Monday, December 26, 2011

The Boy in the Bubble

What is a knife? To a surgeon at the operating table, it's a tool for saving a life. To an attorney prosecuting an alleged killer, it's a weapon for taking a life.

The ability for technology to be used for either good or ill is the basis of this song, but even deeper is the idea that technology is ahead of us and accelerating, while our moral development is evolving at a much slower pace.

The song opens on a "a slow day," somewhere warm, possibly tropical. The place is either at war or on alert, as there are "soldiers by the side of the road." Suddenly, an explosion shocks this commercial street. This terrorist-style attack was perpetrated through two means. One was technology-- "a bomb... wired through the radio." The other, sociology-- no one expected a bomb in a "baby carriage."

"These are the days of miracle and wonder," our speaker assures us. Look at all of the technological marvels we possess: the "long-distance [telephone] call," the "slo[w]-mo[tion] camera," the amazing telescopes that allow us to see "a distant constellation" up close.

And yet... it is a "long-distance" call, and a "distant" constellation, and a "dying" one at that. Does the technology that allows us to communicate at a distance... keep us at a distance? Are we farther apart now, because we can be? And did we want to be that way all along?

The idea that the light reaching us from a star takes so long to arrive that the star that emitted it may itself be long dead is a relatively new one. And cameras that "look to us all," I believe, was a reference to video surveillance and security cameras. Only now, with YouTube, we truly do "look to us all," as we shine the omnipresent cameras on ourselves.

The chorus concludes that these advances are ultimately for the betterment of mankind, so whomever he is reassuring (the listener, too) should not "cry."

In the next verse, we have a description of what appears to be a sandstorm, worsening an existing drought: "a dry wind... swept across the desert... dead sand/ falling." The famine and thirst it has engendered is devastating whole families and, it seems even to be reaching into the womb to snuff out the yet unborn: "it curled into the circle of birth."

But what is "automatic earth"? Is it a synthetic substance like asphalt or concrete that hardens into a new surface "automatically"? Is it some dirt-like substitute, or even foreign topsoil, that was brought in to stimulate local agriculture and produce crops "automatically"? Whatever it is, it is not helping the situation. A more horrible thought is that, in paving over the existing "earth," this supposed benefit actually caused the environmental disaster now unfurling.

In the bridge, the first three references are not exactly about new technology. For those who don't know basketball terminology, a "turnaround jump shot" starts with the player having his (or her) back to the basket. He receives the ball, spins to face the basket, jumps, and shoots-- a very difficult maneuver executed in a mere second. The speaker seems to say that technology is the same; we receive the science of the past, then wheel around to hurl it at the future, taking but a second's time to aim it.

Next, we have the "jumpstart," the use of electrical cables to help use the power of one person's car battery to start another's car. If "everybody" jumpstarts-- if everyone's energy, or ideas, are borrowed, where did the first charge come from? Also, the "everybody jumpstart" sounds like everyone jumping from having been startled; we can all be startled by the same thing all at once only if we are all apprised of the same news all at once, as we were by CNN and now Twitter.

Third, we have the notion that "every generation throws a hero up the pop charts," meaning charts that measure the sales of popular music. Simon himself has been up and down the charts several times, and has no illusions that this unusual album of South African music-- controversial even before its release-- will be his next hit. If not, well, he has had his chance in his "generation" already, hasn't he?

Then we are back to surprising new technologies: "Think of the Boy in the Bubble/ And the baby with the baboon heart." This first medical reference was to a case in which a boy was born with an extremely weak immune system. His parents enveloped his sterilized room in equally sterile plastic, forming a "bubble" which he was not allowed to leave; the case was dramatized in a popular television movie called "The Boy In the Bubble," and later used as a "Seinfeld" subplot.

The other is another true case of a baboon-to-human heart transplant, recently referred to in an episode of Glee (Sue, running for office against Kurt's father, accuses him, a heart-surgery survivor, of having a baboon heart.)

The last amazing technology referred to is cellular telephone and communications technology, or possibly CDs, reaching even into undeveloped areas: "lasers in the jungle/ staccato signals of constant information."

The idea of such space-age technology in a land of "jungles," "desert[s]," and tropical "beating sun" (for instance, Africa), is shocking and sobering. Are they ready for this? Is anyone? Or will we just use our knowledge to blow each other up?

And who is responsible for all this? A government that is as at least theoretically answerable to the people... an army upholding code of honor... religious leaders with ostensible moral standing? Not even close-- just "a loose affiliation of millionaires/ And billionaires," whose only higher power is the Almighty Dollar.

"Don't cry, baby, don't cry." New technology can be frightening. In-home electricity, gunpowder, and even torches were probably all terrifying to those who first saw them. Yet, we lived through those advances. Now, we live in homes surrounded by dishwashers, compact fluorescent bulbs, Paxil and iPads... and have to be worried about identity theft.

There are always those who will use a knife, or a laser, to kill rather than to heal. But we can't halt progress because of that. We have to trust that we will be all right in general, just as we always have... and that in the days of "miracle and wonder," our hearts' ability to tell us what we should do may finally catch up with our brains' ability to tell us what we can.

Musical note:
This album's music is based in the many forms found in South Africa. Some native instruments, and local uses of standard instruments, weave together to form a musical tapestry unheard in most other lands, especially under the boycott of South Africa's discriminatory policy of apartheid.

One of the guitarists on this track is Adrian Belew, a cutting-edge musician with several fascinating and quirky albums of his own. Here, he plays a guitar synthesizer, as he also does on two later tracks.

The accordion-- as it happens, the first sound heard on the album-- is played by one Forere Motloheloa, who is credited as co-writer of the song.

The bass is played by Bakithi Kumalo, who appears on five tracks and is responsible for the famous bass solo on "Call Me Al." He still records and tours with Simon today. A Vusi Khumalo plays drums on this track and the next, but I am unsure of their exact relation.

The song is also marked by an excellent music video comprised of a moving collage, similar to ones around that time by Peter Gabriel ("Big Time") and the Talking Heads ("And She Was").

IMPACT (album):
Paul Simon did not "invent" world music. Latin sounds, for instance, had been part of American music thanks to Xavier Cugat, Desi Arnaz, and Richie Valens, and Caribbean music had been performed by Harry Belafonte and Bob Marley.

But the Graceland album was the work that necessitated it eventually having its own Grammy category and inspired many musicians to expand their musical horizons. David Byrne, for instance would use many international melodies and rhythms in his 1989 album Rei Momo.

Graceland won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and hit #3 on the US album charts. It went to #1 in Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and The UK, reaching the top five in Germany and Italy... and even breaking the top 50 in Japan. It went platinum 5 times over and sold more than 14 million copies.

The album shows up on many lists of "the greatest albums of all time," "most influential albums of all time," etc.

For Simon, it professionally meant that he was still an extremely potent force in popular music. And personally, it was a major step in finding the roots of the music that made him want to be a musician to begin with, when he was just a kid with a radio.

Next song: Graceland

Monday, December 19, 2011

Citizen of the Planet

Quotable speakers from Socrates to Woodrow Wilson (also FDR and JFK) have said that they consider themselves "citizen[s] of the world." Generally, this expression means that one is an internationalist rather than an isolationist, that one can think in terms of one country's impact on the world instead of just focusing on matters inside one's own nation.

So we think we know what to expect when Simon begins his song: "I am a citizen of the planet." While "world" is often a geo-political term, "planet" tens to be favored by environmentalists (and of course astronomers), so we expect an oration on each person's duty to safeguard Mother Nature.

The next line seems to continue in this vein, but maybe not: "I am entitled by my birth/ To the treasures of the earth." OK, so each person is entitled to the "treasures of the earth," as in natural resources-- water, food, etc.-- right? And so next we are going to hear how in return, we owe the earth our stewardship or something.

Nope. "No one must be denied these [treasures]/ No one must be denied/ Easy dreams at the end of the day." This is not a song about, to paraphrase an above-mentioned president, "...ask what you can do for your planet," we now realize. This time it really is: "Ask what your planet can do for you."

As if to drive home the point, Simon uses an unexpected adjective: "At the end of a chain-smokin' day." So this is also not about remote tribes of Brazil being exploited by rainforest-destroying corporations. This is not a "hippie" song at all, even.

No, it is about the rights of even the "chain-smoking" factory and office workers, who fill the air with tobacco fumes and the ground with the discarded butts, being entitled to their slice of the planetary pie. This song is as much about work boot-wearers, and copy machine operators, and even their bosses in industrialized countries, as much as it is about sweatshop workers and refugees in "developing" countries.

Next comes a pair of rhetorical questions. The first seems to be about governmental fear-mongering and military saber-rattling: "Who am I to believe/ That the future we perceive/ Lies in danger and the dangers increase?" The second is about a more diplomatic option: "Who are we to demand/ That the leaders of the land/ Hear the voices of reason and peace?"

Who are we? We'll tell you who: "We are the citizens of the planet," that's who. And maybe we are afraid of the future, but not because of each other. Maybe we're afraid of our own leaders, the very people who need us to be afraid in order to control us. They are the true source of the "danger."

The final verse is also a pair of such questions. The first has two parts: "Who am I to deny/ What my eyes can clearly see / And raise a child with a flame in his heart?" First, we recognize Simon quoting himself, from "American Tune": "And high up above, my eyes can clearly see/ The Statue of Liberty..."

But then we have a question of our own. How can these two parts co-exist? They seem to be at odds. "Who am I to deny what my eyes can clearly see?" most likely means: "No, I can't deny what is so clear." I can't deny, in other words, the reality of what the above verses state-- we are being told to hate each other so our countries can stay at war and compete for resources, when we should really just share. So, I should not deny what I can clearly see.

The second part would be "Who am I to... raise a child with a flame in his heart?" The question is, what kind of "flame"? The Olympic runner's flame of light, which gathers all? Or the arsonist's flame of heat, which destroys and scatters all before it? The flame of compassion, we would hope. So, I should raise a child with a flame in his heart.

