Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I Am a Rock

"No man is an island," says John Donne. "I am an island," replies Paul Simon, several hundred years later and an ocean away.

But two years earlier than our album came out, Peter and Gordon sang "Please lock me away/ And don't allow the day/ Here inside/ Where I hide/ With my loneliness" in their song "A World Without Love." The attraction of retreating to a solitary hideaway once one is burned by love is neither new nor exclusive to Simon.

Taking Simon's song in the context of his others, however, we might see this as a sequel to "Kathy's Song." There, Simon sings of "gazing" through a "window" at "drops of rain," thinking of a faraway love. Here, scorned by (and therefore, scorning) love altogether, he looks not outward but downward, and sees only his immediate surroundings: "Gazing from my window, to the streets below." And instead of "weary" raindrops, he sees "a silent shroud of snow."

In "Bleeker Street," the "shroud," remember, was a "fog" that hid God from His people. Here, the shroud of snow is simply "silent." It serves to dampen and hush the world (like a layer of music-studio soundproofing foam?). Listen to the the f, s, and sh alliterations of the line, like footfalls (the four ds of the opening line?) muffled in powdery snow.

The song may also be an attempt to understand the syndrome of the Most Peculiar Man, who "lived all alone, within a house... within himself." That Man could well have written this song. Why did he remove himself from the world? Well... "friendship causes pain," and having "loved" means having "cried." So to Hell with all of it. (And what if the speaker in "Kathy's Song," and "I Am a Rock" are both the Most Peculiar Man, before and after a break-up. We do know that one person wrote all three songs!)

There is an interesting use, or non-use, of rhyme. Each verse starts with three unrhymed lines, followed by two rhymed lines, and then the two unrhymed lines that form the chorus: "day/December/alone," then "below/snow," and then "rock/island." The next verses rhyme "pain/disdain," "died/cried," and (more of an internal rhyme) "room/womb." The lines before and after these rhymes do not rhyme, forming a jagged barrier-- like barbed wire or a point-tipped fence-- around the sad, angry rhymes.

The major imagery of "I Am a Rock" is that of Medieval castles: In "a fortress deep and mighty... I am shielded in my armor." Perhaps the "books" the speaker is using as a "wall" against the world are of this era? (If so, they would be a poor choice; most of the famous ones are romances. The disenchanted works of the Beats or the existential novels of mid-20th Century Europe would have been wiser selections to inculcate a sullen solitude. For instance, "No Exit," Sartre's play that famously ends: "Hell is other people.")

"She is soft, she is warm" is the line in "Wednesday Morning." "Soft and warm" also is the rain in "Kathy's Song." In "I Am a Rock," there is no softness, only "walls... fortress[es]... armor." There is no warmth, only "winter... December... snow."

The images are of inertia, a lack of movement: "snow... sleeping/slumber... womb," and the title image. The other images are of barriers, especially the castle/armor images (as well as a moat of snow, and the water around an "island."). Paradoxically, both the isolating barriers of no-longer-alive ("shroud") and not-yet-alive ("womb") are brought to use. The result is complete alone-ness: "None may penetrate... I touch no one and no one touches me."

The word "deep" comes up twice in the first two verses. This December is "deep" (as in "the depths of winter"), and his metaphorical fortress is "deep." The word has many meanings. Another is "profound," and many have taken reclusion as an indication of "deep study" or "deep thoughts." And certainly, the speaker would like to think of himself as a Michel de Montaigne-like figure, holed up in solitary scholarship amid towers of books.

But more likely, he is bound up in deep sadness. By pushing away the world, the speaker hopes to stave off sorrow: "friendship causes pain... [but] a rock feels no pain."

It is odd indeed to end this album with a song about a person who retreats inward and rejects the world as only a source of suffering. A person who has never heard the warning prophet of "Sound of Silence"... who has not read the cautionary tale of Richard Corey in the volumes of "poetry" in his room.

The love songs on this album, however, are break-up songs. In "Leaves That Are Green": "I held her close, but she faded in the night." In "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," a robber tears himself away from his lover to flee the law. And in "April Come She Will," a woman arrives, then leaves, then dies. Even "Blessed" is, in a way, about breaking up with God.

In interviews, Simon has said that this is one of his two least favorite of his own songs (the other will be revealed when we arrive at it). Perhaps the severity of the isolation imagery is too harsh. Perhaps it simply makes no sense to create a character who so purposefully isolates himself after all the warnings, all album long, about the effects-- from societal breakdown to suicide-- of such a self-imposed hermit-state.

We can only hope for this depressed, disheartened character's sake that he takes his own "womb" imagery to heart-- that his solitary confinement is temporary, and that he emerges from it with a sense of birth and life and a connection with the world. To remain in exile within society would be, to borrow a phrase, most peculiar.

IMPACT: This is the only song the duo sang during their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, January 30, 1966.

Concluding thoughts on this album:
Many albums take their titles from the titles of one of the hits on the album itself. This is Simon's major practice, in fact. But here, the album title is a variation on the song title, and so gets its own meaning. Each of the songs presented reflects one of the many kinds of silence there are (just as a painter will explain that there are many shades of black).

Each song is about one of the sounds of silence... the silences of: unheard words, an unresponsive deity, a distant or fleeing lover, isolation due to privilege or poverty (there is even "Anji," an instrumental, or wordless song).

On this album, Simon explores the various tones of quietness, and may conclude: Yes, either noise or nothingness, taken to extremes, leads to chaos. But also, there is-- as the author of Ecclesiastes might put it-- a time for sound, and a time for silence.

Next song: "Scarborough Fair"

Sunday, December 20, 2009

We've Got a Groovey Thing Goin'

With all the seriousness, even somberness, of their work so far, it's nice to see the guys just letting their hair down, letting off some steam, and having fun on this track.

The song is reminiscent of the duo's teen-pop Tom and Jerry days, while also showing that Simon was aware of the "British Invasion" of hardscrabble blues-rock coming out of blue-collar England. It would be easy to point to his introverted, isolation-ridden lyrics and conclude that Simon was unaware of the world outside, but that would deny the equal amount of his material concerned with the suffering of others and references to current events of the Civil Rights era. Here, he shows he listens to the radio for the music as well as the news.

Now, is this song significant in the way the tracks that made it onto "Greatest Hits" are? No. But is it important in the understanding of-- to borrow a phrase-- another side of Paul Simon? Yes. For all his sobriety, Simon is capable writing and performing a purely fun, funny song.

Yet, even with all its flaring horns and funky keyboard work, this is still a Simon song. For instance, he does throw around colloquialisms like "a'runnin' right over," "what you're kickin' away" and the word "groovey" itself. But the title still starts with the grammatically correct "We've" instead of the contextually consistent "We Got a..." This, the duo fix in the performace, in which they clearly sing "We."

Within a the space of a few words, Simon shows again that he is a New York college graduate and not a Liverpuddlian coal miner: "There's somethin' you ought to know/ if you're fixin' to go." The context calls for "oughta," (compare to the phrase "you oughta know," either from "Words of Love," by the Mamas and Papas or Alanis Morissette's song title) but Simon both writes and sings distinct hard "t" both at the end of "ought" and the start of "to." You can take the boy out of the suburbs...

Also, we know that it is a Simon song because-- even as upbeat as the music is-- the song is still a downer, a break-up song. Well, a trying-to-prevent-a-breakup song. The speaker pleads to his departing girlfriend that the relationship is good, that he is good to her and faithful... and that "I can't make it without [her]." Ultimately, his plea for her to stay rests on his fearing (here's that theme again) isolation.

On another level, the song parodies such "I'm beggin' you to stay" songs, tossing out one cliche after another. On this level, Simon is saying, "Oh, sure, I can write one of those songs, like everyone else is. But why should I, if everyone else is." In fact, the very next track is one of the key songs in his catalog of isolation works-- "I Am a Rock."

When I discussed "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," I suggested Simon would have been better served, while writing a rock song, not retro-fitting an existing song but simply building one from the ground up. Here, he has done so, and the results are much more satisfying. This is still a B+ effort, with its nose-thumbing attitude and list of hackneyed expressions, but it is a solid improvement. (Simon's first real success in this endeavor, from a songwriting standpoint, comes on the next album with "...Pleasure Machine.")

Every songwriter, no matter how serious, has a just-for-fun song or two like this. Sting has "We'll Be Together." Springsteen has "I'm Goin' Down." Peter Gabriel has "Sledgehammer." These songs don't mean anything, but since when has music needed to? If anything, they mean that even a life of contemplation and activism is pretty hard to lead all the time. All work and no play makes for a dull songwriter, too.

Next song: I Am a Rock

Friday, December 11, 2009

April Come She Will

I head once that this song was based on an 18th Century nursery rhyme. I could not find any corroboration for this suggestion, and Simon takes credit for it in the album's liner notes. But it does seem to have many of those elements-- a simple structure and rhyme scheme, a bit of education in that it names the months, and a general innocence in the tone. [Note: The origin of the poem and how it became a song was filled in by astute readers in the comments below.]

And there is nothing wrong with lamenting a love that, or a lover who, has died. But how much of a love is this? The girl in the song arrives in April, and starts having doubts in June. Only for the month of May does she "stay."

