Sitting on a hillside
Watching all the people die.
I'll feel much better on the other side.
I'll thumb a ride.
I believe in magic.
Why? because it is so quick!
I don't need power when I'm hypnotized.
Look in my eyes.
What are you seeing?
How do you feel?
I feel real phony when my name is Phil.
Or was that Bill?
Life goes on here
day after day.
I don't know if I am living or if I'm
supposed to be…
Sometimes my life is so eerie!
And if you think I'm happy
paint me (white) (yellow).
I've been here once.
I've been here twice.
I don't know if the third's the fourth or if
the fifth's to fix!
Sometimes I deal with numbers
and if you want to count me
count me out.
I don't need the times of day.
Anytime with me's OK.
I just don't want you using up my time
'Cause that's not right.
They're locking them up today.
They're throwing away the key.
I wonder who it'll be tomorrow, you or me? (3x)
[Spoken] We're all normal and we want our freedom
Alla God's childrens gotta hab dare freedom!
The metaphor of a red telephone in the 1960s was based on the Cold War’s communication instrument between the President of the United States and the Premier of the Soviet Union in a time of emergency. By its mere mention in the U.S., nuclear warfare was evoked. Perhaps this explains the imminence of death in the first verse. The poet seems fine with going to “the other side” (which for Jim Morrison in Break on Through was the world of forbidden behaviors and thoughts, but for Arthur Lee was purely death). He will hitch hike there, without possessions.
The second verse changes focus to the idea of magic. Do You Believe in Magic? by the Lovin’ Spoonful was a very popular song in 1965 which seemed to usher in a new period of believing in the power of rock and roll. Arthur Lee takes a jaundiced view of it. He argues that the appeal of magic is its immediate gratification, and witheringly states that it offers not power, but merely hypnosis (that is, it gives power to someone else).
The third verse, perhaps taking off on the second, seems to depict the poet as being so stoned he can’t even remember his name, and indeed he seems to be in a state in which any name for his self seems phony.
With the B section, the poet remarks on the dullness of ordinary life (in stark contrast to the Beatles’ Wordsworthian aesthetic of seeing all things freshly as a child). Maybe in reference to a popular album of 1966, Color Me Barbra by Barbra Streisand, the poet (who in the last verse didn’t know his name) asks to be painted white / yellow (spoken simultaneously), anything but black. He continues in the next verse to talk about the belief in reincarnation, hoping that this will be his last visit to Earth. Oddly, the last line seems to be a precursor of Beatles’ hit Revolution, six months later, in which John Lennon sings “But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out?”
The song returns to the A section for a verse that contemplates two aspects of time—that on the clock (which doesn’t matter to him) and that of his interior life (don’t waste my time!). It seems like the struggle between a person who sets an appointment and a person who pays no attention to the time.
Then the song shifts to a little chant, more or less an variation of Martin Luther King’s “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Letter from Birmingham Jail 1963) followed by a spoken plea for freedom. Lee seems to state that he as a Black person is as “normal” as any other [White] American and deserves the same freedoms. He ends on a sarcastic note, evoking a Black hick, ending the song with a clopping sound in the percussion to suggest a mule.
The Red Telephone is ragged and jerky in the flow of its thoughts and yet all the lyrics inhabit the same mental space, voicing the melancholy of a lonely Black man depressed about the state of mankind while anticipating the end of the world. It is almost the only song in psychedelia up to this moment to even mention racism (Dylan’s Desolation Row is another one.) Jimi Hendrix wouldn’t bring the subject up until more than a half year later (obliquely) with House Burning Down.