Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Old Friends

There are only a handful of songs in the rock canon that deal with the elderly or aging. "When I'm 64," by the Beatles. "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens. "Old Man" by Neil Young. And, of course, "Old" by, well, Paul Simon.

Rock is obsessed with youth. Most rock songs that do mention age share The Who's sentiment: "Hope I die before I get old." Mick Jagger once opined that he'd rather be dead than singing "Satisfaction" when he was 45. Yes, that was a while ago.

"Old Friends" is a closely observed portrait, almost a "word painting," of two elderly gentlemen sitting on a park bench. They have "high shoes" with "round toes." They have old overcoats now so large that their shrunken bodies are "lost" in them.

And what do they do, in the park? Reminisce about the good old days? Observe the people around them and comment? Brag about their grandchildren? Fume about corruption and politics? Feed the pigeons breadcrumbs? Play chess?

No. They sit, motionless, a bit apart, like "bookends." Ones with no books between them depending on their support. But there is a great deal more than empty air between them.

A "newspaper" tumbles by to land on their shoes, its "news" already history. They do not bother to toss it in the recycling bin or even brush it away. Nor do they react at all to the "sounds of the city," which simply "settle like dust" on their "shoulders."

So what are they doing out there? "Waiting for the sunset" in the "winter." These times are both literal and figurative. They are waiting for the inevitable, the ends of their days and years.

And they are friends, so they don't even have to say what is on their minds. They remember the "same years," and so do not need to rehash those events. But neither can they bring themselves to mention the ever-present thought that would make the all else pale into meaninglessness. They are "silently sharing the same fear."

It's not as if they are busy living, at the moment. But perhaps, having lived, they are now exhausted and enfeebled and just plain worn out. As the song "Old Man river" put it, they are "tired of living, but scared of dying."

This is a far cry from the Beatles' ditty about "rent[ing] a cottage on the Isle of Wight" and dandling "grandchildren on [one's] knee" in one's golden years. And the Cat Stevens and Neil Young songs are the voices of young people trying to express themselves to their elders: "How can I try to explain?" and "I'm a lot like you were."

The observer of the old friends-- perhaps on the park bench opposite-- from the first verse, turns to his own, young friend. "Can you imagine us," he asks him, living that long? Being friends that long? Being that old? It must be "strange" and "terrible."

Yet, he stops short of saying (as The Who did) that he hopes that he would die before getting old. It's not a sense of hope, or fear of suicide.

Rather, it's a preternaturally mature attempt to find some acceptance around the idea that for most of us, to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eloit, our world will end "not with a bang but a whimper." This is reflected in the music, which after the lyrics, surges in a swirling swell of unsettling strings... only to resolve in a single violin note that seems like the flat-lining tone of a hospital heart-rate monitor.

We grow up, we grow old. If we're lucky, we get to do it with a friend.

NOTE:
I have, since posting this entry, heard from a reader, one I have mentioned earlier who himself has published a book on Simon's songs (The Words and Music of Paul Simon (2007) by James Bennighof). His interpretation of the "Bookends" line that has befuddled me for years is straightforward and sensible, so I felt I should pass it along-- "Memories/They're all that's left you," he feels, should be read: "Memories are all that's left to you [after a dear one has passed away]." So, thanks to Prof. Bennighof for that insight.

IMPACT: The song, while not a huge, defining hit, is nonetheless one of the more popular among S&G fans.

"Old Friends" also served as the title for the recent S&G reunion tour and its attendant CD and DVD.


Next Song: Bookends Theme

Monday, April 19, 2010

Overs

This short, sparse song features Simon showing off his guitar work a bit, strumming and picking a strolling, somewhat meandering, line, punctuated by bent blues notes and flamenco flourishes... with a lovely bridge wafted in by Garfunkel.

It's a breakup song: "Why don't we stop fooling ourselves?/The game is over." Like "Dangling Conversation," it is about a relationship which has run its course, leaving nothing left to say: "There's no laughs left, 'cause we laughed 'em all." The relationship was a quick one at that; these laughs were laughed "in a very short time." The over-riding sense of ennui is symbolized by rather arch pun: "There's no times at all, just The New York Times." Another day, another newspaper.