Then, for another month, she wanders around, unsure of what she wants. But it's not like she just avoids the speaker. She "prowls the night," as if she were skulking or even hunting. She then decides she at least doesn't want our man, here, and so runs away, with no farewell. We have to start doubting her mental stability at this point.

By August, only four months after she appeared on the scene, she is dead. The song indicates that she "must" die. Why? Because such troubled women always die in such stories. They give the speaker a brief glimpse of deep love, only to drift inexplicably away... away... like an escaping sigh... leaving doubts, bewilderment, heartbreak, and grief in their wake.

And we idolize them for it.

But the speaker takes until September to realize his love has "grown old." Really? She starting having second thoughts back in June, wandering around the city all night. Then by July she was gone. By August, she has died. So the idea that the love has "grown old" in September is a bit disingenuous. It didn't live long enough to get "old," and it was over months ago as it was.

The song has a lovely melody, and is sung very prettily by Garfunkel. So many probably take it as a love song.

But upon reading Simon's lyrics, we see that it works best as a warning to those young poets who get caught up with winsome, but ultimately worrisome, women. For another take on this, read the classic Onion article headlined "Totally Hot Chick Also Way Psycho." (www.theonion.com/content/news/totally_hot_chick_also_way_psycho)

Too often, we see troubled people-- especially girls and women-- turned into objects of adoration in literature and film. The idea of an actually unwell person being psychically gifted or granted "other sight" is ancient. People with deep psychological problems or neurochemical imbalances used to be seen as prophets, their incoherent babbling taken for communication channelled from another plane.

These days, they are put on pedestals as "the only ones who truly see the world the way it is," etc. in films like The Hours, Mad Love and Benny and Joon. When what they need is medication and therapy. (The Brad Pitt character in the film 12 Monkeys is an excellent case study in this "raving madman/ prophetic genius" dichotomy.)

When an askew personality resides in the form of a lithe woman, the combination can be almost overwhelmingly attractive, especially to misfit young men. I once saw a T-shirt that put it more bluntly, stating: "Let's face it, crazy chicks are hot."

Which may be true, but it's much too easy a way to get burned.

(Compare this ephemeral relationship to "Kathy's Song," also about missing a lover, to see the difference between an immature and mature love. And for another of Simon's hurt, angry songs clothed-- make that disguised-- in beauty, we will soon discuss "Scarborough Fair."

Next Song: We Got a Groovey Thing Goin'

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Most Peculiar Man

A second suicidal song on the same album. This one differs from the last, "Richard Cory," in that the subject here was neither rich nor renowned. We learn that the deceased had a "tiny room" and that his chief trait was his hermit-like nature: "He lived all alone--Within a house, within a room, within himself." In fact, he is the polar opposite of Cory on both the fame and fortune spectrums; we never even learn his name.

The recluse's isolation was complete: "He had no friends... he has a brother somewhere." What was the cause of this isolation? "He seldom spoke." The assessment of this behavior by the community was brutal: "He wasn't friendly, and he didn't care, and he wasn't like them."

His isolation thus became self-reinforcing. The man offered little of himself, which led people to think of himself as aloof. Therefore, he was deemed uncaring, and therefore strange and unapproachable.

Normal people, it seems, participate in the community. We know Mrs. Riordon's name, probably because she introduced herself to us-- she was "friendly." She cared enough about the man to know that he was her neighbor and to find out who his next of kin was. And she knew enough about him to give him the title that substitutes for his unknown name: "She said he was a most peculiar man."

She also had the good fortune, being his upstairs neighbor and all, not to light a fire over the man's gas-filled apartment. No doubt, the fumes leaked up into her room, and she luckily smelled them before making tea or lighting a cigarette. In fact, we can presume that without these fumes, the man's body might have gone unnoticed for days, even weeks.

Such cases exist, and all too frequently, now that electronic systems can automatically collect Social Security or disability checks and pay out rent and utility bills. Without some indicator, such as weeks' worth of newspapers at the door or foul odors coming into the apartment hallway, isolated people are routinely found long after they have passed on.

When I entered college, I was informed that someone in my dormitory had died there the year before. He had a heart murmur and died in bed. It was three days before he was found. Now, Will had been an enormously popular fellow-- a talented musician, a witty raconteur, and clever with the cables and wires of communications technology. He was a leader in the dorm and well-loved. After his death, the dorm held a memorial fundraiser that endured at least until I graduated, five years after he had died, even after all who had known him had themselves graduated.

But on a college campus, one can go a day or two without seeing someone. And so, for three days, everyone passed by his room, not knowing he lay dead inside. Until people started asking, "Have you seen Will? Did he go out of town or something? I haven't seen him in days." His popularity ensured that he had only been missed for three days... and not more.

In the case of the Peculiar Man, however, the death was recent, only "last Saturday." So we are hearing about it less than a week after it happened, which means the body was found that day, or at the latest, a few days after.

Like all unnatural deaths, there had to be opportunity, method, and motive. The first two were readily available; the man had nothing else to do, and he had a gas stove or radiator. As for his motive, since he "seldom spoke," we can only guess. But we are certainly willing to: "He went to sleep... so he'd never wake up to his silent world and his tiny room."

Musically, the song has been lovely to this point. In fact, the simple, nonchalant, back-and-forth melody, punctuated by occasional filigrees, is one of Simon's prettiest.

But now, the voices become loud, perhaps angry. The lacy fingerwork crescendos to a strident strumming. A man has died-- why is there no anguish? Someone should be upset, at least! How could this have happened? Whose fault is it?

This pique subsides suddenly with the news that the brother "should be notified soon." Oh, fine. It's his problem now. Very well, then.

And then, the community's eulogy: "What a shame that he's dead. But, wasn't he a most peculiar man." Tsk, tsk. Well, what can be expected? He kept to himself, after all.

Up to now, Simon has continued to explore the theme of isolation in "Bleecker Street," "The Sound of Silence," "Wednesday Morning, 3AM," "Blessed," and even "Kathy's Song." And Simon acknowledges that isolation can even lead to death, as in "Sparrow" and "He Was My Brother."

But in "Richard Cory" and "Most Peculiar Man," we see another consequence of isolation: suicide. Death, yes, but at one's own hand. These were people who did not necessarily want to feel lonely. Richard Cory was known, but trapped in his status, unable to make connections because there was no one else in his situation. He owned "one half of this old town," and since the other half was not owned by one other person, he had no peers. (Compared this to, say, Tiger Woods befriending Michael Jordan years ago, who, while not in his sport, shares his ethnicity and superstar-athlete status. I write this while Mr. Woods' first scandal is still unravelling, and a column appeared suggesting that he consult with Mr. Jordan on how to handle such a situation. Obviously, we do not expect Mr. Woods to end his own life at this point.).

And the Peculiar Man? Who knows why he enclosed himself in a shell of silence? Well, we might ask the speaker of "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," who is on the lam, or the speaker of "I Am a Rock," who is heartbroken.  It may even be the effect of a mental illness like agoraphobia, as explored in the movie Columbus Circle, about a woman who has not left her apartment in 20 years.There are many reasons a person might shut him- or herself off from the world.

Perhaps he was simply sick or disabled and unable to move easily. My late grandfather died at 100 and hadn't left his house in five or more years, but he was tended by my grandmother and visited often by his children, grandchildren, community-appointed social workers and clergy.

Ultimately, why is the man seen as "peculiar"? Because he does not extend himself to the community. He wasn't "like" his neighbors, in that they did do so. But we do not know if anyone, Mrs. Riordan included, ever tried to draw the man from his isolation-- engage him in conversation, invite him to a community event, offer to run errands for him. At some point, the neighbors simply labelled him "peculiar," and went on their way.

Simon's implication is not that the man imposed his own isolation and refused entreaties, however. It seems that he was simply shy and unforthcoming-- perhaps he was new to the building, perhaps all of his neighbors were-- leading to his neighbors' shrugs and sighs, leading in turn to the man's eventual total alone-ness, which the neighbors reflexively blamed on the man himself.

And they should not have. They should have tried harder. Now that the man is dead, we see (too late) that he did not in fact want to be alone. They should have noticed the signs earlier, and taken his introversion not as a sign of rejection of them (as they self-centeredly no doubt did) or haughtiness, but as a sign of self-doubt and lack of confidence.

Simon indicts their indifference, but then wonders if he is expecting too much. Perhaps he is.

Sharon Begely writes in "Newsweek," December 2009: "How much babies gesture, smile, make eye contact, and babble affects how adults respond to them, including responses that shape how verbal a child will be, how emotionally secure she will feel, and thus what kind of adult relationships she will have."

Or, as the Beatles would say: "The love you take is equal to the love you make." Perhaps it was not the man's fault that he was peculiarly introverted. But it may be just as unavoidable, or at least as much "human nature," that society dubbed his introversion "peculiar."


Next song: April Come She Will

Friday, November 27, 2009

Richard Cory

Already, Simon has updated the words of Jesus, in "Blessed." Now he turns for source material to the poem "Richard Corey" (the original spells the name "-ey," Simon's version does not). The poem is four verses by E.A. Robinson (readily available online; just search the poem's name with any search engine) about a wealthy man who inexplicably commits suicide.

One may compare Simon's updated version to the original line-by-line at one's leisure. In fact, this might be a useful exercise for a poetry class. The instructor may then ask the students to update the original poem again for the new millennium, or to choose another classic poem to update.

