Black Mule (1991) – Grant McLennan


Grant McLennan is a former front man of the hugely influential Australian band ‘The Go-Betweens’. It’s been inexplicable to me that the Go-Betweens never reached wider success. Every single person I’ve ever played them for has liked them. Yet somehow they never got the listening public to fall in love with them.I discovered them when I was delving into Melbourne singer – songwriter David Bridie’s music, who’s songs have already featured here. The Go-Betweens were a big influence on Bridie so one day I bought their Live at The Tivoli, Brisbane DVD (2005). To say I was impressed would be an understatement. In fact most of the songs from that concert including today’s song Black Mule will be showcased in my music library project.

Black Mule isn’t from The Go-Betweens, it’s from Grant’s debut solo album Watershed released in 1991. From viewing McLennan on stage and just by listening to him, he makes his art look easy, but like all great art what he has to say is highly memorable. He doesn’t deliver grand poetic pronouncements, he simply tells you things. That conversational intimacy in his music and of course that with the Go-Betweens helped him do what very few others can which is create ‘setting’. McLennan doesn’t need to describe the street you’ve been on, because you’re invariably on the street he’s describing. His success doesn’t rely on precise descriptions, but on the inviting nature of the songs.

In Black Mule, he tells the story of a man whom a nun rescues from a life-threatening beating. After cleaning him up, she tells him, “Go into the world and take a look.” In the next verse a car bomb blows him up. McLennan is direct: “Life can be cruel.’ Indeed it can be, because just one year after this performance at the Tivoli (see video below) Grant suddenly passed away. It was described in Pop Matters as ‘the world loses one of the best songwriters it never knew it had’. I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to forward below the entirety of the lyrics of Black Mule since I consider it such masterful storytelling:

The neighing of the horses in the moonlight woke him up
There was a line of ice across his cup
Except for the wind in the corn, the world was perfectly still
The moon hung over the window sill

Ride on black mule

Four men on horses came riding up;
They dragged him out into the clearing
They said, “Listen here mister, if you don’t give us all your gold
We’re gonna give you a hell of a beating”

Ride on black mule

Just then a nun on a black mule came riding by;
She said: “Oh Gentlemen, what are you doing?
If you don’t leave that man alone
I’m going to punish you for evil-doing”

Ride on black mule

Well, you know bad men; they never listen
They went up in a puff of brimstone
She cut him down, she led him by the hand to a cave
Took him into a world of limestone

Ride on black mule

She bathed his wounds. She put salt on his back
She read to him from a great big book
When he was healed, she led him by the hand
Said, “Go into the world and take a look”

Ride on black mule

He was walking down a Beirut street when a car-bomb blew him up
Oh, life can be cruel
When they took him to the mortuary to identify his fingerprints
All they found were the hoofprints of a mule

Ride on black mule
Ride on black mule

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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Posted in Music
38 comments on “Black Mule (1991) – Grant McLennan
  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Lovely tribute to such a great songwriter.
    You might enjoy Jukebox post on his iconic cattle and cane.
    Regards Thom

  2. I’ve never heard of The Go-Betweens or of Grant McLennan. Thanks for the phenomenal intro.

  3. badfinger20 says:

    I like The Go-Betweens…I found them when I was looking for bands for Powerpop Fridays…I had some drafts of some of their songs. They are quirky and I like them.
    I haven’t heard this one before by McLennan.

  4. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Wow, those lyrics are beautiful. I love the first paragraph especially, painting such a vivid picture that I can see crystal clear. It reminded me of a shot or scene out of No Country for Old Men or Brokeback Mountain.

    I wonder what made him write those lyrics. It made me think of the story of a woman in the news once. She fought cancer and was in remission, feeling good. She went swimming in the ocean and died from a shark attack. It felt like the same kind of thing in the song: just unbearable, inexplicable events and suffering. Hmm……………….

    The guitar also reminded me of an old song from America. I don’t know if you know it–Ventura Highway. I’ll paste the link here. My husband HATES it. “Alligator lizards? What are alligator lizards?!” (Some of the lyrics). Well, I’m not sure what they are either (probably dragonflies), but this is one of my favorite songs ever.

    And thanks for sharing McLennan’s poetry……

    • I love all the verses in ‘Black Mule’. It’s so thematic and feels archetypal. I can see how it might remind you of something from those two movies. The lines which stick out for me are ‘Took him into a world of limestone’ and ‘Said, “Go into the world and take a look”. One could easily write essays exploring the themes and axioms in this song.