The living arrangement is hard to fathom. On the one hand, they "sleep separately," so they do not share living quarters. On the other, they "pass... in the hall," so they... do? Do they share an apartment but have separate bedrooms? Are they students with their own rooms, but in a co-ed dorm? Do they live apart but work in the same office? Ultimately, it does not matter-- their intimacy is in the past.

Then, another image of sameness, the habit of saccharin. No longer in wide use due to carcinogenic effects, this was one of the first sugar-substitute sweeteners; it is still available in pink "Sweet-n-Low" packets at some diners. (Today, the word means "falsely sweet," and is an insult applied to such cloying subjects as Barney the Dinosaur.) Not only is this relationship a bad habit, it is not even genuine sweetness that they share, when then "drop a smile" in those halls, but a manufactured one.

(The song then employs what I personally find a weak, obvious effect: stopping the music after saying the word "Stop" in a song. James Taylor does it in the song "How Sweet It Is" ("I just wanna stop... and thank ya baby.") One of the first famous uses of this device is in the Supremes' song "Stop in the Name of Love." Never do we hear the music in a song speed up once the word "Go" is sung, but for some reason, we must actually, literally stop singing to appreciate the meaning of the word "Stop." This cliched idea must... stop.)

The song, ultimately, is not a breakup song. For, at the end, the speaker is still uncertain as to whether to break off the relationship. We, the listeners, do not know why. The speaker has had nothing positive whatsoever to say about either the relationship or the other person in it.

In other Simon songs, there have been partings and distances of various sorts, but there is always a sense of loss. In "Wednesday Morning," our thief leaves "her hair, in an fine mist." In "Kathy's Song," she is the speaker's still point in his turning world: "The only truth I know is you." In "April," she "rests" pleasantly "in [his] arms." In "Dangling Conversation," there had been some intellectual stimulation. Even in "Groovey Thing Goin'," the couple, well, had a groovey thing goin'.

But here... while there is nothing to keep the couple together, there is nothing to break them apart, either. It is easier to allow inertia to keep the speaker in this day-in-day-out relationship than to be completely alone. Even bad habits are easier to keep than break.

The song is called "Overs," but "over" is a preposition, a sort of word not usually pluralized. The pluralization in this case is not mainly due to the repeated word "over" in the first verse. It is due to two of the meanings of the word. At first, it's "over," in the sense of "finished, done." At the end, the same word means "complete"; to "think it over" means to think about an idea or situation in its entirety, with all implications considered, similar to "work him over" or "talk things over."

The main theme of the song, however, is time. In the relationship, there are "no times at all," no shared experiences, good or bad. But alone, the speaker muses about the time he is wasting on this relationship. Time, he says, "is tapping on [his] forehead," worrying him. It's "hanging from [his] mirror," facing him every time he faces himself. It's "rattling the teacups," disturbing his peace of mind like a mild earthquake tremor. His two habits are her... and "feelin' kinda blue" because of her.

He is biding time in this relationship, perhaps feeling that he might as well be in it until he finds a better one. But the inertia is eating at him, and he does "try on the thought of leaving," the way one would try on a jacket to see if it fit, evidently with some regularity. Maybe because he is so devoid of feeling, he focuses on his thoughts, which in turn become just as paralyzed by his patterns.

We get the sense that, while the song is addressed to her, he has never said any of this to her. It seems that he is rehearsing his breakup speech in his mind, but cannot bring himself to say it aloud.

Perhaps he should. Chances are high that she would feel as much relief as he.

IMPACT: While it was not a hit, they did perform it on The Smothers Brothers show.


