The Shadow in the Mirror: Shadow, the Mighty Spoiler and the Uncanny

Posted: May 26, 2014 in Uncategorized
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This post completes a couplet on Shadow’s relationship to Trinidad and Tobago’s musical traditions, focusing especially on those traditions as exemplified by particular musicians. The last post was on Shorty and Shadow; this one is on Shadow and Spoiler, one of the few Kaisonians even remotely in Shadow’s lyrical vein. While several of the posts on Shadowlingo thus far have been excerpts from papers and other writings once intended for a book (before the project ran into delays in contacting Shadow himself and thus slid down behind three other book projects) the two posts on Shorty’s and Spoiler’s relationship to Shadow were written especially for Shadowlingo. They are a bit long. Read them in whole or take shifts in between ‘fives.’ Enjoy.



Abigail Hadeed, “Mighty Shadow,” gelatin silver print (selenium toned), 1994

It has occurred to some followers of Shadow’s music that at least in Calypso’s theatre of the absurd, it’s showcase of wonders where other Calypsonians make only cameo appearances, Shadow is the only regular headliner today…but he is not without precedent in Calypso history. The immediate comparison that comes to some minds is with the Mighty Spoiler, the revered musical wordsmith of the mid twentieth century.

Calypsonians and writers have never ceased to lay wreaths at the feet of this lyrical trickster with the gift for comical fantasy: from (1) Bomber’s worshipful, Calypso Monarch-winning tribute to him and his thematic and lyrical style in “Bomber’s Dream” of 1964 to (2) Derek Walcott’s 1980s poem “The Spoiler’s Return,” in which the then soon-to-be Nobel Laureate adopted Spoiler’s persona to critique contemporary society[i] to (3) the actors and musicians of University of the West Indies Centre for Creative and Festival Arts reproducing and recording live several of Spoiler’s songs for their musical “Ah Wanna Fall,” which took as its title Spoiler’s famous refrain. There have been dozens of tributes to Spoiler in between these and since these.

Spoiler’s relatively short career, which spanned the late 1940s and 50s before ending in an alcohol-related death during the Christmas season of 1960, makes the loss of this musical sage-jester more tragic, and his unique contribution even more jewel-like in rarity.

Taken together—Shadow’s massive oeuvre and the considerably fewer recordings of Spoiler—the two Calypsonians definitely share a fascination with irony, dark humour, the dilemma and the absurd. They share these similarities across a decade-long divide, with the end of Spoiler’s career in 1960 and the beginning of Shadow’s recording career at the top of the 1970s. Very few other Calypsonians inhabit their recondite Calypso mindscape. The Mighty Dougla is perhaps their most notable cohort, in some cases spanning the divide between Spoiler and Shadow chronologically and thematically with 1960s songs like the absurd masterpiece “Lazy Man” and the keen social critique, “Split Meh in Two,” which proposes in its chorus and title an outrageous solution to a very real and outrageous social problem.

It is to Dougla’s great credit that he could indeed span the divide because out here on the margins of the Calypso galaxy the difference between these lonesome figures is at times considerable. While the two Calypsonians are both inclined towards heady flights of fantasy, the allegorical and satirical content of Spoiler’s songs is neither obvious nor consistent. It is evident that Spoiler, the older Calypsonian, from an earlier (and more censored) time, often opted to entertain, astound and even intrigue his audience with outrageous tales and lyrical acrobatics rather than trouble them with complex philosophical questions like Shadow does.

Still, even as much of Spoiler’s lyrics can be likened or even attributed to the idle, scatological humour and “ole talk” of the average rumshop (‘Spoil-O’ himself was a seasoned and infamous drinker)[ii] it is impossible to deny some more clandestine forms of social criticism and philosophical concern in his work. You can find the more shrewd, political side of Spoiler not through some strenuous binocular scrutiny of his lyrics but from just repeatedly hearing some of his distractingly amusing compositions. As your subconscious absorbs each song, or as your intellect sums it up, you realize things you hadn’t at first.

When Spoiler becomes a blood-sucking insect in “Bedbug” he is only interested in feeding on the well-fed, wealthy and/or powerful. With these instant, nearly effortless infusions of ‘blue blood’ from those with titles, he is able to gain title for himself. Thus the colonizing insect-Spoiler triumphantly crowns himself “King Bedbug the First.”

