Monday, July 26, 2010

Cecilia

Musically, this ebullient number falls in the "world-music" column. Lyrically, it's in the "love gone wrong" category.

But look at how different the reaction is this time. Gone is the wounded poet of "I Am a Rock," who responds to heartbreak by withdrawing from the world altogether.

Here, the speaker first re-woos his wayward lover. Although he lacks "confidence" in her, he asks her back: "I'm beggin' you please to come home."

She does come back in body, but is still a wandering spirit. Their reunion intercourse is interrupted briefly, but that is already enough time for the inconstant Cecilia to stray again, without even leaving the bed!

But this time, she begs forgiveness and asks him to be taken back. Well, several-times bitten is finally shy, and he responds with laughter.

The last verse repeats itself. Perhaps one time, the speaker laughs at Cecilia's tissue-thin declaration of love... and the second, at himself for embodying the idea that you can't do the same thing and expect different results (the so-called "definition of insanity").

In just a few short verses, our speaker goes from one form of prostration to another. First, he is down on pleading knee. But after realizing the folly of his ways, he is literally ROFL ("Rolling on the Floor Laughing," much more of a reaction that simply LOL), as the kids say today.

This song is joyous, for it marks a realization in the speaker that it's not him... it really is her. Maybe he needed to have it rubbed, so to speak, in his freshly washed face, but he has finally had his "a-ha moment." Even greater, he does not cry over his foolish waste of time, effort, and emotion, vowing to never love again.

No, he laughs. He laughs at Cecilia's immature estimation of love, and at the joyful future his new insight offers him. His cry of "Jubilation!" is entirely sarcastic. She loves him again, after having cheated on him in the time it took to wash his face? Oh, really? 'Tis to laugh.

Incidentally, the word "jubilation" comes from the word "jubilee," itself a Biblical term for the freeing of indentured servants (the Hebrew word is "yovel," said "YOH-vell). In fact, it is also from this passage from Leviticus that the quote etched on the Liberty Bell originates. So "jubilation" is not just a synonym for "joy," but an expression of joy at liberation.

And our hero has experienced that free joy at, of all things, a declaration of love, something that should joyfully bind. This is because he now realizes that, in the light of her fresh infidelity, Cecilia's "love" is as thin as the washcloth he just used on his face, and so he is free from his affection for her. "Jubilation," indeed.


Next Song: Keep the Customer Satisfied

Monday, July 19, 2010

El Condor Pasa

[Note to readers: I know I missed last week's post, but I have a good excuse. His name is Joe, he was born in July 15, and he is sleeping in my left arm.]

Simon has already drawn from native folk sources for his material, as he did with "Scarborough Fair." This time, he presages his Rhythm of the Saints work by decades with a Peruvian folk tune, replete with authentic wood flutes from the Andes.

The song's title means "The Condor Passes," the condor being a large vulture-like bird native to the Andes and Rockies. It soars, huge wings outspread, barely flapping, riding on air currents.

Gravity, as much as it gives to us, is considered the enemy of humanity. For as long as we have seen birds, we have tried to fly like them. Babies love being tossed in the air, children ride swings as high as they can, and we adults do everything from high diving and BASE jumping to parasailing, skydiving, and hang-gilding... all in the attempt to fly. Even our greatest superhero's most super superpower is to make people point skyward at his soaring form, crying: "It's a bird! It's a plane!"

Simon gives that yearning-- to be a bird-- a voice, here. He'd "rather be a sparrow." He'd rather "sail away, like a swan/ That's here and gone."

The song is about longing to fly like a bird, a "sparrow" (perhaps not as destitute a one as in "Sparrow") or a "swan." The lyrics are a series of comparisons, with the flying birds winning out over those creatures bound by gravity, like snails... or humans. Similarly, natural settings like "forests" win out over urban ones like a "street."