Here, we will focus on the overall characters in the poems rather than the structure of the poems.

The major difference between Richard Corey and Richard Cory is in their demeanor. Mr. Corey is "a gentleman... "[who] was always human when he talked"... "and admirably schooled in every grace." The poem does not say he shared his wealth charitably, however.

His literary descendant, Mr. Cory, does give to "charity" along with having "the common touch" --but he also is a playboy who attends opulent galas, bribes politicians, is rumored to host debauched "parties," and is hounded by paparazzi.

Regardless, there is little difference between the reaction of the speaker in one version and the other. In Robinson's: "We went without the meat and cursed the bread... wish[ed] that we were in his place." And in Simon's: "I curse my poverty/ And I wish that I could be/ Richard Cory."

But, as the Beatles cautioned, "Money can't buy... love." For all of Mr. Corey/Cory's seemingly enviable lifestyle, he was depressed, and his life felt empty. In short, this life was substantial, but not substantive. Even giving to charity, the usual remedy suggested for the ennui of the idle rich, did not seem to give Mr. Cory a sense of fulfillment; both the poem and the song end with the same words, that Richard "put a bullet through his head."

Today, we might recognize the plight of these wealthy men as depression, or some other legitimate, non-discriminating mental illness, and suggest therapy and/or medication. But they are only fictional figments, meant to educate the reader that money cannot purchase happiness.

How many celebrities of all walks-- entertainment, politics, business-- have achieved the pinnacles of fame and finance they so earnestly sought, only to realize the barrenness of the landscape once they reached these peaks? Inevitably, they seem try to fill this emptiness with physical possessions and pleasures. And we all know the stories of these celebrities' subsequent declines, descents, even deaths.

And yet, we would each wear the T-shirt that says: "Ironically, I'm one of the people who could have handled winning the lottery." If it were me, the claim always is, I would not fall prey to those lurid temptations! I would pay my debts and support my family and community, but otherwise not change my lifestyle very much. I would certainly be happy enough not to feel like killing myself!

Simon's speaker agrees. His reaction to Mr. Cory's suicide is "wonder," but not examination. In fact, he immediately reasserts that he wishes that he could "be Richard Cory."

Simon frequently visits the subject of the individual on the margins, forgotten by society. But until now, this subject has been abject-- poor, homeless, abandoned. "Richard Cory" is Simon's recognition that the desperation of alienation can affect those at the top of society's ladder as well as those who have had the ill luck of walking underneath it.

In an interview, Simon tells the story of he and Garfunkel sitting and listening to the radio one evening. They are in a car parked on the street between their two childhood homes. The song "Sound of Silence" finishes coming through the speakers, and the d.j. comments that this is now the #1 song in America. Art turns to Paul and says, "I bet those guys are having the time of their life right now."

Simon has taken his own advice. He has never rested on his laurels. He has continued to challenge himself musically and artistically, attempting film and stage productions. And he has worked against oppression, started the Children's Health Fund, and been part of innumerable fundraisers over the years for dozens of worthwhile causes. While some of Simon's actions have been provocative and controversial, they have never been scandalous. For his work, he has been universally acclaimed and honored.

Richard Cory wishes he could be Paul Simon.

IMPACT:
The song was covered by Paul McCartney's post-Beatles band, Wings, on their live "Wings Over America" album. It was also covered by Van Morrison's early band, Them.

Next Song: A Most Peculiar Man

Friday, November 20, 2009

Somewhere They Can't Find Me

The temptation exists to simply claim that we have discussed this song already, as it is largely the same song as "Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M." Perhaps after the remix of "Sound of Silence," there was an impulse to try to repeat the magic by taking another soft, acoustic song off of the first album and give it the same treatment for the second. A quick glance at the other potential songs-- "Bleeker Street, "Sparrow," and "He Was My Brother"-- reveals that "Wednesday" is the ready choice. It's already about a desperate criminal, after all.

But while this song is similar, it is not identical. This one has a new title, a chorus, and an arrangement that is more akin to the British Invasion sound than that of the Greenwich Village folk scene. So we will treat it as an individual song.

Before I can critique the song, however, I find I must simply criticize it. From a poetic standpoint, it is a mess. It would have been better to take the plot and rewrite it entirely as a rock song rather than retrofitting this poor attempt at street-talk onto the lovely, tender song that already existed.

That said, in this version, the speaker either purposely or accidentally awakens his lover while arranging his escape. We can picture the man robbing the liquor store, then racing home and climbing into bed, hoping that his girlfriend will never know he was even gone. But his agitation-- his need to flee as expressed in the chorus-- rouses her. Of course, she asks, "What's going on? You all right?"

He blurts, unbelievably: "I've committed a crime!" Say he is going to confess immediately rather than lie, or even respond, "Nothing, it's nothing. I'm just having a hard time sleeping. Go back to sleep." Wouldn't he more likely ease her into it: "I did something really bad," or "Here's what happened. I lost my job, see, and I wasn't gonna tell you, not to worry you, just get another job, y'know. But I couldn't find nothin', see, and then were gonna miss the rent, so I..." He would attempt to cushion the news, or rationalize his actions, no?

It's bad enough to have the speaker's thoughts sound like Byron and his spoken words sound like Bukowski. But then the third verse has him speaking like both at once, moving from the lawn-tennis backhand of "a scene... in which I must play" directly to the stickball bunt of "...it puts me uptight to leave you."

Again, let's leave the linguistic concerns aside and focus on the story. Here, too, we have an issue. Having the speaker tell his girlfriend what he did and how he will now act is an interesting twist. However, this device could have been more fully developed if the speaker's words continued to let us know her reaction. Did she expect this behavior from him, or was it a total shock? Does she want him to turn himself in, or does she offer to flee with him? It is unfair to introduce her as a character and then leave her entirely mute.

The rearranging of "The Sound of Silence" from a folk to a rock song worked because all that changed was the music. Here, the words were changed as well, but both too much and not enough. The result is an object lesson in the pitfalls of taking half-measures.

Still, it is a noble experiment. Simon started as a pop-rock songwriter in the Anka/Sedaka mode. He was able to become a folksong writer with seeming ease. Then he was accidentally cast as a rock-song writer with the re-mix of "Sound of Silence." Naturally, he wanted to see if he could do it on purpose.

Simon would eventually become a great rock-song writer. But, as he would later write, "Before you learn to fly, you gotta learn how to fall." This is not his best work. But it's sometimes useful to see what doesn't work alongside what does.

Next Song: Richard Cory

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kathy's Song

Before we analyze this song, let us take a moment to acknowledge that it is simply one of the most beautiful love songs ever written-- in any language, in any era. Each word, each note, is as pure and simple as the raindrops that begin and end the song.

Structurally, the song is a novella. This is a story that begins with a description of the circumstances of the storytelling itself, then proceeds to tell the story, then ends by connecting that story back to the present circumstances, with the idea of "and that's why I brought this up and am telling it to you now."

In this case: It starts with the image of "rain," then moves to a conflict between the life a songwriter has chosen and the woman he left behind, then ends with the songwriter comparing himself to the rain he opened with.

The movie Adaptation is about a man who is supposed to write a screenplay based on a novel, struggles with it, and ends up writing a screenplay about... a man who is struggling with writing a screenplay based on a novel. Here, Simon has Charlie Kaufman beat by several decades.

Struggling to write "words that tear and strain to rhyme," in New York, Simon misses Kathy, the woman he left behind in England. He had been there, and dated her, then came back to the States to capitalize on the success of the electrified remix of "The Sound of Silence."

Now, he is wondering if he made the right choice. He is trying to write some songs to support the remix in this album here (which is even titled after that song), songs of power and meaning.

Maybe the rain reminds him of famously rainy England (as Randy Newman once observed to a British reporter, "You'd have a great little country here if you could just roof it over."). But he keeps thinking back to Kathy-- "My thoughts are many miles away/ They lie with you." The word "lie" is a subtle pun on the expression "my thoughts lie elsewhere." More than that, Simon says, they are about lying in bed with Kathy and waking up with her.

It is easier to love than to live, Simon laments, or to make a living. Loving Kathy seems to easy, so effortless. Why is he breaking his brain over these songs? He's trying so hard to write important songs that the songs are becoming more important than the issues they are about.

He realizes he doesn't care about these issues... or if he does, he doesn't believe in his songs anymore-- he even calls them "songs [he] can't believe." He cares about Kathy. How can he focus on this album when he can only think of her?

Yet, he must write several more songs. Well, then... let's write about how hard it is to write "issue" songs when you can't think of anything other than this wonderful woman, and how hard it is to have to go through your day knowing you aren't doing that with her.

Thank goodness Simon had the courage to share his feelings as well as his thoughts. Because now we have a song about songwriting. About writing the songs you want to write instead of the ones you have to.

Only two of the songs unique to this album will make it on to Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. This is one of them. Funny how the songs you want to write resonate with listeners better than that other kind.

Simon ends the song with the line: "There but for the grace of you go I." The expression Simon plays with here is "There but for the grace of God go I," said when seeing someone in poor circumstances you realize might just as well be your own. By replacing God with Kathy, Simon again relates his struggle with religion and faith. Right now, it is not God getting him through, it's Kathy. And she's not there either.