Spoiler’s political acumen is even less ambiguous in “Magistrate Try Himself” in which the audience is invited to consider the absurdity of government officials who find themselves charged with interrogating, investigating, reviewing or trying themselves for an offence or violation. We see how the inevitable conflicts of interest predictably end in either acquittal or very lenient convictions. Despite all the hilarious drama that ensues in the magistrate’s ‘auto-litigation,’ including his finding himself in contempt of court for courtroom shenanigans, the whole vain affair ends with the official ultimately giving himself several months to pay off a reduced fine.

This particular song, with its grammatically licentious “Himself tell himself” has often been directly quoted or paraphrased by Trinbagonian journalists as they cover precisely these kinds of government investigations of government bodies, sometimes with some of the same individuals on both sides of the investigation. Spoiler on occasion simply reflects the absurdity of his surroundings, with no need to make up more rumshop absurdities of his own.

As we mull over Spoiler, we realize that in songs like the aforementioned, and others such as “Funeral Undertaker” in which a racketeering Spoiler bribes medical experts to declare people dead so he can drum up business for his funeral home, the Calypsonian is quite a nimble commentator on corruption. He slips in under the radar of 1940s and 50s censors with lively, playful jaunts that remain just that until we sing them a few times and start thinking them over. On a second or third pass over “Funeral Undertaker” we find ourselves recalling not only all the published scandals involving funeral homes and their indelicate disposal of bodies and ashes, reuse of funerary materials and cemetery plots etc. but also all the profiteering that ensues from declaring a problem that does not exist, the proverbial ‘solution in search of a problem.” We consider how much business has been generated by false diagnoses of all sorts. We recognise Spoiler’s evil funeral home director from many walks of life.

But usually Spoiler doesn’t go anywhere near the corrupt politicians and businessmen of his day—not directly. His sly evasion does not make him like Shadow. For although Shadow in his early career often seemed notably disinterested in the more mundane socio-political and socio-economic concerns of his day he evinced a gradual evolution towards more frequent and direct commentary over the span of his career.

From around the early 80s with songs like “Keep off the Dope” (which advises young women to watch themselves around certain predatory characters at Carnival) to the present, Shadow has developed a clever, double-pronged method of social critique. While he has indeed tended to circumvent the usual partisan or advocate’s attack on the political and socio-economic scene he has opted to present particular narratives (i.e., micro views) of social, economic and political problems (e.g., a poor mother at her wits end in the infamous “Poverty is Hell” of 1993) and, complementarily, structural critiques (i.e., macro views) thereof (as, say, in 1984’s savage but abstract critique of PNM corruption and incompetence in “Snakes” (in ‘the Balizier’)).

Neither of these approaches, macro nor micro but direct all the same, is Spoiler’s modus operandi.

Spoiler’s approach is far more oblique. His famous courtroom conundrum of 1957 demonstrates this with a relatively minor issue—a traffic infraction. But the economies of scale issue that makes it so that a small community only has one magistrate transfers easily to a small nation that only has so many government officials to oversee and, if need be, sanction others:

Aha, well dis one is class

They charged a magistrate for driving too fast,

You mustn’t doubt me, dis one is class

They charged a magistrate for driving too fast.

But it’s one courthouse in the district.

He’s the only magistrate there to run it.

If you see how people pack up in de place

To see how de magistrate go try he own case


Himself tell himself, “You are charged for speeding.”

Himself start to shout, “De policeman lyin’!”

Himself tell himself, “Don’t shout! Dis aint no sport”

And he charge himself for contempt of court.

But a courtroom scene by Shadow from 1985’s Mystical Moods is treated quite differently:

The Truth had a fight

On a Saturday night.

It was war in de town.

The Truth was shot down.

The witnesses failed

To appear in de court—

Bribes in their mail.

The case was thrown out.


Money killed the Truth—oh yeah.

The triumph was cued.

Corruption was the Jury.

The verdict was “Not Guilty.”

…The case was a flop

Was a big cover-up

When the Judge saw Money

He became stupidy.

The Crown Prosecutor,

Corruption’s brother,

He didn’t waste time—

He sold de case for a dime.