Now read the last two lines of the last two paragraphs again. The speaker seems to be saying, in one sentence, "Who am I to deny the obvious (which I should not do)... and raise a compassionate child (which I should)?" It can't be both.

So either he should deny the obvious (which makes little sense, both in general and from what we know of Simon's values, even stated elsewhere in this very song), or the "flame" in question is in fact the negative kind.

If this is the case, the lines mean: "Why would I deny that we are being sold a bill of goods about who the true 'enemy' is, and then sell it to my kid, myself?"

The last lines also need some untangling. Also a rhetorical question, they are: "Who are we to believe/ That these thoughts are so naive/ When we've all disagreed from the start?"

"Who are we to believe that these thoughts are naive?" implies that it takes bravery to believe they are naive. In fact, all those in favor or sharing resources, from Marx to, well, Lennon (in "The Communist Manifesto" and the song "Imagine," respectively) have been considered by many, if not most, world citizens to be very naive. It actually takes bravery to be a sharer.

Shouldn't it be something like: "Who are we to believe/ Dare we be so naive"? Because after all, those in favor of sharing tend to get shot and killed.

But isn't the whole point that we really don't need to "disagree"? That is, that we truly do agree? The song has already explained that we all are "citizens of the planet," and that we all need access to the same "treasures of the earth." So there isn't actually a problem, is there?

Except that not everyone sees this. Each side sees the other as "naive." Those who believe that there is enough for everyone, if we would just share it, feel that the hoarders of resources are being naive-- that they are needlessly willing to kill and die to defend, say, their wheat crop, when there is so much wheat that farmers are already paid not to grow it. Meanwhile, the hoarders think the sharers are naive, because after all, sharing only works if everyone does it... and not everyone does it.

In this sense, we have all "disagreed from the start"-- about whether to disagree or not! Some think we should not; some think we will anyway, or enough of us will, and so we need armies.

This simply worded song is actually very complex, but in the end simple in its message. Benjamin Franklin said, upon signing the Declaration of Independence, that the signers "must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Turns out, that goes for all "citizens of the planet." Now if only we could get rid of the rope altogether.

(This song was intended for "Hearts and Bones" and is now on the extended re-release.)


Next Song: Boy in the Bubble

Monday, December 12, 2011

Shelter of Your Arms

Some of this song became "When Numbers Get Serious." The rest was unreleased until Simon included the song as a bonus track on his re-release of Hearts and Bones.

"Wrap me, wrap me, wrap me do/ In the shelter of your arms... I won't do you no harm," is more or less all that transferred to "Numbers." The line "I am ever your volunteer" was first "I'm an extraordinary individual," which aside from being a bit too egotistical for a protestation of love doesn't "scan" all that well.

Much of the song is, like its title, largely cliches: "I won't tell you no lies," "When I'm in the mood," "halfway around the block," "stop the clock," and "textbook case."

Then there are series of double takes. "I won't tell you no lies/ If you don't want me to./ But if you want me to..." Will he lie? In a manner of speaking: "If you want me to, I'll lie/ In the shelter of your arms." (In the words of today's teens, "I see what you did there...")

Here is another-- involving a phrase "deny the obvious" that shows up, years later, as part of "The Obvious Child." Here, it is part of this passage: "I could deny the obvious/ I could rest my case/ And I don't rest my case for no one..."

Which goes right into yet another: "...if I'm not in the mood/ When I'm in the mood...

The next line also could carry a double meaning: "Take a look at these laugh lines." This could either mean "these jokes," which could indicate that the speaker was trying to get the woman the song was addressing to smile... or it could mean the facial creases that come from a great deal of smiling. This would be a way of saying: "Look at how much you make me smile, I'm getting wrinkles already."

The next two lines are the best in the song, and it is surprising that they did not make it into another song; "I lived a year once in a hotel/ 'Cause I failed to read a sign." A joking line like that would have worked well in "Call Me Al," for instance.

The rest of the song also repeats itself: "For a long time I was miserable/ Then I felt just fine./ And now I feel so fine so often/ I'm like a textbook case/ Just a textbook of fine/ In the shelter of your arms."

"Textbook case" is likely supposed to rhyme with "I could rest my case" and "In the palm of your embrace." But the song's structure is so unusual-- with the chorus and verses folding into each other (embracing each other?)-- that it is hard to notice this rhyme unless you have the lyrics to read.

It is clear why the song failed to please Simon to the point of his releasing it. Aside from the cliches, the offhand tone of the lyrics is at odds with their tender intentions.

Some men might be self-conscious offering tender sentiments and so might feel more comfortable making jokes to impart their affections. But then, why would you need a poet and his song to help you express your feelings-- you could crack bad jokes yourself.

Next Song: Citizen of the Planet

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Late Great Johnny Ace

This is a song with three chapters, each involving the sudden death, by gun, of a famous person named John. Each death happens in a different decade.

While it is not often safe (and sometimes completely wrong) to assume so, this time the speaker is Simon himself.

News first death is described in the greatest detail. The John this time is Johnny Ace. We learn what Simon was doing when he heard of Ace's death, and how he heard it, his emotional reaction to it. As Simon himself admits, "I really wasn't such a Johnny Ace fan," so it is not important to know Ace's biography or repertoire. From the evidence in the song and the "photograph" in the LP's liner notes, Ace was an R&B artist who died young. I had to look him up to realize the gun-death connection:

Bill Dahl, writing for allmusic.com, explains (pardon my edits, Mr. Dahl, for brevity): "The death of young pianist Johnny Ace in a round of Russian roulette backstage at Houston's City Auditorium on Christmas Day of 1954 (note: this is disputed by some) tends to overshadow his relatively brief but illustrious recording career on Duke Records. Ace's gentle, plaintive vocal balladry deserves reverence on its own merit... John Marshall Alexander [his birth name] was a member of the Beale Streeters, a crew of Memphis youngbloods that variously included B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and Earl Forest. Signing with the local Duke logo in 1952, the re-christened Ace hit the top of the R&B charts his very first time out with the mellow ballad "My Song." Ace racked up hits: "Cross My Heart," "The Clock," "Saving My Love for You," "Please Forgive Me," and "Never Let Me Go" all dented the uppermost reaches of the charts. Ace scored his biggest hit of all posthumously; his haunting "Pledging My Love" remained atop Billboard's R&B lists for ten weeks in early 1955.")

But what was the impact of Ace's death on Simon? On the surface, not that much. And yet... he "sent away" for Ace's photo: "And they signed it on the bottom/“From the Late Great Johnny Ace”."

Then the music shifts, as with a "wipe" in a movie, we are at another time and place. London, 1964: "the year of The Beatles/ the year of the Stones." Simon says he was living there "with the girl from the summer before." This is mostly likely the Kathy of "Kathy's Song" and "America," but her name is not given.

The bands are mentioned again for emphasis, and then: "A year after JFK." The second John, this time American president John Kennedy, but again killed before his time by a gun. While everyone claims to know where they were when they got that shocking news, Simon does not reveal here where he was or how he heard, as he did with Ace's death.

The reaction of the youth to such nihilism was apathy: "We were staying up all night/ And giving the days away."

For one moment, the music here becomes somewhat psychedelic, as are the lyrics: "And the music was flowing/ Amazing/ And blowing/my way." "Blowing" could be a reference to marijuana smoke, to Dylan's song "Blowin' in the Wind," or to the basic "something in the air" of the 1960s.

In any case, the music was blowing Simon's way, and in 1964, Simon and Garfunkel's first album hit the stands. It didn't sell well, but an unasked-for remix of one of the songs-- "Sound of Silence"-- blew the duo on their way.

Then the music shifts back to the first melody, and we hear of the death of the third John: John Lennon. A "stranger," perhaps recognizing Simon, calls to him as both are hurrying through the December air past the Christmas decorations, and tells him the sad news.

The songs ends: "And the two of us/ Went to this bar/ And we stayed to close the place/ And every song we played/ Was for the Late Great Johnny Ace." It does not mention the year, 1980.

Some of the other details are missing, here, too. What does it mean-- "every song we played." Did the stranger also know how to play music, or were these songs "played" on a jukebox? Assuming they played live, did Simon have his guitar with him (not unlikely), or was there one at the bar... and did the stranger have his with him, too? Did the stranger know who Johnny Ace was? Whose songs did they play? After such an intense encounter, why do we not learn who the stranger was?

But the most important question is... Johnny Ace? Why not songs for Lennon? Surely the news of Lennon's death was met with a spontaneous outburst-- worldwide-- of people singing Beatles songs, or perhaps songs they new Lennon had liked (The Beatles were frequent cover artists). Surely in all the world that night, Simon and his new friend were the only ones musically recalling an R&B singer with a handful of hits who had died several decades before, even if also at Christmastime.

Simon was born in 1941, and Ace accidentally shot himself in 1954. So Simon was only 13. Not Kennedy, not Lennon, but Ace had been the first such death he had encountered. The sudden death of a recognized, and very young, name must have had a tremendous impact on young man just embarking in the music business. And while JFK was far removed from his life, Simon grew up not just hearing The Beatles, but knowing them as friends and fellow musicians.

Lennon's death must have shocked Simon on a level that JFK's did not (JFK's came around the same time as the assassinations of others of that level of importance in politics and civil rights). It might have shocked him all the way back to when he was 13 and first tried to get his mind around such an event.

In telling us that he thought of Ace when Lennon died, Simon also says that he thinks of Lennon as just as young and innocent, with as much of a future ahead of him.

There is a musical epilogue, a mournful instrumental by modern composer Philip Glass. (Simon would later contribute a song to a Glass album.) The coda features a worried cello, pacing back and forth, then lulled by a simple flute line.

Musical Note: The first time Simon sang the song publicly was at his Central Park performance with Garfunkel, during which he was interrupted toward the end by an audience member who ran onstage; the song does not appear on the released version of the album's recording or the DVD, but the clip is on YouTube.

