International Herald Tribune (September 30) introduced a commentary of Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami who is regarded as a favorite for this year’s Nobel Prize in literature on Japan’s dispute with China over the territorial issues of the Senkaku Islands, which appeared in the Asahi Newspaper on September 28. Murakami wrote:

After your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning. We must be careful about politicians and polemicists who lavish us with this cheap liquor and fan this kind of rampage.

After the analogy of ‘Cheap liquor’ of nationalism, the writer, Marc McDonald adds:

Put another way, by the possible Nobel laureate Mr. Bob Dylan: “Keep a clean nose / Watch the plain clothes / You don’t need a weatherman / To know which way the wind blows.

I can understand 'just literally' the implication of “Keep a clean nose. You don’t need a weatherman. To know which way the wind blows.” But I don’t understand what “Watch the plain clothes” implies?

To me, the line, “Keep a clean nose and so on” doesn’t relate to cheap liquor nationalism at all, thanks to the lack of my imagination.

I think this is a lyric of Bob Dylan’s popular song, but I’m curious to know how it comes that “Cheap liquor of nationalism” could be paraphrased or accounted for by “Keep a clean nose / Watch the plain clothes / You don’t need a weatherman / To know which way the wind blows.”?

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    Interpreting lyrics is Off Topic. – FumbleFingers Sep 30 '12 at 14:50
  • Tangential to this: the Weather Underground took their name from those lines. – Zairja Sep 30 '12 at 15:25
  • @FumbleFingers. I’m not asking about interpretation of a lyric. The quote happened to be a singer’s lyric. But I have no interest in Bob Dylan, his songs and lyrics, at all! I was asking the meaning of “Watch the plainclothes,” which I found by J.R’s answer that I mistook “plain clothes” for “plainclothes” for attending a casual cocktail party. The author put “put another way” of “Cheap liquor.” which means Cheap liquor = “Keep a clean nose, Watch the plain clothes, and so on. My question is whether it’s possible logically and rhetorically. – Yoichi Oishi Sep 30 '12 at 20:49
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    @Yoichi Oishi: But it is interpretation of lyrics, nothing more. There's no English idiomatic expression Watch the plain clothes - it only has meaning in the context of the song. So far as I know, even don’t need a weatherman never existed before the song, but at least that expression occasionally turns up in contexts that aren't just quoting. Also I believe the "plain clothes" reference was specific to Dylan's context - it seems irrelevant in your example, where it just got "scooped up for the ride" as part of a longer quoted section. – FumbleFingers Oct 1 '12 at 2:28
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    As ever, @Yoichi, I don't object to you asking the question - your questions are always interesting! And you always do your "homework" before asking. I don't know if you feel strongly that the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyutai islands belong to Japan/China/Taiwan. But the way the wind is blowing is that China's emerging as the new global superpower, so my money would be on them having de facto control eventually. And they won't need plain clothes detectives following "dissident" artists to achieve that goal, so that bit doesn't really fit the context so far as I can see. – FumbleFingers Oct 1 '12 at 14:42

Yoichi, I wonder if, when you read "plain clothes," you thought of ordinary clothes, as opposed to fashionable attire.

I think Dylan was referring instead to plain clothes police officers, meaning those who don't wear a uniform. That, coupled with keep a clean nose, essentially means, "stay out of trouble," as does much of the rest of that song, with mention of the springtime arrests ordered by the district attorney, and getting bailed out of prison. Of course, Dylan made it rhyme better than I just did.

As to how this all relates to the dispute over the islands, I think the author is simply saying that it's easy to let your emotions get the best of you, and land into serious trouble, over something that is rather petty in the larger scheme of things. Better to just keep your wits about you.

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  • It didn’t occur to me that the ‘plain clothes’ here means plainclothes detectives at all, though I knew ‘plainclothes. Now I think I start to be able to relate the quoted part of the lyric to “Liquor of nationalism” allegory, though vaguely. – Yoichi Oishi Sep 30 '12 at 10:18

I'm not sure interpreting song lyrics falls under our mandate here in EL&U, but as I understand it, Dylan's lyrics, written about counter-culture movements in the early 60's, refers to the (alleged?) practice of undercover plain-clothes policemen to infiltrate demonstrations and incite them to violence, thus justifying more extreme measures against them.

Additionally, the oft-quoted "you don't need a weatherman" line is, again, a call for people to heed their own moral compass, rather than be led by the official party line, as dictated from above.

This seems inline with Murakami's warnings about the governments exacerbating the political situation, and people being swept along into the conflict.

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    Plain-clothes cops did infiltrate demonstrations back then, as they do now, but not all of them deliberately incited the demonstrators to violence. I ran into two who were only taking pictures during the 1970 Columbia University student riot in response to Nixon's bombing of Laos, I believe. I had to "protect" them from two aggressive student demonstrators who also knew that they were plainclothes cops and wanted to beat them up. – user21497 Sep 30 '12 at 9:22
  • Well, it's not only back then. I ran into quite a few in recent demonstrations here in Israel. Some were just filming the crowd, some were marking out leaders to be arrested later. I decided to keep the question mark in my answer to avoid making a definite statement here about the 60's demonstrations, since I wasn't quite born when they were going on. :) – Avner Shahar-Kashtan Sep 30 '12 at 9:25
  • I know it still happens everywhere in the world, and in the USA, it's clearly the case that a lot of the incitement to violence comes from undercover infiltrators who feel they have to (maybe they also want to?) incite the almost-zealous to violence. It's politics. Spies are everywhere (I'm not being paranoid) and always have been. Espionage is a combination of prostitution and addiction, the world's oldest sources of stimulation for those humans who have hedonic glands. – user21497 Sep 30 '12 at 9:34

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