It interesting that he chose a "sparrow," since his song about that very bird showed how vulnerable and ignored it was. Perhaps this strengthens his point-- anyone could wish to be an eagle (or a condor) rather than stay a human. But they might prefer to stay human and earthbound if the other option was to be a mere sparrow. Not him. He wants to fly so much, he'll even be this fragile bird.

After all, "a man" might as well be a "snail." He's so "tied up to the ground" that he "gives the world its saddest sound."

Than comes the last line, which is a half a comparison: "I'd rather feel the earth beneath my feet." Rather than what? Does this continue the thought of the previous line, so that "earth" underfoot is better than the asphalt of a "street"?

Or is it a refutation of all the soaring imagery that came before? Would the speaker rather "feel the earth beneath [his] feet" than not? Would he walk forever rather than fly?

The idea of preferring the woods to the city fits somewhat with the idea of preferring flying to walking. The benefit of flying is, aside from the convenience, freedom to wander, explore, and simply-- as the Mamas and Papas encourage-- "Go where you wanna go." Wandering in the un-peopled woods is about as close to that isolation and roadless-ness as most of us will be able to get.

The answer may come from the repeated refrain: "If I could, I surely would." But he can't. Since all of these bird scenarios are impossible, wouldn't it just be better to accept one's situation, and not continue to pine away and make "the saddest sound" over what can never be? Maybe some predictability is, ultimately, better than complete, bird-like freedom.

The condor glides overhead, inspiring awe in the earthbound viewer below. It swoops... circles... and soars. But then it passes.

The speaker next lets us know that he'd rather even be a tyrant than a victim-- a "hammer," rather than a "nail." Compare this to the imagery of hammers used to symbolize fascism in Pink Floyd's movie The Wall (even though the word "fascism," which derives from the symbol of the "fasces," should be symbolized by another tool, the ax; look up "fasces" and you'll see why.).

But a true drifter wants no attachments at all, which would include power over-- and responsibility for-- others, as much as it includes being beholden to no one. He wants to be neither hammer nor nail. He doesn't want to be a tool in anyone's toolbox! We must conclude that the line is only really there to rhyme with "snail."

So why didn't Simon go back and change the opposite of "sparrow" to something other than "snail"? Perhaps he wanted to keep the alliteration with "sparrow," but dismissed other one-syllable, small, land-bound forest animals as being even worse in their imagery or rhyme-possibilities: "snake," "squirrel," "sloth." Maybe what's here is fine. We could have had: "I'd rather be a sparrow than a skunk."

Overall, the song is a lovely and haunting rumination on the limitations of the human form. Here we are, with the best brain-- and the knowledge that we would truly appreciate flight if we could have it-- and we can't even fly up into a tree like a simple sparrow. Let alone a soaring condor.


MUSICAL NOTE:
While Simon is largely credited with bringing "world music" into the mainstream of American pop culture with Graceland, this song reminds us that musicians have long been doing so. Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte were just some of the folk musicians of the 1960s who worked non-American, non-English songs into their sets. Desi Arnaz was bringing Cuban music into suburban living rooms on the Lucy show as early as the 1950s, and Latin dances were part of Xavier Cugat's swing music even before that.

The story of this song is long, but here is a short version: The melody began as a traditional Andean folk tune in Peru. It was adapted and included in a longer, theatrical piece (called a "zarzuella") along with other such melodies by one Daniel Alomia Robles.

When Simon heard the Peruvian wood-flute ensemble Los Incas playing the melody in Paris (with the arrangement of their leader, Jorge Milchberg) he asked to write words for it; Simon toured with Los Incas, who perform the backup on the Bridge version of the track. He even produced their first US album. Milchberg's later band, Urubamba, accompanies Simon for this track on Live Rhymin'. They also provide backup on his solo song, "Duncan."

And anyone who thinks Simon was only interested in "world music" during his Graceland period need only listen to this and the next track to know that he has been exploring this music for much, much longer.

IMPACT:
The song reached #18 on the US charts. But it went to #1 all over Europe-- Spain,  Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, Austria,and Switzerland-- as well as Australia. It was covered by, of all people, crooner Perry Como.