Next Song: The Shelter of Your Arms

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cars are Cars

In most sci-fi movies with a "rise of the machines" premise, in which the robots take over the world, it is assumed that the human audience is against this and is rooting for the humans onscreen. With Simon, we can't be so sure.

Not after this song. In it, the words "Cars are cars/ All over the world" are repeated almost mechanically, as if to illustrate the sameness the lyrics describe. The speaker seems comforted by this predictability of cars and frustrated by the vicissitudes of the human, analog world.

On the one hand, we have cars, which have a predictable lifespan. Even those in once hailed in ticker-tape parades or having chauffeured heads of state in "motorcades" are easily "abandoned when they’re old," since after all, they are ultimately only machines.

The speaker even lists the parts all cars have in common-- "Engine... Jack... Wheels... Pinion and a rack" (meaning the common rack-and-pinion steering system).

The music in the choruses is jerky, full of the start-stop of rush-hour traffic. The trumpets and saxes obviously stand in for car horns, and in the lines "Drive 'em on the left/ Drive 'em on the right," the lines cleverly come through those respective speakers. Simon did spend some time in England, so he would have experienced driving on both sides of the road.

This gets to the speaker's other point. If cars are the same in all countries, why do people drive them on different sides of the road in different countries? Nations can be frustratingly inconsistent; regional practices "change (even) with the curve" of a road.

This is especially apparent as one moves (or drives) around the world "from time zone to time zone." While cars treat all roads the same and don't care what the nationalities of their drivers are, people can be isolationist and "shut down their borders." While all cars are (sometimes painfully) aware that other cars can affect them, people erroneously think that by closing their eyes and ears to the outside world, they become "immune" (consider, for example, a European economic crisis, poorly understood and therefore ignored by many Americans.)

People are even proud of their "differences." Further, in the words of a James Bond film title, feel that 'the world is not enough' and so they "shoot at the Moon." Why? So they can drive there! It was Jerry Seinfeld who noted that, once on the Moon, the astronauts traveled even more a dune buggy: "The Moon wasn't far enough? There's nothing more like a guy than going all the way to the Moon just so you can drive around."

Now, most songs about cars celebrate their uniqueness and specialness to their owners, from the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" to Prince's "Little Red Corvette," to Springsteen's songs about Cadillacs. Here, the speaker revels that they are "Similarly made/ Similarly sold... All over the world."

And yet... the speaker admits that while all cars are the same worldwide, he had one that was special: "I once had a car/ That was more like a home/ I lived in it, loved in it... If some of my homes/ Had been more like my car/ I probably wouldn’t have/ Traveled this far."

You would think that, living in a car, one would travel more than if one lived in a house. But a house could be is something so miserable or confining that it has to be escaped, and then the next one, until one finds he has moved all across the country.

Meanwhile, a car-- a very cramped living space-- actually might feel more open and free than a house with a prison-like atmosphere. When you feels trapped, you must escape. But if you can go anywhere you like, at any time, there is no need to flee; you might as well stay where you are. How many endured jail just for insisting that they wanted to leave the Soviet Union, as opposed to many in America who can move as they please, yet stay put, even for generations.

So people, who can move anywhere and become anything they like, tend to be nationalistic and politically unchanging. Meanwhile, cars, which have no volition and can only go where they are driven, are accommodating and familiar to all.

A Japanese car is perfectly at home on an American road, and vice versa. But just try that with people.


Next Song: "The Late Great Johnny Ace"

Monday, November 21, 2011

Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog After the War

The title comes from a caption Simon liked to a photo of exactly that: the Belgian surrealist painter, his wife, and their dog, after WWII. The photo, I think, was in an intro of a book about Magritte and his work.

But the song, while somewhat evocative of Magritte's magical-realist art (everything normal, but with a dream-like twist), the song focuses more on the idea that even great artists have somewhat normal lives. They shop, they dine... they dance to popular music in their underthings in their hotel room.

In this case, they dance to the doo-wop groups that prefigured 1950s harmony groups like Dion and the Belmonts and The Crew Cuts, and may have even been smoother and more sophisticated than such street-corner hoodlums: "The Penguins/ The Moonglows/ The Orioles/ And The Five Satins."

Why was this music "fobidden"? Under the Nazis, all music made by African-Americans (and African-Europeans) was considered overly sexual and rhythmic and therefore "degenerate" (their word). Completely unlike Beethoven or Wagner, of course, whose works were restrained and refined. Magritte's work was also less than approved-of by the Nazis.

The next verse has the couple shopping on Manhattan's "Christopher Street," although I saw nothing of a trip to the States in the brief bio I just read, let alone their becoming American "immigrants." As far as I know, they (and their dog) remained Belgian citizens their entire lives, although there were exhibits of Magritte's work, I see, in New York in both 1936 and "after the war" in 1965. Magritte lived until 1967, so I suppose the couple could have come in for that.

And seeing suits in the American "style" might have driven home the pain that they were between worlds. They lived in Europe, with its stodgy ways, and Europe lived in them as well. But Magritte also was struggling in Europe, especially under the Nazis. Why could he not have been American? And free to have his strange artistic visions, and have them accepted? And be free to dance to this pretty music that never should have been "forbidden" to anyone?

The music that they loved but could never fully embrace also "brought tears to their eyes," but it also seems to have cheered them back up, as it is mentioned before-- their "easy stream of laughter."

It is the bridge of the song in which things become slightly surreal. We have the image of time slipping past like hunters stalking prey (or, possibly, evading becoming prey).

And then we have, again, the image of things "intertwined." In "Hearts and Bones," Simon wrote "You take two bodies and you twirl them into one... and they won't come undone." In "When Numbers Get Serious," he wrote: "Four rolls into three/ Three turns into two/ Two becomes a one." Here, it is the couple's "belongings" that have become enmeshed. (Possibly, also, their sense of "belonging," in that one member's social circle is now the other's as well.)

Simon, to my knowledge, does not perform this song in public, possibly due to the political incorrectness of the word "Indians." While it may make his listeners more comfortable sociologically, Simon is not about to sing: "decades gliding by like Native Americans." The absence of this song from his repertoire is lamentable, as it is truly a very pretty and evocative effort, along the lines of "Slip Slidin'" and "Something So Right."

The final verse of the song sees Magritte in his later years, vindicated as a great artist and "dining with the power elite" with some regularity. Then the couple finds some old recordings in their "bedroom drawer." (Evidently, they had done more than "dance" to these records.)

But why were these things "hidden away"? And why were their hearts a lifeless "cabinet" that was "cold"? Did the weariness of want wear away their passion... or was it the drive to success that sidelined it? Was it the strain of being caught between being European in body and American in spirit? Was it simply the passing of years and the onset of age?

It matters not, now. The recordings have been recovered, and with them, the fresh bloom of youth. And "now," their relationship can be as wonderful "as it was before."

It is always popular to see which musicians influenced a given musician, or what painters a given painter. But it is less common-- and perhaps even more revealing-- to discover which musicians influenced what painter... and vice versa. We can only imagine that Simon, knowing that he was influenced by both Magritte and The Moonglows, wanted Magritte to love them, too.

(Note: The video is worth seeing, too.)

Next Song: Cars are Cars

Monday, November 14, 2011

Train in the Distance

Is it necessary to analyze this song? It's one of the most straightforward of all of Simon's songs, telling the story of a marriage, from its prelude through to its epilogue. The "moral of the story" is even spelled out in the final chorus.

Now, there is a mistake in the lyrics at Simon's website. It says "He was old/she was young." This is wrong. In the song itself, Simon seems to sing: "He was old/ he was young." This, which it seems self-contradictory, is corroborated by two sources. One is the liner notes of the album.

The other is the new book Lyrics: 1964-2011, which I purchased at Paul Simon's concert here in the Chicago area last night. (Now that the book is out, someone at the website should really spend a couple of says doing line-by-line proofreading.)

The difference is enormous. The incorrect version seems a simple statement of fact as to their relative ages. The correct version provides one of the only enigmatic lines of the whole song. "He was old," in years, perhaps-- but in every other way, he was "young." Romantic, impulsive, ambitious...

The story starts with a older man attracted to a younger, married woman (her husband is immaterial to all concerned, dismissed as a mere "someone"). Our hero would "tip his heart" instead of his hand (the term comes from playing cards), meaning that he made his amorous intentions known. But even though she initially "withdrew," she hears the sound of the distant train as much as he does ("everybody" hears, it, after all).

The next steps seem automatic and inevitable: "Eventually" they marry, "sure enough" they have a boy. But even while she was pregnant, "disagreements had begun."

It is not clear when the child is born, relative to their divorce. But divorce they do, although they "they remain in contact." The line "Let us say it’s for the child," implies that this is not the true reason, but one that seems reasonable and acceptable to both and to the families and community involved (is the real reason that they are still somewhat attracted to each other?).

The word "disagreements" comes up again, this time with regard to the "marriage contract," but again more is going on. Certainly lawyers can (although expensively) debate that, professionally and coolly. Their "conversations," meanwhile are "hard and wild" and obviously about things more personal and intimate than just legalities.

Was there something there? Well, "from time to time, he just makes her laugh/ She cooks a meal or two." Here, we have a disagreement, to borrow a word, about lyrics again. The website and album notes say "he makes her laugh," while the song itself and the Lyrics book have it "he just makes her laugh." This is not as crucial an issue as the disputed pronoun above, but it does go to a central theme of the song.

Which is that it had to happen this way, going back to when he "doggedly" hounded and wooed her. This goes through the "eventual" and "sure enough" phases discussed above to how they "just fell apart." And now, he "just makes her laugh." He doesn't seem to mean to, but something he says "just" strikes her as terribly amusing.

The narrative breaks, during the divorce chapter, for the speaker to insert an observation about the characters: "Two disappointed believers/ Two people playing the game." They do believe in love, but are disappointed by marriage. Instead of loving each other and working toward compromises for the advancement of the union, they are "playing" against each other, each trying to win and advance his or her own interests.

