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