Next song: Cecilia

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Part of the reason this song is so resonant, even today, is its message of unwavering friendship. It never mentions the word "love," even if it is to a "silvergirl," so it is not necessarily a "love song" in the usual sense.

And while there are mountains of love songs, there are very few songs about friendships: "Thank You for Being a Friend" (written by Andrew Gold decades before it became the Golden Girls theme song)... "Friendship" from the musical Anything Goes... and the now-obscure "You're a Friend of Mine," a duet between Jackson Browne and Clarence Clemmons (yes, Springsteen's late saxophonist).

At the level of "Bridge" are Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," and Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up." A song that should be as well known is Shawn Colvin's "Climb On (a Back That's Strong), and then there is Randy Newman's "You Got a Friend in Me." Still, compared to the endless supply of love songs, that's barely an album's worth of material.

One thing that many of these songs share is a religious, even Gospel, feeling. "Bridge," which Simon often performs with Gospel groups doing harmony, is definitely influenced by Gospel music, as is the turn of phrase "lay me down." "Stand" and "Lean" are pretty much Gospel songs as they are. And Carole King explained that her song was what she hoped God would sing to her. There is something holy about friendships that "Bridge" really gets.

Simon was listening to a great deal of Gospel music around this time. A line sung by Rev. Claude Jeter (later heard on "Take Me to the Mardi Gras") struck Simon. The song was "Mary, Don't You Weep," and Jeter sang, "I'll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in My Name." So that's where the "bridge over... water" comes from.

Another thing the songs have in common is straight-forward language. A bridge spanning turbulent waters is a powerful image, but Simon presents it in very simple words. This is not "a still-life watercolor of a hour-late afternoon." It's a bridge, as elegant as one in a Monet, yet as magnificent as the Golden Gate. And the water is "troubled," a very emotional idea.

The lyrics here are almost too simple. Simon uncharacteristically uses cliched expressions like "down and out," "on the street," "I'm on your side," and "when times get rough." It's a shame, because right next to these, Simon presents turns of phrase that are just as basic in their word choice, yet more innovative-- "feeling small" (a size, not an emotion), "when evening falls so hard (a pun, yet a poignant one)-- that have just as much emotional impact. More, in fact, for being new.

For some reason, these friendship songs tend to be about supporting friends in bad times, not celebrating good ones together. "Bridge" is very much a song of support--what else is a "bridge" but something that supports you until you reach the other side of an obstacle?

The third verse-- when the other instruments join the piano-- is about that other side. It is time for the beleaguered friend "to shine," like "silver"... and so will her "dreams." Since she will be shining in the spotlight, he won't be standing beside her and sharing it, but positioned "behind," still in support mode.

One irony of the song is that it is almost entirely performed by Garfunkel, and it is (aside from "Emily") his most beautiful performance. For one member of a duo to sing a song by the other is as image of support as powerful as the central one in this piece; imagine a song about friendship called "I Will Always Sing Your Song." Yet Simon and Garfunkel have one of the most infamously contentious friendships in all of celebrity-dom.

Among his best, most-acclaimed songs, "Sounds of Silence," "Mrs. Robinson," and "Call Me Al," show a sophisiciated, cynical side of Simon, and even "Scarborough Fair" has a hidden sarcasm, as we have seen. "The Boxer," which we are yet to discuss, is about dealing with adversity, and "Homeward Bound" and "Graceland" are about a longing that may prove unfulfilled. Of all the songs vying for the position of Simon's magnum opus, only "Bridge" has a message of pure hope.

Once, on Saturday Night Live, Simon jokingly discussed his image of being "Mr. Alienation." But how could anyone think of him in those terms while remembering that he wrote this, the greatest ode to friendship?


IMPACT:
"Bridge" remains one of the most important songs in all of popular music, perhaps in all of music history. It is one of the few songs receiving many millions of airplays. It is one of the most covered songs in music history, with versions by everyone from Elvis to Aretha.