The phrase "negotiations and love songs" would become the title of one of Simon's compilations of hits, but here it means that love songs, through which one hopes to win the heart of the other, are often little more then sales pitches, in which the singer hopes to win, period. But while dogs chase cars, what would a dog do with a car if it caught one? What good is winning if now that you have sealed the deal and gotten married, the game is over? Then the power struggle moves into the marriage itself, with everyone losing.

Why? Why does all of this have to happen, with the forgone nature of one "train" car following the next down a predetermined track?

It is not outside fate exactly, Simon theorizes, but how our brains are wired (or "woven") for ambition and improvement of our situations: "The thought that life could be better/ Is woven indelibly/ Into our hearts/ And our brains."

It's not the song that needs to be explained, after all. It's the people in the story, a tale so lacking in detail that the characters never even get names. We have all heard of some couple that this story, in some form, has happened to. So it is important to ask why such a story is so sadly common.

Still, there is some growth. "The boy and the girl get married," but after they divorce, "the man and the woman remain in contact." They haven't simply grown older, they have grown up.

And, if either one does marry again, it might actually go "better." For her, she left her first marriage for this man. But this time, she leaves her second husband for herself. Certainly, she will have to be mature enough to think of the impact this would have for her child. But if she does marry again, it should be for the right reasons.

Meanwhile, he was old when he started this adventure, and now he is a father. Still, he is "dogged" and "young" in a way, so maybe he will have another shot as well.

Did ambition and competition destroy this marriage, even before it had begun? Yes. Will the same thing happen in the next go-round? Well, as Samuel Johnson explained, "Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience."

Next Song: Rene And George Magritte with Their Dog After The War

Monday, November 7, 2011

Think Too Much (a)

This faster half of "Think Too Much" seems to be all over the place, perhaps symbolizing the stream-of-consciousness, non-sequitur way the brain actually works.

The first "thought" is again about which half of the brain controls the other. The next is two halves on a debate: "Maybe I think too much" vs. "You don't think as much as you could." So the debate is between thought vs. impulse. Each side of the brain, and so each side of the debate, will now present evidence.

The first comes from the side which says the speaker does, in fact, over-analyze. The opening statement: The best thing about his childhood was that it was "brief," but why is that the best-- why is that brevity "merciful"? Most of us extend our childhoods as long as we can, seeing comic-book movies on into our 40s (ahem). Because, rather than enjoy the whimsy of make-believe, our speaker was innately cynical, even as a kid: "I grew up in a state of disbelief." What most think of as childlike, he dismissed as childish.

All right, the first witness is his pre-adolescent self: "...when I was twelve going on thirteen/ Me and girls from St. Augustine/ (were) up in the mezzanine/ Thinking about God."

Does he mean to say that he had some Catholic school-girls up in a balcony a movie theater, and all he could think to do with them was have a theological discourse? Tsk, tsk. How disappointing. This definitely is a strong point for the "Maybe I think too much" side.

The impulsive side continues that spiritual experience is only possible when the thinking brain becomes passive and lets the emotions take over: "Have you ever experienced a period of grace/ When your brain just takes a seat behind your face?"

The intellect has now heard too much, and interrupts, equating such illogic with a drugged state: "...and the world begins The Elephant Dance/ Everything’s funny/ Everyone’s sunny."

Why, this leads to irresponsible behavior! "You take out your money" and spend it willy-nilly. You "walk down the road" aimlessly and purposelessly. For shame.

At least, aim at some stability and domesticity. The road you would likely choose by instinct anyway would be toward "the girl I love/ The girl I’m always thinking of."

Notice that verb, "thinking." See? Thinking can be romantic. When you consider someone, you are considerate. You can make plans and create a life together, take out a mortgage and an IRA, and lease a minivan.

But the impulsive side seizes on the word as well: You're "thinking of" her, eh? Well, maybe you "think too much"! Maybe you should let your emotional impetuousness run rampant!

Maybe, instead of trying to control the situation, and her, you should "stop trying to mold her." And instead, be physical and "just hold her."

Maybe eliminate the concept of choice altogether! You could "blindfold her" so that she has no choice, and "take her away" without any destination in mind, consciously choosing not to choose, and leave the rest to chance.

(Be assured-- no one is advocating kidnapping. My wife, for instance, once took me somewhere without telling me where first, and we had a very nice day in Madison, Wisconsin.)

Before intellect gets another chance to rebut, the decision is made: "Maybe I think too much" wins.

This decided, Simon will never again think to much or over-analyze another situation. Possibly.


Next Song: Train in the Distance

Monday, October 31, 2011

Song About the Moon

"Blue Moon." "Moondance. "Bad Moon Rising." Not just three songs about the Moon, but three songs off the soundtrack for the Moon-centered movie An American Werewolf in London (speaking of which, Happy Hallowe'en!).

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, why are there so many songs about... the Moon? As Simon shows, the Moon can be used as a metaphor for many things.

The first verse assumes that the songwriter actually wants to write a song about the Moon itself. Well, then, one must imagine oneself actually on the Moon's surface, walking along its very "craters." Why in the "afternoon"? Because the "shadows" would be different then, and "alien."

Now, a physicist would tell you that the gravity in the Moon, small as it is, is constant, even in the afternoon. But then, a physicist would also tell you that a "knife" doesn't "jump... off the pavement." So the Moon as a whole is a place of imagination. Even well after the Moon landing, it is still a place unknown.

How unknown? As unknown as, say, Heaven. "You want to write a spiritual tune/ Presto, a song about the Moon."

But let's say that no, you don't want to write a song about the Moon, but about love, about "the heart." Well, then, "Think about the Moon before you start" anyway. Why? The heart reacts to elemental forces; it "will howl like a dog in the moonlight." And if the love is painful or betrayed, the Moon will witness this crime of passion.

In Piece Pettis' excellent song, "Trying to Stand in a Fallen World," he writes: "Bloody Moon is on the rise/ Like a Jolly Roger in the skies/ Bearing witness with its light/To another night of crime." (It's never a "day of crime.")

The light of the Moon is only a reflection of the Sun, and so the Moon reflects the idea of "ever longing for a counterpart," also like a heart.

The bridge, about a "laughing" boy and girl, seems out of place. It seems a reference to some nursery rhyme, although one I am unfamiliar with. What's even stranger, there are plenty of nursery rhymes that mention the Moon-- like the one in which the cow jumps over it-- if the idea was to show that Moon songs are part of one's life even from childhood. But then, these lines don't mention the Moon at all. Curious.

The last verse takes up the thread of songwriting again. This time, the subject is an individual, a "face." The advice this time is to think of a "photograph" that is half-remembered. You should be able to describe it, but not in any detail. The important thing is not what you remember, but how you remember it.

And then... there is a debate between the website and the liner notes. The liner notes say the line is "Wash your hands in dreams and lightning." The website and Lyrics book says the line is "Wash your hands and dreams in lightning." I am going to side with the liner notes, as this is how I have always heard the line.

Also, one regularly will "wash one's hands," so that seems to be a unified phrase, where as when does someone "wash dreams"? Something is "washed... in lightning" either way, so it makes more sense (or equally less sense!) to say that something can be "washed... in dreams" as well.

So before writing, your hands must be cleansed of reality by preparing them with deep, subconscious metaphor ("dreams") and otherworldly, electric energy ("lightning"). Then any inhibitions must be removed: "Cut off... whatever is frightening." There must be an openness, a willingness to experience the new and possibly uncomfortable discoveries you will make.

So, whatever the topic is, from one "face" to the whole "human race," you have to find an image that is familiar to all potential listeners, yet flexible enough to carry your own personal message. Might we suggest... the Moon?

The Moon can be the caring light of a lullaby, the caster of shadows in a horror tale, the resting place of angels, or the warm glow between lovers. That's why there are so many songs about the Moon, and rainbows, and other elements of Nature. We all see them, yet we each see them in our own way.


Musical Note: Some hear echoes of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home" in this track, which would not be surprising. The songs on this album tend to run in two general directions, musically. "Hearts and Bones," "Allergies," and both halves of "Think Too Much" have Latin or Caribbean influences. "Song About the Moon," "Train in the Distance," and parts of "Magritte" and ""Johnny Ace" are taken almost directly from the 1950s, sound-wise. These are two threads that have been running through Simon's songs from the outset, and they are both in full force on this album.

Next song: Think Too Much (a)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Think Too Much (b)

This second half of a diptypch is presented first. Both halves discuss the two halves of the brain, repeating the idea that "the left side... dominates the right." The left side being the logical, rational, objective half, while the right is creative, emotional, and subjective. (Similar to the idea of, respectively, Yang and Yin.)

By the language, this one seems to be the logical half, at least at first. It begins with the image of "the smartest people in the word" being "gathered" to-- and here is the key word-- "analyze" a broken love affair.

The team is as thorough as one from the forensic shows now overwhelming our televisions. The analysts didn't just look at the couple's evidence, they scrutinized it; "They sat among our photographs/ Examined every one," which took until sunrise. The result? "In the end, we compromised," a traditionally logical conclusion.

But then comes the chorus, which is only the line "Maybe I think too much," repeated. Maybe, even after all of this analytic work, analysis is not the way to approach a broken relationship, or a broken heart. Maybe overanalysis was the issue that caused some of the problem to begin with.

In "Slip-Slidin' Away," a father comes "a long way" to explain himself to his son, only to leave the son to sleep. This time, the father is more demonstrative: "In the night, my father came to me/ And held me to his chest./ He said, 'There's not much more that you can do/ Go and get some rest.'"

Getting some rest after a night of rehashing a broken love might be the logical thing to do, but only because it recognizes that hearts (and bones) have their limits. The father does more for this man than did all of "the smartest people in the world," because he does not try to analyze a problem. He simply tries to care for his son.

