Interpretations:Purple Toupee

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The song is from the point of view of an aging punk rocker. Remember that anyone who was in their late teens or early twenties in 1977 (generally agreed upon birth-year of punk rock) would have been in their early childhood during the historical events of this song. Now that punk rocker is aging and trying to remember the political atmosphere of his childhood, and he's getting it all mixed up. He's trying to connect the actual political revolutions of his childhood with the perceived revolutions that punk rock aimed for. This is the "mission" and "obligation."

The purple toupee comes in because, when you're old and your hair all falls out, you can only have punk rock style colored hair by wearing a hairpiece.

Purple Toupee is a mortarboard, not an actual toupee

The vague historical references COULD be literal. Consider that John and John would have been between 5 and 8 years old when many of these events occurred. Perhaps one of them was actually at camp when someone (mis)explained the Selma to Montgomery march and other current events.

1960s politics and William Shatner? Linnell mentioned Shatner before playing this song at Bimingham Irish Centre in June 1990. (mr Tuck)

I think this is a story about an old man who is now a story teller. He plays an important role in the community by keeping the children entertained, but he hasn't changed a bit; he's still a boyish old man. The only thing different about him is that he's old. Also, he wears a purple toupee to grab attention, I suppose - apfelbitsliam

It's definitely about the 60's. So my thought is it's a play on the words "Hair Peace" - Purple Toupee. Which I got from a sign "Hair Peace. Bed Peace." which was on the window of Yoko & John lennon's hotel room from one of their bed-ins in 1969. - Goody

G. K. Chesterton wrote a Father Brown short story called The Purple Wig. It's about a man who wears a purple wig (toupee) to hide the fact that he has nothing to hide. Perhaps one of the Johns read the story and wrote this song about a man who wasn't a drugged out hippy during the sixties, but wanted people to think he was, hence the warped historical reminiscences.

"Free the Expo '67" is a reference to Charles de Gaulle's "Vive le Québec libre" speech in Montreal, which spurred the Quebec sovereignist movement and caused a diplomatic incident just before Expo '67 in Montreal.

I've heard theories that the toupee is purple because purple is the colour of psychedelia - but to my mind, the toupee is purple because it's a slightly different shade of brown to the real hair, so it looks fake and purplish, like some of Paul McCartney's ill-advised hairdye from a few years back.

This is the memories of someone who grew up in the 60's as something of a hippie and ended up exactly like their parents. It's really the standard story of a baby boomer child.

Considering there are a bunch of jumbled references of history here, I'd like to think that it's not just a hippie grown up in the 60s, but one who was really, REALLY stoned. --Pacdude 15:56, 18 Oct 2004 (EDT)

"I remember the year I went to camp" obviously hes just a kid "Heard about some lady named selma and some blacks" black boycotts is selma, alabama. "I remember the book depository where they crowned the king of cuba" my favorite line in the whole song. brilliant. refers to the jfk assassination, the dallas book depository and also the secret actions of some people in dallas involving cuban politics. for more on this see oliver stone's jfk "Chinese people were fighting in the park, we tried to help them no one appreciated that" American intervention in Vietnam? "Martin X..." A combination of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. "Ten years later they were sharing the same cell" I don't claim to understand this although it could be a reference to both Dr. King and Brother Malcolm dying within 3 years of each other.

Yeah i think "Ten years later they were sharing the same cell" means that they were dead.

Chinese people in the park is Tianamen Square

No way "Chinese people were fighting in the park" refers to Tianamen Square. That happened in 1989, well outside the boundaries of our song, and we didn't really try to help them either. Like the above poster, I think it probably refers to the Vietnam War:

Chinese people were fighting in the park - The narrator confuses Vietnamese with Chinese. We tried to help them fight, no one appreciated that - We went in there to help out the South Vietnamese. We all know how much people here appreciated that, after a few years. Martin X was mad when they outlawed bell-bottoms - The narrator confuses Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, conflating them into one person. He apparently also has a bit of trouble remembering what they were mad about. Ten years later they were sharing the same cell - This is the hardest one of this stanza. I guess it means that, by the mid-seventies, all of these things were "sharing the same cell", i.e. dead. MX and MLK died in 1965 and 1968, respectively, and the US pulled out of Vietnam and stopped helping the "Chinese people" in 1973.

