it seems to be about death, which would fall into the examples of soldiers awaiting death (or test-takers awaiting the death of future dreams).

See if you can make more sense of the following poem than I can:

"Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem. (' be..' is not a typo)
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered three fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream."

ALSO: "The possible dream" seems to be a pun from the famous Don Quixote song "Dream the Impossible Dream", but since it's just about passing a test this dream is totaly possible. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 23:21, October 13, 2005

"Let be be finale of seem" is indeed a line from "The Emperor of Ice Cream" by Wallace Stevens. It's just basically saying if it seems a certain way, let it be that way. Punctuated, you might have "Let 'be' be finale of seem." In other words, if it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, please God let it be a duck! Applejuicefool 21:39, 24 January 2007 (UTC)
Incidentally, this has one of my favorite bits of TMBG wordplay "They look out for number 2, the heraldry of the Pencil Rain." A nice juxtaposition of the Number 2 pencil and the old adage "Look out for number one." Applejuicefool 21:41, 24 January 2007 (UTC)
My understanding of the phrase (in both the Wallace poem and the TMBG song) is that we are facing a reality that is unavoidable, and can take no solace in any comforting illusions. "Seem" - appearance - contrasts with "be" - things as they are. "Be" emphatically terminates what merely seems to be. In the poem the obtrusive reality is the cold body of a dead woman; in the song it is impending death via a rain of wood and graphite. I don't think that anything else in the poem overlaps with or helps explain the song. --Nehushtan (talk) 00:13, 27 June 2020 (EDT)

Interpretation 5[edit]

I imagine an orange, muddy river in Nam, with men shooting, shouting. Suddenly, both sides can hear a clatter of pencils arriving from the skies. Out of sheer curiosity, all stop firing and gaze in amazement and horror as thousands of pencils fall from the sky, litter the ground, snap, clatter, and create a nerveracking experience. All the men retreat, but the raid causes many casualty. Afterwards, graves are set up for all the lives lost, each decorated with a no. 2 pencil.

Yeah, I think this song is about a rain of pencils during a war. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 00:40, January 11, 2006


It's about people who didn't put their hands inside the puppet head. The idea of being subsumed into the bureaucracy of a large corporation is comforting to many college graduates, but it repulses many with artistic temperaments. --Nehushtan 01:30, 27 Jan 2006 (EST)

For example, Salvador Dali named a painting The Average Bureaucrat to trumpet his scorn for those bourgeois who expend their strongest years muddling through the workaday world. Imagine Dali being told by a high school counselor that he should get an MBA or a safe government desk job, and in response painting the scenes described in the lyrics of this song. --Nehushtan (talk) 22:28, 2 September 2019 (EDT)

Interpretation 7[edit]

It appears to me that "finale of seem" would mean the end of what one believes to be normal, and the beginning of a new way that seems absurd from this side of reality. For instance, a rain of pencils falling from the sky. Bacon warrior 00:12, 28 Feb 2006 (CST)

Running of the bulls[edit]

My friend just takes the song literally. (He says it's his favorite TMBG song EVER, I'd put it in my top 10). There are pencils falling from the sky, and it's dangerous. It doesn't happen too often, and when it does, it's like the Running of the Bulls in Spain. People run around in it, and people die. But like the Running of the Bulls, such a death is honorable. I see his point. --jkazoo 01:50, April 2, 2006

Men going to war[edit]

Pencil Rain is clearly about the honor of men going to war. A group of infantrymen begin watching the "yonder blue" (a reference to the airforce) for an air raid. Pencils are the shape of missiles and symbolize them in the song. After the air raid is over and many people and buildings are destroyed. No one who knows about the attack can "think of a nobler cause" than to die in battle. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Rjpowe2 (talkcontribs) 20:18, April 13, 2006

Toy soldiers[edit]

A bit random, but what I always imagine is all these toy soldiers lining up for battle and then some kid throws pencils at all of them and kills them. Just a little game coming to life. ~AgentChronon 15:03, August 23, 2006