The son responds "Yeah, maybe I think too much." Maybe, the speaker realizes, the right response is not to overthink how overthinking his relationship led to his spending the night overthinking how it collapsed. Maybe he should just go to bed.

The song is brief, but it contains a powerful message. This time, Simon (if he is the speaker) is not "weary to his bones" after a "long, long day" of working songwriting or touring or running his office or even "weary from waiting down in Washington DC."

He is emotionally exhausted from dealing with the pain of his failed relationship. He wants to exhibit some emotion, which cannot be avoided after poring over one photo album after another, filled with images and memories. Yet all night was spent "examining" the pictures, using the wrong side of his brain. His brain, furthermore, and not his heart.

Maybe one can think "too much." Maybe sometimes the right thing to do-- the logical thing to do-- is to feel. Now it is time to "get some rest" and let the right side, the side of emotion, "labor through the long and speechless night," spinning out dreams.

This at first seems a negative thing to the speaker. In both the (b) and (a) halves of this song, the right side is said to have to "work hard" or "labor" all night, as if this were a punishment for allowing itself to be dominated.

But in both songs it's remarked that "they say" one side dominates. In these songs-- and we will have to conclude this discussion when (a) shows up two songs from now-- this conventional wisdom seems to be challenged.

So which side does Simon come down on? We'll have to see. In the meantime, don't think too much about it.

Next Song: Song About the Moon

Monday, October 17, 2011

When Numbers Get Serious

"Innumeracy" is the math-class equivalent of illiteracy. More than a lack of an ability to read, people-- especially (and increasingly) Americans-- are very "bad at math." I am sure this can be proven with, yes, numbers.

Simon starts this song, one of the few on the topic, with the line "I have a number in my head." This is a reference to the common way of helping children decide who goes first in a game-- the adult thinks of a number, and the child who guesses closest to it goes first.

It can also be a reference to the idea of an "ear-worm," a song that gets stuck in one's head, often for no apparent reason ("I don't know why it's there.") In this case, the word "number" would be slang for "song," as in, "That was a hot jazz number."

With the advent of personal computing in the 1980s (something that has been in the news again, due to the recent passing of Steve Jobs), everything seemed to be reduced to numbers. Also, the National Debt was (and remains) a very serious number. Prices, dosages, credit cards, UPC codes on products and Social Security codes for people... things are increasing labelled to be able to manage the vast amount of information necessary for the (ahem) smooth running of a complex society: "When numbers are serious/ You see their shape everywhere."

However, if all things (and even, thanks to computer imagery, pictures of things) can be reduced to 1s and 0s, what's to keep those numbers from "slip-sliding" into each other: "Dividing and multiplying/ Exchanging with ease."

Our speaker's first conclusion: "When times are mysterious/ Serious numbers are eager to please." As Mark Twain put it-- "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." You can get numbers to say just about anything you'd want, they are so eager to please.

Then, the speaker worries about a problem that today we call "identity theft": "Here’s my address/ Here’s my phone [number]/ Now, please don’t give it to some madman." With just a few numbers-- one's credit card, phone, birthdate, Social Security number, and driver's license number, even an unskilled criminal can destroy your credit rating and plummet you into debt.

The ability to manipulate numbers is both necessary and confounding: "It’s a complicated life/ Numbers swirling, thick and curious/ You can cut them with a knife." And you had better have your knife ready, for when numbers attack: "When numbers get serious/ They leave a mark on your door," branding you as unworthy of credit... or credibility.

Telephone numbers are one of the more personal sets of numbers one has-- the code to communicate with you at will: "Here's my phone/ Call me if you can." But what if they do? "Urgent! Urgent! A telephone ringing in the hallways." You had better fulfill your end of the deal, and respond when summoned.

Because the people who are masters of numbers-- including accountants, bankers, stockbrokers, economists, tax professionals, scientists, and even doctors-- seem sorcerers to the rest of us, the ability to manipulate numbers can easily turn into the ability to manipulate people. (In fact, aside from our leaders reducing people to numbers, our language does to, as in: "One could readily see that a great number had thronged to the concert.")

And so: "When times are mysterious/ Serious numbers will speak to us always." Is the market up or down? What is gold trading at? How has the unemployment rate changed, and the interest rate, and inflation? Ask the so-called financial wizards: "That is why a man with numbers/ Can put your mind at ease."

Of course, there is no shortage of numbers: "We’ve got numbers by the trillions/ Here and overseas."

The next line, were it written today, would contain the word "China," since today, "Made in China" is the new "Made in Japan" (for a while, it was also "Made in Taiwan.")

What is the escape from all this? Where is the safe place, where one's identity cannot be stolen? Maybe personal relationships: "So wrap me... In the shelter of your arms... I won’t do you any harm."

And yet, even here numbers creep in: "I will love you innumerably/ You can count on my word." Why? "When times are mysterious/ Serious numbers will always be heard." More marriages break up over money than any other reason (of course, once the divorce lawyers get involved, there is even less to go around).

Ultimately, this nightmarish dividing of reality into packets of information is meaningless. Everything is of one piece, which is a conclusion that both religious and atheist observers have reached: "After all is said and done... the two becomes a one."

Next Song: Think too Much (b)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hearts and Bones

Before we get into the song, it is important to note some dates. The song was copyrighted 1982, and the album on which it appeared was released in 1983. Paul Simon married his second wife, actor/author Carrie Fisher, in 1983, and they divorced in 1984, one month shy of their first anniversary. (True, they had dated since 1977, but still.)

So, while it is tempting to say that the song is about this couple and the dissolution of their marriage, Simon wrote it before they were married and released it before they were divorced. So it's about some other couple, or an imaginary one. Either that, or Simon predicted the ending of the marriage before he even proposed.

The opening line certainly lends itself to the speculation that the subjects are Simon and Fisher. Simon is Jewish; Fisher is Jewish on her father's side, which some count as only being "half Jewish," since Judaism is traditionally a matrilineal (passed down through the mother's side) religion.

The couple, whomever they are, are "free to wander wherever they choose" (which may be a riff on the idea of the "wandering Jew," and perhaps even the idea of the Jews being "the chosen people.") But then, during a trip to New Mexico, they choose differently from one another. (The Latinate guitars and drums of the region are heard throughout the song.)

It is significant that they are in the Sangre de Christo mountains. As the song itself explains, the range is named for the blood of Jesus, the ultimate martyr. Someone here feels that they are sacrificing themselves.

The journey is supposed to be ending; it's on its "last leg." The "arc" of their relationship is compared to a "rainbow," which is both beautiful and illusory. They are "high" in the mountains, where the air is thin and hallucinations are possible. Also, while there must have been rain for there to be rainbows, the area is a "desert" and bereft of the practical needs to sustain life. "Mountain passes," or pre-cut trails, are also becoming "stone," and more difficult to navigate. As pretty as things appear superficially, they are in fact bad and getting worse.

Then the man begins to wonder when the trouble started. He recalls a wedding that was somewhat scandalous-- "The act was outrageous"-- and the bride may have gone through with the wedding even though she was ill. She was "contagious," and she "burned" with a fever.

Either that, or her fervor caused his girlfriend, with whom he is travelling now, to catch the wedding bug: "These events may have had some effect/On the man with the girl by his side." Wait, what was the effect on him? Did her passion stir his, in turn? "His hands rolling down her hair/Love like lightning, shaking till it moans," is a very evocative phrasing (and it's better than what Simon came up with in "How the Heart Approaches": "I roll in your arms/And your voice is the heat of the night/I'm on fire.")

And then a question from her jerks our man back to now. They are already in New Mexico, so she asks him; "Why don’t we drive through the night? We’ll wake up down in Mexico.” After all, they are "free to wander," and it's just across the border.

The next bit of the conversation is muddled, at least for me. This is how I have always heard it go:

She: "Why don't we... wake up down in Mexico?"
He: "I don't know nothin' about no Mexico. And tell me why won’t you love me for who I am, where I am?”
She: “'Cause that’s not the way the world is, baby. This is how I love you, baby."

To me, this makes sense. She says, let's go. He says, I don't want to, "AND" [emphasis mine, as it seems to indicate a further thought by the same speaker] why do we need to keep moving, anyway-- love me here! She says, that's just the way I am. Take it or leave it, sorry.

Now, according to both Simon's website and the liner notes on the original LP, it goes like this:

She: "Why don’t we drive through the night? We’ll wake up down in Mexico.”
He: Oh, I don’t know nothin’ about, nothin’ no Mexico.
She: “And tell me, why won’t you love me for who I am where I am?” [Why is she asking this? She's the one that wants to love him somewhere else! Namely, Mexico! He does want to love her where they are, and not go to Mexico.]
He said: “Cause that’s not the way the world is, baby. This is how I love you, baby."

(The words "He said" are on both the site and the notes; the quotes are as depicted at the site.)

So you see my problem with this. The difference in the reading is critical. It goes to the whole point of who was not accepting, who is inflexible. In my reading, she wants to go and he wants to stop; he asks her why they keep moving and she says "just 'cause."

In the official reading, she both suggests they go and then demands to know why they should go. Which I hold makes no sense. And if she is making no sense, why does he accept the blame for being inflexible about going when she is the one who wanted to go?! Instead of saying, "But you were the one who wanted to go!"

Anyway, they break up. They "returned to their natural coasts." If this were about Simon and Fisher (which it does not seem to be), he would go back to New York and she would head back to LA. In any case, they "resume old acquaintances" and date other people. Again, if this were about the couple people think it is, the line "speculate who had been damaged the most" would refer to her novels and his songs, each of which are at least semi-autobiographical and mention the other.

The line "easy time will determine if these consolations"-- their friends, dating, and artistic pursuits-- "will be their reward" reminds me of line in a Shawn Colvin song, about what her friends say after each breakup: "At least you got a song out of it."

And is it over? No. The "arc" that began in rainbows and peaked in sensuous lovemaking is now a broken bridge "waiting to be restored."