The song continues with personifications of the murdered Truth, insidious Corruption, and seductive Money, all making their appearance in the court, the latter two as major players able to sway the Judge, Prosecutor, Police witnesses and Jury. Eventually, even the Truth’s wife is paid off to keep her mouth shut after the burial of her husband.

No stranger to high comedy in his lyrics, Shadow in this case gives up a considerable measure of humour (as compared with Spoiler’s court) for a more definite political poignancy.

Spoiler’s indirect but highly comedic satirical approach possesses none of the accusatory tone of Shadow’s “Truth” or a dozen other of the latter’s compositions from the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Rather Spoiler’s “Money in the Bank” is more typical of the senior Calypsonian’s oblique critical style. The content of this song is pretty much something we have all lived through in the banking collapses and debt crises of the 20th and 21st centuries. In it Spoiler complains that he cannot withdraw his inheritance from the bank because some “big shots” have piled their money on top of his in the same bank. So the wealthy have stayed his attempt to retrieve his money from the bottom of the stack. The scene seems ridiculous until we read it as allegory: ‘rich people have to get their money before I can get mine’ and ‘mixing my money with the monies of the wealthy causes me to lose my money in the mix.’ With a physical dilemma, Spoiler illustrates the pecking order in the acquisition and retrieval of money.

But reading Spoiler’s allegorical content takes far more effort than the Calypsos of Shadow’s generation. It’s easy to see how some of Spoiler’s listeners could simply dismiss the more satirical aspects of his Calypsos if they were either not inclined or not able to consider them on that level. As with the saucy Calypsos of every generation it is always up to you whether you want to read into the double entendre or just escape into a simple, amusing Calypso ditty to wile your time away.

Of course, the philosophical and political content in Shadow’s music is far more difficult to escape. You get the haunting feeling that you’re ‘wiling away’ at your own peril.

While their exploration and rhetorical use of fantasy is quite different, these two vessels were bound to pass each other close in the lonely Calypso night—eventually. The theme inside of which we find the closest connections and starkest contrasts between Spoiler and Shadow is their shared and abiding concern with alter egos.

As Alvin C. Daniel describes “[i]n many of his songs, Spoiler was bedevilled by evil twins and sinister doubles.” Spoiler’s twin brother is the subject and namesake of at least two versions of “Twin Brother,” and this brother might be the same fictitious sibling mentioned in “Funeral Undertaker.” In both songs, the sibling is buried under what Daniel might describe as Edgar Allan Poe-type circumstances, since on both occasions the brother is alive when interred.

Throughout the second version of “Twin Brother,” Spoiler suffers the consequences of his twin brother’s sins and trespasses:

If he playing football—I in de stand

I sit down with my woman named Lillian

And if he miss a ball

She will turn around

Telling me I is de

Worst footballer in town

Fed up with getting blamed for his brother’s wrong doings and being prevented from getting on with his own life, Spoiler hatches a dastardly plan.

We both had the flu in the hospital.

I play ah dead—they had a big funeral.

But they bawl like a horse when they discover

They make a mistake and bury my twin brother.

But when Shadow approaches his doppelganger, it is with a sci-fi twist, and it is not as a sibling but as its creator. Tired of contending with biased Calypso judges and the administration of the Master’s Den, Shadow says:

…Ah leave meh robot on earth and went.

Ah leave meh robot to run meh tent.

Nobody knew I went away.

They thought the robot was me.

When de rumour hit Port of Spain—

De Shadow is here again


Ah come back to fix meh business

And to run some musical madness.

I know you will recognize me

By the beauty of my melody.

Run de beat,

Loud and sweet.

Aint no lie.

This is I!

The first time the chorus is sung it betrays that Shadow will soon have some trouble being recognised as himself and will have some problems to deal with. While the Master takes flight through the “astral plane” on his robot-facilitated sabbatical (note where Shadow goes on retreat!) things on earth begin to spiral out of control. From his lofty cosmic perch, Shadow receives word of impending disaster.

But I hear meh robot havin’ a ball—

He messin’ with alcohol.

I had to come back to town

Before something else go wrong.


I told de robot to wear my gown.

The stupid thing start to malfunction.

De robot start playing saga boy,

Wearing disco clothes like Roy.

