Interpretations:The Mesopotamians

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All the interpretations and notes about this song are fantastic (and fantastically detailed) but I love taking the song exactly at its word- four ancient, possibly immortal, Mesopotamian kings just rocking it out in the modern age. Maybe bumping into the two other long-lived individuals from literal interpretations of "O, Do Not Forsake Me" and "2082", offering solace and hope for what sounds like impossibly depressed or stressed never-dying people.

Despite coming from different eras and kingdoms each member of the band does, after all, have a great deal in common. I'm sure they're having a great time relaxing, writing and playing music in complete obscurity- half hoping someone notices their completely absurd existence and remembers their individual ancient legacies, or maybe just their songs- after being responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives and after seemingly being alive for many, many centuries. "Hey, man, I thought that you were dead", right. They're the Mesopotamians. They literally never died.

I love this song -- I broke it down in detail here: The Mesopotamians

I was reminded of this song while listening to the Beastie Boys' "Shadrach," in which the three MCs compare themselves to the three Jewish captives of the Babylonians:

We're just 3 M.C.'s and we're on the go
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego

I agree with the interps that mention this sounding like a typical band theme song. I think in some ways, the song has actual parallels with the Monkees. I bring it up because TMBG often strike me as Monkees fans, what with the live playing of the theme song and the sampling of the show's dialog in the second short Mesopotamians video.

Half believing there will sometime come a day / Someone gives a damn could illustrate the feelings of Nesmith especially in the whole Monkees franchise. While Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, and a whole team of other popular songwriters were cranking out bubblegum tunes for the Monkees show and studio musicians on the East coast were laying down most of the backing tracks on the first two albums, Nesmith became increasingly frustrated with the whole operation. His tunes over the course of the Monkees' lifespan as a band became more and more experimental and, in my opinion, interesting, and were very much a departure from the "Last Train to Clarksville" sound. He was looking for respect as musician rather than status as a pop icon.

Interesting side note, in "The Monkees On Tour", Nesmith mentions feeling that, even though the Monkees had gained incredible amounts of fame, he hadn't "made it" yet and was still waiting to do so. And no one's ever heard of our band might reference, not the Monkees' fame, but people's reluctance to accept them as a real band, even when they began writing their own music and producing their own songs.

The Beatles interps make more sense, but a few things Monkees-related stuck out to me.

~ Sam

The Beatles theories are all the more interesting in that one could parallel the made up Mesopotamians band with the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper.

Interesting that someone brought up John Lennon not wearing his glasses in the early Beatles days. Linnell does the same thing.

Really great points from everyone here. Just wanted to mention that, by my count, this is at least the fourth time TMBG have ended an album with an apocalyptic song referring to life in a band, after "Rhythm Section Want Ad," "The End of the Tour," and "Working Undercover for the Man." It's also at least the second end-song to refer to a car crash, after "End of the Tour," or the third if you count "Road Movie to Berlin," which mentions death and drunk driving... sinisterscrawl 00:16, 5 October 2007 (UTC)

Okay, history buffs! Feel free to step in and wiki-correct me here. :)

Ashurbanipal was an Assyrian king, famed for sponsoring and building a giant library of tablets from all over the region, a radical undertaking for the time. He was the last great king of Assyria.

also, Mohenjo-Daro is a tel/mound left over from a city (now in Pakistan)that was already 4,000 years old when Ashurbanipal was alive. So the insult was that he had a really out of date haircut. haha.

Sargon could be either Sargon the Akkadian king, or another later Assyrian ruler who reigned when Assyrian was at its largest, slightly before Ashurbanipal. I vote it's the more famous Assyrian Sargon, because he is mentioned in the bible as the disperser of the Ten Tribes of Isreal. Also, my dictionary only mentions the later Sargon, suggesting to me that he's the important one for English-speakers, anyway.

