Doctor My Eyes
Have you ever thought about which one song you would pick to represent your life as a kind of anthem? What if you had to pick one song that encapsulated your life thus far, what would it be?
I suspect a lot of people haven’t thought about this before. Maybe it’s like girls; you don’t settle down with one until you find the right one, but it’s not something you can really look for. People don’t typically go around looking to distill their life into one song, just like many guys don’t go around looking for one girl to marry, it kind of happens to you.
Some time ago, I realized that a song by Jackson Browne called Doctor My Eyes, held special, albeit somewhat melancholy meaning for me. The lyrics seemed to be written FOR me and I couldn’t believe someone else could write them and have the same experiences in life to be able to write them. This post will be a look into the meaning of this song, which has really touched me on a personal level.
It’s easy enough to look Jackson Browne up on the web if you’re not familiar with him. I see him very nostalgically and sentimentally as I grew up with his music. One song in particular, “Somebody’s Baby,” (featured in the cult classic “Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which had a great soundtrack BTW, including ‘Raised on the Radio,’ a track by The Ravyns, a local, Baltimore band I grew up with) immediately transports me back to summers in my youth, when girls where still such a mystery (they still are in many ways), so much so that when I hear it, I can almost feel spring on my skin and smell it in the air. He also did a really neat song, “Stay,” which I assume he played at the end of concerts (I’ve never seen him live), as it’s about a band packing up and leaving for the road to travel to their next gig; really a clever and sentimental song. “Running on Empty,” “Lawyers in Love,” and “Tender is the Night” were a few of his other many hits. “Doctor My Eyes,” was featured on Browne’s debut album in 1972.
Before going into the song, here are the lyrics. The lyrics (and music) to all his songs are available on his website.
1- Doctor my eyes have seen the years, and the slow parade of fears without crying, now I want to understand.
2- I have done all that I could, to see the evil and the good without hiding, you must help me if you can.
3- Doctor my eyes, tell me what is wrong, was I unwise, to leave them open for so long.
4- As I have wandered through this world, and as each moment has unfurled, I’ve been waiting, to awaken from these dreams.
5- People go just where they will, I never noticed them until I got this feeling that it’s later than it seems.
6- Doctor my eyes, tell me what you see, I hear their cries, just say if it’s too late for me.
7- Doctor my eyes, they cannot see the sky, is this the prize, for having learned how not to cry.
Here’s Browne’s remastered version from his “Very Best Of” compilation. It’s not a video, but it’s the original as it was presented on his debut album.
I don’t know if the song seems melancholy to you, the music is certainly upbeat, but like so many other songs, upbeat music can betray lyrics that are sad or even downright disturbing. This was first brought to my attention while listening to “Excitable Boy” by Warren Zevon sometime during college. This song is very upbeat musically, but the lyrics are about a murderous, rapist-psychopath. Here’s Zevon’s song:
During college, I also discovered The Cure, whose music can be very upbeat but be betrayed by deeply sad lyrics, such as in the tracks, “Just Like Heaven” or “In Between Days.” Never mind how depressing their lyrics can be when the music is not particularly happy, such as in “How Beautiful You Are,” where the protagonist’s love for a girl is ruined when he discovers she is totally vain, mean, and arrogant. The song ends concluding that “No one really knows or loves another,” something a young guy like me who had spent a lot of time running away from emotional intimacy, did NOT need to hear.
Anywho- here’s my analysis of the lyrics for Doctor My Eyes; I hope you find it interesting. Art is very personal and often subject to interpretation, so you may not agree with all my conclusions, but they will all be based on Browne’s words.
#1 He’s setting the stage, illustrating his lack of engagement with his life, an aloofness that he finally finds disturbing, which has motivated the query with the “Doctor.” Here he’s talking about how he has been emotionally aloof. His life has been a “slow parade of fears,” and he has just watched detachedly. He says he “wants to understand” now, indicating he realizes there’s a problem.
#2 Further describing the upsetting condition in which he finds himself, which motivates the song, he discusses his mental aloofness and how he’s studied or surveyed the human condition throughout his life, represented by the “evil and the good.” We know he does this detachedly as well because he says he did so “without hiding,” and he recognizes his plight by asking the “Doctor” for help.
