Monday, October 26, 2015

Song Dissection: Roads To Moscow

I thought of blogging my interpretations of some of my favorite Beatles or Bowie songs, but the Internet is full of these.  Rock n' roll is so chock-full of great songs, why pile onto the massive amount of Beatles fandom when I can tackle something more obscure. While listening to my Classic Rock play list on my iPod today while doing my errands, I heard Al Stewart's Roads to Moscow and I doubted that there was anything on the net that gave an interpretation of this song. When I got home and started googling. I found some sites that actually documented the history of the song, the World War II battles and such, but interpretation of what the song is about, I did not.

Al Stewart is a folk rock musician most famous for his song Year of the Cat from 1976. He is Scottish and is one of those UK musicians you can actually hear his accent when he sings (like Todd Rundgren or Robin Hitchcock) most likely because his singing is more like talking than singing.

Many of his songs, like Roads To Moscow, are historical in nature. It came out in 1973, on the Past, Present and Future album, a few years before his biggest hit got international air play. The song (lyrics below) is a first person narrative from the perspective of a Soviet soldier in WW II. The first verse highlights the events of June 1941 when Germany forces destroyed 90% of the Soviet air force in about a week.  The second verse recounts the German retreat through Ukraine, later that summer after the Battle of Moscow. The third verse brings us into the winter as the Russian troops march into Germany towards Stalingrad. The last verse is the saddest among them where he returns home, after four years of fighting, only to be arrested and thrown into a gulag.

The verses mostly tell the historical events and don't tell much about the state of mind of our narrator. For that you must look to the chorus. With all these events happening around him, all that he is ever "able to see" is "fire in the air, glowing red silhouetting the smoke on the breeze." He is in a forest but the only natural things he sees is "fire" and "smoke." He is isolated, not seeing much of the battle or the history unfolding around him. He is more of a pawn than a knight, slipping, crawling through fields and moving through shadows. As the town of Orel burns, they turn their backs on it. This was the point in the war, where Hitler thought Russia was defeated. General Guderian, creator of the blitzkrieg and Panzer commander, "stands at the crest of the hill." He, the leader, looks at the wreckage of Orel and reflex on the carnage, not the soldiers with their backs turned. The pawns have to move onto the next fight.

The second chorus replaces "smoke" with "snow" for here is where the war takes a turn, for the German war machine was not prepared for the Russian winter. "Snow" will be the savior of the Russian army and of Moscow as the Nazi troops fail to take her. The German army approached Moscow in a 200 mile long semi-circle. On December 5th, they decided to retreat for they did not have the strength to take the city. In the last chorus, "the city" awakes from a dream. It could be Moscow or Berlin, but at this point, it could be Tokyo or New York or any other city in the world because this is one of the big turning points of the war. The under-armed and starving Russian army are the not the push-overs that Hitler thought they were. Yet, our narrator is still feeling insignificant. All he sees is the "eyes" of the city. What are the eyes doing? Are they watching him? Judging him? All he wants to do is go home, but he never gets there. We never get home from war and we are always prisoners of history.

Apparently, Al Stewart claimed that he based the song on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Nobel Prize winning author's life is similar to our narrator's. He served as a commander and artillery officer for the Red Army in East Prussia. He witnessed war crimes against German civilians, pillaging of some very weak and elderly civilians and gang rapes. He wrote about it in letters home criticizing Stalin and was arrested at the end of the war for it. He spent eight years in a labor camp. Not "forever" like our narrator, but the similarities are there.

I doubt if you will hear this song on the radio any time soon. The only time I've ever heard anywhere other my MP3's is on Radio Paradise.  So if you do ever hear it, maybe I will help with your appreciation a little, I hope.

"Roads To Moscow"
by Al Stewart


They crossed over the border the hour before dawn
moving in lines through the day
Most of our planes were destroyed on the ground where they lay
Waiting for orders we held in the wood
Word from the front never came
By evening the sound of the gunfire was miles away

I softly move through the shadows, slip away through the trees
Crossing their lines in the mist in the fields on our hands and our knees

(chorus)
And all that I ever
Was able to see
The fire in the air, glowing red
Silhouetting the smoke on the breeze

All summer they drove us back through the Ukraine
Smolensk and Viasma soon fell
By Autumn we stood with our backs to the town of Orel
Closer and closer to Moscow they come
Riding the wind like a bell
General Guderian stands at the crest of the hill

Winter brought with the rains, oceans of mud filled the roads
Gluing the tracks of their tanks to the ground, while the skies filled with snow

And all that I ever
Was able to see
The fire in the air, glowing red
Silhouetting the snow on the breeze

(Ah, Ah, Ah) [x4]

(Ah, Ah, Ah) [all thru bridge]
In the footsteps of Napoleon, the shadow figures stagger through the winter
Falling back before the gates of Moscow, standing in the wings like an avenger
And far away behind their lines, the partisans are stirring in the forest
Coming unexpectedly upon their outpost, growing like a promise
You'll never know, you'll never know, which way to turn, which way to look you'll never see us
As we steal into the blackness of the night you'll never know, you'll never hear us

And evening sings in a voice of amber, the dawn is surely coming
The morning road leads to Stalingrad, and the sky is softly humming

Two broken tigers on fire in the night
Flicker their souls to the wind
We wait in the lines for the final approach to begin
It's been almost four years that I've carried a gun
At home, it will almost be spring
The flames of the tiger are lighting the road to Berlin

I quickly move through the ruins that bow to the ground
The old men and children they send out to face us, they can't slow us down

And all that I ever
Was able to see
The eyes of the city are opening
Now it's the end of a dream

(Ah. Ah, Ah) [x4]

(Ah, Ah, Ah) [thru this section]
I'm coming home, I'm coming home , now you can taste it in the wind the war is over
And I listen to the clicking of the train wheels as we roll across the border
And now they ask about the time that I was caught behind their time and taken prisoner
They only held me for a day, a lucky break I say
They turn and listen closer
I'll never know, I'll never know, why I was taken from the line with all the others
to board a special train and journey deep into the heart of holy Russia

And it's cold and damp in the transit camp and the air is still and sullen
and the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when, I'll be home again and the morning answers never
And the evening sighs and the steely, Russian skies go on,
forever...

1 comment:

Olga Hebert said...

Nice. I have not heard this before.