I always took the "10 years later they were sharing the same cell" line as a post-Watergate reference. The timing is right (1968 + 10), and I've heard 'sharing a cell' as a euphemism for people who work together or know each other (like Nixon's administration) all going to prison. The "they", I think, does not refer to Martin X, but is just unattributed, taken out of context in his rushed and jumbled history lesson.

This song is about a man who had bad experiences with summer camp. He lost all his hair and now he's perfect and a big, important man. He claims that the only thing that differs him from what he is now to the child that went to camp is the purple toupee he now wears.


Although I believe that They Might be Giants songs don't have the depth that we attribute to them (certainly considering that this is a Linnell song, who writes the music before the words and just fits the words so they work with the music), they just state a simple idea or thought a different way, I'm going to be a hippocrite for a second.

This song is about aging and the social pressures attributed to it. Though this man has clearly commanded respect over the years (he's witness a lot and now he's a big important man) his generation "has to wear toupees", which starts when someone first steps on his hair and tells him he is fat, a moment of self-realizaiton of aging. Note that that's the last point in the song where they mention the historical references and start to talk about summer bringing him down.

Just some thoughts.

I think it's about aging and telling younger people about your era with mixed up results. Just my ideas. o_O; --Lemita 18:28, 10 Jun 2006 (MDT)

The last part of this song is about how the hippie mentality of the '60s has been institutionalized and the the former counterculture has now been turned into conformist consumerism (We have to wear toupees;The purple brigade marching). Former Flower Children are turned into today's Baby Boomer CEOs, etc. (I'm very big, a big important man..) The Walrus

I think this song is about a very confused man trying to remember the 60's. He might be telling what he's remembering to someone he knows. Just what I thought when I heard it. - CuppaCoffee 20:55, 29 Jun 2006 (EST)

I think it's about a crazy old man showing kids his scrapbook from way-back-when.

"Chinese people were fighting in the park" refers to both the Vietnam War and perhaps the Korean War, which featured a prominant general named Park. "10 years later they were sharing the same cell" seems terribly obvious - 10 years later MLK, Malcolm X, and the bellbottom fad were all kaput. - Champ

Perhaps bell-bottoms is actually meant as Belle Bottoms, a proper name. Martin was mad when Belle was jailed, then ended up in prison as well. Just a thought.

Funny, I just thought it was about someone dealing with the tragedies of his time by thinking of the funniest object he could possibly conceive of (a purple toupee). - Jonah Falcon

I've always wondered if "purple toupee and gold lame" refers to a cheesy Elvis impersonator wearing a bad hairpiece and Elvis' famous gold lame suit. Also both the North Vietnamese and North Koreans were aided by China in their wars with America, but other parts of the song hint that our storyteller probably doesn't understand any nuances of the Cold War. I like the theory that he's just confusing Vietnamese people with the Chinese; it's much funnier that way.--Lodestone 22:27, 28 April 2007 (UTC)

I think it's about an old (obviously white) man, who is telling people about back then and coincidental moments. ("Somebody put their fingers in the president's ears, and it wasn't to much later they came out with Johnson's wax.") He might of participated in protests, e.g. "Free the expo '67", which is probably trying to get the expo back into the U.S. And now he is a very important man, who now is bald and accustom to wacky toupees and hats, and as a stereotype rich person, is a frequent fencer.

I think the "Free the Expo '67" line is in reference too not only the Expo '67 demonstration, but also the chanting of "Free the Chicago 7" from the Chicago 1968 Democratic National Convention riots. - Josh Martin

I think it's about a man who grew up in the 60's though he remembers little about it and what he remembers he doesn't get it right. "Selma and some blacks" is referring to Selma, Alabama, and a civil rights march there. "Johnson's wax" is a misinterpretation of LBJ's wax figure. The "King of Cuba" line is a reference to Fidel Castro, although he's not technically the king. I guess "purple toupee" is some funny-looking toupee. "Chinese people were fighting in the park" is probably Vietnam. "Martin X" is obviously Malcolm X, although it could be he thinks of both MLK Jr. and Malcolm X, and jumbles them, but neither of them had anything to do with bell bottoms and them "sharing the same cell" is a reference to them both being dead just 3 years apart. "I shouted out free the Expo '67" refers to a very bad World's Fair in Canada, but is not any kind of group. "Till they stepped on my hair and told me I was fat" might be the narrator's sudden realization that he is old and fat, then he says the only thing is different would be underneath his hat, a reference to the toupee. "When summer brings you down" may be another reference to realizing he is old and fat. "We're on some kind of mission" and the next two lines might be saying he thinks there are other people like him. Not sure about that one, though.