And now, on the last leg of this song's journey, we learn what the title and refrain are about: "You take two bodies and you twirl them into one/Their hearts and their bones/And they won’t come undone." The idea of "hearts" being an image of love is popular enough... but Simon adds "bones."

"Bone of my bone," Adam calls Eve, and indeed she is made of his bone. "I feel it in my bones," is a deeper, more intuitive sense than "I know it in my heart." Under all of the "flesh and blood," the very core of your physical being is bone. (How bad is George Thorogood? "Bad to the bone.")

It's not just "hearts" and emotions here. It's physicality and bones that are intermingled, and inextricably so.

This is one of Simon's prettiest and saddest songs. It is about how each love and loss shapes a person, potentially forever.

"Didn't it work out all right in the end?" Ozymandias asks Dr. Manhattan in the graphic novel The Watchmen. "End?" the supernatural superhero replies. "Nothing ever ends."


IMPACT:
The song did not chart, but the album did make the top 100 in the US and throughout Europe, and even Japan and Australia. It reached #3 in Norway, the Top 20 in Sweden, The Netherlands, and France, and the Top 40 in Switzerland, Japan, the UK, and the US.

Next Song: When Numbers Get Serious

Hearts and Bones

Before we get into the song, it is important to note some dates. The song was copyrighted 1982, and the album on which it appeared was released in 1983. Paul Simon married his second wife, actor/author Carrie Fisher, in 1983, and they divorced in 1984, one month shy of their first anniversary. (True, they had dated since 1977, but still.)

So, while it is tempting to say that the song is about this couple and the dissolution of their marriage, Simon wrote it before they were married and released it before they were divorced. So it's about some other couple, or an imaginary one. Either that, or Simon predicted the ending of the marriage before he even proposed.

The opening line certainly lends itself to the speculation that the subjects are Simon and Fisher. Simon is Jewish; Fisher is Jewish on her father's side, which some count as only being "half Jewish," since Judaism is traditionally a matrilineal (passed down through the mother's side) religion.

The couple, whomever they are, are "free to wander wherever they choose" (which may be a riff on the idea of the "wandering Jew," and perhaps even the idea of the Jews being "the chosen people.") But then, during a trip to New Mexico, they choose differently from one another. (The Latinate guitars and drums of the region are heard throughout the song.)

It is significant that they are in the Sangre de Christo mountains. As the song itself explains, the range is named for the blood of Jesus, the ultimate martyr. Someone here feels that they are sacrificing themselves.

The journey is supposed to be ending; it's on its "last leg." The "arc" of their relationship is compared to a "rainbow," which is both beautiful and illusory. They are "high" in the mountains, where the air is thin and hallucinations are possible. Also, while there must have been rain for there to be rainbows, the area is a "desert" and bereft of the practical needs to sustain life. "Mountain passes," or pre-cut trails, are also becoming "stone," and more difficult to navigate. As pretty as things appear superficially, they are in fact bad and getting worse.

Then the man begins to wonder when the trouble started. He recalls a wedding that was somewhat scandalous-- "The act was outrageous"-- and the bride may have gone through with the wedding even though she was ill. She was "contagious," and she "burned" with a fever.

Either that, or her fervor caused his girlfriend, with whom he is travelling now, to catch the wedding bug: "These events may have had some effect/ On the man with the girl by his side." Wait, what was the effect on him? Did her passion stir his, in turn? "His hands rolling down her hair/ Love like lightning, shaking till it moans," is a very evocative phrasing (and it's better than what Simon came up with in "How the Heart Approaches": "I roll in your arms/ And your voice is the heat of the night/ I'm on fire.")

And then a question from her jerks our man back to now. They are already in New Mexico, so she asks him; "Why don’t we drive through the night? We’ll wake up down in Mexico.” After all, they are "free to wander," and Mexico is just across the border.

The next bit of the conversation is muddled, at least for me. This is how I have always heard it go:

She: "Why don't we... wake up down in Mexico?"
He: "I don't know nothin' about no Mexico. And tell me why won’t you love me for who I am, where I am?”
She: “'Cause that’s not the way the world is, baby. This is how I love you, baby."

To me, this makes sense. She says, let's go. He says, I don't want to, "AND" [emphasis mine, as it seems to indicate a further thought by the same speaker] why do we need to keep moving, anyway-- love me here! She says, that's just the way I am. Take it or leave it, sorry.

Now, according to both Simon's website and the liner notes on the original LP, it goes like this:

She: "Why don’t we drive through the night? We’ll wake up down in Mexico.”
He: Oh, I don’t know nothin’ about, nothin’ no Mexico.
She: “And tell me, why won’t you love me for who I am where I am?” [Why is she asking this? She's the one that wants to love him somewhere else! Namely, Mexico! He does want to love her where they are... and not go to Mexico.]
He said: “Cause that’s not the way the world is, baby. This is how I love you, baby."

(The words "He said" are on both the site and the notes; the quotes are as depicted at the site.)

So you see my problem with this. The difference in the reading is critical. It goes to the whole point of who was not accepting, who is inflexible. In my reading, she wants to go and he wants to stop; he asks her why they keep moving and she says "just 'cause."

In the official reading, she both suggests they go and then demands to know why they should go. Which I hold makes no sense. And if she is making no sense (as people sometimes do), why does he accept the blame for being inflexible about going when she is the one who wanted to go?! Instead of saying, "But you were the one who wanted to go!"

Anyway, they break up. They "returned to their natural coasts." If this were about Simon and Fisher (which it does not seem to be), he would go back to New York and she would head back to LA. In any case, they "resume old acquaintances" and date other people. Again, if this were about the couple people think it is, the line "speculate who had been damaged the most" would refer to her novels and his songs, each of which are at least semi-autobiographical and mention the other.

The line "easy time will determine if these consolations"-- their friends, dating, and artistic pursuits-- "will be their reward" reminds me of line in a Shawn Colvin song, about what her friends say after each breakup: "At least you got a song out of it."

And is it over? No. The "arc" that began in rainbows and peaked in sensuous lovemaking is now a broken bridge "waiting to be restored."

And now, on the last leg of this song's journey, we learn what the title and refrain are about: "You take two bodies and you twirl them into one/ Their hearts and their bones/ And they won’t come undone." The idea of "hearts" being an image of love is popular enough... but Simon adds "bones."

"Bone of my bone," Adam calls Eve, and indeed she is made of his bone. "I feel it in my bones," is a deeper, more intuitive sense than "I know it in my heart." Under all of the "flesh and blood," the very core of your physical being is bone. (How bad is George Thorogood? "Bad to the bone.")

It's not just "hearts" and emotions here. It's physicality and bones that are intermingled, and inextricably so.

This is one of Simon's prettiest and saddest songs. It is about how each love and loss shapes a person, potentially forever.

"Didn't it work out all right in the end?" Ozymandias asks Dr. Manhattan in the graphic novel The Watchmen. "End?" he supernatural superhero replies, "Nothing ever ends."


IMPACT:
The song did not chart, but the album did make the top 100 in the US and throughout Europe, and even Japan and Australia. It reached #3 in Norway, the Top 20 in Sweden, The Netherlands, and France, and the Top 40 in Switzerland, Japan, the UK, and the US.

Next Song: When Numbers Get Serious

Monday, October 3, 2011

Allergies

There have been many songs that relate the emotional condition of love to a physical condition or even illness. But this may be the first to liken love to an allergic reaction.

Actually, love itself is not the allergen-- the woman in question is: "...my heart is allergic/ To the women I love." This is not just a case of society or family keeping lovers apart. It's our speaker's own body physically rejecting what his heart emotionally wants. (It has happened that someone has an allergic reaction to another person; often its that person's perfume or pet that's the culprit. But rarely, even one's body chemistry can trigger an allergic response in another.)

What about his brain? It's on the side of his heart: "My head intercedes with my bodily needs/ And my body won’t give it a break." And that makes it worse, because if he could logically determine that this is a problem, he might be able to address it. Instead, his mind is part of the problem.

Also, it's not just one woman. It's all the "women" he loves. So this isn't about one woman being wrong for him. It's all women, so the problem must lie with him.

On a biographical note, this is Simon's "breakup album" upon the end of his brief marriage to Carrie Fisher. The fact that it is his second divorce might lead to the pluralization of the word to "women."

Now, an allergic reaction is an auto-immune response and is not the same thing as a parasite or infection. Nevertheless, it at least feels to him like "Something’s living on my skin."

He tries medical interventions: "Doctor, please/ Open up, it’s me again." He even seeks the care of out-of-town specialists: "I go to a famous physician/ I sleep in the local hotel." (Maybe he needs a psychologist instead?)

But nothing helps: "the people like me/ We get better/ But we never get well." As it happens, this simple thought is one the stronger lines in a relatively weak song.

Even as a novelty song, it is somewhat thin-- Simon has been much funnier ("Pleasure Machine" springs to mind). This next one-liner falls particularly flat: "Where do allergies go/ When it’s after a show/ And they want to get something to eat?" (The drum even responds with a "ba-dum-bum" sting, as if it were a joke.)

The concept that is less explored, brought up by the pun "Maladies/Melodies," might have been worth exploring on its own-- the idea that the compulsion to make music is a form of sickness.

And the idea of being physically unable to be with someone you emotionally desire a worthwhile topic to deal with in a song. But that song is not this song. Here, the topic is raised and discussed, but never really explored.

We meet someone with a medical condition, we learn of his symptoms and treatment, but we don't get to know its mental impact. It would be like a song about a cancer patient that merely recites the chemotherapy schedule. Actually, such a song, which would reflect the patient's feeling of being reduced to a series of dates and dosages, might prove a more effective piece.

Even as a throwaway, this song does not rise to the wise flippancy of "Have a Good Time," the goofy fun of "We Got a Groovey Thing Going," or the wry shrug of "Papa Hobo."

But seriously, folks-- "Allergies to dust and grain" was not a lyric that needed to be sung.

