Monday, November 29, 2010

Run That Body Down

Another unusual advice-giving song. The message here is clear: "How long you think that you can run that body down?"

In other words, how long do you think you can keep up this crazy schedule, with no rest?

This album was released in 1972. The speaker on this song is Simon himself; we know this because the doctor calls him "Paul." Although he was only in his early 30s at the time (yes, he had accomplished his entire S&G career by age 30), we might well assume that the strains of writing and recording his first (post-breakup) solo album-- with all the pressure for hits that came with it-- was wearing on him.

The "Peg" mentioned in the song is Simon's first wife, Peg Harper. She is mentioned again in the song "Call Me Al." A friend of theirs kept forgetting their names; instead of "Peggy" and "Paul," he would call them "Betty" and "Al."

The "kid" in the last verse might well be the listener... or it could (depending on when the song was written) refer to Simon's first child. His name is Harper, in honor of Peg's maiden name. He was born in... 1972. Babies, of course, are notorious for their sporadic and ever-changing sleeping and eating patterns, perhaps not unlike those of rock stars.

Harper's birth might also explain was Peg was doing that was running her own body down-- having and taking care of a newborn.

The somewhat lethargic tempo and languid tone of the piece fits the message: We're all going a mile a minute, and the pace starting to take its toll. Let's rein it in a bit, shall we, before we collapse.

As Billy Joel would later put it in his song "Vienna": "You better cool it off before you burn it out."

Speaking of Harper, he recorded his debut album in the past couple of years, and we will discuss the songs on it with which Simon helped him with after we discuss the songs on Simon's own Surprise. After that, of course, we will turn to the songs on Simon's 2011 album So Beautiful or So What.


Next Song: Armistice Day

Monday, November 22, 2010

Everything Put Together Falls Apart

An uncharacteristic bit of advice-giving from Simon. In the same year when Neil Young sang about "The Needle and the Damage Done"-- 1972-- Simon discouraged drug use with this somber number. (Originally posted incorrect date; corrected by a comment [see below])

"Paraphernalia," as in drug paraphernalia, "never hides your broken bones," our speaker explains. But most songs, at this point, might encourage the listener-- instead of turning to drugs-- to "get high on life" or perhaps find religion.

Not this speaker. He discusses, instead, the concept of entropy, the physics truism that states, as the title indicates, that "everything put together sooner or later falls apart." Yes, everything... from planets to forests to elements.

The Gershwins put it: "The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble." Not just "may," Simon insists, but "will." William Butler Yeats agrees, writing in his poem, "The Second Coming": "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." Nothing can reverse the process of entropy.

You might think, the speaker says, that drugs could ease or maybe mask the pain of this deterioration. But they cannot "hide your broken bones." The speaker also does not hold out the hope of support by friends, society, or God: "It's plain to see you're on your own."

Nevertheless, one should still not turn to drugs to wake "up" or lie "down," since they "change your style." One should not attempt to mask suffering or mortality by drugging, as that does not even provide an effective hiding place-- all they do is make you less yourself. "Some folks are crazy," the speaker admits, and some nearly so. But you are not; you are still rational. So why take drugs and become crazy? It's foolish.

"You can cry/ You can lie," but it will not help one bit. Instead, one should recognize that one is mortal, but not dwell on the matter, and simply get on with the business of living. Since "everything put together sooner or later falls apart" anyway, "spare your heart" the angst of focusing on that inevitability.

You are helpless to change, veer away from, or prevent your dying. Everyone and everything dies. And why think "Well, if I'm just going to die anyway, I might as well kill myself now" ("You can die")? Why not just live already?

Dorothy Parker agrees. Her poem, "Resume" assesses various suicide methods and reaches the same conclusion:
"Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live."

"When... they lay you down for dead/ Just remember what I said," about everything falling apart. So, first, stop avoiding the issue with drugs, and wasting time with them, advises the speaker, and just live the life you have left.

