Green Tambourine

(I recently found this amongst a few files I recovered from an old hard drive. It was published in August of 2003 on my old website. I’ve edited it for spelling, accuracy, and clarity)

I’ve listened to Green Tambourine at least a few hundred times, if not more, and I don’t know why I love this song so much. Maybe it’s the sitar riff at the beginning of the song. Everything is second-rate in this song, from the simple three chords to the lame tambourine itself, but I’m compelled to listen to it. It resides in every playlist of mine and when I hear it on the radio, I’m unable to change the station. I’m trapped by its kooky power.

The song itself doesn’t make any sense. Look at the first couple of lines:

Drop your silver in my tambourine
help a poor man build a pretty dream
give me pennies, I’ll take anything

There’s nothing obviously amiss here. This damn dirty hippie is poor and looking to make some dough to fuel his reefer madness. Most people use a guitar case or a cup to collect loose pocket change and crumpled dollar bills, but this guy’s so poor he can’t afford such luxuries. All he has is his little tambourine. I feel sorry for Mr. Tambourine Man, who is most likely the subject of The Byrds’ song of the same name, but more on that later. I want you to look at the very next line in the song:

Now listen as I play my Green Tambourine

I know I’m a little soft in the head, but how the hell can you play the tambourine? It’s got money in it. If you start banging on that thing, all those hard-earned pennies are going to fly out all over the place. You can bet your unwashed ass that all of your pretty dreams will disappear as street urchins battle each other for the scattered copper loot. I’m starting to feel not-so-sorry for Mr. Tambourine Man, who’s evidently thrown away thousands for want of a fully functional short term memory. But perhaps that’s his plan.

Maybe, just maybe, Tambourine Man serves as a central collection point for tourists’ money, which he then distributes to his unfortunate neighbors in the most equitable manner possible: by randomly scattering it about as he plays the tambourine. Could that be his pretty dream, to bring money and happiness to orphans and winos who otherwise would go hungry because they lack the talent with which to earn money? Is Tambourine Man the result of a complex evolutionary process that has produced a mutant hobo with a talent that confers a natural advantage over others of his kind? If so, Tambourine Man’s charitable efforts toward his unfortunate kinsmen are worthy of praise and respect.

But this brings up another question: Who the hell wants to listen to someone play a friggin’ tambourine, much less pay for the privilege? The lyrics contain a valuable clue:

Watch the jingle-jangle start to shine
reflections of the music that is mine
When you toss a coin, you’ll hear it sing
Now listen as I play my Green Tambourine

This is no ordinary tambourine. A standard tambourine is just a simple wooden hoop with some irritating cymbals and a drumhead. A normal person’s response to this instrumental kluge is to either get out of earshot in the quickest manner possible, or beat the tambourine player for assaulting the tympanic membranes of the citizenry.

So how is it that Tambourine Man escapes certain death when he heads out to the street corner to play? The answer is obvious. He plays a magic tambourine, as evidenced by its conspicuous green color. As he beats upon its surface, the jingle-jangling of the mini-cymbals mesmerizes the audience into a stupor and opens them up to the hypnotic suggestion of the music that is his. The audience, in thrall of the tambourine, is compelled to throw money into the tambourine once the song is complete. As a reward, the tambourine itself “sings” to them. What devilish tune this hellspawn instrument whispers in their ears is unknown as the lyrics are unclear on this point. But it can be inferred that the tambourine’s song prevents them from questioning the insane act of giving someone money for playing the infernal instrument.

The tambourine’s magical properties help to answer another puzzle of the song’s lyrics:

Drop a dime before I walk away
Any song you want I’ll gladly play
Money feeds my music machine

It is here that the song takes a disturbing turn. Not only does Tambourine Man feel confident enough to actually threaten walking away (which would be a welcome action), he’s so sure of the tambourine’s hypnotic power that he can actually convince people that he is capable of playing songs. Now we all know that a tambourine is incapable of playing a song. It cannot reproduce notes. One can only smack it in a sort of rhythm approximating a song’s beat, and even then the reproduction is so vague that you kind of have to take the musician’s word for it. Is that Walk Like an Egyptian or Love in an Elevator? Who knows? The zombified audience is too busy reaching into their pockets to feed his music machine.