the confusing of the facts is the entire point... alot of the "rebelious counter culture" movements stem from the social problems of the individual... he joins in with these movements or groups of poeple so because he thinks the void in his life will be filled if he has something to stand for, it never really mattered what it actually was... it just somekind of mission. they have to where toupees because they're pretending to be someone else... someone who cares enough to know the facts.

Its interesting to note that Johnson's Wax is a household cleaning product, dating from around the same time period.

Forget General Park. A child growing up in New York City, seeing footage of Vietnam on TV, would naturally assume the events were in Central Park, the only large green area he was likely to be familiar with.

It's about a slightly odd old man who can't remember the 60's that well.

I'm a little unclear, but I think in general it sounds a little bit like some sort of strange play with an idea that all the politicians of this era being at a summer camp which more or less (advertently or not) teaches them to be...politicians. They go through all sorts of similar social experiences of the 60s, albeit toned down summer camp type versions. Then it shows that they were picked on, but grew up with this chip on their shoulder and became big important men.

The purple toupee thing is to not only show the fakeness of politicians via the imagery of a hairpiece and the association of sharp looks with politics, but also, purple is the color of royalty, know...explains the power.

I guess in summary, I see it as something of a clever little satire piece that uses the imagery of all the 60s-era political figures going to the same camp as children.


When I hear the song, I think of a kid watching the Zapruder film and thinking (and perhaps this is a bit gruesome) why happened to JFK's head? And his parents euphemising - oh, he's just wearing a purple toupee. It matches the theme of confused understanding of news from the 60's, and it would have probably framed the child's understanding of the whole decade, since it was the first really huge story of the decade. Also, if you think of the blood on the back of JFK's head as a purple toupee, then the rest of his hair (blond) might look a bit like gold lame on TV. Finally, imagine how "turns your brain around" and "here to stay after the hair has gone away" fit into this context. Disgusting, I know, but it all sort of works.

As for "we have some kind of mission", this could easily be a reference to JFK's mission-heavy rhetoric, whether in his inaugural address or even his "we pledge to go to the moon" speech. As for "we have to wear toupees", well, I got nothin.

There also seems to be an assumption above that the narrator is an old man. How could that be? If he was 5 in 1963, let's say, he'd be about 50 in 2008, which hardly makes him old, clearly makes him capable of understanding history, and further makes him an unlikely victim of dementia or something like that. The song was written a while ago, too, so he would have been even younger when the song was written. I doubt the idea is that he's a really old, senile man. To me it's much more likely that the song takes place in, let's say, 1973. The narrator is actually not very old - 15, let's say, and obviously failing history class - but he *thinks* he's a big important man, because (relative to kids in summer camp) he is.

Among the more genius jumbles is "somebody put their fingers in the president's ears, and it wasn't too much later they came out with Johnson's Wax."

It alludes to a famous, controversial picture of LBJ hoisting his dog in the air by his ears, combined with a reference to Johnson's Wax. That's one piece of this puzzle others here seem to be missing.

Great song, no more deep than the vague and muddled memories of history we all witnessed when we were in camp-going days.

P.S. I always thought the song would be improved by substituting the word "suppository" for "depository" in the JFK/Cuba conspiracy theory line.

This song is about Alzheimer's disease. Leave it to TMBG to gussy up a grim topic in an upbeat song. The singer mis-remembers historical facts. The opening line deals with the singer's own memory. Subsequent lines express the sort of garbled interpretations and disjoint recollections that fit the pattern of Alzheimer's.

The Purple Toupee itself is something clearly artificial and unnatural, covering up the natural object. The false memories of the singer cover his true memories and the result is something which appears on the outside to be false and incorrect, much as a purple toupee would be.

-- Rich Shay

I just think it's about reversing the saying "If You Remember the '60s, You Really Weren't There". Clearly the narrator can't quite remember the '60s, so he probably was really there.

