Monday, January 31, 2011

Tenderness

"Response songs" are songs that respond to others' hits. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" is a response, for example, to Neil Young's "Southern Man" (read the lyrics to both-- Young's first-- and see). The response, interestingly, was a much bigger hit.

Liz Phair's CD Exile in Guyville is a song-by-song response to The Rolling Stones' album Exile on Main Street. There are even band who give themselves response names, like The Celibate Rifles... a response to The Sex Pistols.

So my theory is that Billy Joel's "Honesty" is a response to Paul Simon's "Tenderness." Consider:

Simon writes, in a song released in 1975:
"You say you care for me
But there's no tenderness
Beneath your honesty"

Billy Joel, in a 1978 song, seems to respond:
"If you search for tenderness [emphasis mine]
it isn't hard to find...
Honesty [emphasis mine] is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you."

Even if Joel did not have Simon's song in mind, it is very interesting to compare the two. Simon wants honesty, yes, but doesn't want it bluntly. Joel, meanwhile, asks his listener to spare the "tenderness" and just give it to him straight.

Interestingly, Simon wrote about a Boxer-- while, before his musical career-- Joel was a boxer. I'm not a psychologist, but I think if you can take a shot to the face, you're the kind of person who prefers directness.

Joel goes so far as to associate pulling one's verbal punches with dishonesty: "I don't want some pretty face to tell me pretty lies." But Simon pre-empts this argument-- that "tenderness" is somehow inherently dishonest-- with the line: "You don't have to lie to me/ Just give me some tenderness beneath your honesty."

Another point Simon makes is that arguing is not necessarily, well, necessary. "Right and wrong/ Never helped us get along," he states, explaining that you can "agree to disagree," as the sayings go, and even "disagree without being disagreeable." What if both are right?

There is an old Jewish joke: A rabbi is acting as marriage counselor and agrees to see a couple, but one at a time. The wife carries on about the husband, and the rabbi nods, over and over: "You're right! Of course, you're right." In his session, the rabbi tells the husband: "Yes, you're right. What can I say-- you're right!" After they leave, the rabbi's assistant, who heard it all, asks: "Not to be rude, Rabbi, but how can they both be right?" To which the rabbi responds: "You know what-- you're right!"

Simon adds, in his song: "You say you care for me/ But there's no tenderness." The listener is not very caring in the way she (or he) shows caring.

Simon also does something that Joel does not, which is hold forth an olive branch: "You and me could make amends/ I'm not worried." In this, one wonders if "Tenderness" is not, perhaps, itself a response to The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out," which doesn't get at the way the discussion happens, just asks that it might to begin with.

"Honesty/ It's such a waste of energy," concludes Simon. If he is supposed to change because of the criticism being leveled at him, well, a barrage is not going to do anything but make him buttress his defensive fortress. He is trying to help the other person help him; "If you say it nicely, I will be much more receptive and likely to alter the behavior of mine you find problematic."

Aesop's fables includes the one in which the Wind and Sun wager as to which could make a traveler remove his coat more quickly. The Wind's attempts to blow off the coat only result in the man pulling his coat tighter. The Sun's warming rays, however, soon coax the man to remove the coat himself.

In other words, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So try some honey, Honey.


Musical Note: This song features wordless, doo-wop backup vocals by the gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds. If they sound familiar, it is because in the last track of this album, they show up again on "Love Me Like a Rock."

On his last line, Simon briefly leaves off the smooth vocal style that he has carried throughout the song to soar into a gospel mode, a nod to the group's preferred style.


Next Song: Take Me to the Mardi Gras

Monday, January 24, 2011

Kodachrome

This is a sardonic song about the dual nature of nostalgia.

We tend, as a species, to look at at the days of our youth through rose-colored glasses. We speak lovingly of "back in the day" as "the good ol' days," singing: "Those were the days." As other songwriters said, "It's the laughter we will remember/ whenever we remember/ the way we were."

Other songwriters... not Mr. Simon.

When our speaker remembers "high school," he remembers it as an empty experience. What he did learn was "crap," and the method of thinking that was encouraged was so poor that today, "It's a wonder [he] can think at all."

The lousy grammar of the next two lines proves his point. He says, "didn't hurt me none," which is not only a double negative but has an extra word. What he should have said was "My lack of education didn't hurt me." But adding the extra/wrong word to a sentence about how he was not hurt by his lack of education, Simon cracks a joke; obviously, he was hurt in that regard. It would be akin to saying: "I'm not as dumb as you think I are."

The next line is even more convoluted, its content being: Even though he wasn't hurt by his lack of education, he still can read. Come again? Of course, if his lack of education didn't hurt him, he can read. If his lack of education had hurt him, then he couldn't read. Well, like he said, "It's a wonder [he] can think at all."

