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