And the thing that really aggravate me—

The robot thought he was me.

He take meh girl Emily

And give she a big belly

–“Return of the Shadow” (from Return of the Shadow album, 1982)

From this song to “Crazy Computer” Shadow evinces a deeply fraught relationship with machines and artificial intelligence. This is a major, prescient theme of Shadow’s that we will be taking up in another post. But the salient point here (and also one we will explore in greater depth in that “A.I.” post) is Shadow’s errant creation of his own replacement.

When Shadow describes the cyborg as malfunctioning, we are left to wonder whether the “robot” might not be functioning too well. For Shadow is a rebel and the robot begins to rebel. Shadow goes his own way and so does the robot. And since the robot is fully functional in replacing Shadow temporarily, it takes the initiative and starts replacing him permanently. It also does so in some unique and autonomous ways, performing certain functions unforeseen by its creator.

Unlike the organic doppelganger in Spoiler’s “Twin Brother,” with shades of horror films and noir fiction in the twin’s dark end, Shadow’s twin is one that goes back to Isaac Asimov, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and even the Bible. For by the end of the Book of Genesis, God is sorry he ever created man—and sends the flood. This is the ambivalence, indeed the regret of “the creator” explored by Shelly, Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick and countless writers of Star Trek, the Matrix trilogy etc.

It is also the ambivalence of the parent, one that parents are loathe to admit. Your friend is only half-joking when she makes a pathetic face and asks you if you want to borrow her kids indefinitely…and by the time those children turn into teenagers, parents are sometimes ready to admit their regrets about a certain amorous night fifteen or sixteen years previous that should have never happened!

On top of his creator’s/parent’s remorse, Shadow is at the end of his rope with his robot. For he has created, like Dr. Frankenstein, a rival, who approaches him in intellect, equals him in abilities, diverges/divests from him in individuality, and bests him in prowess. “Return of the Shadow” ends with the conflict between creature and creator unresolved, and with the creator’s woman pregnant by the creature! The masculine rivalry and other gender issues raised by “the machine” in this song and others by Shadow is also something we’ll take up in that same future “A.I.” post.

Obviously, Shadow has taken the doppelganger concept far beyond Spoiler’s wheelhouse—to and from the astral plane, back to the dawn of humanity and forward to the existential implications of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Image“Spoiler/Shadow/Mirror/Shadow,” cartoon by Lawrence Waldron

Looking into the eyes of a machine that looks just like you (and who has convinced, seduced and stolen your girlfriend) must be a truly uncanny, deeply vexing, profoundly frightening experience. But what if the thing that stared back at you was even closer to you—something everyone considered to be properly you?

I looked in a mirror, what did I see?

A man with a hard face looking like me.

I called on Priscilla to take a look.

Go call de neighbour I see a crook!

She turned and she said “Shadow dat is you”

But she don’t know I know that it aint true.

I in front the mirror, I know mehself.

That guy in the mirror is someone else.


It is not me!

Just couldn’t be.

I in front the mirror,

De man inside.

Like you want to take my brain

for a ride.

I said it’s not me!

Just couldn’t be!

De dummy in de mirror is an alien,

A being from another dimension.

–“Through the Mirror” (from the If I Coulda, I Woulda, I Shoulda album, 1979)

In his lengthy but far from exhaustive essay on “the uncanny,” Sigmund Freud outlined this troubling and obscure emotion as a feeling that issues from an experience of something inanimate, un-sentient, and/or unfamiliar which projects to us the appearance of being just the opposite. In our experience of an automaton (i.e., robot, cyborg, well-constructed or moving doll), but sometimes also a mirror reflection of ourselves, we might feel unnerved.[iii] This is Shadow’s feeling in front of the mirror. He refuses to identify with his reflection.

Ominously enough the Spoiler song with which Shadow’s “Through the Mirror” has the strongest resemblance is a song from 1958 called “My Shadow.”

Compare Spoiler’s,

Partner, yes, I want to know—

Tell meh why meh shadow does get on so.

Oh meh darlin’, Spoiler want to know—

Tell meh why meh shadow does get on so.