Hammurabi was a Babylonian king, famous for being one of the first rulers to codify civil and criminal law. Instead of allowing escalating vengence, Hammurabi's Code worked on the "eye for an eye" premise, such that destruction to balance out wrong-doing must be demonstrably in like kind and measure. This is mentioned, again, in the Bible, when Jesus tells his followers that the traditional method (i.e., Hammurabi's) of eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth, should be replaced with forgiveness of trespasses.

Gilgamesh, as is mentioned below, is semi-mythical, but might have been an actual king of Sumer, since he is in the list of kings from the Ashurbanipal library at Nineveh. There is an epic poem about him and his adventures, The Epic of Gilgamesh - his mother was supposedly a goddess, and he was reputed to have super-human strength. Think Hercules.

Hahahaha! Now, what does this lyric mean? Consider, he had lots of kings from which to choose .... ~Christina Miller, July 2007

Some great interpretations below - what interests me is the sound of the song. Sounding alternatively like Frank Black (at the beginning) to becoming easily a Giants song but with the Beach Boys doing backing vocals its a real mix. Flans seems intent on singing like a beach boy of late, see the cover of Caroline no and the regular live cover of Hey Mr Tambourine Man. The downside is that it makes the song a little too much like a pastiche. A little bit too sweet, the guy below is on the right track. It really is a 40 something version of the Monkees theme, and is a update of Hi we're the Replacements. Another song from the Else that needs to be heard live so it can really breathe. (Mr Tuck)

Probably inspired by the challenge of incorporating forgotten mesopotamian kings into a band theme song (ala The Monkees theme, The replacements, etc). It may also be semi-autobiographical as it discusses a band that no-one has heard of, and ponders the question of how they will be remembered after they are gone (these kings are forgotten by most except those who study mesopotamian history).

Looks like the mesopotamians are an alternate reality Beatles. At least the bit at the end about thinking the bass player died in a wreck. I'll leave it to beatles fans to figure out how to apply the rest of the song to them.

"Hey, man, I thought that you were dead
I thought you crashed your car"
"No, man, I've been right here this whole time playing bass guitar
For the Mesopotamians"

Funniest part of the song for me. It's a reference to the old "Paul is dead" Beatles hoax.

You're absolutely right. Cool find! ~ magbatz 17:23, 10 June 2007 (UTC)

This song, to me, is a semi-autobiographical song about TMBG. They're a band that, yeah, not many people have heard of and are extremely underrated, but I really like the tone of the song. Even if they never get anywhere, they'll just have fun along the way and be proud of who they are.

I wouldn't want to impose politics on a TMBG song where there aren't any (and it looks like there really aren't on this song), but it IS kind of interesting that the ancient area of Mesopotamia was located where the modern nation of Iraq is now located. If not about the war itself, it could very well be about the regions rich and incredible past, often overshadowed and forgotten when compared to its modern troubles and tragedies. - Stiddy

The song feels a quite like the Monkee's theme, with just the bass and high-hat for some of the verses, kicking in with the full band for chorus. Seems to be a tribute to band theme songs.

Dairhenien's Interpretation:

The biggest question to me is whether the song is an anachronistic look at four Mesopotamians who have a band, or four modern guys who have taken on Mesopotamian identities. The answer, as far as I'm concerned, is somewhere in the middle.

Then they wouldn't understand a word we say,
So we'll scratch it all down into the clay
Half believing there will sometime come a day
Someone gives a damn
Maybe when the concrete has crumbled to sand

This passage seems to be a reference to cuneiform, which was written by pressing a special wedge shaped tool into clay tablets. Much cuneiform writing was temporary, but it could be saved permanently by baking the clay in a kiln. By the same token, an unsuccessful band makes recordings, hoping that eventually, someone will care enough to listen.

The kingdom where we secretly reign (And no one's ever heard of our band)
The land where we invisibly rule

Here, we find that the narrator of the song has grand notions about his group, identifying themselves at the top of the world, even if no one else knows it.