The song and its album won six Grammys. The album as a whole won Album of the Year and Grammys for its arrangements--shared by S&G and others-- and engineering. The song won Record of the Year (to Simon and Garfunkel, for their performing and producing it), and both "Contemporary Pop Song" and just plain Song of the Year (to Simon, for writing it). The song is also in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Moreover, the song is now a cultural landmark. Simon has performed "Bridge" at times of healing from national crisis. More recently, it was performed to raise money for relief from the Haiti earthquake.


Next Song: El Condor Pasa (If I Could)

Friday, July 2, 2010

At the Zoo

So here's my theory. In The Graduate, there is a scene in which Benjamin is stalking Elaine, even following her onto a bus. He asks where she is going; she says to meet someone. He asks where. She says, "At the zoo." Incredulous at her having a date at a place usually associated with families with kids, he asks, somewhat condescendingly, "At the zoo?" "At the zoo," Elaine replies, as if this were totally normal.

And here we have a song called "At the Zoo," on the same album as "Mrs. Robinson," with the line "you can take a crosstown bus." So my theory is that the song was written for, but not used in, the movie.

Most songs about zoos-- from Tom Paxton's "Going to the Zoo" to Peter Himmelman's "Picnic at the Zoo"-- are, in fact, children's songs. Only a few songs that mention, or are set at, zoos, are for adults: "Zombie Zoo" (Tom Petty), "Knockin' 'Round the Zoo (James Taylor), "Gorilla You're a Desperado" (Warren Zevon). And these use the zoo, or the image of one, merely as a jumping-off point.

This one, however, is entirely for adults: The changes in tempo and tone, the match-striking sound, and especially the vocabulary. Aside from terms like "reactionary" and "turn on," we have the assertion that elephants are "dumb." A children's song would never make fun of, or demean, an animal. (We don't talk like that in this house, mister... say you're sorry.) Also, we have the bored zookeeper taking a nip on his frequent breaks.

We certainly have never heard of these animals being characterized these ways before. What is "honest" about a monkey, or "insincere" about a giraffe? If anything, monkeys are one of the few animals intelligent enough to make things up, while giraffes are barely audible and seem rather straightforward.

Most likely, this is simply Simon having fun in the same way as on the bus trip with Kathy in "America." The benign-looking man with the bow tie was just too benign; he was probably a spy. So, too, the placid-seeming antelopes are really interesting in selling you their religion, and the pigeons are not congregating to eat fallen popcorn but conspiring to rebel. Every once in a while, they let the secret slip; we think they say "coo," but they are really crying "coup!"

Simon clearly had fun with this song; and we can even hear him laugh during the recording. After the biting humor of "Blessed," "Pleasure Machine," "Desultory Philippic," and even "Mrs. Robinson," it's nice to hear the duo just enjoying playing with words and music. The mood starts light, as with "Cloudy" or "Feelin' Groovy," and the song ends with a jaunty, upbeat bounce of "Groovey Thing."

It's songs like this that remind us of the other side of S&G. While they are known for their sadder, more introspective and more challenging works, they never forgot that they were still-- in some part-- Tom and Jerry.


IMPACT:
Simon has a charity, The Children's Health Fund, that involves sending trucks full of medical equipment-- basically clinic-mobiles-- out to poor parts of New York. They even drove their trucks down to New Orleans to help with Hurricane Katrina relief.

Jimmy Buffett turned his song "Jolly Mon" into a children's book, then Carly Simon followed with "Fisherman's Song." Paul Simon turned this song, "At the Zoo," into a children's book, too... with the proceeds going to The Children's Health Fund.

Although intended for adults, the song is Simon's most child-friendly (aside from the lullabies "St. Judy's Comet" and "Father and Daughter"). The line about hamsters "turning on" is finessed in the illustrations by having them wear miner's helmets with head lamps; the "zookeeper" is now fond not of rum but of a beaver named "Rum."


Next Song: Bridge Over Troubled Water