"Everything Put Together" is not a nihilistic or fatalistic song. Rather, it is an open-eyed assessment of the fact of mortality. As Kafka said, "The meaning of life is that it ends." And the best response Simon can find to that inevitability is to not waste what time he has left dwelling on that issue: "If I am going to die some day, I only have so much time to get things done, so I'd better get busy now."

In his book of philosophical essays The Myth of Sisyphus, novelist Albert Camus discusses despair and hope. Since we don't know what will happen tomorrow, both despair and hope are equally absurd mindsets, he reasons. But if one despairs, one might as well kill oneself today. Since the outlooks are equally absurd, he decides, one might as well hope and live.

Centuries before, the author of Ecclesiastes-- believed by many to be King Solomon-- also wrestled with the meaning of life, and death. "As the one dies, so dies the other... All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." Therefore, "The best thing we can do is eat and drink and enjoy what we have earned."

Simon doesn't state it in Camus' or Ecclesiastes' terms, but he might agree. Since entropy/mortality will get you in the end anyway... "spare your heart." You might as well live.


Next song: Run That Body Down

Monday, November 15, 2010

Duncan

In this song, Simon revisits the down-and-out character type portrayed in "The Boxer" and sets his story to the Andean wood-flute music of "El Condor Pasa." The same ensemble, in fact.

However, this song is about, well, sex. It starts with the singer apologizing for the "couple in the next room" who have been "going at it" for a while. Now, he has given up waiting for them to finish and will proceed with his story, and the listener is just going to have to put up with the background noise.

He has an unusual name. Both his given name, "Lincoln," and his surname "Duncan," are those of famous assassination victims. Lincoln, of course, was assassinated by the fanatic John Wilkes Booth... and King Duncan by the treacherous Macbeth. Our speaker's name, therefore, is steeped in tragic death.

He is from Canada, he explains, from the Atlantic coastal region called the Maritimes. His father was a fisherman... and his mother, a "fisherman's friend." It is unclear what this means. A "fisherman's friend" is a flower, although I was unable determine why a land-based plant would help a fisherman. (It is also, incidentally, the brand name of a throat lozenge, presumably one that fishermen prefer. Perhaps the lozenge contains an extract of the flower..?)

Taken in the context of the song, however, it seems to either mean that his mother was very supportive of his father's sea-going, often-absent lifestyle... or that she kept other fishermen company while he was at sea. Possibly, she played at one while acting out the other.

None of this seems to have affected our speaker, however, who left home for New England fleeing simple "boredom." His destination is vague, but hopeful, if only in that he seeks a place whose name has "New" in it.

Like his compatriot the Boxer, who went "looking for a job but [got] no offers," Duncan is broke. We get an entire verse about this "destitution" and its affect on his sense of self. There are "holes" in both his jeans and his "confidence."

And then he sees her. We do not learn the name of the "young girl," but that seems beside the point. She is less a person than a symbol. She is "young," parallel to the "New" in his chosen place. She is a "girl," and fertile. This is key; it might just as well have been an older person, or a man, preaching.

He hears her songs and stories and is enchanted. After her sermon, he approaches her and tells her he is "lost." So she speaks-- this time, not to a "crowd" but directly to him-- of the Pentecost. This is the revelation of the Holy Spirit to Jesus' core disciples after the Resurrection (50 days after, to be precise, thus the "pent-" prefix, as in "pentagon").

The Pentecost was taken as proof of Jesus' approval of the Apostles' mission; it is sometimes referred to as "the birthday of the Church." A startling contrast for a young man named for two historical figures who were, like Jesus, assassinated.

The result? "I seen that girl as the road to my survival." This last word Simon sings with several extra syllables, to emphasize the feeling of relief and ecstasy Duncan feels, or maybe a song sung at the prayer service.

This is followed by a curious lyric: "I know," repeated several times. It is as if Duncan is reacting to the reader's skepticism and concern. "I know what you are thinking," Duncan seems to say, "but please, let me finish."