"Hey, man, I thought that you were dead
I thought you crashed your car"
"No, man, I've been right here this whole time playing bass guitar
For the Mesopotamians"

The popular perception is that the Mesopotamian people are no longer around, but they are--their decendents still live, and still occupy their land between the two rivers. By the same token, the band is still around, despite popular perception, still playing as they were all along.

(Heck, their descendents occupy parts of California! [~Christina Miller, July 2007])

Musically, this song is a straightforward tribute to band theme songs of the 60s, typified by the Monkees, but also "cartoon" bands like the Archies or Josie and the Pussycats. Lyrically, it's the story of an unsuccessful band, recast into an historical context.

Dairhenien 18:25, 23 May 2007 (UTC)

This, to me, sounds like a song that grew out of a conversation... In particular, the type of conversation one would have with Sarah Vowell. Remember the Gigantic DVD commentary track where Flans and Sarah were comparing American historical figures to rock historical figures? Comparing historical figures to an unknown band just seems like the next logical step to me. --TVsKyle 20:36, 25 May 2007 (UTC)

I don't have insightful to say, really (not after all the nice interps above!) but I feel the need to comment on how much I love how "Ashurbanipal" gets to be a pun after the haircut line. - Dragonkiri

Okay, what's the pun? [~Christina Miller July 2007]
Yes please, what pun? This drove me crazy. -Jordan
As in, "Hey, pal..."

The T-shirt would seem to suggest that Hammurabi was the one who had "been right [t]here [that] whole time playing bass guitar" (I'm going to pretend like that wasn't a coincidence and was intended to give us further insight into the meaning of the song). This would imply, therefore, that he was the one believed to be in a fatal car crash. Although I'm no historian, I do not believe the real Hammurabi was ever in an automobile accident, so this seems like more evidence that the song is about a modern band, rather than the historical Mesopotamians -- unless "car" is a metaphor for "chariot" or some other ancient means of transportation... which I doubt. Discuss amongst yourselves. --Andy7498

Interestingly, chariot is often translated into 'car', especially in the Mahabharata. This story is filled with "Great Car Warriors" such as Arjuna. However, I do not think this was intended int this song. --JeshuaBratman 05:42, 31 August 2007 (UTC)

Oh hey: "Then they wouldn't understand a word we say / So we'll scratch it all down into the clay / Half believing there will sometime come a day / Someone gives a damn"

Reference to Why Must I Be Sad?, where the narrator writes everything down in a spiral notebook (in the hopes that some day someone else will feel that low)? - j2

Just a note that Gilgamesh is more of a mythical/hero figure than a historical figure, though like the others he is also a king, in the myth. --Ken K.

They know they're Mesopotamians, but they don't know they're dead.

The kingdom where we secretly reign (And no one's ever heard of our band)
The land where we invisibly rule

While obscurity is a major theme in the song, I think this bit could be about the impact the mesopotamians had on history and the present day* despite the fact they're rarely remembered in popular conciousness.

Taken as a metaphor, the band hopes to live on through their influence, if not through fame.

(*Whatever that may be. I'm one of those who have barely even heard of The Mesopotamians.)

Before reading, note that I am not fully convinced myself that this dialog was intended by TMBG, or is even correct, but it is a fun way to look at the album as a whole. My interpretation is based on the premises put forth by Milhouse911 in his/her interpretation of the song Impressed.

After reading Milhouse911's impressive interpretation of this song I have looked for similar themes in other songs on the album. The basic theme I see is a dialog about the transition from They Might Be Giant's limited fan base for 25+ years, and seeming carelessness about popularity into an attempt to move toward the mainstream; especially by working with mainstream producers for The Else. This dialog is put forward from several voices, each showing a different piece of the argument from one another, but as a whole creating a full picture of the Johns' real thoughts on the subject.

For a summary of my interpretation:

1. I'm Impressed introduces the idea to the audience just as TMBG themselves were introduced to the concept when they first thought of working with a mainstream producer. Read more about this interpretation of Impressed by Milhouse911.