Next song: Hearts and Bones

Monday, September 26, 2011

Groundhog

This track is both obscure and highly pedigreed. It appears on a solo album by Peter Yarrow (of Peter Paul and Mary) titled That's Enough for Me. Members of The Band play on the track as well.

"Livin’ a hobo’s life’s not the/ Glamour that it seems/ It’s a drag at the end of the day." This sentiment seems to run counter to the many other Simon songs in which he complains about feeling overworked and wishes for a more leisurely pace.

The first lines are slightly off: "Ask the groundhog/ Diggin’ for a hole." Why is he digging to find a hole? Doesn't he create a hole by the act of digging itself? Why digging "for" a hole, and not just "diggin' a hole," or if he needed another beat, "diggin' him a hole"? In any case, the industrious groundhog is contrasted with "the dog who’s gone astray," and presumably is not digging for a bone.

As for the speaker, "I’m diggin’ down/ Beneath my pride," and is about to reveal something deeply personal below his surface: "I get the blues all morning/ Morning is my best time of the day." This could mean two things: One, he enjoys being miserable; or two, his merely bluesy mornings are nothing compared with how abjectly depressed he gets as the day wears on.

The next line refers to yet another animal, a racehorse: "Stanley Dancer took my money/ Call it an off night at the track." Wait, it gets worse-- it wasn't his money to begin with: "Give me that one sweet chance/ To salvage our romance/ And I’ll pay every cent of it back."

This is a terrible negotiator. He takes her money and loses it at the track. Rather than say, "If I pay it back, will you give our love another chance?" his ploy is "If you take me back, then I'll pay you back." At this point, Stanley Dancer is a better bet.

If our speaker knows that "the hobo's life" isn't worth living, it must be from experience. He's certainly tried it.

He's not done trying to win her back. His next move is the old "Only you can save me! How can you not?" routine: "Pull my life-line...Open your heart... Now that I need a helping hand/ Would you take your baby home."

OK, let's follow his logic: He needs a "helping hand" because he's broke. He's broke because he owes her money. He owes her money because he stole her money and gambled it away. Is she supposed to forget that part?

Well, yeah! "Touch my loyalties," he pleads, "Honey don’t treat your man this way." As if he was the one done wrong by her breaking up with him, as if his "loyalties" have been to her... and not to Stanley Dancer, the no-trick pony.

There is an old Jewish joke about the definition of the word "chutzpah": Imagine a man who kills his parents, then begs the court for mercy because he's an orphan.

Now, this guy didn't kill anybody, but the groundhog is not the one here digging himself in deeper.

Musical Note: This song was left off of the Bridge album.

Next Song: Allergies

Monday, September 19, 2011

Slow Man

I admit that before researching this blog I had not heard of this song. It does not appear on any album, or in any concert, or in any compilation, or even in any sheet music that I have come across. Still, there it is on Simon's official website (albeit with "gate" when "gait" is meant), and so here it is in this post.

Simon has many songs about being tired and overworked ("Long Long Day"). He also has several songs about the effort wasted in clumsiness contrasted with the ease of grace ("One-Trick Pony"). Here, he has a song that contrasts moving slowly with rushing around.

The subject here is a "Slow man," who "is movin’ with a leisurely gait." What is the source of his relaxed attitude? He is nonchalant, in that he has no "chalance" at all ("chalant" is the French word for "hot"; somehow they intuited at that heat and speed were related prior to the thermodynamic theory of molecular motion which proved it). “It doesn’t matter to me/ It doesn’t matter at all,” says the Slow Man.

Then Simon turns a cliche around on itself. "I got a feelin’," he begins. "A feeling that what?" the listener naturally wonders, "That tonight's gonna be a good night?"

No, simpler that that. "I got a feelin'/ That’s all I need." Wait... what's all he needs? Why, the feeling! And whatever the emotion may be, it sustains him.

"Sittin’ in the sun/ Doesn’t worry ’bout the chance of rain/ Slow man/ With the suntan/ Got no reason to complain." This is in marked difference with, say, the equally motionless protagonist of "Stittn' on the Dock of the Bay," who sadly wishes he did have a purpose or future.

Next, the speaker reveals himself: "But I’m workin’ at a furious pace/ From the mornin’ ’til the end of the day/ Me, oh Lord, look at these lines upon my face/ I got to figure out a better way." Which is a state (assuming the song is autobiographical) that Simon often seems to find himself in.

The next line is befuddling, and we can only assume Simon was searching for a rhyme for "home": "Slow man/ Purchases a comb/ Though he doesn't have a wisp of hair." This seems out of character for the Slow Man. If he is short of cash, he still has to eat, so why waste even a penny on a comb he, in the words of the old joke, will never part with? If he is truly unconcerned about everything, how can he care about his appearance? He doesn't even seem to have the gumption to be ironic. It seems a throw-away idea.

The last thing we learn about the Slow Man is that he "Doesn’t own a home." While he might rent, this does not seem to be the implication. Nor does the Slow Man consider himself, in the socio-economic sense of the word, "homeless." Instead, he is a drifter-- someone who is a conscientious objector with regard to the idea of a domicile altogether. While is not a homeowner, the Slow Man feels "comfortable everywhere."

The song concludes with the Slow Man offering some wisdom to our harried speaker: “You got to get the slow in your life.” Years later, Jame Taylor would opine that "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time," which seems a related idea. Another song with the same message is "Inchworm," which encouraged the inchworm so busy "measuring the marigolds" to instead "stop and see how beautiful they are."

There is a basic premise, in Western thought, that action must mean progress and industry, and that idleness by definition is a waste of time. Many non-European philosophies, however, disagree. They emphasize meditation and letting the mind wander.

The artist must embrace both concepts. Industriousness is necessary to create, and inspiration can certainly arise out of activity. But there must also be moments set aside for contemplation, relaxation, and as we say today, "recharging one's batteries" (itself a metaphor that likens people to machines). A writer must also read; a singer must also listen. "Inspiration" also means simply "breathing in."

While even the Slow Man does not suggest his lifestyle is fit for everyone, he does recommend that people take at least a small dose of his medicine and "get the slow in their lives." In other words, they should "slow down," as they "move too fast."

They should try being "Cloudy," so they can start "Feelin' Groovy."


Next Song: Groundhog

Monday, September 12, 2011

Slip Slidin' Away

[Note to Readers: These next several posts, before we head on into the Hearts and Bones album, will be dedicated to some of Simon's material which was written before this point, but did not appear on any of the regular albums up to this point. So expect to discover some lost treasures .]

In keeping with the chronological idea of this blog, this song should have been discussed before One-Trick Pony. It was intended for Still Crazy and now appears (albeit in demo form) on the CD reissue of that disc.

It was first released on Greatest Hits, Etc., and was the lead-off track on that compilation, which was issued in 1977, two years after Still Crazy and three years before Pony.

So, if this blog ever turns into a book, the order will be: "Silent Eyes" (the last track of Still Crazy), then "Slip Slidin' Away" and "Stranded in a Limosine"... and then "Late in the Evening" (the first track of Pony).

That bit of housekeeping taken care of, on with the show...

This song is an expansion of John Lennon's dictum, "Life is what happens when we're making other plans," or the expression "Man plans and God laughs" (which is found in Yiddish, but I can't believe exclusively.)

It has a nihilistic theme that presages the Kansas song "Dust in the Wind"... and an episodic structure that prefigures Springsteen's "Glory Days" (further, both songs first present a man, then a woman, then a father [in a lesser-known concert version of the Springsteen song], then a philosophical conclusion).

The song begins, in fact, with this famous chorus: "Slip slidin’ away/ You know the nearer your destination/ The more you’re slip slidin’ away." Often, Simon is not so declarative of the message of his song.

First, we meet a man who is a martyr when it comes to love. The first clue to this Christ imagery is the word "passion," which at first we think just means "lustful affection." But then comes the image of the "crown of thorns" Jesus was forced to wear during the Crucifixion, which causes us to reinterpret the idea of "passion" to also mean something more like a "Passion Play."

In his protestation, he explains that his love for her is so intense, he is in danger of losing his sense of self: "My love for you’s so overpowering/ I’m afraid that I will disappear." So, the "nearer" he gets to her, the more his self "slips away." Imagine an ice cube in love with a lit candle-- the closer it gets, the smaller it becomes, until it is no longer ice at all, let alone a cube.

The second verse is about a woman who lives in regret. She has already lost herself. She's not a woman who "got married," she "became a wife." As if that meant she was no longer a "woman" unto herself, but now defined by her relationship to a man. A good day, to her, is not even one that is "sunny," but simply one that "ain’t got no rain,” which is a pretty low standard for nice weather. Meanwhile, when it does rain and she is stuck in the house (because she can't buy a raincoat or umbrella?), she simply wallows in regret: "I lie in bed/ And think of things that might have been.”

In her case, she is not in process of "slidin' away"; it may be fair to say she has already slid. She is not beyond hope, however, as she is aware of her situation, and may someday grow tired of it and reassert her own identity.

Now, the man and woman in the first two verses speak. The third verse presents a father who intends to, but does not: "He came a long way/ Just to explain/ He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping/ Then he turned around and headed home again."

His silence is immense. The child does not even know that his father was there. We can only imagine that the "boy" in question is relatively young to receive that appellation, and is not married in any case. Is he a child or teen, still living with his post-divorce mother? Probably. The other possibility is that the son lives alone, in which case, he is in college or is working and living in an apartment. But how did he fall asleep and leave the apartment door unlocked for his father to enter? Did his roommate let his dad in?

The first scenario seems more likely-- a wayward father (maybe like the one in Springsteen's "Hungry Heart") returns, wants to explain himself, then considers the possibility that the son has gotten over him and that his return will only prove disruptive. Who is he doing this unburdening for, anyway? If it's for himself, maybe he should leave well enough alone. Certainly, waking a child up with, "Hi, remember me, your dad? Anyway, here's why I left. OK, then... back to sleep, now," is not something any therapist would recommend.