And what can he read? "The writing on the wall." This could be a reference to "Sound of Silence," with its line: "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls." Or to "Underground Wall," where we learned what that word of "four letters" was likely to be. However, I think we should just take the line at face value for its common, cliched meaning: "Even though I was poorly educated, I can tell what's going to happen." (The original "writing on the wall" was done in the biblical Book of Daniel.)

In the next verse, we see another snub of nostalgia. First, think of a song like the Willie Nelson/ Julio Iglesias duet "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." Now read our lyrics here.

All the girls this guy has loved before can "never match [his] sweet imagination." If he really got to see them again, now, he knows he would remember not the great times they shared... but the reasons they broke up.

So what is better than memory? Photographs. With their "nice, bright colors" they "make you think all the world's a sunny day."

He knows that he is so realistic that if he relied only on his memories, he'd only have bad ones.

So there are two possible reasons why he "love[s] to take a photograph." One may be that the photographs help him remember that good things have also happened to him, and that his life was not all years wasted in high school and disappointing relationships.

The other is that, in the words of a current pop hit, he "loves the way [they] lie." He knows that the photos are only the best images of the best times, that they are selectively happy. No one takes a camera to school or work-- they take one to amusement parks and parties. But he wants-- and needs-- that lie.

He asks us not to "take [his] Kodachrome away" because without their comforting lies, the way they make all the world "bright" and "sunny," life is disappointing, dull, and gray. And "everything looks worse in black and white." (Interestingly, the concert version of the lyrics says they look "better" this way.)

There is a lot of literature about the necessity of a comforting lie, perhaps none as pointed as Ibsen's play The Wild Duck. In order to appease an elderly relative who, in his dementia, thinks he is on a perpetual duck hunt, the family hides a wooden decoy in their apartment every day so that he can find it. This is the obvious lie.

The man of the house, meanwhile, is working on some sort of invention that will never work. While this seems more respectable than looking for a toy duck every day, it is ultimately as futile a pursuit. Again, the family humors one of its members, as it makes him happy.

And then the man's friends secretly debate as to whether to reveal to the man that his doting daughter in not, in fact, his biological child. One friend says the truth has the highest value; the other says no-- his relationship with his daughter is. The truth would destroy his marriage as well.

When our speaker "think[s] back on high school, he knows it was "crap." When he thinks back on his past girlfriends, he knows now he could have done better.

But he "love[s] to take a photograph," so please, don't take his film away. He has to take pictures of what's going on now, so he can (mis)remember it later.

(It would be interesting to do a side-by-side comparison of this song to the short "Bookends Theme," also about the relationship between "photograph[s]" and "memories.")


NOTE:
Kodak has bowed to the digital-photography revolution and, in spring of 2009, announced it would no longer manufacture the Kodachrome line of film. The film stock itself is now... nostalgia.


IMPACT:
The song was a significant hit, going to #2 in the US and #1 in Canada.

But it was not released as a radio single in the UK due to the British broadcasters' unwillingness to air any song with a brand name in it.

It was covered by soul singer Percy Faith, best known for "When a Man Loves a Woman."

Next Song: Tenderness

Monday, January 17, 2011

Congratulations

Divorce rates in the US spiked in the early 1970s. Simon would divorce his first wife, Peggy Harper, in 1975, three years after this album came out.

But in 1972, when it was released, they were still married, so this song about divorce is not about Simon's own. It sounds like it is about a friend's-- and not this friend's first, either: "...seems like you've done it again."

So the initial "congratulations" on the divorce is for the friend's sake. As for the speaker, he "ain't had such misery" in a while. While he is happy for his friend, he is upset that "so many people" are getting divorced, "waiting in the lines/ In the courtroom today."

At first, he takes his serially divorced friend to task for not taking marriage seriously enough: "Love is not a game," he scolds, or a "toy."

Then suddenly, he softens, realizing, "Love's no romance." We are to be forgiven for thinking that love, perhaps, was a plaything. After all, aren't we told it's a romance from the time we listen to fairy tales to the time we can see rated-R romantic comedies and buy $6.00 Valentine's Day cards?

No, it's not like that at all: "Love will do you in... you won't stand a chance." In the space of a chorus, the speaker goes from yelling at his friend to sympathizing with him.

Then the music crescendos, and the speaker wails, gospel-style-- this is a prayer now, and an earnest one-- that he really wants to know the answer.

And the question: "Can a man and a woman/ Live together in peace?" If all of his friends' marriages-- sparked by either the stability of the 1950s or the idealism of the 1960s-- can fail, what chance do any marriages have?

Can two such divergent genders (whom we will later learn even hail from different planets, Mars and Venus) ever be able to communicate? Form lasting, meaningful relationships? Even "live together in peace" without going to war?

Simon himself will marry and divorce... and marry again, this last time in 1992.