Next Song: Old Friends


Response to Prof. Bennighof:
First, thank you for commenting on (and even finding) my blog. I am glad to know that I characterized your book correctly. And yes, I agree, there is much more to music-- especially Simon's music-- than just the melodies. I would love to read your book when I am finished with this blog, as I don't have the musical background, as I mentioned, to properly discuss the stimulating "conversations" between Simon's words and music, so I am anxious to know what I am missing. For my part, I have tried to listen to the work of every musician Simon has recorded with, and this effort has been a fascinating and highly educational journey. Thanks for your good wishes for my project; long haul that it is, I have already started to plan my next "Every Single Song" subject... (Suzanne Vega? Leonard Cohen?) Oh, and a belated Happy Birthday to your daughter!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

America

If this song depicts travelogue, it takes place over a relatively small slice of a very large country. The speaker-- we assume it is Simon himself, as his travelling companion is Kathy, presumably the same one as in "Kathy's Song"-- started (as far as we know) in Saginaw, MI. It took him "four days to hitch-hike," from there to... where it is they are together boarding "a Greyhound [bus] in Pittsburgh." The only other location we are given is "The New Jersey Turnpike." Obviously, they are travelling east.

If they are only seeing one part of the country, then, do they mean when say they are "look[ing] for America"?

If they were looking for the "real America," as in the small towns of the Heartland... well, they were closer when they were in Michigan to begin with. They went past Philadelphia, too, so they are not looking for America's birthplace or a sense of its history. They are not looking for the tourist's America, the one comprised of a checklist of natural wonders and national landmarks; they do not go to Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, or Niagara Falls.

But one need not have a map or a GPS to know that Simon is from New York, and that's where "America" is for him. And, if you travel from Pittsburgh east along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you hit the New Jersey Turnpike, which takes you north to New York City.

But he's not there, yet. The song ends with him still on the road. In the first verse, it's "we... walked off to look for America." Then Simon tells Kathy: "I've come to look for America." Then, almost to their probable destination, Kathy has nodded off, but Simon tells her anyway, "I'm lost." He has "look[ed]" and "look[ed]" and is still "lost". Then Simon projects his sense of being lost to the rest of the travelers on his highway: "They've all come to look for America!"

No wonder he can't find it. No one else can, either. All they can do is travel the highways, looking.

Along the way, we learn about their relationship from the details provided. They throw in together willingly; they smoke and read magazines. They like to pass the time by improvising intrigues about their fellow passengers: That fellow is just too self-consciously stuffy-looking, with his "gabardine suit" and his "bow tie"-- he must be a "spy"!

And, just as Simon notices the Moon, we must notice how he evokes the roundness of it with the assonance of the long O. He sees it as it "rOse Over an Open" meadow [capitals mine]. He doesn't say, yet he shows, that this is a full Moon.

Simon doesn't realize it, but he has found America... in that he hasn't. America, after all, is less a place than a state of being. And that is a state of yearning, of being pulled forward toward an endlessly receding destination. "I'm empty, and aching, and I don't know why."

The whole trip is about moving. He didn't live in Saginaw, he hitch-hiked "from" there. He didn't visit Pittsburgh, he "boarded a Greyhound" there. He does not mention his destination, but he also makes no mention of relocating there or staying there for any length of time.

This is the unlike his feeling in "Kathy's Song" and "Homeward Bound," in which he yearns to be somewhere specific he is not. Here, he knows he is not home, yet he can't seem to imagine where that could be, either.

Then where his is home, such as it is? He tells us that in the first verse: "I've got some real estate here in my bag." His home is the road. George Carlin explained, in his famous "Place for My Stuff" routine, that a house is "just a pile of stuff with a lid on it." Well, Simon's "place for his stuff" is in his bag. All he needs is some junk food, cigarettes, and a magazine... and he's set.

As he approaches New York, Simon should feel excited. After all, as the song goes, if he can make it there, he can make it anywhere. Instead, he is filled, as it were, with emptiness. This isn't going to be any better than anyplace else, he just knows.

But this is the "place" that is America. America is less a noun than a verb. You can't "look for America"-- America is a state of looking, searching, seeking. A Greyhound bus never ends up anywhere; it just takes you to the next town.

One last note on the song's structure; it seems loose, as the rhymes are non-existent, yet it adheres to a rather strict waltz cadence.


IMPACT:
A beautiful song, and a favorite of S&G fans, if not one of their most recognizable hits on the level of "Mrs. Robinson," "Bridge," or "Sound of Silence."


Next Song: Overs

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Save the Life of My Child

I recently discovered that "A Most Peculiar Man" was, in fact, a response to a newspaper item; Simon explains that he thought the subject deserved more than a three-line obituary.