I agree the song is about politics and the 1960s when Johns were growing up. The "Purple Toupee" imo is a play on government. Red (republican) + blue (democrat) = purple. And just like a toupee is ridiculous (let alone a purple one), the idea that our government will move us forward without problems (outlined in the two verses) is also ridiculous. But when all is said and done we still need the government, so "we have to wear toupees"

———— A one- dimensional interpretation of the 60’s as a commentary on nostalgia and revival culture. How everyone misremembers and rose-colors their memories: “I remember the year I went to camp I heard about some lady named Selma and some blacks” -reference to the Selma, Alabama bus boycotts.

“Somebody put their fingers in the President's ears It wasn't too much later they came out with Johnson's wax” - a popular dad-joke of the time, “How do they make Johnson’s Wax? They stick their finger in the president’s (LBJ) ear!

“I remember the book depository where they crowned the king of Cuba” -Kennedy’s involvement with Cuba ended with his assassination.

“Now that's all I can think of, but I'm sure there's something else Way down inside me I can feel it coming back Purple toupee will show the way when summer brings you down (Purple toupee when summer brings you down) Purple toupee and gold lame will turn your brain around (Purple toupee and gold lame)” -a number of interpretations could be used here. John Linnell said that it was a reference to “Purple Rain” and “Raspberry Beret” but there’s also the idea that “purple” means overly verbose; that we talk to much and try to hide our aging or thinning relevance with talking about the past which we never understood in first place. I wonder if “gold lame” is a reference to General Curtis LeMay, who was constantly clashing with Kennedy and McNamara after having made his bones in WWII.

“Chinese people were fighting in the park We tried to help them fight, no one appreciated that” -the 2nd Indochina War aka the Vietnam War faced a great deal of protest in the 60’s, in addition, no one appreciated that: the US backed wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, all of which were backed on the other side by China and The USSR. This was also the first time in America’s history of foreign wars that verterans were not celebrated and greeted as heroes upon their return.

“Martin X was mad when they outlawed bell bottoms” MLK Jr. and Malcom X met in 1964, shortly after the KKK assassinated Medgar Evers, head of the NAACP, who after having been shot, was denied hospital entry because of his race.

“Ten years later they were sharing the same cell” Within 10 years, both were also assassinated

“I shouted out, "Free the Expo '67"” -Free the Chicago Seven! - Independence to Quebec!

“Till they stepped on my hair, and they told me I was fat” - A possible reference to the long haired hippies (yippies) who nominated Pigasus (a literal pig) for president. This was also part of the Chicago seven/eight trial backlash.

“Now I'm very big, I'm a big important man And the only thing that's different is underneath my hat” -ok, now we’re being cute with “they told me I was fat” followed by “now I’m very big.” And the only thing that’s different is my brain and everything else that is under my hat. Otherwise I’m exactly the same as I was in the 1960’s.

“Purple toupee will show the way when summer brings you down (Purple toupee when summer brings you down)” -Death of the Hippie funeral after the “Summer of Love” in Haight Ashbury

“Purple toupee and gold lame will turn your brain around (Purple toupee and gold lame)” -refrain of above

“Purple toupee is here to stay after the hair has gone away” -we may not have the long hair we did in our youth, but we can still misremember and pretend we understood everything then.

“The purple brigade is marching from the grave” -let’s march like we did then! Or you know, talk about doing stuff...

“We're on some kind of mission We have an obligation We have to wear toupees” -we have a cause... just like in the 60’s ... it’s, um.... Let me tell you about the 60’s! Those were the days! -Visi

Purple Toupee Press Release from Bar/None Records (1988)[edit]

"When you want to be right on, you need to know what's going on" ......a message from Bar/None Records and some unauthorized observations about "Purple Toupee," the newest They Might Be Giants single and video.

"Purple Toupee" is broad (and brilliant) political satire, told by a person who grew up in America in the Sixties. It dimly—and without fail, incorrectly—recalls some of the decade's great political movements, figures and events. By mistelling and muddling history, it serves as an ironic reminder of present day apathy and as a subtle enjoinder that we must learn from the past and educate ourselves to the many connections between the political struggles of 20 years past and those of today.