Maybe he finally found the answer. Maybe the answer to "Can a man and a woman live together in peace?" is-- "Which ones?"


Next song: Kodachrome

Monday, January 10, 2011

Paranoia Blues

And here we find the second reference in Simon's work to Chinese food: "Lin's chow fon." The first, of course, was Mother and Child Reunion.

Here, the music provides much of the atmosphere. Rather than the pleasant strumming of most folk music, we have a bone-rattling bottle-neck guitar and a pair of honking horns. The sensation they create is one of jitteriness and surprise, fitting for a song about paranoia.

More correctly, paranoia blues. Which is to say, more than simply being paranoid, our speaker is upset about being paranoid, or upset about having to be paranoid, which it seems is a called-for reaction.

What is the evidence that paranoia is warranted? One piece is his "so-called friends," whom he believes are actually enemies. Another is the fact that he is sure he is going to get called aside at the airport for a personal search (we don't know if they did). And then, once, someone took his restaurant meal!

Clearly, evil forces are afoot, trying to "stick it to" him. Things seem to go awry when his "back is turned" or when he happens to "turn around." He cannot afford to avert his eyes even for one second.

Now, acting mistrustful is bound to get your friends talking behind your back and get your noticed for behaving suspiciously by airport security. And certainly, a busboy might have taken his turned back to mean he was done with his chow fon. And a reasonable person might be persuaded of these possibilities.

But none of these are truly the root cause of his anxiety. What is? "New York City." There, he is constantly being taken advantage of: "...they roll you for a nickel, and stick you for the extra dime." (Here, Simon plays off the cliche "being nickeled and dimed.")

Like "Papa Hobo," this song seems disenchanted with city life. But while that song was about business and government "getting one over on the little guy," here even the small-time shops like local restaurants or the average person you might befriend are also in on the con game.

While it might seem appropriate to compare this song to other songs about paranoia from Men at Work's "Who Can It Be Now" to Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me," a more accurate comparison is to Jim Croce's "New York's Not My Home"; "Don't you know that I gotta get outta here," Croce laments. Meanwhile, our speaker says: "I just got out in the nick of time."

Musical Note:
This song is followed by a sprightly instrumental coda called Hobo's Blues. The lead instrument is the violin of jazz virtuoso Stéphane Grappelli, with Simon strumming accompaniment in the background. It is only on only a handful of instrumentals in Simon's catalog. Others include the solo guitar pieces Anji, by David Graham, and Simon Says, an early work.


Next Song: Congratulations

Friday, January 7, 2011

Papa Hobo

Mostly, we hear about people wanting to escape small towns (as in "My Little Town"). Our speaker here wants to escape the major city of Detroit.

The speaker seems to be a janitor, perhaps in a restaurant: "Sweep up! I've been sweeping up the tips I've made." He's "dressed like a schoolboy," but perhaps is not one any longer, having graduated or dropped out; he simply cannot afford newer, adult clothes.

But he also has aspirations, is seems, to be an athlete: "I've been living on Gatorade." Even though Detroit is a "basketball town," with "a hell of a hockey team," he is not looking to be discovered by a hometown team; "I've been planning my getaway... I'm in the road."

The other thing Detroit is, of course, is a "car town," and the song starts off by discussing the town's major paradox-- the very "carbon...monoxide" that is the town's "perfume" is also killing the people of the town: "it lays you down by noon."

Likewise, the car industry can lure people to their doom: "Got a left-handed way of making a man/ Sign up on that automotive dream." But it remains a dream-- not many make it from the factory floor to the executive suite.

This is the "natural reaction" one learns, being treating this "left-handed" way (the term seems to mean something different here than in "Phillipic," which contains the line, "I'm a Communist 'cause I'm left-handed.")

Sports becomes the escape route, either as a distraction or possible alternate career. But basketball and hockey are both marked by quick changes in a player's status from offense to defense-- one's fortune's change too quickly, and are affected by both one's own team and one's opponents, both out of a player's control.

Our speaker is left feeling like a "clown," disillusioned by the left-handedness of the auto industry and disappointed by sports.

Even science offers no certainty. In "The Only Living Boy," we find the line, "I get the news I need on the weather report." Here, we find, "the weatherman lied," and our speaker finds himself in need of a "ride" out of town.

Enter Papa Hobo. A "hobo" is a drifter, a transient, in older parlance. Today, we would use the word "homeless," but while many homeless are stuck in one city, a hobo would hop on passing train cars and ride to another town on a regular basis.

Papa Hobo is not necessarily anyone's father, but is some sort of father figure among the local or hobo population. Our speaker sees in him one last hope-- self sufficiency. Complete self-reliance, even in poverty.

So he finally, we presume, makes it out Detroit for parts unknown. The final irony? His escape is made in a car, the very reason he is leaving altogether.

Next Song: Paranoia Blues