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