Next Song: Somewhere They Can't Find Me

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blessed

This song uses two utterances of Jesus to, as in "Bleecker Street," discuss the disconnect between an ostensibly kind God and His downtrodden creations.

The first of these utterances is the Beatitudes, a section of the Sermon on the Mount-- eight sentences, each starting with the word "Blessed." The most famous of these, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," is quoted in the first line of the song.

The second utterance is the line, "Oh, Lord! Why have You forsaken me?" said to have been spoken by Jesus while dying on the crucifix.

The delivery of the song is key. The music is distorted and bent, and it reflects the drunken-seeming shouting and mumbling of the voices.

The overall effect is that of a sad, frustrated, and disillusioned person railing against the unfulfilled promises made by God: "Blessed are," says Jesus, the poor, the mourners, the hungry, the persecuted. Well, the speaker implies, so he says... but I am all those things-- where is my blessing, already? I don't feel "blessed," I feel "forsaken!"

While the individual lines are loose and rambling, the song itself is very structured. Each of the three verses starts with two sarcastic, "Blessed"s mocking the allegedly empty pledges of the Bible and its God. The "lamb" is Jesus, considered a representation of the Pascal Lamb (he was killed at Passover), and his "blood" flowed copiously at the crucifixion. The "land" is Earth, specifically the Promised Land of Israel; the "kingdom" is the "kingdom of Heaven," possibly the afterlife, mentioned in the Beatitudes.

Then comes a third "Blessed," updating the generic misery mentioned in the Gospels with specific, modern incarnations: the "ratted on," the "meth drinkers" and various other narcotics addicts, "penny rookers" (con-men), prostitutes, and the "groovy [on-]lookers" or voyeurs... who are too removed from life to participate in the described squalor but can merely spectate.

On a side note, one character who might have populated Jesus' world would have been a "pot seller," peddling earthernware in a marketplace. Given the context, however, this is obviously a marijuana dealer. The "illusion dweller," we can guess, is one hallucinating on LSD.

Then, each verse ends with the speaker's own thoughts on his situation. Within this structure, the speaker moves away from the anger at his disappointment with God toward a possible way to move forward.

Now, going back through the verses, we see the speaker's progress from lashing out to tuning in.

First, he rails against the unfairness of his frustration, flinging God's words back in His face. Then he explains the source of his anger-- his homelessness: "I've got no place to go." We don't even know what city he is in, as both New York and London have loosely-moral (at the time) areas named "Soho." He also expresses his apathy toward his own poverty: "It doesn't matter." If even God doesn't care, why should he? However, Even within this rambling about rambling, there is some coherence, or attempt at structure, perhaps even jazz-like wordplay. This is evidenced by the rhymes: "no/ go/ Soho/ so."

Next, he lashes out again, mocking God's failed attempts at forging a relationship with His worshippers: "Blessed is the man whose soul belongs to." The thought is unfinished, as the speaker is not fully sober. Also, it doesn't matter what or Whom the soul belongs to, especially since God is so unknowable; it is the belonging itself that should matter.

The "wound" is likely a reference to the laceration caused by a blade to Jesus' side during the crucifixion. A more radical interpretation is that a "wound" that "words" come "from" is not an actual wound at all, but the speaker's mouth. Like a wound, the mouth is an opening lined in red. A "healed" mouth would be closed, as a healed wound would be... but the speaker will have his say-- he has "no intention" to be silent or even speak healing words.

The speaker then states that he chafes against the stifling nature of religion and the enclosures of its church buildings. Even the luxurious "stained glass" that beautifies many churches he sees as nothing more than so many "window panes." As for the "service" held in the church, it is not soothing, but it "makes [him] nervous"... possibly because he fears hearing more promises that will once again be unmet.

After one more excoriation of "Why have You forsaken me?" the speaker has an epiphany. There is a long, drawn out "I...." as if the thought is there but the words have yet to arrive. Then they do: "I have tended my own garden much too long."

The implication is that he realizes what the true source of his problem is: self-involvement. He is drunk or stoned (or both) and therefore homeless because he was dwelling on his own problems. He took them to God, and God said He would make it all better. But then it wasn't better. So he turned to drink and drugs, and all they got him was broke and alone.

His solution? To move forward... by moving outward. Rather than tend his "own garden," he must begin to help others. The reference, aside from the cliched advice to "tend you own garden" (i.e., "mind you own business" and stop meddling in others'), could be to the Garden of Eden, which God told Adam to "tend." Rather than worry about his own Edenic salvation, he will focus on providing service to his fellow humans.

Perhaps this focus on the problems of others will only distract him from his own issues. Perhaps it will give some meaning to his life, a sense of fulfillment and a reason to live. Either way, it will be better than distracting himself with substances... or relying on what was revealed to be an unreliable deity.

Throughout his work, Simon struggles with religion and faith. Already, he has covered Gospel songs, lost God in the "fog" over "Bleecker Street"... and here, in "Blessed," taken the voice of the beleaguered, homeless "Sparrow" who was silent in her own song.


Next song: Kathy's Song

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Leaves That Are Green

The first song on S&G's second album, Sounds of Silence, is its title track, "The Sound of Silence"... and the pluralized title of the album forever threw the exact title of the song itself into doubt. Further complicating the matter was the fact that, as a single, the song's title was "Sounds..."

(Why people think it's "...Waters" when every presentation of "Bridge" is consistently titled "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is just people relying on memory instead of bothering to check.)

But, as we already dealt with "The Sound of Silence" during its first appearance on the debut album, we will pause only to say it is this electrified version of the song that went to #1. The stoy behind the (as we would say today) "remix" is fascinating, but it has been already covered many times and in many places.

Now, we will proceed directly to the first new original song on the second album, "Leaves That Are Green." This is one of Simon's simplest songs to understand. While it does present a number of metaphors for its theme, it also states that theme outright: "Time hurries on." Further, it continues, all things must end.

Our age-- both the number we give to our years and our historical era-- passes. Leaves and other growing things wither. Love ends, either because it dies or one of the lovers do.

There is a term, now, for the feeling Simon relates. We have all heard of the "midlife crisis" faced by those in, well, midlife. But recently, the term "quarterlife crisis" has been used to describe the feeling twentysomethings get, often around college graduation. They realize that while they might have 70-some years of life they can expect, meaning fifty or so more years, how many of those are "quality" years in terms of health, attractiveness, and earning power?

Simon was way ahead of them, writing about mortality itself when he was only, as he says, 21 years old.

The saddest verse is probably the third. The love lost in the second verse at least existed before it was lost. There is a memory of shared time that two people have, albeit bittersweet. But the third verse speaks of a wholly ineffectual act. The "pebble" sinks, the "ripples" fade, and there was not even a satisfying "plunk" to mark that the action had ever taken place. It recalls Keats' epitaph, the low-self-esteem-classic: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

The song ends with a series of hellos and goodbyes: Hello.../ goodbye.../ That's all there is." There is a story that King Solomon asked his advisers to come up with a statement that was always true. They responded with the phrase: "This, too, will pass." Solomon reportedly liked this so much he had the statement engraved in gold and placed above the door to his throne room, so that he could always see it while sitting on his throne.

Structurally-- and musically, with its harpsichord accompaniment-- the hearkens to the olden-time British ballads. But watch how the deteriorating rhyme scheme marks this as a modern creation:
The first verse's lines end: "song/long/on," very close rhymes.
Then comes: "girl/night/write." Two out of three.
And lastly: "brook/away/sound."

The increasingly looser rhymes mirror the poem's theme of entropy. This term from physics is defined by Simon himself quite well on his first official solo album, with the title "Everything Put Together Falls Apart."

What's intriguing is Simon's simple acceptance of this fact. Simon-- for he seems to (for once) be the speaker, simply notes the facts that time flies and things pass. He agrees that this is sad, but does not seem to have much of a reaction to the fact ... or beyond that, to tell us that we should have one.

He does not cajole, like Robert Herrick, to "gather... rosebuds while [we] may," or like urge, like Dylan Thomas, to "rage/ against the dying of a light," or even sigh like Ecclesiastes that "all is vanity and pursuit of wind."

Simon simply notes that all things end. He laments this reality, but simultaneously accepts it. It is one thing to ponder mortality at age 21. It is quite another to be so... grown up about it.

IMPACT:
This album came out in 1966, a year before the Beatles single "Hello, Goodbye." It also presaged the line "Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes" in Billy Joel's song "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" by a decade.

This pretty but slight song is not considered a major element in Simon's catalog, but it was nonetheless paid tribute by folk aficionado Billy Bragg, who opened his song "Looking for a New England" with the verse:

"I was 21 years when I wrote this song
I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long.
People ask me, 'When will you grow up to be a man?'
But all the girls I loved at school are already pushing prams."

"Pram" is short for "perambulator," the British (which Bragg is) term for baby buggy.

While Simon's song is about endings altogether, Bragg is specifically thinking of ending a particular relationship. The chorus is:
"I don't want to change the world,
I'm not looking for a new England--
I'm just looking for another girl."

Next song: Blessed

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Covers of Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

It might be a fair guess to say that there are more covers on this album than on the other four S&G albums combined. But of the 12 songs on the album, 7 are covers... more than half the tracks. They break down into two categories... plus one that does not fit either.