Spellbound, he finds her tent in the dark, with is flashlight. He must see her again.

But what happens when he arrives at the tent of this pure, holy maiden who "just" earlier that day was so religious? What does she do? Read another passage of Scripture? Sing a hymn? Well, no. She takes him to the "woods," a primal place.

There, as Duncan puts it, "My long years of innocence ended." Why "long" years? At his age, his losing his virginity even in his late teens (he can drive; he speaks of himself as having "reached [his] prime," so we presume he was 17 or 18) must have felt like he had waited an eternity.

Duncan remembers that the girl took charge, once he approached her. She takes him to the woods, she is the one who speaks during the encounter. For his part, he was decidedly subservient and simply grateful: "Just like a dog, I was befriended."

Still, Duncan recalls the event as an entirely positive one and remarks, "What a garden of delight," perhaps referring to the Garden of Eden.

In the afterglow, he offers a prayer of his own: "I was playing my guitar... thanking the Lord for my fingers." His prayer relates to a physical part of himself, but also to what music his body can achieve, both with his guitar and... otherwise.

This is not the last time Simon links religious ecstasy with the more physical kind. In the Graceland song "That Was Your Mother," we meet another "young girl" who is "pretty as a prayerbook." His reaction? "If that's my prayerbook-- 'Lord, let us pray!'"

Here, Simon's point is somewhat more serious. Duncan has learned a lesson about sex and its power of transcendence. Now we can understand today's more mature Duncan, the one who tells us his "first time" story, and his withering assessment of the "couple in the next room." They seem to be after some earthly "prize" and are confusing quantity with quality.

As for his mother, well, he seems to have made his peace with her activities. She was just keeping company with "friends," after a fashion, lonely for his absentee father.

Duncan himself seems to see spiritual and physical transcendence as two sides of the same coin. The same person who taught him the ways of Heaven also taught him the ways of the world. She didn't have a problem with being overtly rapturous about both the Bible and the bed, so why should he? Why is one sort of revelation worth more than the other?

When he saw her as "the road to [his] survival," he had no idea how right he would prove to be.

Still, he concludes with another round of "I know, I know, I know." He knows that this is all, to a point, theory, and not always viable in practice. He knows that this girl is one in a million, perhaps rarer. He knows that she might well have been delusional herself... or even predatory. And he knows that he might well be fooling himself, and that his listener probably thinks that he is.

"I know I shouldn't believe," he seems to say, "but it is so nice to... and really, what's the harm?

Musical Note: The flutes here are played by an ensemble called Urubamba, after a river near Machu Picchu; Simon produced an album for them. Under their early name, Los Incas, they performed the flutes heard in "El Condor Pasa."

Next song: Everything Put Together Falls Apart

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mother and Child Reunion

In 1989, Lita Ford and Ozzy Osbourne caught a lot of flak for their duet "Close My Eyes Forever," which many claimed encouraged suicide, especially in impressionable teens.

Meanwhile, Paul Simon started his post-breakup solo career (or at least the first song on the first album) with a song on the same topic, with nary a murmur from the sensationalist media or distraught parents. It was his-- at least-- fourth song on the subject, the first three being "Save the Life of My Child," "A Most Peculiar Man," and "Richard Cory."

In the case of "Mother and Child Reunion," the issue is a bit more disguised than in those earlier tracks. Part of the reason the message of the song went largely unnoticed is the ebullient music, lit up with African-reggae guitars, organs, drums, and descants.

The title comes from a Chinese menu, the dish including both chicken and eggs-- thus, the mother hen reuniting with her offspring in a rather sad way, for them at least. (Interestingly, another Chinese restaurant meal is mentioned later on the album, in the song "Paranoia Blues.")

But how is the song about suicide?

The speaker refers to the listener as "Little darling of mine," so we must presume some familiarity between the two parties. Also, the listener seems to be at least a generation younger, given that form of address.

The speaker addresses the listener, first saying they would not offer "false hope," which implies he or she does intend to propose a real sense of hope... by means of a practical solution to the despair at hand.