I imagine a surrealist scene where pencils are literally falling from the sky (I picture a Dali-esque painting). Why this is happening or even why the soldiers are there is beyond me. The soldiers seem to have been sent there by their COs to fight and die against something they clearly can't fight. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 13:36, June 25, 2007
Just look at a pack of green army soldiers - it has no other meaning than that - but feel free to explore. Idiots. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:18, September 27, 2012

Paperpushing jobs[edit]

I think it has to do with peoples dreams dying while they work at shitty paperpushing jobs. While people might look at it as a waste the anthropomorphized dreams themselves realize that the job needs to be done and that sacrifices must be made. Those that make the ultimate sacrifice are given the highest honor. I don't agree with them, I think if you have a dream and you don't at least try to fulfil it you've given it the worst death ever, but perhaps they (the dreams) see it differently? --StarkRG 10:20, 22 September 2006 (UTC)

I have always taken this song to mean that someone feels unfulfilled with their job as a pencil pusher, yet their officemates think this is the best work available and they should feel "noble" in their supporting role of corporate bureaucracy. —Preceding unsigned comment added by Moondog (talkcontribs) 01:35, October 2, 2014

Interpretation 12[edit]

I always thought of the imagery this song createsand imagined that it was describing a scene where som esort of meanial office workers (or school children) were rebeling against their situation by standing on top of the building and throwing all their pencils off the roof, showing that they're taking control of their lives again. When I hear this song I magine this happening in slow motion. But then again, I never read into these things that deeply. --Sarcasmagasm 19:32, 4 November 2006 (UTC)

Antiwar song[edit]

The world's subtlest antiwar song. Remove all the references to "first lead" and "number two", and you've got a song about how great and noble it is to die for your country, complete with the "Dulce Et Decorum Est" ending:

And none who have witnessed all
can think of a nobler cause
than perishing in
The Pencil Rain

But, of course, it's not about war. It's about pencils falling from the sky. Turning war into something so absurd just serves to make it seem insane and worthless, which is what it is. --Aidan 19:59, January 19, 2007

But "first lead" is a double entendre, if it's part of a war. They're looking for the first gunshots, or the first blast of shrapnel. --Thrawn 06:40, September 30, 2007

Interpretation 14[edit]

"Live by the sword, die by the sword", "The pen is mightier than the sword", "Pencil Rain" sounds to me like a literary parallel to the "Hail of Lead", with the doulbe entendre on "lead". So the song is about literary struggle, or literary involvement/participation in a struggle.

"They look out for number two" sounds like a contrast to the saying, "look out for number one", so maybe it is about the traditional idealistic role of press as watchdog over the government. (Maybe not, though - in the lyrics, the ones looking out for number two are the ones bombarded by pencils, not the ones hurling pencils...) —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 21:59, January 15, 2009

Interpretation 15[edit]

i think the song is about your (song)writing being critiqued after release. they describe the period after release, awaiting the barrage of public and "expert" response, and the beginning moments of the slaughter. it all seems like such a silly process, one that they might be giants were never really about -- writing primarily (or at all) for the sake of the opinions of others (at least not of establishments or masses). it's such a silly thing to do, and tmbg parodies this by dually characterizing it as weighty, important, yet still a mere pageant, a pretense, a joke. kudos to the way they lustily go to bat for the 'worthwhile' viewpoint, a sarcastic moral encouragement/validation, a mockery role-play. i think they don't actually believe it's a noble cause -- living for that fray, poising your self and your work toward it, mobilizing your mental life around it, like a moronic soldier has to do to believe that he's walking into the Soldiers' Mess, murdering and being murdered, for a good reason. so ... ready yourself for the slaughter by caring (unskillfully) about what people think. --rml 12:03, March 5, 2009

Interpretation 16[edit]

A friend told me one time about how his father said that some time ago during a war, planes would fly over heard and drop rods of metal. Apparently it was called "pencil rain", however, research of this has not turned up any conclusive evidence pointing to this. Especially since my friend's father was an anti war hippie and my friend is a gullible jerk. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 02:28, May 6, 2009