It’s the description of the tambourine as a music machine that highlights a potentially disturbing dimension to the song. You can take its meaning at face value: the tambourine has some sort of mechanism facilitating the hypnotic trance, perhaps by broadcasting high-pitched radio waves. The testing and R&D phase of the device must’ve been interesting. Did initial audiences soil themselves or form angry mobs focused on rooting-out Communists from the film industry?

Such idle speculation of a mysterious internal device within the tambourine itself is, of course, ludicrous. This self-described poor man could not afford the components and sophisticated equipment necessary to fashion such a hypnotic device, which leads us to the only conclusion possible: the tambourine is the vessel of a malevolent entity.

This conclusion is terrifying in its implications, for it suggests that Tambourine Man is not, as we guessed, a gifted street bum, but the victim of supernatural forces beyond his understanding and control. Perhaps he raided a gypsy camp and stole the accursed tambourine with the intention of pawning it, but was instead enslaved by its demonic power before he could rid himself of it. Unable to resist the Green Tambourine, the man plays it in public, feeding the demon’s insatiable need for pocket change. Its need for money is likely the result of a cosmic bargain that led to the demon’s imprisonment within the tambourine itself. The spirit must collect within the maw of the instrument a certain amount of money before it can be set free; or worse, exchange places with whatever poor soul happened to take possession of the tambourine.

The Tambourine Man must’ve quickly ascertained the true nature of the instrument and fought to keep the monster locked within its cage by immediately dispersing the money after the collection. One can only imagine the terrible existence of Tambourine Man, locked in a contest of wills with an imp of enormous psychic power. One can also imagine the frustration of the tambourinic djinn, who sees his hour of freedom come tantalizingly close, only to have his hopes scattered along with the money amongst the four winds.

We should therefore not only pity the Tambourine Man, but also take strength from his example, for he demonstrates that even the lowliest of us has the power to stymie the efforts of the Dark Side. If you doubt the djinn’s power, you need look no further than The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. The hypnotic power of the demon was so powerful and lasting that a group of musicians felt compelled to craft a song about the Tambourine Man and then perform it for years without question or hesitation. Even though their song was a result of demonic influence, it does allow us to view firsthand the power of the tambourine from the point of view of the audience, in contrast to the Tambourine Man’s own lament and coded warning to stay away at any cost.

Indeed, there may never have been a Mr. Tambourine Man had the Lemon Pipers not released Green Tambourine. The djinn knew that Green Tambourine had the potential to keep him enslaved for eternity, so it was necessary to sing that special “song” for The Byrds to record, bringing people from all over the globe to listen and toss money into the tambourine, thus hastening his liberation.

Did the demon’s efforts pay off? No more mention is made of Tambourine Man after The Lemon Pipers released their record. We can confidently assume that the genie was freed after a particularly large group of Japanese tourists heard the Tambourine Man play and tossed hundreds of thousands of Yen into the tambourine. In what might be the ultimate example of cosmic irony, the supernatural mechanism in place may not have accounted for international exchange rates and so took the monetary value of the Yen at face value and set the genie free for only thirteen dollars and a few cents.

So what became of the Tambourine Man after the malevolent spirit was liberated and founded Microsoft? Hopefully, he was freed of torment as well and completed his task of pawning the now spiritually benign instrument for some much need reefer money. Such a scenario may help us sleep peacefully at night, but the truth may be far more sinister. We must assume that somewhere in this world a possessed Green Tambourine, imbued with the spirit of an angry and tormented soul, quietly awaits its next unsuspecting victim.