2. Climbing the Walls, along with the original argument from Impressed, are pieces of the dialog arguing for going more mainstream.

3. Feign amnesia, along with slight words of encouragement from Take Out the Trash, and The Cap'm, provide a regretful voice, and argument against going for more mainstream.

4. The Mesopotamians wraps up the dialog as seen from the collective consciousness of the band, much like #1. This song portrays a conclusion where although voice #2 seemingly wins out, TMBG does not forget it's background or voice #3's argument.

(see my interpretations in these 4 songs)

As for The Mesopotamians, as I said above, provides a conclusion to the argument, and shows the collective feelings of TMBG on the subject.

This interpretation is best embedded in the lyrics:

"We've been driving around From one end of this town to the other and back But no one's ever seen us (No one's ever seen us) Driving our Econoline van (And no one's ever heard of our band) And no one's ever heard of our band"

- This piece sympathizes with argument #2, agreeing that TMBG has been around forever, but no one knows of them (which isn't quite true because I have been a fan for years, as have most of you reading this). I see this more as meaning they have not been mainstream, which is certainly true.

"Then they wouldn't understand a word we say So we'll scratch it all down into the clay Half believing there will sometime come a day Someone gives a damn Maybe when the concrete has crumbled to sand"

- Now this is my favorite piece. This part is describing TMBG's policies in the past. No one (the mainstream) understood TMBG's songs because they were too wonderfully odd, intelligent, and artistic for the mainstream. They scratched the songs down into the clay, half believing that someday their songs would be appreciated by the mainstream and they would become much more famous. But this will never happen except when the concrete has crumbled to sand.

"The Mesopotamish sun is beating down And making cracks in the ground But there's nowhere else to stand In Mesopotamia (No one's ever seen us) The kingdom where we secretly reign (And no one's ever heard of our band) The land where we invisibly rule"

- This piece sympathizes with the other argument – the one put forth in Feign Amnesia while still giving the first argument a voice. It doesn't matter that no one has ever heard of TMBG because they secretly rule. In other words they are a wonderful band with wonderful music despite not being well known. Being well known does not matter if they already rule their kingdom.

"This is my last stick of gum I'm going to cut it up so everybody else gets some"

- This could mean that The Else contains a variety of classic TMBG music along with more mainstream songs such as this one. They are cutting up the album so both the fans and the mainstream can appreciate it. Hopefully the first line does really suggest that this will be the last TMBG album! Of course not. "We're the Mesopotamians"

- We're They Might Be Giants, and despite trying something new, we will not forsake our old originality or our fans. Both arguments will be respected and that is that.

--JeshuaBratman 05:42, 31 August 2007 (UTC)

Hunh. That's pretty ingenious. ~Christina, October 10, 2007

Like "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", this song centers on an ancient name for an area of the Middle East.

I always believed it's about the Beatles.
Sargon is John (Lennon). He is the leader (in the chorus he is the first Mesopotamian to be named). I think that he is the one who gets "insulted" by Ashurbanipal. Though John did not have an obsolete haircut, he did have glasses. In the earlier Beatles days, John took his glasses off for concerts, interviews etc. because he found them embarrassing.
Hammurabi is Paul. He is the "second" Mesopotamian (again, note the order in the chorus) and the one who plays bass guitar on the t-shirt. The "I thought that you were dead" part is specifically about Hammurabi/Paul (the Paul is dead theory).
Ashurbanipal is Ringo. (This is evidenced by the t-shirt.) Note that Ashurbanipal is the only one who doesn't get any piece of Sargon's stick of gum. Ringo often felt excluded because he was the last one to become a band member.
Finally, Gilgamesh is George. He is only mentioned in the chorus - maybe because he is the "silent one" who doesn't need (and want) much attention. The Gilgamesh character is semi-mythical, another hint that he's George (for he was the one most interested in Indian religion and mythology.)