Interpretation 17[edit]

Both "pencil rain" and "hail of bullets" are phrases that involve lead, precipitation, and (probably) lots of death. Drawing a conclusion from there should be fairly simple. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 03:38, December 26, 2010


yes the song is clearly using war imagery, but doesn't the use of the strange pencil imagery mean it has to be about more than just war, or simply expressing an anti-war sentiment??

maybe rml is onto something. maybe the imagery of the barrage of pencils like bullets could signify being attacked or criticized in writing. people writing about what's wrong or right with your work. this is something that can unfortunately make or break (kill) a person's career. the soldiers are the artists (or whoever) putting their creations out in the world and having them attacked. nothing nobler than perishing in the pencil rain?

then again maybe it's a way of talking about what wars are really about. pencils could signify the ideas behind the wars, propagandistic writing.... it's one idea (e.g. capitalism) versus another (communism). maybe the song is saying how ridiculous it is to be killed for ideas, that it's these ideas that are killing soldiers, not bullets.

or maybe the pencils are the ones with which the higher-up commanding officers are writing down the orders and strategies, drawing on maps and things like that. dealing out death by pencil as though it were a board game.

cheers to everybody! —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 15:14, February 8, 2012

Laughing in the face of death[edit]

Sorry this is so long, but IMHO it takes a bit of explanation to understand why this song is pure genius.

Like many TMBG songs, they take a familiar and "accepted" theme, and develop it with a metaphor so ludicrously incongruous you can't help but laugh*. This refusal to take themselves seriously--even when dealing with very serious issues--is quite refreshing in a music scene dominated by rich privileged white Americans whining with teenage angst about how hard and/or depressing life is in the first world. (Of course there are plenty of transcendent exceptions, but still.)

This may be best of these dead-pan-mock-serious songs, because it undercuts not just a hyperdramatic theme (the Horror of War) but does it using famous and academic imagery beloved of pointy-headed intellectual prudes like me. It starts with a quote from Wallace Stevens' "The Emperor of Ice Cream", a poem many English profs love because it trendily endorses atheism, hedonism, and does it in extremely opaque language that takes a lot of training to penetrate (for an excellent, and reasonably clear explanation of this difficult poem, see this essay ). The song ends with a line that echoes a famous quote so academic it is still usually said in Latin: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("Sweet and honorable it is to die for the fatherland.") This phrase has been further adopted into intellectual circles by the heartbreaking poems of Wilfred Owen, whose poem of the same title mocks this idea by describing in first hand detail the horror of WWI soldiers choking to death on their own disintegrating lungs during mustard gas attacks (Dulche et Decorum est, according to the website this is the 57th most popular poem ever written in the English language).

Against this formidable actual and intellectual machinery, TMBG offers us not the horror of a bombing raid, or the standard heavy-metal vision of nuclear apocalypse, but a hail of pencils--number 2 pencils no less. Using the same poetic language as the great poems listed above ("the pageant", "the heraldry", "thunderous clatter", "the call eternal"), they sketch the hilarious image of battle-hardened soldiers cowering as little yellow pencils dink off their pith helmets. It is a fake-out on such a scale it's amazing they tried it all, and truly astounding that they pulled it off. As if using Stevens, Owen and the Hs of W to describe such a silly scene isn't enough they add funny puns ("the first lead", "look out for number two"), and their choice of image is even a subtle dig back at the critics as others have noted, implying that the work of a music critic is like a soldier throwing pencils at the armed-and-armored enemy.

In other words, this is a three level joke: the actual puns in the lyrics, the undercutting of a great aesthetic theme, and the devastating counter to their critics. Amazingly, all three levels are funny. And that is why, as I said at the beginning, this song is pure genius.