If that song is reaction to a news story about a suicide published the next day, this one is reported from the scene. The setting is a sadly familiar one-- a "jumper."

We hear quite a few reactions to the boy's peril. The ones truly concerned with the boy's welfare seem to be women. The boy's mother, of course, is beside herself, calling again and again: "Save the life of my child!" Another "woman" summons the police.

True, one concerned onlooker of indeterminate gender yells: "Don't jump!" (At least no one is yelling "Jump!" as is often the case.)

But another mutters that the boy must be "high on something," and when the police officer does arrive, he complains that his ineffectuality is the child's cohort's fault. Both of these latter remarks show disdain for "kids these days" in general; while the comment "What's becoming of the children?" shows concern, it passively insists that it is someone else's fault.

Then night falls, the crowd becomes more agitated... and the child "flies away." The literal meaning here is unclear. Was the child some sort of angel?

One pattern that emerges is that no one talks to the child, aside from the first person who yells "Don't jump!" Not the police officer, not the mother, not a psychological expert called in by the authorities. No one calls up to the child, no one uses a megaphone. No one goes up to the ledge or leans out the window (the one the child presumably went onto the ledge from) to try to coax or haul the boy back inside.

No one asks the boy why he is out there. Is he upset? Deluded by a Superman episode he saw to TV? Having a negative reaction to a medication? Clinically depressed? Seeking the attention he saw similar jumpers get when they were on the news?

Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine discusses the issue of guns in America. The best line is spoken by Marilyn Manson, the outrageous and spooky performer whose morose and grotesque lyrics are a lightning rod for parental blame regarding "what's becoming of the children." Asked what he would have said to those kids who shot up the Columbine High School, Manson replies, "Nothing. I would have listened."

"Everyone agreed it would a miracle indeed/ If the boy survived"-- yet who did anything to help ensure his survival?

For all of the despair and concern voiced by the crowd over the boy on the ledge, none are doing the obvious thing-- listening to the boy. No wonder he is done with the lot of them and simply flies away.

Simon implicates the whole hand-wringing-- and hand-washing-of-- crowd who always wails "What about the children?" only to underfund schools, urge that juveniles be tried as adults, and call for crackdowns on gangs.

Simon saw a generation of youth in crisis, a whole generation sitting on ledges... and whole generations of parents and authorities doing nothing productive to get them off of those ledges. So, of course, they largely "tuned in, turned on, and dropped out." Maybe someone told them not to do it-- "Don't jump!"-- but no one asked them why they wanted to in the first place.

The last verse, taken alone, could be about a rock concert: "When darkness fell, excitement kissed the crowd and made them wild... when the spotlight hit the boy and the crowd began to cheer..." Working this metaphor backward to the beginning of the song, the "boy" is a music star and the "ledge" is a stage. Simon could also be describing performing itself as an act so self-revelatory as to constitute self-endangerment, and musing on the proclivity of musicians to flee this constant self-peril... through drugs, other self-destructive behavior that ruins their careers, long sabbaticals, etc.

The music must be remarked on, as it is so dissonant and unusual. There is an electric, perhaps even electronic, sound at certain points, and there is a drum hit that sounds like a gunshot. These sounds shock us back into the immediacy of the danger the boy is in, after all the moaning and debating that surrounds the situation.

And then there is a ghostly choir wailing, at one point coalescing into the opening lines of "Sound of Silence." That song is about "people talking without speaking/ people hearing without listening." "Save the Life of My Child" is about people talking about the child without listening to the child.

His life depends on their attentiveness, not just their attention.


Next Song: America

Saturday, April 3, 2010

7 O'Clock News

This innovative track has an anchorman reading the news while S&G sing the classic Christmas carol "Silent Night" over it twice. The contrast between the dire declarations of the newscast and the comforting calm of the noel calls into question the power of the carol's religious message. How on earth are we supposed to "sleep in Heavenly peace"... when all this is going on?

As Simon, of course, did not write "Silent Night," we will focus on the text of the imagined newscast, which is attributed to him. There are several clues that this is not an actual newscast.