Some parts sound irritating if you actually think of it as being about the Beatles. But remember, you should not take it all literally, especially not if it's TMBG. Lines like "No-one's ever heard of our band" or the whole thing about not being understood are about the fact that although everyone knows the Beatles, few people have taken the Beatles' peace message to heart.

Neat! Okay, Ringo/Ashurbanipal criticizes his friend's haircut - Starr is famously quoted as saying that when the hubbub of the Beatles is over, he'd like to have a chain of hair salons. So as a hair stylist, he'd be interested in hair. Also, I think the bassist thought to be dead in a car crash - agree, that has to be Paul. ~Christina, October 10, 2007

Heya everybody! I just got The Else a week ago, and wow, this song is awesome-sauce. Anyway, I'm taking an ancient history course right now and I'm pretty sure that the Sargon that TMBG is talking about is the early Akkadian king from Agade, who ruled around 2350 BC. He is well-known to historians as creating the world's very first empire, and this fits nicely into the whole Beatles theory, as he and Hammurabi (1792-1750BC) are well known as the first two uniters of the fiercely independent city-states of Mesopotamia and both hold similar status in Mesopotamian history. Also, of course, Sargon definetely came first, just like John Lennon, then Hammurabi. These two figures may also represent the two Johns. Hard to say, but I like the interpretation of this as a recounting of TMBG's history. Anyway, hope that clears things up. Remember Christina, you asked for it. :P

                                      - Daniel McFarlane 

(September 2007)

Ha ha- I did, didn't I? The Beatles explanation is clever; I like it.

Sargon is left-handed. Does that make him Paul, or Flansburgh? This could get downright labyrinthine. --Afterward 16:57, 3 October 2007 (UTC)

Just a point of interest, Paul is only left-handed on guitar and bass. He's actually right-handed in all other matters. Conversely, Ringo was a right-handed when playing instruments but was squirrel, I mean, left-handed otherwise. Isn't that cool?! I thought so. :b --Luke 15:04, 8 October 2007 (UTC)

I met a traveller from an antique land/ Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,/ Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown / And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command/ Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things, / The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed. / And on the pedestal these words appear: / "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" / Nothing beside remains: round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far away. -Percy Bysshe Shelley

Read it and think about it instead of deleting it automatically. (Don't worry about copyright issues, it has been in the public domain for at least a hundred years.)

I feel this album, more than any other, has some legitimate political undertones. I'm Impressed seems to be a criticism of the administration and The Shadow Government has some clear political scrutiny. I don't want to suggest that the entirety of The Mesopotamians is political, but there are a couple lines that made me think. "The Mesopotamish sun is beating down/And making cracks in the ground/But there's nowhere else to stand". This line seems to be beautifully poetic and metaphorical, and seems to come out of nowhere in a mostly humorous and fun song. But given the current war in Iraq (a.k.a. Mesopotamia), I feel its necessary to give some credence to the idea that this particular line may be political. Then there's the line "The kingdom where we secretly reign/The land where we invisibly rule". Many critics of the war say that the U.S. put in place a government to carry out the will of the American government. One could go as far as to say we invisibly rule the nation. I tend to dislike political songs, but if song was intended to convey a vague message I think it's beautiful. Throwing a few powerful lines into an otherwise absurd song is brilliant. Especially if you further obscure it by using the word "Mesopotamish" in the middle of it. I could be off base, but it's the type of thing the new TMBG would do.

As much as I'd love another 1986-1994 TMBG-like album, it's never going to happen any artist...ever. But I do love this new direction they're going in. As long as I still have my Flood and Apollo 18 albums, I'll gladly accept this new stuff.

-Twisted Zero

Interesting to note that at least the first two, Sargon and Hammurabi both conquered Mesopotamia (Iraq) at some point. Also, it seems the Epic of Gilgamesh was originally written on clay tablets. Just throwing these two points out since it seems no one has mentioned them.