The first category is folk versions of Christian, even Gospel-style, songs: "You Can Tell the World," "Go Tell it on the Mountain," and "Benedictus." It may seem strange to hear two "nice Jewish boys" singing such things, but when they were in England, post-college-- just as they were transitioning from being "Tom and Jerry" to "Simon and Garfunkel"-- one of their first breaks was providing music for a Christian radio show. The incongruity of Jews singing Christian music still raises eyebrows today; even in 2009, both Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan were offering new Christmas-song albums, and there were articles aplenty wondering at the sight.

That said, the two gospel numbers are sung boisterously and heartily, full of good cheer and "good news." Both are evangelical in nature, with the word "tell" right there in their titles-- one says to "Tell the world," and the other, "tell it... everywhere." Clearly, Simon is fine working with Christian imagery, and continues to be, as noted in the essay on "Bleecker Street." There are also such references in his more recent work, such as "the cross is in the ballpark," in "The Obvious Child" and "We celebrate the birth of Jesus" in "Old." For Simon, such ideas seem to be simply others he can access, alongside imagery of nature, modern life, etc.

Then there is "Benedictus," an arrangement of a Latin hymn done Gregorian-chant style. It is simply beautiful, and a better illustration of the duo's legendary ability to harmonize can scarcely be found.

Covers of "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" (E. McCurdy), "The Sun is Burning" (I. Campbell), and "The Times, They are A-Changin'" (Dylan) show Simon and Garfunkel doing what good folksingers have always done-- perform each others' songs. But these songs are more apocalyptic. The first paints a lovely dream of a UN-type council vowing to "never fight again." The second, however, is the nightmare version-- what will happen if the first, peaceful scenario is not fulfilled, with a nuclear Armageddon: "Now the Sun has come to Earth/ Shrouded in a mushroom cloud of death/ Death comes in a blinding flash/ of Hellish heat, and leaves a smear of ash."

The oft-covered Dylan number rounds out this trilogy with is warning to, as they used to say, get with the program: "you'd better start swimming /or you'll sink like a stone." Perhaps, taken together, these selection imply that there is a choice. Those who vow to "never fight again" will go "...dancing round and round/[with] guns and swords and uniforms/scattered on the ground," while those who make war will "go groping on their knees/ And cry in vain." As the third song explains: "he who gets hurt/ Will be he who has stalled."

Which leaves "Peggy-O," a traditional ballad. It is a story of helplessness and heartbreak. A travelling captain falls in love with a local lady and pledges her his adoration and fortune if she will leave with him: "You're the prettiest little girl I've ever seen/ In a carriage you will ride.../ As fair as any lady in the area."

Her friends, however, are having none of it: "What will you mother say/ when she finds you've gone away/ To places far and strange...?" No mention is made of her mother actually having a problem with this, so the soldier comes to the same conclusion as the listener and blames her friends for her refusal of him, telling Peggy: "If ever I return/ All your cities I will burn/ Destroying all the ladies in the area." This brave man, who can order a regiment of men into gunfire, cannot overcome the peer pressure of Peggy's jealous lady-friends. Throughout the song, Peggy herself is silent, the same as the Sparrow and other of Simon's characters here.

All of Simon's songs on the album are sad in some way or other. They tell stories of bleak streets, "restless dreams," a racist murder, and a fleeing criminal. Even a tired bird with a pretty song is abandoned when in need. What causes the sadness is a lack of connection, driven by fear. Simon tries to be a leader in "Sound of Silence": "Hear my words that I might teach you." But "Sound of Silence" is ultimately about people ignoring each other to worship a "neon god." So while there is a need to connect, people-- disappointed with each other-- reach to the concept of deity, only to again fail in their choice of one. The contemporary folksongs seem to be chosen to show the global implications of these personal decisions.

The overtly religious songs, the only happy ones here, come to provide a solution: "He brought joy, joy, joy into my heart" and "God sent salvation/ That holy Christmas morn." Humans, even the best intentioned ones, will ultimately let one down. Better to place your money on the Sure Bet.

In later albums, Simon will write other happy songs of his own. For now, his happiness is borrowed.

Next Song: Leaves That Are Green

Friday, October 16, 2009

Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

This is another story of a "crime." Not a hate crime, as depicted in "He Was My Brother," but a common, poverty-motivated robbery. Only this time, the speaker is the criminal himself.

If Sgt. Friday of TV's Dragnet would ask for "just the facts," they are these: On a "winter" Tuesday evening, a man "held up and robbed a hard liquor store." As far as we know, no shots were fired, and no one was injured. The robber left with "$25" and change. He is now hiding in his girlfriend's apartment, with plans to continue to flee in daylight.

But the song is about more than the crime. It is about the criminal and what-- if anything-- he was thinking when he did his foul deed.

The song tells an entire story, starting at the middle, going back to the beginning, then forward to the future. It starts with a man in bed with "the girl that [he] loves[s]." She is asleep, and peacefully and "gently" so. It seems he has not told her of his crime, or-- we imagine-- she would be having some reaction to it.

In describing her, he reveals he is somewhat a poet: "And her hair, in a fine mist/ It floats on my pillow/ Reflecting the glow/ Of the winter moonlight." He clearly thinks she is beautiful, and refers to her with the word "love" twice.

Meanwhile, he is awake and agitated; his "heart remains heavy." He lets us know that he must "be leaving" with "the first light of dawn." And only now, halfway through the song's four-verse length, does he shift to the past... and let us know why.

He speaks as if quoting the news, saying that he has "committed a crime/ Broken the law," perhaps imagining how his act was seen and categorized by others, for he cannot understand it himself, in his own terms.

Then he takes his own voice again, referring poetically to the small change, the "pieces of silver" he stole (see also "Bleecker Street"). This is both to wonder aloud at the inexplicability of his act-- he now must become a fugitive and give up his lady-love... and for what, this measly amount?-- and to recall the "pieces of silver" for which Judas betrayed Jesus.

Yes, but who did our robber betray? The store's owner? His girlfriend? Society at as a whole? Or... himself? He has betrayed his image of himself as a law-abiding, moral person, one with a commitment to another person at that.

Again, for what? It seems his initial motivation was poverty, but is $25 going to help? We know from earlier that "$30 pays your rent on Bleecker Street," so this amount is not going to even cover a month's rent in the cheapest neighborhood.

The song leaves us with a man whose mind is torn in three directions. One is to enjoy the brief moment of peace he has now; one is to try to figure out why he did what he did; and one is to plan his next move, how to "leave."

But he is torn in another way-- in half. His image of himself is now completely broken. In court, character witnesses are called to say of the accused that such an upstanding person could never have done such a low-down thing. But, called into witness against himself, the robber is appalled at his own actions: "What have I done? Why have I done it?" Yes, he was poor... but now he is not only no less poor but also on the lam, lovelorn and homeless. So what was it all for?

The rational part of his mind is left with no recourse but disbelief: "My life seems unreal, my crime an illusion." He even imagines some clumsy outside entity forcing his actions, making his act an "act" in the dramatic sense: "a scene, badly written/ In which [he] must play."

Ultimately, Simon has sympathy for the criminal he has created. Society must take some blame for leaving such a creative mind with no employment, leaving his only choice desperate acts like thievery. He also tries to grasp the criminal's detatchment from his own actions, the "How does I have done such a thing?" and "I could never have done such a thing!" feelings.

The listener is left with as much remorse for the criminal as he has for his own acts. Before, he had no money, but he did have love in his life. Now, he has barely enough to get on a bus out of town, and he must leave behind all that he holds dear.

The message is not that "crime doesn't pay." While the song does show the negative consequences of criminal behavior, it never takes on the moralizing tone of a parental warning: "See what happens when you rob a store? Let this be a lesson to you not to try something so stupid yourself!" The song does not end with the robber turning himself in, returning the money, and doing his jail time.

Rather, the song is simply, and hopelessly, sad. If it has a message, it's that some people, no matter how hard they try to improve their lot in life, cannot. Society does not value their potential contributions, and they have no knack for anti-society, crimimal success. They are left homeless, hopeless, and alone.

Next: The Cover Songs of Wednesday Morning, 3AM

Thursday, October 8, 2009

He Was My Brother

This is one of Simon's few protest songs, in the commonly understood sense of a political statement in verse. It discusses a particular incident-- in this a case, a racist crime. Given the specificity of the information mentioned in the song, I thought I could find an article on the incident itself. The Freedom Rides were a recent, well-documented event, I reasoned, so if there was a death associated with them, I should be able to find something about it.

I was wrong. After a half-hour's research online, not only could I not find an article on or mention of a "23"-year-old "Freedom Rider" who was "shot... dead," I could find no mention of a death of any Freedom Rider whatsoever. This is not to minimize the brave sacrifices of the Freedom Riders or their pain, let alone their indelible contributions to the history of civil rights. It is simply to say that I could find no record of one of them having been killed. Again, I am glad that none of them died, if that is the case. But the fact of a Freedom Rider having being killed not being the case, the song takes on a different tinge.

