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