I’ve had this song stuck in my head for the past few days, and thinking over the music and lyrics has got me wondering what this song actually means. I have a theory, which I’ll try and support while knowing the likeliest possibility is that the song isn’t about much of anything: Mike Patton says he chooses words more for their sound than their meaning, and Roddy Bottum described this song dismissively as “Pearl Jam on mushrooms.”
On the other hand, there are examples of other FNM songs that have stated meanings (e.g. “Midlife Crisis“), so it could be the case for “Last To Know” as well. So in the spirit of fun and because I’m sure nobody else will ever write anything like this…
My theory is “The Last To Know” is about the nuclear arms race and mutually assured destruction. Bottum’s remark about mushrooms might have been a motivated slip; Faith No More was playing a show in Berlin the night the Wall fell, so the band has its own sort of intimate history with the end of the Cold War, which many believed would conclude with mushrooms of another kind.
Faith No More also courted Cold War imagery in a minor way in their music video for “Everything’s Ruined,” in which bassist Billy Gould marches around in a Soviet-looking winter coat and fur hat while a mashup of Western cultural iconography flashes behind him — suggestive of the Cold War, to say the least.
Musically, “The Last To Know” paints a psychedelic landscape. I’d guess Bottum’s remark mainly referred to the Pearl Jam song “Black“, whose lyrics evoke a world falling apart (e.g. “my bitter hands chafe beneath the clouds of what was everything”), in this case because of a romantic breakup.
Coincidentally, a closer sound-alike is to an apocalyptically-themed hit from another Seattle band: Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”, like “The Last To Know”, is a moderate-tempo ballad with some gritty, heavy, distorted parts. Cornell described his “Black Hole Sun” lyrics as “a surreal dreamscape”, and the music video certainly adds an apocalyptic element on top of that. The two songs can be seen as reflections of each other.
But it’s in the lyrics to “The Last To Know” where my theory sources its best evidence. I’ll go through a few lines at a time:
Where it grows on trees
But never blooms
“Grows on trees” sounds like a money reference. A lot of money was spent building up and hiding stockpiles of nukes (and missiles and anti-nuke-missiles and nuke-finding spy planes and spy satellites, etc.) during the Cold War, but though we came close, we fortunately never experienced the nuclear holocaust so many feared imminent.
Where it hurts the least for whoever
Saw it first
The US was the first nation to get (and the only nation to tactically detonate) nuclear bombs, and we certainly fared better than anyone else for the remainder of the 20th century. Another way to interpret this line could be that if you’re close enough to be first to see a nuclear blast go off, you will likely not be around long enough to suffer as much as those who see it later.
First to go, and the last to know
I might have this slightly wrong, but I believe “Last to know, first to go” was some sort of unofficial motto of US Marine Corps correspondents.
Lasts longer than a lifetime
Uranium 238’s half-life is 4.468×109 years.
Takes the least amount of effort
The desire to nuke one’s enemy is a shorthand wish for a swift, easy way to cut directly to the conclusion of an international conflict, requiring merely the press of a button and avoid the mess of deploying troops, fighting battles, foreign occupation, etc.
Feels better than a bargain
Just to know it’s there
Mutually assured destruction was a kind of meta-bargain, and in theory at least there was a paradoxical sense of safety obtained by knowing both we and our arch enemies had nukes ready to fire at each other.
Can’t you see
There’s only one me
And that me is me
Perhaps the most important political shift from the middle of the 20th century to the end of it was the change in global power from dipolar (the West vs. the East) to unipolar (the West, America in particular). As the shortcomings of the Soviets were gradually revealed, Americans sensed this shift somewhat in real-time while it was happening.
I know where but I cannot share
A remarkable amount of resources on both sides were dedicated toward figuring out where each other’s enemies were constructing and hiding their missile silos.
You’ll call me – I’ll stand in line till then
I’ll be waiting
The most notable cliches about everyday life behind the Iron Curtain inevitably include the experience of standing in lines, though this might also refer to the succession of US Presidents since 1945, all of whom have figuratively had their hand on the nuclear button.
Can’t you see
All circuits are busy
Please try back again
I’ll admit these lines are ambiguous, but the “red phone” is an iconic symbol of the Cold War era, representing the actual hotline established between Washington and Moscow. The idea was this was the phone the President would use to alert the Soviets he had ordered nuclear bombs dropped on them (or vice versa), culminating in a nuclear holocaust like the one depicted at the end of “Dr. Strangelove”. The cartoonish version of this scenario has so many nukes being launched that picking up the red phone’s receiver produces a busy signal. Likewise, “all circuits busy, please try back again” was a prerecorded message people might have expected to hear when dialing emergency services during a large-scale catastrophe.