I did find many mentions of a Corporal Roman Ducksworth, an African-American MP officer who, while on leave to visit his sick wife, was killed by a police officer. Yes, he was shot, but fully half of the articles I found on him indicated that he may have been "mistaken" by the officer for a Freedom Rider. Had he certainly been one, it is more likely that the cause's organizers would have claimed him, rightly, as a martyr in some definitive way. Further, he was not accosted by a "mob," but seems to have been killed by this particular officer, whose name is also known.

Another possibility is that Simon conflated the Freedom Rider idea with the martyrdom of another activist in some other aspect of the cause. This could be one of the three young men -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner-- who were registering voters in Mississippi when they were killed by anti-rights racists. However, they were lynched, not "shot," and while they all were in their early 20s, none was "23."

It is the case that Goodman was a friend of Simon and Garfunkel's, and a classmate of Simon's at Queens College. There is even a record of the song being dedicated to him, even if the details of the case were changed for the sake of song itself.

The fact of Goodman and Schwerner being Jewish, like Simon, is immaterial, as he only speaks of one victim in the song... aside from the fact that Simon's consideration of this man as a "brother" must transcend all such designations, or the song itself must lose some moral power and import.

I would not focus so much on the issue of the source of the song's story were it not for three things: One, most other such songs-- from Dylan's "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," to Neil Young's "Ohio," to Springsteen's "41 Shots"-- are based in actual, historic incidents. Two, the number and specific nature of the details of our song seems to indicate an actual incident being discussed. Three, why would Simon discuss the death of a Freedom Rider if none had actually been killed, while so many other civil-rights workers-- both leaders and followers-- in other areas of the movement, had? Once the fictional nature of the incident was known to its contemporary listeners, surely it would let some of air out of the song's proverbial tires.

[A 2016 biography of Simon indicates that the song was written in 1963, a year before the Chaney/Goodman/Schwerner killing. If anyone reading this knows of the specific incident Simon did mean, please share what you know. Thank you. ]

All of that said, let us now treat the song as a work unto itself, and discuss the references of other elements of its story.

The song begins with the assertion of brotherhood on the part of the speaker with the subject. The song then explains that the reason we are talking about this person is that he died, and very young. This-- and the dramatic way the duo sings "... day he died"-- is to effectively "hook" the listener into wanting to find out what could have caused his early demise.

We learn the "brother" is a Freedom Rider. The Freedom Riders were righteous souls who braved violence to test the Supreme Court's then-new laws desegregating interstate transportation in the mid-1960s. Yes, readers, at one point in our great nation's recent past, simply riding a Greyhound bus was a provocative, political act that could-- and did-- get one beaten with sticks and pipes by one's fellow Americans, then jailed by the local police for having given these citizens the trouble of doing the beating.

Next, we learn that, as a Freedom Rider, he was not warmly received. The brother is cursed, then told two contradictory things: he can leave "this town," or he can remain... permanently. "Go home, outsider/This town's gonna be your buryin' place." The "gonna" and dropped "g" of "burying'" may to be an attempt to capture the dialect of the South, or perhaps imply the ignorance of the racists involved.

So far, the song is an accurate depiction of the events the Freedom Riders encountered. Next are two more factual elements. There is the image of the brother "singing on his knees." Certainly, the Freedom Riders prayed, both for the fulfillment of their cause and for their personal safety. But although that is the metaphor presented, that is not only what is likely meant. The Freedom Riders used Gandhi's methods of passive resistance, singing protest songs while sitting, forcing their opponents to be the sole violent participants in their altercations. In one incident I just read about, some Riders were tossed out of jail because the guards could not stand their constant singing!

"An angry mob trailed along" does not logically follow... how does one "trail" someone "on his knees," who is not moving? Rather, this must refer to the racist mobs who followed the Freedom Rider's buses wherever they went, meeting them at each bus depot with fresh rounds of violence. In at least one case, a bus's tires were slashed, then the entire bus burned.

The next line-- "They shot my brother dead"-- is, as discussed above, the place where the song may break down, with regard to recording a factual incident. [Again, if anyone knows of any Freedom Rider having been killed for his activism, I would appreciate knowing and will certainly revise this essay based on that information.]

But it is the next line where Simon, for all his sometime lyrical floridity, shows how excellent a writer he is. This thought calls for economy of phrase and word choice, and Simon adapts his style and delivers a line of gunshot directness: "...he hated what was wrong." Racial hatred is wrong, and whether it is important enough to kill over, it is certainly important enough to die over.

The song closes with two more thoughts. One is that "tears won't bring [his brother] back." The implication is that mourning is not useful-- what is needed now is action, something that will assure that such tragedies don't happen again. The undercurrent urges the listener into activism. (Decades later, Simon will reconsider somewhat, opining, in "Cool Cool River": "Sometime, even music/Is no substitute for tears.")

This song, an elegy (poetic eulogy), ends with an epitaph, again delivered with forceful clarity: "He died so his brothers could be free." He was a martyr for civil and human rights.

Yes, he died for your freedom, too, listener! If it hasn't been obvious thus far, Simon now makes it plain. Whether or not this fallen man was the speaker's-- or audience's-- biological brother is irrelevant. The point is that all men are brothers in spirit. The victim's "brothers" are not the speaker and his other siblings, but all Americans and indeed all humans, all of whom deserve freedom.

Were any Freedom Riders killed in the cause of civil rights? Perhaps not. But from civil rights generals from Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Medgar Evers, to footsoldiers like Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, many did indeed "die... so their brothers could be free." And that is a truth, everyone laments, which did certainly occur.

Note: In the 1980s, Simon would travel to South Africa to use music to combat more racism, the oppressive system known as "apartheid." One of his collaborators there on the resulting 1986 album, the landmark Graceland, was Joseph Shabalala. In 1960, Mr. Shabalala founded the vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which the album would help bring to international acclaim. One of the ensemble's original founding members was Joseph's brother, Headman Shabalala, who gave the group some of its famous particular vocalizations. In 1991, Headman was returning from a family event when his car was pulled over by an off-duty security guard, who shot him in the head and killed him.

He, too, was our brother.

Next song: Wednesday Morning 3 AM



Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Sound of Silence

The entirety of the song is the tale of a recurring dream. One might imagine yet another occurrence of this "restless" dream-- a nightmare, truly-- shaking the speaker awake again while it is still night. Alone in bed, he has no one to tell the dream to but the "darkness" of the room itself, which he finds an "old friend," a welcome comfort from the bright but disturbing images of the dream. (In a later song, Simon will describe a couple of "Old Friends," both human.)

"Darkness," the absence of light, may be a "friend," but "silence," the absence of sound, is "like a cancer." The song as an entirety is an exhortation against the dangers of silence, so it is fitting that the song is wholly a conversation: "I've come to talk with you again." The dream is so disturbing that the only relief is speech, even if only to the darkness of the nighttime bedroom.

The dream, the "vision," describes two scenes. The first is one only of the speaker. The second is of a crowd, and the speakers attempt at interaction with it.

The first scene is very short, confined in some four lines. The speaker is "alone," in "narrow streets." The "streets" are not smoothly paved, but "cobblestone," an image both archaic and tumultuous-- anyone who has walked on cobblestones knows they are uneven and uncomfortable. The light is dim, from a lone "streetlamp," yet it is somehow authentic, even holy-- the glow is described as a "halo." The only protection from the "cold and damp" is the "collar" of his coat. The image altogether is one of isolation and discomfort. The scene is also somewhat British: narrow cobblestone streets, a gaslight shimmering in the infamous London fog, a trenchcoat's collar pulled up ever more snugly against the mist.

The second scene is its complete opposite. It is announced by rending, slashing pain, a "stab," a "split." It is a "flash" of synthetic, "neon" brightness. The speaker is suddenly in Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip.

This new light is also no holy "halo." No, it is "naked." This may be reference to the nakedness that caused the expulsion from Eden. If so, the next image is that of the shiny Golden Calf: "The people bowed and prayed/ to the neon god they'd made."

The speaker, in this new, bare light, sees an enormous crowd: "ten thousand people, maybe more" (a concert audience?). But they are even less communicative than the darkness the speaker "talk[s] with" at the beginning. They "talk" without "speaking." Worse, they "hear... without listening." And worst of all (at least, one may guess, to a songwriter), they write "songs that voices never share." Somehow, they even manage to "pray" quietly.

Why? They do not "dare/ disturb the sound of silence." Yes, but again, why? Why not interact? What is so important, or intimidating, about this "silence" that it must not be breached?

The speaker, new to this realm, finds no ready answer, and so breaks the silence with a jeremiad. He warns the assemblage against the dangers of distancing themselves from each other: "silence like a cancer grows." He tells them there is a solution in communication--"hear my words"-- and offers himself as an example, teacher, and confidant: "Take my arms, that I might reach you."

He might as well have said nothing, as all they heard from him was silence; his proffered "words" are but "silent raindrops." He might have expected as much-- he asked them to "hear" his words after he had observed them "hearing without listening." But the danger of silence forced him to try anyway.

And here is a chilling double irony-- what are these misdirected throngs worshipping? A sign that is "forming" "words". And words about what? "Words"! But as they are formed out of neon lights, they are not spoken, sung, or even heard. These words, whose light can "touch... the sounds of silence," are silent themselves.

"The sign said: 'The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls." (To find out what those words may be, we need to see a later song, "A Poem on the Underground Wall.")