The first one is in its first line: "The recent fight in the House of Representatives was over..." An actual newscast would have said something more like: "There was a debate today in the House of Representatives over..." Simon first assumes that there is a fight, always, and the news' job is just to tell us about the "recent" one. He then uses the word "fight," which is pejorative. Of course the House debates issues; that's what it does. Even if all the viewers agree that the House members more accurately "fight" than "debate," a news report would not likely describe it so.

The next line makes no sense. If the bill was supported even by "traditional enemies" of such measures, why was it left without the "votes of [its] strongest supporters"? Weren't they there to vote on such a key bill? If not, they how could they have been considered "supporters" to begin with, let alone its "strongest" ones?

The third line is clearly written by a cynic commenting on the news, and not the newscaster himself: "...but it had no chance from the start and everyone in Congress knew it."

The item about Lenny Bruce should probably not be next. Celebrity news is often last, or-- if about their death-- first. Simon adds this item to show that one of the major voices of reason and hope, one that could challenge the establishment, has been silenced when it was perhaps needed most.

The piece about Martin Luther King Jr., should follow next. It is about his response to the "open housing" situation, the subject of the fought-about bill from the first item. This item is well written. It shows how the law enforcement structure tried to get King to "be reasonable," and even threaten him-- to cast him as if he were the one causing the unrest, not the ridiculous laws he challenged-- and then make him look like he didn't respect the police if he went through with it, that rabble-rouser. Simon manages to get through this item without injecting a distracting, unrealistic commentary.

Let us assume that "nine student nurses" did not share a single "apartment," but that this was a typo that somehow got read into the script. The item about Speck is true-- he was a serial killer, and this was his M.O. He was found guilty.

So far, we have a country with an uncaring government that throws its hands up at housing discrimination and a citizenry terrorized by madmen, while those who try to call attention to the issues are either dead or shouted down.

The last news item repeats this pattern. This time, hundreds and thousands of citizens are protesting against the war in Vietnam. Again, instead of addressing the issue and ending the war, the government-- both the House and the White House-- takes aim against those who want it stopped, going so far as to banish them from the halls where they are supposed to be represented, and to even blame them for prolonging the war they oppose... by the act of opposing it. (Well, how are you supposed to stop it, then? By supporting it?!)

Over all this, the soothing lullaby of "Silent Night" sounds ludicrously out-of-touch. Simon has questioned and even attacked religion before, in songs like "Bleeker Street," in which the Shepherd is hidden, "Sparrow" (if, as the spiritual would have it, "His eye is on the sparrow," it wasn't on this sparrow), the subverted Sermon on the Mount of "Blessed," and even "Patterns," which struggles with the idea of predestination.

Here, Simon posits that, if not God, then at least religion had little to say about what was going on in the 1960s.

But if Simon felt that religious leaders were not addressing the realities of his day, he forgot that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a "reverend" as well as a "doctor" and scholar (he is only called "doctor" in the newscast). King was joined in his marches by many religious leaders, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. God's servants were responding to the news, and many-- including King-- paid with their lives.

This carol is a song of Jesus as helpless newborn baby. So we get the message that, as far as religion is concerned, speaking against the government will only get you shouted down... you might as well just go to "sleep."

But juxtaposing this newscast with a song about the rebel Jesus who spoke against the oppressive establishment of his day and was killed for it would have made the point that, if speaking truth to power is an uphill struggle, then nothing has changed in human life in thousands of years. In Jesus' case, however, the Roman Empire eventually collapsed due-- at least in part-- to his words. So using Jesus as a case study in the ineffectuality of religious leaders is somewhat spurious.

As I write this, it is both Passover and Easter weekend, and my wife is in the other room watching The Ten Commandments on TV. One is left to imagine this newscast accompanied instead by the spiritual about its central figure, Moses, "Let My People Go," which was sung frequently in the 1960s.

Religious leaders did, and do, care about the events of their day. While some (and some of the loudest) have always tended toward the extreme-- on both the right and left-- most do try help, heal, and promote unity.

And really, is it so wrong to yearn for a time when "all is calm/all is bright"? Or, in other words, when "all is groovy"?


Next Song: Save the Life if My Child