Tables have perfect memories, so it’s a shame they don’t have voices. They have a complete and inerrant record of a family’s life, but no way of expressing it. The simple act of sharing a meal at a table binds and unites us, breaks down our walls, and makes us a little more of a family. Seriously, if you want fellowship with another person, sit at a table with them, and have food in front of you.
This is something Genesis understood, I think. The second track on Foxtrot is a song called “Time Table,” which speaks of “a carved oak table” that played host to kings and queens who “sipped wine from goblets gold.” Ages have passed, the kings and queens are dead and gone, and yet the table remains. The etchings left by all the dings and scratches over time tell a rich story, if only one would imagine it.
“Time Table” has more meaning than just that, however. It’s also a critique on the tendency among humans to start a noble enterprise and ruin it through gradual neglect. The kings and queens who sat at this table were valorous and honorable, high-born and deserving of their station. However, they solved their problems through violence, the simplest and least effective way possible. Who was right depended on who had the biggest lance or the sharpest sword, and who was last standing on the battlefield. Eventually, the ideals that made them kings and queens in the first place are forgotten.
The chorus asks why people kill each other over the belief that their people group (the song uses the language “race”) is superior. The answer the song gives, I think, is insufficient; it boils down to “that’s the way it’s always been.”
The most interesting thing about “Time Table” is its positioning right after “Watcher of the Skies.” We have a futuristic vision of a world where humans are extinct, and then a rewind into what made the humans go extinct: their own ignorance and infighting. “Time Table” takes us through history to a time when “only the rats hold sway,” which is perhaps the very time that the Watcher arrives on earth. I like to think “Time Table” is told from the first-person perspective of the main character of “Watcher of the Skies.”
The characters presented in “Time Table,” those kings and queens who perished in arrogance, could take a lesson from Cnut, King of England in 11th century A.D., and subject of the fourth track on Foxtrot, “Can-Utility and the Coastliners.” King Cnut’s name is sometimes spelled Canute, which is probably where “Can-Utility” comes from. The Coastliners would be his courtiers the rest of his royal court. Honestly, I’ve always thought “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” sounded kind of like a cover band of 50+ guys who didn’t play anything made later that 1964.
The story which the lyrics lay out comes from history, or at least records from such antiquarian historians as Goscelin and Henry of Huntingdon. Some of it may have never happened. King Cnut was being flattered uproariously by his courtiers, as kings usually are. In some cultures, kings were treated as gods or divine avatars. If a person is told a lie enough times and often enough, they’ll start to believe it.
So King Cnut took his throne and his courtiers down to the beach at Southampton, planted his throne at the water’s edge and commanded the tide to halt. As we in our modernity can imagine, the tide did not halt. In the words of Henry of Huntingdon, “…it dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’”
The “Him” Cnut was referring to was of course God. After that, he took of his crown and hung it on a crucifix, never to put it on again. This was a sign to all the people to fear God, not the king. Some historians recast Cnut as a much wiser man, knowing that the waves wouldn’t obey his command to stop, but staged the whole thing to rebuke his courtiers and their profuse flattery.
Genesis tell this story with much grandiosity, matched only by their obscurity. It took me a lot of digging to figure out what the heck “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” means. But the song is great art, the lyrics particularly highlighting the irony of a man pretending he’s God. The lines “crown him, crown him” remind me of the old hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” which is probably exactly where my mind was meant to go.
Then comes the vinyl flip and the short guitar instrumental “Horizons,” written by its sole performer, guitarist Steve Hackett. It’s very pretty, ethereal and pastoral. Genesis has a reputation of doing songs like this, with their previous 3 albums being riddled with finger-picked 12-string acoustic guitars. The fact that “Horizons” is the only song like it on the whole of Foxtrot says something. You can repeat the past, but only for a little while.
Next: get on your bibs, people, because Supper’s Ready.