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Looking for MERCY


I’ve been haunted by a beautiful song for many years now. It’s ‘Mercy Street’ by Peter Gabriel from his 1986 album So.


The start of the chorus I’ve always taken to be:


Dreaming of Mercy Street

Where you’re inside out


Turns out it’s actually:


Wear your inside out


I was tricked by the play on words. But now it’s got me thinking.


On the face of it, the song is the saddest thing.


Let’s take the boat out

Wait until darkness

Let’s take the boat out

Wait until darkness comes


The title came from Anne Sexton’s 1969 play ‘Mercy Street’. She was also working on a poem called ‘45 Mercy Street’ at the time of her death in 1974, committing suicide, her fifth attempt successful.


Anne, with her father, is out in the boat

Riding the water

Riding the waves on the sea


She had a difficult relationship with her dad and struggled with mental illness most of her life. Writing for her was therapy.


Is that why the song resonates so? What's in the verses?


Looking down on empty streets, all she can see

Are the dreams all made soft

Are the dreams all made real

All of the buildings, all of those cars

Were once just a dream

In somebody’s head

She pictures the broken glass, she pictures the steam

She pictures a soul

With no leak at the seam


Maybe the perils of keeping it all in?


Nowhere in the corridors of pale green and grey

Nowhere in the suburbs

In the cold light of day

There in the midst of it so alive and alone

Words support like bone


Maybe that’s why we writers write?


Pulling out the papers from the drawers that slide smooth

Tugging at the darkness, word upon word

Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box

To the priest-he’s the doctor

He can handle the shocks

Dreaming of the tenderness-the tremble in the hips

Of kissing Mary’s lips


Not just validation. Wanting kindness, compassion even. New ideas are fragile.


I think it does all come back to that line in the chorus.


'Where you’re inside out' sounds like hell. All your deepest darkest thoughts and feelings on show for everyone to see.


But 'wear your inside out' sounds like an instruction to be your true self, if you can find your way there and it’s safe when you arrive.


Dreaming of Mercy Street

‘Swear they moved that sign

Looking for mercy

In your daddy’s arms


Peter Gabriel seemed caught between the two different meanings when I saw him in 2013. He sung it lying down on what looked like a target, with five giant angle-poise lamps swarming around him.



But I’ve always felt something uplifting in the melancholy. Follow the light out of the darkness. Be you.


I just never knew it was there.

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by RICHARD BROWN

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