Because when I wake in de morning

If I only scratch, meh shadow scratching

Ah go to hit him a day, I tellin’ you

And as ah lift meh hand, he lift he own too

 with Shadow’s

I called on the neighbour to come and see

The man in the mirror acting like me

He making my actions and wouldn’t stop

And speaking the truth

I getting fed up

While each song features disturbing encounters between the self and its dimension-less or other-dimensional counterpart, we join Spoiler already in his ongoing ordeal, whereas we join Shadow at the moment that he is first startled by his reflection. In the beginning of “Through the Mirror” Shadow stumbles upon his uncanny reflection one day so along with him, we are arrested by the encounter. But in the second verse of Spoiler’s “My Shadow” (after a first verse that is effectively a gloss on his ‘shadow problems’) we are given a convenient back-story of Spoiler and his life with his shadow:

Partner, from de time I small

Meh shadow wouldn’t give meh a break at all,

Oh me darlin’.

Sometime I will run

To see if I could get away—

He still stick on

Spoiler, however, does provide us with a similarly startling moment as Shadow’s first encounter, an unnerving confrontation from a time in his past when he tried to hide from his shadow:

Oh Lord, sometimes I’d go in the darkness,

Hiding from him, peeping through the crevice.

When I go back in the light,

If yuh hear meh squeal.

We were together in the dark

Standing heel to heel.

The two men draft plans to get rid of their respective doppelgangers. Shadow’s solution seems to hark back directly to his forbear, Spoiler—decapitation! Freud would have fun with this:

(“Through the Mirror,” 2nd verse)

The man in the mirror was confusing.

I thought of a plan to get rid of him.

I pass a razor close to meh throat;

I want him to kill himself like a goat.

I make a slash then I stumble back down.

If he aint dead now, well something wrong.

When I rose up to my great surprise

A Mister was watching me in meh eyes


(“My Shadow,” 4th verse)

Partner, but Mr. Wilfred—

He tell meh how to cut off my shadow head,

Oh, me darlin’!

He say half past nine

Go an’ put meh head on top de train line,

Oh Lord!

And when I hear de train coming

Don’t move meh head, just welcome de engine.

That’s all I have to do

And I feel he right,

So meh head on de train line

Tomorrow night.

The Spoiler song proposes a tragic solution to the stalking shadow—murder-suicide. For all the jovial and escapist lyrics Spoiler had written in his time, lyrics usually sung with a matching, strutting gaiety, these words take a surprisingly macabre turn. Backing up his contrastingly breezy delivery and expert comedic timing on the wicked lyrics was the innovative choice to use the Esso Southern Symphony Steelband as his sole musical accompaniment, a very rare choice indeed back in 1958. In this unusual composition we never know if Spoiler gets to carry out his dark plan because the song ends precisely at the mortal resolution to lay his head on the train track.

In “Through the Mirror” Shadow tries something similar, trying to cut his reflection’s (or is it his?) throat. But as the pore-raising “Mister watchin’ meh in meh eyes” afterwards confirms, his attempt on his spooky reflection’s life is not successful. From that decapitation verse onwards, the Shadow composition extends the uncanny confrontation, and Shadow’s ensuing personal crisis, beyond the narrative arc of Spoiler’s “My Shadow” but also beyond its thematic frame.

Unsatisfied with his wife Priscilla’s insistence that the reflection is him, a troubled Shadow calls a neighbour to witness the goings on. The mirror reflection continues to imitate, perhaps mock, his every movement. The neighbour is not impressed and reflects Priscilla’s sentiments, even scolding Shadow:

She turned and she said,

“Stop your stupidness,

Yuh better report to a psychiatrist!”

You think I mad, but neighbour you lie,

If he is me, tell me who am I?

In true Shadow fashion, and unlike Spoiler’s murder-suicide resolution, “Through the Mirror” ends with a question. If the reflection is me, then who’s this standing before the reflection?

While “theory of self,” the sense of one’s own existence and individuality, as demonstrated by children once they reach 18 months, and by some animals when they recognise themselves in a mirror, is considered a mark of higher intelligence, Shadow stubbornly doubts his reflection. Is this out of “stupidness” (i.e., having lower intelligence than a child or a chimpanzee)? Is Shadow’s crisis caused by some inherent mental deficiency on his part? Is it the result of mental disease? Indeed many schizophrenics do not recognize their own reflections. Suspecting something along these lines, Shadow’s neighbour commands him to dutifully “report to a psychiatrist.” Is Shadow suffering some dissociative disorder?

