Line ’em Up

One of my favorite songs is Line ’em Up by James Taylor. What do the lyrics mean? I first asked that question here and promised to answer it later. This is “later”.

I faced a small ethical dilemma in writing about this. I think it’s within the spirit but against the letter of the copyright laws to post the lyrics here along with my analysis. Normally, to post a link to someone else’s copy of the lyrics would be within the letter but against the spirit of the law. I’m hoping that means that in this case I’m within both the letter and the spirit of the law if I refer you to the first lyrics site I found when I googled it. (In a couple of places their lyrics are different than what I heard on the recording, which is what I will mainly quote from.)

Anyway … I’m pretty sure the song is about the way we avoid authentic relationships by replacing them with mechanical rituals that allow us to stay at a distance from others, and about the loneliness that causes.

The first verse is about Richard Nixon leaving the White House in disgrace, and shaking hands on the way out with some people he supposes to be loyal supporters. He isn’t really repentant of his wrongdoing. He calls his underlings “the little people”. He wants to be admired, even adored, but doesn’t understand the need to earn people’s respect through honesty and commitment. He doesn’t even line them up himself – he asks someone else to “line ’em up” for him so he can walk down the line shaking hands.

The second verse talks in the first person about the singer responding to some personal tragedy (I can’t help imagining someone coming home from Vietnam) by withdrawing from the people he was close to.

It closes by saying, “But it’s much too much emotion / To hold in your hand / They’ve got waves out on the ocean / They’re gonna wear away the land”. At first I thought this was an explanation of why he withdrew – it was too emotional – but now I think it is an explanation of why withdrawing wasn’t helpful. It was too much emotion to hold inside, bottled up, without sharing it with anyone else. In any case, the chorus follows, with its request to “line ‘em up” again. The singer is saying, “I don’t want to get close to anyone – just line up the people in my life I’m supposed to relate to so I can say and do whatever I’m supposed to while staying distant.”

The third section is a longish bridge, again in the first person. It talks about being lined up by others: “I’ve been lining up for shows / I’ve been safely placed in rows / Sure I know how it goes.” Other people have lined the singer up to avoid having to deal with him as a person. It’s safer and more efficient to just herd people into wherever they are supposed to be. “I know how it goes” points to how common this is in life.

The next portion of the bridge talks about time slipping away, about how our lives pass by without our ever really living in the moment. It concludes by asking, “Who waits for you / Lonely tired old toad / Is your life laid out before you / Like the broken white line down the center of the road?” If we look back on a life lived with no real closeness to anyone, the superficial relationships we had can seem like the white lines sliding past on the road as we drive.

Finally, the last verse talks about “the big moon landing”. Apparently James Taylor said in concert that this was about  the mass weddings that the Unification Church (followers of Sun Myung Moon) used to hold. Normally we would think of marriage as the clearest picture of an authentic, committed, intimate relationship. Here, though, what should have been private and personal has become a kind of public show with crowds of couples lining up and parading their way through the ceremony. The couples don’t object, but has something of the meaning of their unions been lost? They “turn like pages”, which emphasizes how quickly and impersonally we can dismiss them, and also serves as one more image of the passage of time as life slips away.

I love the way the song continually plays with the imagery of being lined up, and stays with a consistent theme.

Anyway, that’s my take on the song.  Maybe it was all obvious, but it took me a while to work it out!

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15 thoughts on “Line ’em Up

  1. I think your take on it is brilliant. I enjoyed reading it, because for some reason that song has always particularly appealed to me.

    • Excellent analysis of this finely wrought song. Lately, I have been particularly taken with the Make Today Today line which I think (obviously) is an imprecation to the “narrator” to live in the present, to connect and engage for real.

      Plus I had a girlfriend long before the song who lovingly call me “toad…”

  2. This is really good.

    I watched an interview he did a number of years ago on BBC 1, and he talked about this song in some detail. Verse 2, according to JT himself, was about his stay at the McLean Hospital just outside of Boston and his later problems with heroin abuse. It was fascinating.

  3. Thank you all for helping me understand the song better. I have been drawn to it for years, but only recently began thinking of it more deeply.

  4. Thank you. I just discovered this song – haven’t been listening to James for a while, but I used to, a lot. I enjoyed your post a lot.

    I sort-of became a songwriter because of Taylor. At least he was an inspiration – I could hear what he was saying and often felt the same way. Is brother once told me I played guitar like James. It embarrassed me at the time. But it’s true.

    Anyhow, I appreciate your spin on the lyric – makes sense mostly.

    The waves wearing away the land line, however,means something different to me.

    The lines, to me, are the image and feeling of being worn away. The way his paralysis was a response to the unending assault of horror. It sounds to me like a response to some one very close ending their own life. Especially when you are also living in close proximity. You can’t get away, so you withdraw.

    Grief comes in waves. Lines and lines of them.

    So imagine the ocean – see it in your mind. Now attach that image with the feelings expressed in the previous 3 lines.

    Pretty chilling. Powerful. 100% Mr. Taylor.

    Thanks again.

  5. ok 2019 here. guess it takes that long to digest this song. it’s much too much emotion for james, because it’s his life that’s wearing him away like waves on the ocean. he can’t take all of this history in at once, since he breaks his brain every day to figure it out. so he tries to live for today, because he can’t keep his head in the past. if the memories do pop up, he wants them to be in an amount that he can deal with. these images are of his past, with the accompanying emotional pain. he can’t run from it like he tried before, to leave his body and live in his mind with drugs. he’s had to deal with it for many years, and many miles. i kinda think he should have said, ‘like a broken white line down the center of a blacktop road’, since he was in ‘two lane blacktop’:
    thanks for reading! a james fan

  6. It took me until 2020 to deal with this song. One day, after having heard it for the third consecutive time, I couldn’t understand what provoked so many tears – – I was crying like a baby. I’m another one who thought the analysis of the song was brilliant. It explained why I’d experienced the song on such a visceral level. Thank you..


  7. Verse 2 is about Taylor’s addiction. “Line ’em up”, as in line up the rows of cocaine on a mirror. “I looked like ashes, and smelled like smoke…” “Like waves out on the ocean”…we have all seen how the waves seem to follow each other, one after another, relentless. “They wear away the land”, and certainly drug use is a gradual erosion of self. He was rocked by the death of John Belushi, someone who was a good friend and someone he drugged with often. (But it would take years for him to quit using.) And then of course, it is a ‘road song’ for which Taylor is famous. About life moving on, growth, change, death.

    (I remember reading the lyrics that were posted before the album came out…relentless repeating of “Line ’em up”, and thought to myself, “There is no way that works in a song.” And yet, the very act of singing them reinforces the power there is in repetitive action. So, if we would do the positive things repeatedly, love repeatedly–you get the idea!

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