Examples of TMBG's charmingly unpretentious symbols of great art themes:

  • The artist isolated by his own success: "I got hit by a mink car"
  • The constant reliability of love: "Blue canary in the outlet by the light-switch / who watches over you"
  • The insignificance of one life in the great universe: "Person man, person man / hit on the head with a frying pan / lives his live in a garbage can"
  • The need of artists to follow their own passion: "Everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads" and also "Be you / Be what you're like / Be like yourself / And so I'm having a wonderful time but I'd rather be whistling in the dark."
  • Adversity is necessary to develop a strong character: "No one in this world ever gets all they want / And that is beautiful / Everybody dies frustrated and sad / And that is beautiful"
  • etc...

—Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 14:52, August 10, 2012

a reference to tall ship warfare?[edit]

Some (maybe most) of the nastiest injuries and deaths in tall ship battles came not from the cannonballs themselves but from the splinters and shards they kicked up on impact, of the ships' wooden construction. This song makes me think of sailors going into battle knowing that soon the vicious wood will be flying all around them, and knowing that on a wooden ship there really isn't anywhere to hide from it. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 14:16, October 18, 2013

Pencil rain as means of warfare[edit]

Someone hit the nail on the head. I had seen photos of the nasty device and recognized it as a first World War munition.

A quick Google search brought up the Flechette[1].

Good Day. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 18:01, December 16, 2013

This song refers to actual weapons used in WWI - Flechette (Aerial Dart). These little aerial darts pre-date machineguns and were use to murderous effect from about 1915. They were usually bundled and inserted in a galvanized metal can with a trap door on the bottom. The aviator (or observer/bombadier) leaned over the side with the can and twisted a handle to open the door and launch the hundreds of darts. As might be imagined, the flechettes did significant damage as they passed through helmets, pinned feet to the ground and even killed horses. There are different patterns for the flechettes and the one pictured here is found more than some of the others. About 12 cm in length and 7 mm in diameter. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 15:12, December 2, 2014

The Big Sleep[edit]

From chapter 27 of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep:
"The light hit pencils of rain and made silver wires of them." —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 00:11, December 2, 2015

Interpretation 23[edit]

My interpretation is that Pencil Rain is about soldiers waiting to die at the hands of an enemy bombardment. The moment of waiting seems "eternal" for some and "insane" for others. They await "the first lead". The "finale of seem" refers to the end of the mere appearance (seeming) of soldiers, and transitioning into "being" soldiers by fulfilling their true purpose, which is to die for their country. The "pencils" are a metaphor for bullets or artillery shells. Both have a similar shape and are sometimes colloquially referred to as being "lead".

The point of the song (in my opinion) is to highlight the futility and tragedy of war by contrasting society's perception of war with the actual reality. The song -sounds- like an inspiring and patriotic ballad about the honor of dying in war, but the scene it describes is one of hopelessness and meaningless death. We see dying in war as honorable and valorous, but many thousands of soldiers are killed without ever even getting the opportunity to fight, their lives sacrificed for nothing. The song tries to illustrate the absurdity of sending men to slaughter and calling it a "noble cause". —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 04:49, June 16, 2016

Looking Out For #1[edit]

... was a bestselling self-help book in the late 1970s. --Nehushtan (talk) 00:41, 3 September 2019 (EDT)


I think the song is about the masses or the population of a nation facing the consiquences of the mishaps of bureaucracy. It could be literal, being a military blunder, or and economic or social one. Thats just my opinion.—Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 10:08, Jan 20, 2022 (EST)

Vietnam dichotomy[edit]

The Johns were born in 1959 and 1960 and grew up with the Vietnam War. This was the last US war in which young men were drafted: removed from their families and friends and forced to fight. But those in college were granted draft exemptions, possibly because attending college was not as common as it is today: in 1960, less than half of Americans graduated high school and only 8% graduated college.

Doing well on exams and putting in years of academic work was literally an alternative to being sent to the jungle to be shot at.

This isn't the only layer to this song, but I don't think you can understand it without knowing that filling in the right circles on the SAT for six hours was for some Americans the way you avoided having a helmet strapped on your head and a rifle put in your hands. The song's in part a mockery, perhaps gentle, of the rigors of the classroom, by comparison to a very real war. Linnell sang this for the first time just eleven years after the Vietnam War ended. For many young people in the 1960s, this escape was their dream, and it was possible.