Shadow definitely teases us with the prospect of his ‘madness’ throughout the song. But at the end of “Through the Mirror,” his would-be psychosis gels into a philosophical rather than a psychological dysmorphia. When Shadow asks of his supposedly identical reflection “If he is me, tell me who am I?” he questions whether the man, the wife’s and neighbours’ notion of the man, the man’s notion of himself, and the image of the man are all one and the same. It turns out that apparently-psychotic, apparently-stupid Shadow is asking us one of the most fundamental questions we could ask: “which of these things is me—the body, the image, the idea?”

In fact mirror testing on primates and children to chart the emergence and breadth of their “theory of self” had begun only a decade before Shadow composed “Through the Mirror”[iv] so where was Shadow getting these advanced questions about the relationship of the self to the physical body, the mind and the image? Was he up in Laventille reading peer-reviewed journal articles from scientists at Tulane University? Or was he, like Spoiler before him, a home-grown, “organic philosopher” as my colleague and fellow Shadow fan Winthrop Holder often describes Shadow? Did Shadow hit upon this question about the self by accident, through hapless or clever rhetorical manoeuvres that can sometime produce emergent properties beyond the speaker’s own intelligence, or did he arrive at this kind of question through considering closely the nature of things?

One needs only stop and think to realize that the physical thing is not the same as the image of the referent thing, and that the image itself will spark ideas of the referent in our minds that are themselves yet further removed from the original, physical thing. And in art, as we make an image or sing a song about our idea of what we saw of the original thing, we are in effect making a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. This is why surrealist painter Magritte told us that we could not smoke his painting of a pipe because it itself was NOT a pipe.


René Magritte, “The Treachery of Images: Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” oil on canvas, 1948

When Shadow insists that the “dummy in the mirror…is a being from another dimension” he denies the personhood of a mere image, a reflection. And when he asks at the end ‘if the reflection is me, then who is this standing in front the reflection?’ he points to our fragile, fraught relationship with the self-image we build out of that mirror.

And what of those chimpanzees and children (and dolphins and elephants as well) who recognize ‘themselves’ in mirrors (or rather, who LEARN to recognize themselves in mirrors after being left alone with the reflective/reflexive surface for days at a time)? While we take this “theory of self” as a mark of their and our higher intelligence, isn’t ‘madness,’ as variously defined, precisely what ensues when our sophisticated, delicate, reflexive construct of the self gets a little scratch, a ding, a dent, or worse yet, serious damage in it? It doesn’t even have to be genocide, slavery, rape or robbery; it can just be the suggestion that we are too fat, too short, too dark. So much can go wrong with our sense of self, precisely because it is a complicated, fancy, specialised thing with so many contingencies—so many working parts (or so many diaphanous illusions).

In fact, while psychologists, metaphysicists and mystics of all religious affiliations, and no religious affiliations at all, have questioned the reality of the self, and as philosophers too (many of them Eastern) have taken a crack at this question, other philosophers (many of them Western) have shouted them down, and in the mix, we common folks have consistently cherished the notion of the self as a healthy thing. Cogito ergo sum, right?! “I think therefore I am”…hmmmm.

Even as we give up quite a few megabytes of streaming awareness of our surroundings in real-time, here and now, to be up inside our own heads, being aware of ourselves instead, we consider this self-awareness to be a “higher” intelligence, rather than just a “different” kind of intelligence peculiar to certain species that can make use of it.

But after two verses of madcap antics in front the mirror, Shadow in the third verse of “Through the Mirror” goes and sticks a semiotic wedge in between two major boards of this higher self-awareness of ours: between (a) the body and any inherent self-notion on one side and on the other, (b) the image of that body produced by light and shadow in the mirror and the notion of the self that an external gaze (whether the subject’s or his neighbours’) produces from the mirror image of the body.

If your reflection’s right eye is on your right side, how could he be you? Isn’t an actual person’s right eye on your left side?