      Oh my gosh, that’s terrible what occurred to that woman who was in remission. I mean, how unlucky do you have to be for that to occur? Pretty f***king unlucky I’d say. You’re probably right that the song deals with tragedy and suffering, but the metaphor of ‘Black Mule’ points towards something eternal and transcendent like ‘The Logos’ – the pervading animated force which pervades the Universe – if you believe in that sort of thing. Or ‘destiny’ for the less spiritually inclined.

      It pains me to say, but I probably side with your husband on that one. ‘Ventura Highway’ has got some major radio play over the years, but I’ve never warmed to it. I’m sad to say that since it’s one of your favourites. Hmm..Oh well it happens..

  5. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Yeah, I think I have very mediocre musical tastes, really, when it comes down to it. I love a LOT of ’70s music, and hubby thinks the ’70s sucked major ass. I think I’m just nostalgic. And I like touch-feely-dreamy songs….like the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows and the Beatles’ Across the Universe. How could one not like the first line of a song that says “I may not always love you” in such a haunted key? So, yeah, I understand where you and hubby are coming from. I think the song is just personal to me because I actually have BEEN on Ventura Highway in the sunshine…and back in those days life was a lot simpler and happier. The traffic sure as hell wasn’t as bad back then, that’s for damn sure.

    I agree about the eternal and transcendent feel of Black Mule, upon second viewing. The sadness may be there, but sadness is the other side of joy, and light is behind dark, and on and on in our world of duality…and yeah, I do believe there is a pervading force suffusing–I guess after having creating–the universe. That’s a much warmer summary than just us being hopeless wandering victims of random chance…

    • You shouldn’t think you have mediocre tastes. You just have tastes – and that’s that lol Nothing wrong with ‘God Only Knows’. It’s so sweet. That reminds me, I was listening to a Beach Boys song yesterday which I didn’t hear much in my youth, but how I love hearing it now – ‘Don’t Worry Baby’.

      Yes, we often associate certain music with fond memories and that can enhance our appreciation of them. The fact you have been on Venture Highway in the sun living in simpler times is testament to that.

      ‘Our world of duality’ – I love that description between light and dark. Those contrasts are definitely there in that song. I believe in ‘The Logos’. It’s funny because the Gospel of John identifies Jesus Christ as the incarnate logos. ‘Word made flesh’. Also it is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘reason and discourse.’

      Hehe I agree – the victims of random chance or even the 2nd law of Thermodynamics which states- that essentially chaos and disorder is inevitable is a bit bleak Haha.

  6. selizabryangmailcom says:

    I did a whole response here, and it said “sorry, this response could not be posted.”
    Now I’m doing a test……

  7. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Ha ha. Of course! THAT one went through.
    Okay, anyway, I just said yeah, my musical tastes might be boring to others, but not to me, obviously, although I admit to not searching out new music constantly the way my husband does. I’m happy with listening to the same songs over and over.

    • People have dispositions towards different things I guess. When I was in my twenties I liked consciously searching for new music because my friends and I were into the alternative music scene. But now I find now I’m more inclined (like you perhaps) to just settle on what moved me in the past – nostalgic reassurance if you will. That doesn’t mean I’m dissuaded from listening to new music, on the contrary, if it is recommended to me by someone I’m fond of. But it has to be almost put on my lap to listen to new music. Haha

      • selizabryangmailcom says:

        Yeah, exactly! I don’t mind new music at all and will give anything a listen. Like for one thing, after you turned me on to the Phantom Thread, that soundtrack is now in my favorites! I always listen to it while I’m proofreading mine or my husband’s stuff at home. I love it. But, yeah, stuff has to get put in my lap, too, more or less. Ha. Oh, well. And on we go………..!

      • Assuredly the ‘Phantom Thread’ like ‘Remains’ will endure. I think I prefer the Remains soundtrack but only time will tell. But both are extraordinary movies at least as I see them. That’s wonderful you listen to it so often. I feel smitten. lol Yes and on we go …no better way

  8. selizabryangmailcom says:

    Maybe your WordPress didn’t post my earlier response because it was too long. It sighed and rolled its eyes and censored me by saying, “Error. This could not be posted,” lol !!
    Your WordPress is WISE…………..!

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