There are two songs in my music library that are well-known but always lead to questions when I play them. Not coincidently, both songs reference mountains. A mountain, both timeless and unmoving, should not suddenly appear or disappear. And yet, in both songs mountains do something actively, throwing the listener out of kilter.
The first song is “Roundabout” by Yes. With the lyric, “In and around the lake/mountains come out of the sky/and they stand there.” The second is Donovan’s “There Is a Mountain,” with the stanza “First there is a mountain/then there is no mountain/then there is.” Both songs play with the permanence of mountains. But if we were to take them literally, they actually make sense.
In “Roundabout,” one can imagine a lake covered in mist, obscuring long-distance vision. As the mist clears, distant mountains seem to come out of the sky. Obviously, then, the mountains do nothing but stand there. It’s what mountains do best. It’s an evocative line, but one of the most straight forward from Yes, a prog rock band with some of the most obscure lyrics in a radio-friendly format. In fact, the whole of “Roundabout” can be seen as a journey, but the time and distance of the journey aren’t quite able to be gleaned, with lyrics, “One mile over we’ll be there and we’ll see you/Ten true summers we’ll be there and laughing too/Twenty four before my love you’ll see/I’ll be there with you.”
One mile probably wouldn’t take anyone ten years to travel, nor does ten years take place within 24 hours. Still, we can be sure that the song is about a journey, no matter the distortion of time and space. Contrast to other mentions of mountains in Yes’s songbook (they sing a lot about mountains), like “Siberian Khatru,” where they sing, “Sing, bird of prey/Beauty begins at the foot of you/Do you believe the manner?/Gold stainless nail,/Torn through the distance of man/As they regard the summit.” Here we have an eagle, let’s say, with golden talons, somewhere in the sky while people are looking at a mountain’s peak? What “manner” does the eagle maybe believe? Most Yes lyrics tend towards the inscrutable. But with “Roundabout” the mountains are clearly doing what mountains do, standing there. They may be a metaphor for something else, but they needn’t be. The literal is enough, despite hiding in a mind-twisting lyric.
Donovan’s “There Is a Mountain,” is further twisting, wrapped in a koan, “First there is a mountain/then there is no mountain/then there is.” Can we take this literally? Actually, yes. There is no mention of time, and one can posit that the mountain is visible in the day, then at night the mountain disappears, only to be seen again tomorrow. Again, this plays with the permanence of mountains and our perception. If we do not see the mountain, is it there? I won’t even touch on the philosophy behind object permanence, but I will say that the mountain does nothing when it is not seen. It does not affect Donovan when he cannot see it, so the mountain might as well be not there.
This is Donovan’s mild, folksy psychedelia. How can a mountain not be there after it was just there and then suddenly reappear? It’s possible Donovan just blinked. There. Gone. There again. More crucial than the disappearing mountain is Donovan’s relation to it. It may cause the listener to wonder what drugs Donovan was taking when he wrote it, but it’s not out of the realm of reality.
The song does present an imponderable, though. Suddenly, Donovan calls out for a Juanita. It’s never made clear why. He sings about the mountain, a snail, and a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, which are all observable and likely. But, then, he seems to have lost Juanita and felt it necessary to tell us in the middle of the song. I do hope she’s okay.
In any case, it is pleasing that these particular lines in these two songs, from over 45 years ago, still catch listeners off guard. What now amounts to background, “oldies” music still births an ear worm that bores into the rational part of the brain and causes one to question just what happened to those mountains.