If we compare what Shadow is doing in “Through the Mirror” with what Spoiler does in “My Shadow” we see where the younger Calypsonian is obviously, and most likely deliberately, taking up a thread left by the elder. Shadow obviously grew up hearing, and hearing of, Spoiler. But in the same way that Shadow over the years has built upon and deepened his exploration of certain topics that he himself pioneered and/or adopted early in his career (e.g., aliens, robots, jumbies, sentient animals), Shadow takes Spoiler’s “My Shadow” as his jumping-off point and takes it to new and unprecedented philosophical depths.

Did Spoiler’s title have anything to do with Shadow’s selection of his very soubriquet? That’s another story, and a post for another day.

In conclusion, topically speaking there were few places Spoiler wouldn’t go, but analytically speaking there were many paths he would or could not cut. A suicide on the train tracks (i.e., cutting off your head to spite your shadow) or a greedy funeral undertaker who has his own brother declared dead when said sibling oversleeps are dark (and darkly hilarious) dramas, and are as disquieting as Spoiler ever got. If Spoiler ever commented on, say, the slow-rolling panic that accompanies aging and the approach of death, it was on some clever, chipper merry-go-round of a Calypso like “Fountain of Youth,” rather than on the round of samsara that Shadow gives us in many of his songs about aging and death from “Story of Life” (1973) to “Aging System” (1984) to “Scratch Meh Back” (2000). For Spoiler is from a time when the Calypso “blade” that David Rudder describes was buried deep inside the velvet of Calypso’s soothing exegetical glove. In Spoiler’s corpus of singles the pile of the glove was so plush in fact that you could forget the blade was clenched there at all. You were often too busy being massaged by laughter and delight to take up his critical theme, and noodle strenuously through to its cutting edge.

Spoiler’s was a time in which a lyrical wizard such as he was more inclined, and perhaps compelled by circumstances, towards the escapist rather than the dialectical. Still, some of Spoiler’s own elders, such as Atilla the Hun in the pre-World War II years were defiant and confrontational critics of the prevailing powers of their time, often getting banned by censors. So it is more likely that Spoiler’s more playful and pacific personality bid him steer around such controversy. In the years following the trauma of war, he also might have hesitated to be too harsh and divisive a critical voice.

What Spoiler never evinced in political directness or philosophical breadth he more than made up for in lyrical complexity. And several of the most famous songs by Spoiler are not only feats of verbal dexterity but of mental acrobatics as well. Some compositions such as “Talking Backwards” require not only great stamina in remembering and delivering the lyrics in rapid fire but also seem to have required the composer to see words and sentences backwards and forwards in his mind so that he could make them rhyme in either direction. In the minds of many, only the Mighty Dougla’s “Family Confusion” has ever rivalled the shear tongue-tying verbal steeplechase of “Talking Backwards.” Thus, more than almost any other Calypsonian, Spoiler turned the musical form into a kind of Olympic sport.

Relator almost triumphing in his struggle with Spoiler’s “Talking Backwards,”  “Money in the Bank,” and “I Went to College”

From their contrasting lyrical approaches to fantasy, irony, conundrum and the uncanny, we see that whereas Shadow often adopts the question as his rhetorical mode, Spoiler often adopted the puzzle as his.

We can only speculate how much further Spoiler would have developed certain motifs if he had lived longer. What would he have done with the aging motif of “Fountain of Youth”? Or the science fiction motif of “Mad Scientist” in which people of tomorrow conceive babies by wireless and make routine afternoon excursions to the moon and Mars? How much longer would he have chased, and been chased by, the doppelganger he had first confronted in Calypsos like “Twin Brother”? Spoiler’s mischievous humour might have given us increasingly preposterous scenarios around these and other fertile topics. Of course aging, death, machines, robots, sentient animals, aliens and doppelgangers are motifs that have been developed into rich, important, recurring themes by Shadow and with a distinctly different, less bombastic, and clearly more philosophical intent.



[i] For a transcription of this poem, see fellow WordPress site:

[ii]Alvin C. Daniell, liner notes for Mighty Spoiler: Unspoilt, Ice Records Ice 950502 (CD), 1995; Keith Q. Warner, Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso: a Study of the Calypso as Oral Literature (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1985),114.

[iii] Sigmund Freud, An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works (London: Hogarth Press, 1919), 222-242.

[iv] For a brief history of “theory of self” experiemts, see:



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