#3 Here he further recognizes he has a problem and asks the “Doctor” for a diagnosis. He wonders if he should have been more engaged with life and studied it less, demonstrated by his question “Was I unwise to keep them [his eyes] open for so long?” There’s a recognition that if you’re in the middle of life, and living it, you give up some of the perspective, distance and objectivity needed to study it, but he has spent too much time observing, referenced by “my eyes,” and not enough time living.
#4 This is an interesting line. He talks about how throughout his life (“as I’ve wandered through this world and as each moment has unfurled”) he’s been “waiting to awaken from these dreams.” Many spiritual disciplines, particularly from the far east, teach that life is a dream. I can vouch for this existing in Buddhism and Taoism, and I would expect to find the same belief in Hinduism, and even in Judaism and Christianity if I surveyed the bible enough. The idea is that when you’re dreaming, your body responds as if it’s real, maybe most poignantly evidenced by the physical reaction young men have during a dream featuring “adult” content. So if your mind and body believe the dream is “real,” how do you “know” that your awake reality is “real?” How do you know when you think you’re awake that this is not a dream, and that when you wake up after dreaming that weren’t actually awake? This inquiry can be bantered about, but the real point is that spiritual disciplines teach an emphasis on the metaphysical over the physical. They teach one to see through the meaning one projects into one’s life and realize the fleeting/ephemeral nature of the world as it’s presented to us through our senses; to see life as a dream.
In Decartes’ 2nd Meditation he covers this when he discusses the “ball of wax” and it’s ability to appear in two completely different forms, yet be the same substance. How when it’s warm it appears completely different and has different properties than when it’s cool, yet it’s always the same “thing” or substance and he mentions how his senses can be readily fooled. This supports the idea or question of how “real” life is since our connection to the physical is dependent on senses that have questionable reliability. When you study how the senses work, take the eyes for example, you learn there is no direct link between the mind (perceiver) and reality (the world). Light merely hits rods and cones that get charged and send electronic signals to the brain, almost like a computer, in a series of on/off signals, which are then interpreted.
Having said all this, I don’t know if Browne was getting this philosophical, I think he is actually coming at this from a different angle. I think when he says he “has been waiting to awaken from these dreams,” he means he’s been wanting to stop daydreaming and get engaged with his life but has been unsuccessful so far. (I guess I didn’t need to go into the philosophy, but I hope it lends a little context.)
#5 Here he describes how he has not been connected to others when he says “I never noticed them [people],” and then reiterates how he feels very uneasy about this situation when be says “until I got this feeling that it’s later than it seems.”
#6 Here he’s asking for help and a diagnosis again and talks about how he knows there are people that want/need him who are hurt by his distance (“I hear their cries”), and wants to know if he can fix the situation (“just say if it’s too late for me”).
#7 Finally he says he “cannot see the sky” and wonders if this is some kind of twisted reward for being so emotionally detached and aloof as evidenced by the comment “is this the prize for having learned how not to cry.” I think ‘seeing the sky’ represents the ability to enjoy life or dive in and experience it. Prisoners may not be able to see the sky, and they are also cut-off from the normal course of life and from others.
So ultimately this song is a cautionary tale about a guy who is waking up to his emotional life, his lack of intimacy or connection with others, and to his lack of engagement with his life in general, and is quite sad. I assume Browne would had to have experienced this in order to write about it just as I would in order to appreciate his lyrics. If my assumption about Browne is true, it’s not surprising, as artists who write about life, as Browne has through this and other lyrics, often study it even while in the middle of it, creating a detachment that others may find hard to understand. Another incredible, even seminal, musical work, that covers this issue more thoroughly, is “The Wall” by Pink Floyd.
So, next time you hear “Doctor My Eyes,” see if any of this makes sense to you, and by all means, if the song applies to you, heed Browne’s warning, and wake up and get engaged with your life! It’s too short to do otherwise.
Do you have a song that you feel epitomizes you or your life? Maybe one that feels as though it was written for, or about, you? If so, please share in the comments below. Thanks for reading!