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.