The speaker begins by laying out the problem: "I can't for the life of me/ remember a sadder day." What could be sadder than the loss of one's mother (well, the loss of one's child, perhaps. But one does not truly compare on such occasions)? The conversation seems to be taking place at the funeral, or perhaps during the mourning after.

The song then alludes to the Beatles' song "Let It Be," released two years prior: "I know they say 'let it be.'" In that song, The Virgin Mary, referred to repeatedly as "mother," returns from Heaven to offer solace. Simon, or at least his speaker, disagrees: "...but it just don't work out that way." Mothers don't come back from Heaven...

...You have to go up to them. Which is not that difficult of a trip, it seems: "the mother and child reunion is only a motion away." Remember the recipe for that dish? The two are reunited... in death. With one swift swipe of a knife, or the twitch of a finger on a trigger, or a short jump off a bridge, the reunion can be completed. It's not much effort-- "only a motion"-- or much time-- "only a moment."

Simon then seems to allude to a song on his own. Here, he says, "I've never been laid so low." On the immediate previous album, he uses the same word, "lay," but in the active voice, to indicate that he will do anything to provide comfort for his listener: "Like a bridge over troubled water/ I will lay me down."

Why the difference? In "Bridge," the message to the sufferer is, "I know you are weak, but I am strong, and you can depend on me for support." Here, the speaker is just as affected and miserable as the person he is trying to console: "I can't... remember a sadder day... I've never been laid so low." So of course his advice is going to be different.

While "Let It Be" is quite religious, our song only obliquely refers to religion, in the line: "In such a mysterious way." That phrasing sounds familiar because it borrows from the expression "The Lord moves in mysterious ways." While the Beatles profess a benevolent deity who "comes to me, speaking words of wisdom," Simon quotes a hymn, to cast a sideways glance at an inscrutable God whose intentions are unknowable.

There also seems to be a reference to reincarnation. (Note that "resurrection" is coming back from the dead as oneself, while "reincarnation" implies that one returns in another guise.) "The course of a lifetime runs/over and over again" may mean that, since we come back anyway, what's the difference if this particular life ends?

Yet, he must believe in an afterlife of some sort, if he is espousing the idea that, once the child kills himself, he will have his "reunion" with his mother. Well, maybe there is a Heaven, but since we can't rely on God-- especially not a God Who goes about killing mothers-- we must take matters into our own hands.

Finally, who is the speaker? If a mother has died, we cannot imagine that a father would tell his son: "Listen, seriously, if you miss your mother that much, why not join her? Here's some pills." First of all-- from a sheer biological standpoint-- if the child dies, too, his genes will die out entirely. More humanely, what father would wish death on his own child? He's all he has left of the mother, and why would he (the father) want to be be entirely alone?

So whoever is saying "Little darling of mine" is not, in all likelihood, a relative. Rather, it seems an elderly acquaintance, perhaps someone who has been to one too many funerals, who can't bear to see the child suffer and miss his mother so.

Still, if this person is going to offer advice like this, one has to question the father's judgement in inviting such a one to the funeral! If he doesn't believe in religious faith being able to offer true comfort, why doesn't this "well-meaning" person tell the grieving child that he, himself, will be the bridge over his troubled water?

That seems a much more decent option than shrugging: "If you're that miserable, why not just kill yourself?"


IMPACT:
The song went to #5 in the UK and #4 in the US.

By beginning his solo career with such a song, Simon seems to be declaring his desire to explore the world's music much more enthusiastically and regularly going forward. The album has several musical textures, many borrowed from other cultures, as we shall see.

The song was covered by Randy California... and a band with one of my favorite names: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.

Next song: Duncan

Monday, November 1, 2010

My Little Town

This is an odd choice for a reunion song. It is a sad and hurt song, full of anger and frustration.

