Jeffrey L. Bromberger, Oblivious To It All
13 August 2021
What’s the most you’d consider wagering and possibly losing for another person’s eternal soul?
In 1991, after dealing with the depression caused by his father’s death (and battling a case of writers’ block as well), Sting released his third solo album, entitled “The Soul Cages”. A concept album of sorts, it tells the semi-autobiographical story of Billy who is, as fate has set it, the “first son of a riveter’s son.” He lives with his dad next door to the shipyard, where the men work all day and night to raise ships from the huge sheets of metal. He hates seeing his father toil like this – “a working man live like a slave”. And the resentment toward his father is real when he points out “He’d drink every night and he’d dream of a future / Of money he never would save / Billy would cry when he thought of the future.”
Billy has no intention of joining the mindless march to the dangerous yard, and this becomes even more apparent after his father is sent home with under a month to live after some sort of industrial accident.
Now with his father gone (as well as the steady income), what’s a boy to do? There’s always “…a new ship to be built, new work to be done” in the shipyard. Just follow the footsteps, the road laid out before you.
You can hear him arguing for his own path. Forget the shipyard, the mindless labor, the endless drudgery for six days a week. This is not some sort of legacy, a gift to be passed on with a smile and a handshake. It’s more like a prison sentence, a bitter curse, a poisoned inheritance. And Billy wants none of that. His old man was a drunk, crazy, perhaps, or even lazy, but it doesn’t matter at this point, eh?
The story takes an unexpected sharp turn just before the album ends. I doubt that anybody saw this coming…
“And underneath the sailor’s hat, I saw my father’s face…”
In the sparse and minimalist “Wild Wild Sea,” Billy relates a dream that borders on nightmare. After sighting ghost ships on the edge of his vision, his dream takes him night swimming, so far out that he loses the land. He materializes on the deck what seems to be an abandoned sailing ship. A storm comes up, and a violent one at that. There’s no way to outrun it and nowhere to hide – you just have to deal with it. The wind gets violent, the sky turns black, the waves peak. With all of this going on around him, as the ship turns defensively into the wind, basically bracing it for the onslaught that is inevitably coming, he sees that the man at the wheel, saving his life, is his father. The man, previously condemned for leaving behind nothing more than the prospect of hard labor, is now seen with more to offer as it relates to his son. It is this vision that gives Billy a change of heart. A change that is described in the next, penultimate, song.
The title track, which won Sting the 1992 Grammy Award for Best Rock Song, is moody and dark, with a driving, chugging feel to it – one that brings home the sense of impending doom. Based on an old folk legend, Billy has snuck into the yard of “The Fisherman” – a very clear personification of the Devil of the Ocean. This fisherman has an evil enterprise going – keeping the souls of the damned locked in lobster pots. Our protagonist is here to do the only thing he can do now, and in the only way he can. Billy’s come on a suicide mission this dark and starless night, trying to bargain back his father’s soul, the soul he personally condemned, using himself as bait. The wager is laid out – a drinking competition. Both Billy and The Fisherman must drink, and each one that Billy survives will free a soul that was kept chained in those damned soul cages. And when Billy loses, as we all know he eventually must, his soul becomes property of The Fisherman. The Devil plays dirty, as is his wont, by bringing out a cask of cursed wine, kept full throughout Eternity as it is made from the spirits of sailors that have died at sea.
The song ends with Billy lying dead himself, but with a partial victory – one less soul doomed to spend eternity in a cage. Maybe this was the soul he wanted to free, maybe not. There’s no guarantee other than the completed transaction – Billy’s soul for as many drinks (or dunkings, like a drowning sailor) as he could survive, each one freeing a caged wretch. The Devil is never under any obligation to keep the details of a promise, just the general gist of it.
There is a point to me relating this narrative. After talking to some of my business friends, I see a clear thread of everybody feeling a little bit like our protagonist. A little trigger happy on the condemnation of those around you, which usually leads to remorse later on. Personally, I’ve known there were times that I’d wished certain supervisors into a rapid oblivion, in a hole so dark that even the earthworms would be frightened by the lack of light. In my own days as a Service Desk Manager, I can assure you, two or three of my direct reports probably wished a similar fate for me as well. The problem is that you rarely, if ever, get to see the situation through the eyes of the cursed. Their world view may be “tainted,” but what you call bias might be “hard won experience” to the supervisor. Your being rebuffed when you explain why, without doubt, you must move to the latest and greatest technology comes very rarely out of malice and more out of your supervisor’s deeper understanding of the way the grinding wheels turn at your particular firm.
As you get older and gain more experience in this business world, you might find yourself face to face with somebody who offers you a deal of a lifetime. Maybe you’ve had an offer to trade your soul (so to speak) to redeem an innocent that might have been accidentally remanded to someplace that it didn’t deserve? It is always your call – to correct the wrong you have inflicted due to hasty judgements and lack of insight. Before you make that deal, though, you must always remember that the Fisherman pours poisoned wine and The Devil is silently hiding in the details. There’s a cage for everyone eventually – nobody wins against Death.