Who are the "prophets"? The disenfranchised, the downtrodden of the "tenement." Here, Simon engages in a bit of inverted logic. If no one listens to prophets, and if no one listens to these people, then these people must be prophets. And, in fact, no one will listen to them, even if they did have a voice, which they do not. The speaker, addressing the oblivious crowd with prophetic, outstretched arms, is just another street urchin with nothing to his name but a threadbare coat. He is invisible beside the overwhelming flash of the neon sign, and his words merely "echo" in the bottomless "wells of silence."

The men who sleep in the alleys of Bleeker Street were truly poor. The Sparrow was a metaphor for the homeless and ignored. But this "vision" shows a new level-- depth, rather-- of alienation. But the people here could speak, listen, and sing together. They are not kept silent out of disenfranchisement or poverty.

They are kept silent by the simple fear of communicating. Of opening up, being vulnerable, possibly mishearing or mis-speaking... and then what? No, better to keep chit-chat cursory and instead focus on the "neon" of the bar sign, the Times Square advertisements, the jukebox... the television tube or movie screen (or computer monitor..?).

The streetlight's halo contrasts with the neon flash to show the difference between radiance and radiation, brilliance and mere brightness. The speaker alone in his room-- with his only "friend," the darkness-- has more company than the myriads of silent worshippers.

The song does not explicitly wrap around; the speaker, having told the darkness his dream, does not ask the darkness for an interpretation of the dream. He does not thank the darkness for its attention and companionship, then rise to greet the day's rising sunlight.

Still, there is closure. The song begins with a wakeful dreamer retelling his dream to the darkness. It continues with the dream of the loneliness of aloneness, then with the loneliness of anonymity.

But it ends by noting that the "words of the prophets" are also "whispered in the sounds of silence." A whisper is the barest hint of speaking, but also the most intimate. The wisp of a whisper might carry the messianic power of prophecy... and connection.

IMPACT:
This was the first Simon and Garfunkel hit, and it remains one of the most popular songs in Simon's entire catalog. He still closes shows with it, to this day. For Simon, it meant the beginning of his folk songwriting career, and that Simon & Garfunkel were a hit-making duo.

It reached #1 in 1965, and stayed on the charts for 12 weeks altogether. It would go on to be one of the top-20 most performed songs of the 20th Century (as far as could be tracked for royalty purposes). Rolling Stone magazine ranked it in its top 200 songs "of all time," and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

The Library of Congress (which would later bestow upon Simon its first George Gershwin Award) inducted the song to its National Recording Registry, meaning that it was to be preserved indefinitely.


Next Song: He Was My Brother

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sparrow

Fables are teaching tools. This one, like Aesop's, features talking animals. Like the Grimms', it contains a lesson about cruel selfishness. And like Andersen's, it concludes with a religious note.

Simon attacks three kinds of selfishness in this song. The first is that of the oak tree. For free, the tree could provide a place for a weary sparrow's nest. The tree is not being asked to provide the twigs for this nest, just enough room for one. And not even much room-- this is a tiny sparrow, after all.

The tree refuses, even while acknowledging that the sparrow is indeed "cold" and that its own "leaves" could "warm" the bird. The only implied reason is that the sparrow is unworthy of the tree: "I won't share my branches with no sparrow's nest." The ungrammatical "no" reads as "no mere" sparrow's nest. If it were a more substantive bird, say a peacock, that happened to be down on its luck, then maybe. But the welcome mat is rolled up if a pathetic little sparrow knocks.

(Aside from shelter, one needs food, and one would think that the sparrow would seek a few grains of "wheat" next. Were I to edit the song, I would switch the second and third verses. I would say that that a refusal of shelter, then a refusal of food, then a refusal of even a "kindly word," which would cost nothing at all, would be the last nail in the coffin-- how could a creature live without even someone acknowledging its misfortune? Simon instead, feels that the logical order is: shelter, then commiseration, then food: Not even food-- well, then forget it. That said, we will take the verses as they are presented.)

Next, the swan refuses a "kindly word" to the sparrow. The excuse is that he would devalue his own social currency by exchanging words with the (again, mere) sparrow: "I'd be laughed at and scorned if the other swans heard."

Lastly, the "wheat" refuses to help. Its defence is simply self-interest: "I need all my grain to prosper and grow." As if a few grains in a sparrow's stomach would make a difference in the grand scheme. At least the thought of charity did occur to the wheat, "I would if I could."

And now, homeless (compare to Bleeker Street), friendless, and starving, the sparrow dies. Only now that it is too late does someone consider helping the wretched thing. But by now, the assumption is that the sparrow will be abandoned yet again; the question changes from "And who will...?" to "Will no one...?"

The Earth replies that it will eulogize the sparrow and provide it a grave. The Earth is used as a metaphor for God: "For all I've created..." The Earth creates nothing-- in fact, it is a creation, of God's. It is disingenuous-- and out of context with the religiosity of the rest of the album-- to think that Simon is implying that Earth is a god along the lines of say, Gaia. Rather, the most logical assumption is that the "Earth" stands for God, who evoked the first living beings from dust, engendering the expression "Dust to dust."

What does the fable of the sparrow teach? What is, as Aesop would say, "the moral of the story"?

Is it: "Fret not-- while God's creations may be lacking in generosity, in the end God will provide a final kindness"?

Or is it: "God's creations refuse kindness because they feel superior, while God Himself does provide kindness because He is superior." Being kinder is being better; how "good" you are depends not on how much you have, but how much you give of what you have.

The lesson is clear: No excuse to refuse help holds water. You, the listener, could provide a "blanket," a "kindly word" to a needy, homeless person. You think it will soil your reputation to truck with the poor? Why, does God's reputation suffer when He does? Are you better than God, to worry about your good standing so? And yes, you could "prosper and grow" and still spare enough grains to feed a mere sparrow.

On an artistic note, while the song befits its time and place (and album), it rings a tad preachy now. On the other hand, the other religious songs on the album do not have a social message. How nice would it be if organized religion cared about helping the poor... in addition to what it does.

It would be an interesting exercise to compare this song with the hymn that may have inspired it, "His Eye is on the Sparrow," itself a possible reference to Psalm 84:3, which reads: "Yea, the sparrow hath found a house... thine altars, O Lord" (KJV).

Next song: The Sound of Silence

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sidebar: A Paul Simon Bibliography

As an added feature, I will occasionally add Simonabilia such as this, a list of the Paul Simon biographies I own:

Eliot, Marc: Paul Simon: A Life. John Wiley & Sons, 2010

Humphries, Patrick. Paul Simon: Still Crazy After All These Years. Doubleday, 1988

Humphries, Patrick. Bookends: The Simon and Garfunkel Story. Proteus Books, 1982

Matthew-Walker, Robert. Simon and Garfunkel. Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1984

Luftig, Stacey. The Paul Simon Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Schirmer Books, 1997 (This great book contains a collection of articles, interviews, and reviews. Highly recommended to those already familiar with Simon's biography.)


Also, I have two books of sheet music and one of lyrics:

Simon, Paul: Lyrics: 1964-2011.  Simon and Schuster

Simon, Paul: Greatest Hits, Etc. 1977. (Contains all the songs from that album)

Songs By Paul Simon: Featured by Simon and Garfunkel- Columbia Records Artists. 1967
(Contains many S&G hits and three obscurities: I Wish You Could Be Here, Someday, One Day and You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies. This lattermost one is on 45 b/w and alternate take of Fakin' It [I know because I own this 45]. The other two I have not yet found recordings of.)

One last note: One of the great interviewers of musicians is Paul Zollo, who has of course interviewed Simon. Although I have listed myself as "Another Paul," I am not, for the record, Paul Zollo, either! Nor am I another known-songwriting Paul such as Anka, McCartney, or Westerberg. I am, I suppose, truly only "Yet Another Paul."

If you love reading about music and musicians, or want to become a songwriter, I strongly encourage you to find Zollo's opus: Songwriters on Songwriting. Here is its Amazon page: http://www.amazon.com/Songwriters-Songwriting-Expanded-Paul-Zollo/dp/0306812657


Hmm. In finding Zollo's book on Amazon, I have run into this new book by a James Benninghof called The Words and Music of Paul Simon, which is part of something called "The Praeger Singer-Songwriter Collection." The book came out in 2007, and covers everything up through Surprise. (This amused me... one reviewer writes: "Since no biography of Simon has as yet been published..." Really? My bookshelf begs to differ, sir! Please... see above!)

Another reviewer writes:
"Bennighof (music theory, Baylor U.) analyzes the music of singer-songwriter Paul Simon, discussing each song and album chronologically within the context of Simon's personal life and the musical and cultural setting."

I admit I have only a rudimentary musical-theory training. But first, I would like to say I found out about Mr. Benninghof's book just this minute, do not own it, and have not read it. (My birthday is coming up, though... ahem...). But let me differentiate this blog from that book anyway.

First, my approach is not biographical, although Simon's life events do come forth in his music and I will mention them when necessary. But only then. My idea here is that Simon's music is public art, not private-journal ruminations.

Second, my focus is on the lyrics and their poetic meaning, not the melodies. Yes, Simon is a supremely talented composer, more than most singer-songwriters, and of course the words and music interlace with each other. But I am interested in Simon as a poet, and while I will discuss the delivery or performance of some songs, my focus remains on the lyrics on the page.