He has reached his "destination," only to realize that the distance between himself and his son is not measured in miles (or kilometers); he is right there, yet as far away as ever.

The last verse is the "...and God laughs" part. The key word here is "gliding." Not "driving"; we are at least self-aware enough to know we are not in control. But we do believe we are savvy enough to ride the road like an albatross does the air currents or a surfer does the waves-- able to change with the curves and even use them to increase our forward momentum... to "glide."

Even this level of control, Simon explains, is an illusion: "God makes his plan/ The information’s unavailable/ To the mortal man" (think of God's response to Job: "Were you there when I made the universe?"). We think we are headed toward our "destination," say, in our career or financial plan. But no, even as we reach our retirement or monetary goals, overcoming the curves in the road, we are missing the point.

We spend our time planning when we have no control over God's plan for us. We have no control over natural disasters or elections or wars or Wall Street or diseases or accidents or most other things. We can be "gliding down the highway" in entirely the wrong direction, but it matters not, as we will ended up where we were Intended to be regardless.

This song is about providence and predetermination. It is about fortune and fate... even fatalism. It's beautiful, yet a very sad and resigned shrug about mortality and the futility of human action. Everyone in the song tries for a goal and not only misses it but loses him- or herself in the process of aiming for it altogether. People lose themselves in the pursuit of love, stability, or money; even the father who went off to find himself now only sees what he lost in doing so.

This post began with a suggestion of which songs this one influenced, but writers as early as King Solomon concluded: "...all is vanity, and striving after wind."

IMPACT:
Amazingly, for such a somber number-- and one without a proper album to support it at that-- the song went to #5 in the US. It remains a radio mainstay, even if it is still only available on compilations (and, of course, online).

Along with "Fifty ways to leave your lover," "Mrs. Robinson," "Bridge over troubled water," and "Still crazy after all these years," the phrase "Slip slidin' away" has become part of the American linguistic landscape.

Next Song: Slow Man

Monday, September 5, 2011

Stranded in a Limosine

Yes, Simon uses the American spelling, not "limousine."

The song is less about the major character, the "mean individual" in question, and more about the reaction he engenders. Throughout most of the song, he is inert, "stranded," and without action or even a face. All he seems to have is a bad reputation and a nice car.

Some questions can be immediately raised by the title. How, exactly, does one get "stranded" in a vehicle? Can't it just, you know, move? Say it was immobilized due to mechanical failure. The passenger is still not paralyzed; he can leave the limo and proceed by foot, taxi, or bus.

And the location of this stranding is odd, too-- a "green" traffic light. Wouldn't that normally mean the chauffeur would press the accelerator and continue the trip?

Next, the first to react are the children "on the street." Are they actually on the street, playing hopscotch and stickball? No, they "come running out the... door," meaning they had been inside their homes. They just live "on the street" where the limo has halted. And enough were looking out their windows so that "all" of them burst from their homes at once. Had they been watching the news, being told by the anchorpeople to look out the window for suspicious luxury automobiles? They run to tell their parents, who are back inside.

It isn't even day, actually. The "individual" vanishes "in the black of night," presumably in the short time-- less than 10 minutes, say-- between when the children alert their parents to his presence and when the "sirens and flashing lights" arrive. So it would have had to have been night already when the "light turned green."

The parents react by swarming, loudly-- they all cried "Lord, Lord!"-- to the scene. The "individual," we now learn, is not just "mean" but a wanted criminal with a "reward" offered for his capture.

So, here is what the police (who show up too late) would piece together... It's night time. Late enough for it to be "black" outside. A black limo pulls up to a red light. The light turns green. The limo does not move. All the children who live on that block, being awake and at their windows way past bedtime, see the black limo in the darkness. They also know whose it is. Excitedly, they run outside to see it closer, then back inside to tell their parents.

The parents, now aware that a wanted criminal is nearby, abandon their children and race to the limo. They are sure that this wanted, wealthy, "mean," and even "naturally crazy" man will simply submit to their citizens' arrest. And not, for instance, have his henchmen step outside the limo with their automatic weapons and start spraying bullets around.

The police, having ascertained what happened, and assume that the "perp" has "left the neighborhood." So instead of tracking him outside the area, they "search the roofs" inside the area. Now, peering down from the high vantage of the roofs might make sense to spot a fleeing person... but these officers search the rooftops themselves, as if the escapee might be up there.

They also "checked the groups," as if this man, whom everyone knew was wanted and was eager to turn in, had insinuated himself with whoever is hanging out in groups at midnight.

By which I mean to say... none of this makes any sense. "Punky's Dilemma" made no sense either, but it did not pretend, or portend, to. This story is told as if it were a true crime report, or an episode of a cop show (compare to another song about a mean individual who runs into trouble, say "Bad Bad Leroy Brown"). And yet, taken individually and together, none of the plot points hold up.

We can only assume the entire song is a massive allegory. A dictator holed up in his palace can be seen as being "stranded in a limosine." The light turning "green" might mean that a revolution has begun. First, the "children on the street," the locals who have no real power, react by calling attention to the situation. Then various authorities-- in politics, academics, the media, etc.-- elbow their way into the spotlight, coming to "divvy up the reward" for predicting the outcome. And then the military-- the US, UN, NATO, what have you-- show up too late, and the dictator has slipped their grasp.

"Stranded in a Limosine" was copyrighted in 1980, and I am not sure which then-current "mean individual" is being referred to. No one dictator, or particular person, is meant. It could as easily be a rapacious executive, a drug cartel kingpin, a philandering politician, a mob boss, a tribal warlord, or any other powerful yet "crazy" person who repeatedly eludes his captors. At first, they are "stranded in a limosine," yet within moments, they "vanish."

Musically, the song is gospel in flavor, yet I cannot imagine an actual gospel group choosing this number to sing on Sunday morning.

IMPACT:
I always figured this song was rather obscure, but folksinger Michelle Shocked performs it on her (initially bootleg) album The Texas Campfire Tapes.

It originally appeared on Simon's compilation album Greatest Hits, Etc., and can be considered one of the songs meant by "Etc." as all but one other was already a hit. And the other song did become a hit in its own right, and it is the next song we will consider (see below).

"Stranded" can now be found as a bonus track to the One-Trick Pony soundtrack, which is why we discuss it now.

Personal observation:
Monty Python has an album called Contractual Obligation, and that might as well have been the title of Greatest Hit, Etc. too. Simon released it to finish out his contract with Columbia, before signing to Warner Brothers.

Now, I cannot prove this next idea, and I do not as a rule cotton to conspiracy theories. But when Simon began to create his CD box set at Warner, he went back and asked Columbia for the master tapes from his S&G albums. Columbia said they couldn't find them. All five sets of songs, from all five official S&G albums. Again, it could be sheer incompetence, but how do you lose that? Seems to me more like a case of: "Oh, you need us now, do you? Sorry, can't help!"

Simon had kept some of the original pressings of his S&G albums as souvenirs. He opened the shrink wrap and used them as masters for his box set. To this day, I have no idea if the S&G master tapes have ever been "found." They seem to have "vanished in the black of night."

Next Song: Slip Slidin' Away

Monday, August 29, 2011

All Because of You

As the first musical notes indicate, this is the early version of the song that became "Oh, Marion." It even contains the idea of love being an "easy game" for others. In the original incarnation, the line read: "...another lover/ Is an easy game."

Simon begins with an idea recycled from "Run that Body Down": "I went to my doctor." While the doctor might be able to help with a heartburn or even a heart attack, he cannot help with what the speaker has, which is heartbreak: "It’s all because of you/ It’s all because of you wouldn't say 'I do.'"

The doctor is no help, so he tries the drugstore. Or perhaps, the "drugstore," because one does not generally ask a pharmacist "Do the drugs on me," but a pusher. Again, this health-care provider demurs.

"Ain’t nobody loves me/ Nobody needs my love," our lovelorn speaker laments. Not only is he not the recipient of love, no one wants to be the recipient of his. Of course, the only one he knows this for certain about is the woman who would not accept his marriage proposal. Also, it could be that other women are steering clear of someone so clearly "on the rebound."

Then Simon comes up with a line he will use later: "This my only life." This is a cosmopolitan, existential disavowal of reincarnation/resurrection, which rather than comforting him with its enlightenment leads to a sense of mortality and despair. It shows up again as a line in "The Coast" on Rhythm of the Saints as "This is the only life" (and the variant "This is a lonely life.")

Frustrated with Western medicine, our despondent speaker turns to "alternative" or "traditional" cures: "So I went to the gypsy woman." While the word "Gypsy" is today considered offensive (and perhaps always was) and the preferred term is Rroma, the image of the kerchief-topped crone bending over a crystal ball is common in rock music, from "Madame Ruth/ The Gypsy with the gold-capped tooth" in "Love Potion #9" (originally by The Clovers) to Springsteen's line in "Sandy": "Well, the cops finally busted Madame Marie/ For telling fortunes better than they do."

The psychic admits, "I ain’t got no potions and no special kind of weed," but at least has some useful advice: "Go away, take a weekend or two." Staying where he is, brooding on the breakup, is not working, so perhaps a change of scene is in order.

The bridge explains why our Romeo is so beside himself, why his "brain’s all messed up." It's bad enough that his lover would not say "I do" and seems to have either rejected his marriage proposal or, worse, left him at the altar. But she won't break up with him, either: "...you would not say we’re through."

Although one has to wonder why the marriage rejection is not seen, in and of itself, as a break-up.

Perhaps Simon realized this and decided on a thorough rewrite of the song. He saved the medical metaphors in "Oh, Marion," writing about a "heart that beats on the opposite side," and a even reference to "brains," although it now means "intelligence" instead of "emotional state." Rather than being a song about a man who is troubled by a vexing woman-- a common song subject-- it is now about being a vexing man, who at least appreciates that he might be difficult to tolerate. A much more uncommon subject, indeed.

Next song: Stranded in a Limosine