After the concert on Thursday my mom asked why They had a song about Mesopotamia. I just out it as, "It's really about a struggling band called The Mesopotamians." That's pretty much it, really, at least to me. --Lemita 01:05, 29 October 2008 (UTC)

Perhaps another nod in the Beatles direction: In the video Ashurbanipal is pictured with a cat; Ringo Starr owned cats. --philsown


This seems to be about TMBG itself, saying "hey we're still around." The height of their popularity occurred when they were featured on MTV. There was a 10 year gap between the hits that got high up in the charts ("Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Boss of Me"). Perhaps its a comment on TMBG's oldness. Mesopotamians: "Hey we were around at the beginning of history... and we're still here!" TMBG: "Hey, we were there when alternative broke into the mainstream... and we're still here." I would imagine that only the children's albums are breaking out of the loyal established fanbase, but they are gleeful still.

Perhaps someone ought to edit this post to be uniform with the others...

Just wanted to add that the use of the words "clay," "concrete," and "crumbled" in the second stanza sounds like a reference to Concrete and Clay.


This is all interesting, but does it really have to have a meaning? this is the band that came up with "fingertips" on apollo 18.

I like the idea of this song being a piece of dramatic irony and suggesting we've completely misinterpreted the historical record of ancient Mesopotamia. Here we are assuming these people were great rulers and revered spiritual leaders; if we could have heard Hammurabi sing this song, we would know that they were all actually members of an alt rock band. Hammurabi's Code may have really been the liner notes for one of their albums. This wouldn't be the first song They've written about people "not getting" a musician's identity (Doctor Worm comes to mind). Twalsh06 04:44, 22 February 2011 (UTC)

I Expected Much More Intelligence from TMBG Fans[edit]

As in many other songs, the "interpretations" of "The Mesopotamians" thrown out by the collective voice of the fans of They Might Be Giants indicates an intelligence level just over the moron line. It's about the Beatles because Ringo owned cats? Or there's a lefthanded bass guitarist? You people are beyond stupid.

The "meaning" of the song is simple. John Linnell came up with a very catchy melody to use as the "theme song" for a zany rock band called The Mesopotamians. Yes, one is reminded of the Monkees and the Beatles (and the gang from Scooby-Doo), but please don't push things too far. The joke is pure Linnell - taking a pop culture sound and concept and combining it with something absurdly obscure, like Mesopotamia. He names them not to coincide with any specific other band's members, but just BECAUSE we know the names of the members of those other bands. The "I thought that you were dead" line may refer to the Paul is dead hoax, and it may refer to the seeming hundreds of rock stars who have died. But the laugh is that the last Mesopotamian died millenia ago. Of course "I thought that you were dead."

Just get the joke, OK? And stop trying to over intellectualize. Because, frankly, you don't have enough brains to pull it off. 23:49, 25 May 2013 (EDT)

i hope you are not being serious because this rant boils down to "TMBG fanz r stoopid" and you just posted it on a TMBG wiki. -Apollo (colloquia!)
I have to think this was either meant completely tongue-in-cheek or this person was genuinely mad about this. That post doesn't leave much ambiguity, y'know? But so it goes with anonymous folks... --MisterMe (talk) 22:52, 26 May 2013 (EDT)
Not only did you spell the word 'millennia' wrong but 'Over-intellectualize' is written with a hyphen.

The lines about the Mesopotamish sun beating down and making cracks in the ground are most likely a reference to the theory that a severe 300-year drought led to the end of the Mesopatamian empire. NY Times article

We're too busy singing to put anybody down[edit]

"We're too busy singing to put anybody down" was a lyric in the Monkees theme song, from their weekly television show."

The song can be connected to all sorts of themes, including, obviously the Beatles but take a look at the above lyric next to: "This is my last stick of gum I'm going to cut it up so everybody else gets some Except for Ashurbanipal, who says my haircut makes me look like a Mohenjo-Daren"

Although the Monkees were too busy singing to put anybody down, one of the Mesopotamians clearly had the time and will to put down Ashurbanipal.

Being underappreciated does sometimes lead to in-fighting and vindictiveness in another doppleganger of they world, among the many tmbg offers