Lastly, I am attempting to be comprehensive and write about, as my blog's title indicates, every single Simon song. I doubt that Mr. Beninghof has bothered with many of the lesser-known songs I will discuss. It does seem he is focused on the songs on the proper albums, not the more obscure songs.

So I don't think Mr. Benninghof and I are in competition, as far as that goes. As I said, once I am done with this, I would be very anxious to add Mr. Benninghof's book to my library.

If it's too expensive, what about:
Paul Simon: The Definitive Biography by Laura Jackson;
The Complete Guide to the Music of Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel by Chris Charlesworth;
The Boy in the Bubble: Biography of Paul Simon by Patrick Humphries again.

More expensive options include:
Paul Simon: A Bio-Bibliography James E. Perone is $104, plus taxes and shipping (and only 200 pages! Do you own any books that cost two a dollars a page?!)

(One last laugh: Amazon lists a copy of the magazine Playgirl as having a Paul Simon interview. But the cover, shown, says it's a Neil Simon interview. Those New York Jewish intellectual-writer types... who can tell them apart?!)

(Sorry... this is the last laugh. I just spellchecked, and this blog's spellcheck does not know the word "blog's.")

Bleecker Street

(Note: This is not the first song on the first album, Wednesday Morning 3AM, but it is the first original in its track list. As I said, I will go back and add thoughts about the covers later, after discussing all the originals on each album. For right now, on to the song.)

There is a saying-- I am sure it shows up in many faiths-- "If you are far from God, who moved?" The implication, of course, is that God does not move, so you must have.

Simon holds out a third possibility. If there is a remove between you and God, maybe there is something in the way.

The song starts out with an image of "fog" which "hides the Shepherd from His sheep." Something has come between God and his flock of humans, who "sleep" in the "alleys." God must not know about these hidden men, otherwise He presumably would do something about their predicament.

The song ends with, "It's a long road to Canaan/[from] Bleeker Street." Canaan being, of course, the original Biblical name of the Promised Land. And you can't get there from here.

And here, Bleecker Street, is a real place, too. The street runs through the Greenwich Village section of New York, the heart of the 1960's folk-music movement, of which Simon was a vital part. But instead of celebrating the songwriter's art, Simon laments its inherent weakness. Although the poet's intention, his "sacrament," is "holy," his rhyme is "crooked".

The repetition of the word "holy" is interesting in that the repeated word "holy" is said to be the call of the angels in Heaven. So this line could read either:

"Holy, holy is his sacrament" (read: Yes, his line is indeed very holy)
or
" 'Holy! Holy!' is his sacrament." (read: He is writing a prayer more than a poem).

The poet's "rent" is "thirty dollars," a reference to the 30 coins that Judas was paid to betray Jesus (the image of silver coins comes up later, too, in the title track). The poem is meant as a sacrament, a testament of faith. Instead, it must be sold, sacrificed for the coins it takes just to buy a place to live for another month. The betrayal is that the poem, meant to elevate, instead binds the poet to reality.

The first sound in the song, however, is not the poet "reading... his rhyme." The sound doesn't come until the second verse. It is "voices," coming from a "sad cafe" (perhaps the same one that shows up later in an Eagles song by that title?). But the voices merely "leak," they come from faces that can only "try to understand" but not succeed in doing so. The faces belong to insubstantial "shadows," which can make no true connection: "I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand." So we move from "fog" to "shadows," two images of... lack of image.

Now, in the last verse, we see the summation of the pattern that Simon was developing: From silence, through noise, to sound, then music.

In the first verse, there is stillness, just "fog" and "sleep." The second verse contains sound, but only broken snatches of muffled conversation. The third verse gives us an attempt at ordered sound, which is more coherent and contains understandable words; however, their structure is ultimately "crooked."

The fourth verse shows both the answer and its ultimate unattainability. It is a musical sound-- not a word at all, but the "soft" "chime" of a bell. This alone produces a "melody." And it is a melody that "sustains," both in the musical sense of an extended duration... and in the almost biological sense of sustaining the lives of those who hear it. Certainly in the metaphysical sense of sustaining a spirit.

The sound of the bell is not made by humans. Although of course humans made the actual bell, it is a "church bell," and represents the communication of the church to the people. Only this has the power to carry a coherent, sustained "melody."

(Soon, in "For Emily..." Simon will again mention the sound of the "cathedral bells." Decades later, Simon will revisit "the church bell's chime" once more in the song "Born at the Right Time." If anyone knows why church bells are such a meaningful sound for Simon, please share!)

In "Bleecker," the church bell sustains the people... while reminding them that no sound they make can ever match that simple, bell-like "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12) of the God hidden behind the "fog." As for the poets and well-meaning songwriters, they can barely sustain themselves, let alone solve the problem of men sleeping in alleys. (Simon will also revisit this theme many years later, in the song "Homeless.")

It's a "long road," indeed, from the "crooked" poetry of the bards of bleaker-than-bleak Bleecker Street to the perfect "melody" of mystical Canaan. Can you get there from here? Who knows... but Simon's going to try.

IMPACT:
When appropriate, I will mention the impact of a given song beyond the self-contained world of Simon's verses.

In this case, a tribute album was released in 1999, subtitled: "Greenwich Village in the 1960's." The content was recent folk artists performing songs by their predecessors from that storied era. Some of the 16 artists covered were Tom Paxton, Tim Hardin, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and of course Dylan. The first track, performed by Jonatha Brooke (late of the duo The Story) is none other than Simon's "Bleecker Street."

Which is also the title of the compilation itself. What a compliment, to have your first original song on your debut album stand for all the songs of that amazing time and place. "Bleecker Street" is the theme for Bleeker Street and the melodies that sustain... and sustain us... to this day.

This is the allmusic.com page for "Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the 1960's": http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:d9fqxqykldke

NEXT SONG:
"Sparrow"

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why Write About Paul Simon's Songs? And... How?

Paul Simon just may be the greatest songwriter who ever lived. No other songwriter, certainly of the modern age, matches his consistent poetic quality. No one leans as little on cliché, dares as many brave rhymes, or adventures into as many genres. Few cover the range of topics, ideas, and emotions Simon does, or describes things in that upexpected yet perfect way. Even if you disagree that he is the absolute best songwriter, you must consent that he has few peers... and fewer equals.

I have been a Simon fan and collector since childhood. I have ventured into songwriting myself, with one song published so far (which explains my ASCAP card) and others performed in public. I am also a nationally published music critic, 10 years running. And I have learned more about music from taking the tangents suggested by Simon’s music than from any other source.

The purpose of this blog is to comment on, as the title indicates, every single Paul Simon song. Naturally, this is technically impossible— many of his songs may be unpublished or unreleased, some may be released but decades out of print... and many may have been demo'd under one of his early pseudonyms to be lost in some dusty magnetic archive. So that is why there is also an asterisk (*) in the title.

The logical way to progress is chronologically. However, most readers will not be familiar with Simon’s early, pre-folk work (or even aware of its existence).

So I will begin with the first official Simon and Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning, 3AM, and proceed from there, through all of their material. Simon recorded a solo album (recently re-released on CD as The Paul Simon Songbook) while with Garfunkel, but he used almost all of those songs again on S&G albums, so they will be dealt with in the order in which they appeared as recorded by the duo. The two folksongs he recorded only solo versions of there, and the song he recorded with Garfunkel years later ("My Little Town") will be dealt with at that point, neatly tying the ribbon on his S&G output.

Then I will begin Simon’s post-breakup career with his official solo debut, the album Paul Simon, and continue on to his most recent (as of this writing) release, So Beautiful or So What.

Lastly, I will return to Simon’s pre-folk era, when Simon wrote and recorded as Jerry Landis of Tom and Jerry (Tom of course being Art), Tico and the Triumphs, and other names. This period is interesting as it has Simon trying out the sounds of his contemporaries and learning his craft.

Predominantly, my comments will be on the lyrics. I will only bring the music into discussion if it marks a significant point in Simon’s development or is key to the song in some way. Along the way, Simon recorded some covers, and I will only comment on these to consider their choice relative to the album on which they first appear. Greatest-hits collections, box sets, and concert releases will be mentioned only to the degree that new songs appear on them.

Once a week, I will listen to one song and comment on it. I will not be able to provide audio samples; I encourage readers to (of course) purchase Simon’s music, borrow it from a library, or at least listen to the 30-second song samples available on allmusic.com that accompany each album.

I also will not provide (usually) complete lyrics. These are printed with every album, and most of Simon’s lyrics are available to view (often with guitar tabs) online, as well as in his book Lyrics: 1964-2011 (which I generally just refer to as "the Lyrics book." I will note when there are different versions in the liner notes, the Lyrics book, and the paulsimon.com website, if I notice a significant difference.

About comments: I will not engage in debates over the relative merits of Paul Simon vs. Bob Dylan; I have one friend already with whom I have had such a debate for six years running, and that’s plenty. Please limit your comments to the work of Paul Simon and the specific song on that post if possible. I look forward to the insights and opinions (and even constructive criticism) of others.

If you are inspired to give your own favorite songwriter— Dylan, Lennon, Joni Mitchell, whomever— the “every single song” treatment, feel free. Like all good Quixotes, I would be honored if my insane quest sparked those of others.