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