The song does not seem to be autobiographical; are there "factories" in Queens? Rather, it seems to be a song about growing up feeling pent-up in, perhaps, a steel town; compare the song to Billy Joel's "Allentown" or Springsteen's "Youngstown." The images of factories and guns are later combined in John Gorka's number "The One That Got Away: "I grew up beneath the trees/ Not far from the refineries/ Aimed at the sky like smoking guns/ I learned to walk; I learned to run away."

Gorka, a folksinger-songwriter, is the laureate of leaving. He has over a dozen songs in his catalog on the subject, with titles like "The Gypsy Life," "Out of the Valley," and "You're On Your Way." But even he would be hard-pressed to come up with a leaving song as completely bitter as "My Little Town."

The song's anger is all the more shocking when one realizes that the subject is a child. The song's events and impressions are related by an adult remembering the claustrophobia-- both physical and emotional-- of his "little" town. The adjective is key-- the town is not just small, but small-minded.

The song begins with an unwanted prayer at school. "God" watches "us all," but he is especially oppressive to the speaker: "He used to lean upon me."

Then there is, of course, the Pledge of Allegiance. Only instead of pledging to a flag, the speaker pledges to "the wall." Perhaps his desk is by a wall, so he can't even see the flag clearly from his seat; he might as well be pledging his allegiance to that hard, blank surface. Or perhaps the school itself is a "wall," as in the Pink Floyd image of education: "Teacher, leave those kids alone/ All in all, you're just another brick in the wall."

The next images are of grim dinginess. There are the "factories" spewing the pollution that makes for a "dirty breeze" to hang clean "laundry" in. There is the black rainbow. The pall of grayness spewed by the smokestacks captures the "lack" of "imagination" the speaker feels in his surroundings, discoloring even a rainbow.

(The image of an all-black rainbow, Simon reveals in the Still Crazy liner notes, is Ted Hughes': "a black rainbow/ bent in emptiness.")

Only on his ride home does he engage in metaphor, as he "flies" his bike home. Only alone, in between the school and home, is there freedom. Yes, there is the omnipresent factory. But at school, he pledges allegiance to a wall, while on the ride home, he "flies" past restrictive "gates."

And what is waiting at home? A mother doing laundry, and a father who-- like everyone else in town-- defines the speaker in his terms, and his generation's: "I never meant nothin'/ I was just my father's son."

But then alone again, perhaps in his bedroom, he "dream[s] of glory." And he doesn't just dream, he plans, by "saving [his] money."

All the while, he is as ready to explode as a "gun," waiting until he is 18, or perhaps just old enough to drive, to leave. On his stereo, he might even have the (also 1975) LP of "Born to Run," with the rallying cry in its title track: "Baby, this town rips the bones from your back... We gotta get out while we're young."

Now an adult, he has no nostalgia for the place whatsoever. He regards those he left behind as "dead and dying." We imagine he means the latter term not literally (although, with that pollution...), but in the same way Bob Dylan did in his observation: "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Considering the negative emotion that caused the breakup and then followed it, this song would be a strange reunion song for any other duo... but perhaps not this one.


IMPACT: Simon included the track on his Still Crazy After All These Years album, which would go on to win a Grammy, and Garfunkel placed it on his album Breakaway. Both albums came out in 1975. The song went to #9 and the do performed it on Saturday Night Live.

Some Thoughts on Simon's S&G Material:
While Simon is primarily thought of as a serious and even somber folk songwriter, his S&G work also pulls a great deal from the lighthearted and innocent work of '50s pop. Further, while his world-music phase is often thought to start circa Graceland, we see a constant exploration of sounds outside the American sonic landscape even very early on.

Had Simon never written another song after the breakup, his legacy as one of the premier songwriters of all time would still be assured. Lucky for us, he kept going... and still is.

[If any reader knows of a S&aG track I have missed, skipped, or forgotten, please let me know. Next week starts Simon's post-S&G solo material. Those who "only" like music from this era of Simon's output are encouraged to stay and explore this fascinating series of albums, which is still unfolding.]


Next Song: Mother and Child Reunion