Specific references include:

"about some lady named Selma and some Blacks": Martin Luther King, Jr. led a famous non-violent march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Mississippi in 1963, to dramatize the systematic denial to Blacks of the right to vote. The marchers were violently dispersed by gun-toting, riot-equipped police.

"Johnson's Wax": President Johnson, of course; a brand of floor wax; and, knowing TMBG's penchant for World's Fair-abilia probably a backhanded reference to the ultra-groovy Johnson's Wax Pavillion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. Psychoscribblers may conclude from the "Don't Let's Start" video (shot at what's left of 1964 World's Fair grounds in Flushing Meadow, Queens) and the World's Fair and Dupont Pavillion references in "Ana Ng," that the 1964 New York World's Fair was one of the resonant events of John Linnell's childhood.

"the Book Depository": the Texas Book Depository in Dallas, Texas, from where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired the bullet that killed President John F. Kennedy

"crowned the King of Cuba": many reports have tied Kennedy's assassination to right-wing Cubans, whom of course, saw their beloved dictator (and U.S. ally) Battista desposed by Fidel Castro in the late Fifties.

"Chinese people were fighting in the park": besides the Tiananmen Square prophecy (We swear we saw newsreels out of China on ABC's "Nightline" showing a demonstrator in a TMBG snowman t-shirt), possibly a reference to Chinese-sounding People's Park in Berkeley, California. In 1969, the college town saw its worst ever riot when police tried to forcibly eject people from an impromptu park, built on an empty lot where the University of California had two years earlier town down low income housing in preparation for building a dormitory.

"Martin X": a composite of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, two Black civil rights leaders assassinated in the 1960's. They were not mad when they (the government):

"outlawed bell bottoms": a Sixties' fashion trend, the bell bottom trouser was never outlawed (although many elementary and high school dress codes forbid students from wearing them).

"Free the Expo '67": another World's Fair reference, to Expo '67, the massively hyped but financially disastrous Canadian exposition of 1967-68. "Expo 67" sounds much like many of the popular nicknames for famous groups of defendants standing trial in the Sixties largely as a result of their political beliefs. (i.e., the Chicago Eight, the Panther 21).

Now all that's left to do is up to you! Make MTV and your local radio station listen to the voice of the people and exercise your freedom of choice! The video of "Purple Toupee" premiered on "120 Minutes" July 2nd, and the Giants will be hosting "Post Modern" the week of July 10. So demand to see "Purple Toupee" today!

Call Dial MTV—1-800-342-5688—NOW!

Okay, I'm calling!--Mandaliet (talk) 18:03, 27 August 2022 (EDT)

A Big Important Man[edit]

The sixties are remembered from the perspective of a child who grew up at the time... old enough to go to camp (maybe 4th grade / 10 years old) but not old enough to comprehend the details and the significance of the events that are transpiring. So he hears about a "lady" named Selma in relation to "some blacks" but doesn't know what it means. He understands the Vietnam war is going on but lumps that Asian country in with "Chinese people." Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are confused and their motives conflated with the protest of the hippies and their style of jeans. And so forth.

The song ridicules aging hippies who are now middle-class fat, balding guys trying to hang on to their cultural significance. The narrator's male-pattern reverse-mohawk problem is solved with a hairpiece - but not just a boring wig: a flower-power flag of purple to go with a shimmering shirt of gold. Hippies aren't hip any more but he's gotta keep doing it ("we have to wear toupees") to maintain at least the memory of those Woodstock Nation ideals he believed in -- it's his "mission". --Nehushtan 18:41, 13 August 2009 (UTC)

Cage and Aquarium[edit]

Note that the track after Purple Toupee on Lincoln is Cage and Aquarium. The line "This is the spawning of the cage and aquarium" is similar to the ideas in Purple Toupee (poorly repeating 60s culture and events). "Used to be different, now you're the same" also reminds me of "Now I'm very big, I'm a big important man", both perhaps referring to people who were "rebels" in the 60s but have now become "normal" or even "The Man".


“Chinese people were fighting in the park / We tried to help them fight, no one appreciated that." I’m sure it’s a Vietnam reference, but I like to think that he and a friend saw some Chinese people doing tai chi in the park, and thought they were fighting. So they joined in on the fight, and no one appreciated their “help.” —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talkcontribs) 10:49, November 5, 2012