What does "tears running down [one's] spine" imply?
January 14, 2024 10:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm just vibing to "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" by Phil Ochs tonight. But for the first time in a decades I found myself wondering what "tears running down [a] spine" actually means.

When I google it, all I get is confirmation that those are in fact the lyrics to this song.

I've been assuming all these years that it was a metaphor in some way related to "crocodile tears" ie. not genuine grief. .... but upon deep reflection , I don't get the spine thing. I dunno. Am I missing something? Is that a colloquialism somewhere? Maybe it refers to some parable or literature in not familiar with?

Any insight or theory would be of great interest to me! also, if you just wanna talk Phil Ochs, I'm down.
posted by onehundredand80 to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Tears run down faces or cheeks; what runs down spines is shivers.

"Tears ran down my spine" rhymed with "As though I'd lost a father of mine" reads to me like half-assed first-cut lyrical lorem ipsum that Ochs never got round to cleaning up.
posted by flabdablet at 10:16 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]

I was going to say "chills" are what often run down spines. Seems like the original lyric might have been misheard and mistranscribed.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:33 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's a combination of the two cliches: "tears running down my face" and "chills running down my spine." We can't know exactly what Ochs intended by combining them without asking, but I find it hard to believe Ochs is unaware of the cliches or simply being lazy.

The song is from the point of view of a character that Ochs is skewering with the song, so it's likely intended as an insincere and confusing turn of phrase from the narrator. Ochs may be trying to make them look stupid or to give them an exaggerated response that you, as the listener, identify as performative on the part of the narrator and sarcastic on the part of Ochs, as the singer.

Depends on how much credit you want to give Ochs as the songwriter, I guess.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 10:40 PM on January 14 [16 favorites]

Best answer: (I'm going to say that any artist erudite enough to use word tintinnabulation is not treating their lyrics casually - albeit with Edgar Alan Poe's words). To have a spine, a backbone, is to have moral resolve - and to have "tears running down" it thus relates to feeling saddened and challenged in holding liberal opinions over civil rights.
posted by rongorongo at 1:22 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]

Also - tears (from your eyes) and tears (rips) are homonyms. Structurally broken books have tears down their spine.
posted by rongorongo at 4:48 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

I'm vastly more likely to believe he said "chills" and it was mistranscribed, than for him to have misapplied "tears" so nonsensically in such a common expression.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:36 AM on January 15

posted by Phanx at 5:39 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Data? Here's Ochs singing the phrase in question it's the second line in, takes 50 secs.
tears (from your eyes) and tears (rips) are homonyms . . . but not homophones
more likely to believe he said "chills" and it was mistranscribed . . . my ears hear tears (😢)
posted by BobTheScientist at 5:51 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, I've always interpreted it to mean something about spinelessness. They are crying *so hard* that the tears ran all the way down their spine (e.g., crocodile tears), and maybe they are also pointing out for no reason that they REALLY REALLY REALLY DO have a spine (when they don't). Or maybe they are spineless and a puddle of flesh, so the tears just go there? Or maybe they confuse their face and spine because their spine isn't solid and changes as quickly as their facial expression.
posted by unknowncommand at 6:42 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]

I’ve always read it half-huh? as you describe and half-the way forbiddencabinet says — an overwrought mash-up of cliché/mixed metaphor to make the narrator sound smarmy. Agreed that the rhyme is super forced and feels like a draft that didn’t get revisited, but I think it’s the second half of the couplet that’s at fault.

It really, really sounds like “tears” to me and not any other word suggested here.
posted by cabbage raccoon at 6:47 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Best answer: But now I'm intrigued by the Genius.com commentary that they're combining those two clichés (tears:face::chills:spine) to make them meaningless. So in their attempt to convey/exaggerate the depths of their grief, they go too far and say nothing.

Oh, or what forbiddencabinet said :)
posted by unknowncommand at 6:49 AM on January 15

Response by poster: @unknowncommand Oooh! I like the Janus interpretation too! Two faced liberals. And the head at the back is the one crying the spine-tears. 😂
posted by onehundredand80 at 7:26 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]

I have never given any thought to this lyric. Phil Ochs rules.
posted by kensington314 at 8:06 AM on January 15

Best answer: So the liberal is ten degrees to the left of center when they have no skin in the game, ten degrees to the right of center when it could affect them personally. If the liberal cried when they shot Medgar Evers but the tears ran down their spine, maybe it's because they were crying really hard while running equally hard in the opposite direction from any action they could've taken to do something effective about it because then they might've been shot themdamnselves and obviously that's not their M.O. So rapid was the liberal's flight from the dangerous notion of risking themselves by helping, their sympathetic tears blew behind them. So copious were those tears that they ran down the liberal's back.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:20 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Huh. I thought this song was a Jello Biafra/Mojo Nixon original. TIL.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 9:32 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I remember my dad complaining about how this line made no sense (he loved Phil Ochs). I mentioned that in Dante’s Inferno there’s a punishment that sounds remarkably similar: per wikipedia “Their heads have been twisted around to face backwards, and thus they are forced to walk backwards around the circumference of their circle for all eternity. They also are blinded by their tears; therefore they cannot walk in straight paths.”

Unfortunately this is the punishment for fortunetellers and soothsayers rather than for hypocrites or something, so it’s very unlikely to be a deliberate reference, but still!
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:36 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]

Just throwing the imagery I got from it out there:

When you're hugging someone while crying, your tears go down their back/spine.

So, I interpreted that as kinda, "I cried, and others I was with cried, and we all had to support each other, as our grief was so public and widespread" .
posted by Elysum at 3:46 AM on January 18

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