Monday, April 30, 2012

Born at the Right Time

What a lovely lullaby, especially the chorus.

The first verse, of course, is a reference to the Biblical story of the infant Moses being discovered in a basket on the banks of the Nile by Pharaoh's daughter, near the start of the Book of Exodus.

The chorus depicts the ideal, Utopian birth and upbringing. Which, to be fair, was not Moses'. He was raised perhaps by his birth-mother until he was weaned, but after that resided and matured in the house of the oppressor of his people, so deception must have been involved at some point. After he realized his heritage, he killed a taskmaster and so lived most of his life-- scholars say from age 20 to 80-- in fugitive exile. He lived among neither his native Hebrews nor adoptive Egyptians, but as a shepherd, when he had been an imperial prince. He spent the next while wresting his people from the hand of Pharaoh, and his last 40 years in the wilderness, desperately trying to hold a new nation together, often against its will.

And then there is the sound of the "church bells," which Simon referred to in "Bleecker Street" and "For Emily." It is incongruous to depict the leader of the Jewish people being born to that sound, to say the least.

So this may be a reference more to a Moses-esque figure, a savior of the people... a prophet with "centuries" in his "eyes." But then, how would a coddled figure like the one described possibly understand suffering well enough to connect with the people he was to save (and don't we voice the same concern, today, over potential leaders)?

Leaving all of these objections aside, the song is about an ideal, if imaginary, situation. A boy is discovered, in remarkable health for a foundling. He was born under the music of peace and glory, to the words of friendship, truth, safety, and the approbation of the whole of humanity. Surely one so blessed is capable of conferring blessing upon others.

Then, another speaker seems to interrupt. This is a worldly gent, who likes to travel, spend, and eat well. He sees "them"-- and by the fact that they are still nursing, we must assume "they" are infants-- and they see him right back. They regard him as an intruder, yet they regard him without fear: "They follow me with open eyes/ Their uninvited guest."

These babies, too, are coddled, being nursed "in the airport lounges," and not in a less comfortable or relaxed environment. And they, too, are "born at the right time," like the foundling in the opening verse.

It seems possible that the chorus refers to "me" (the speaker) and not "they" (the babies), which would give another layer of implication-- that this sophisticated gent is also "born at the right time."

In any case, the gent bemoans overpopulation and overdevelopment in the next, short verse: "too many people."

And then: "But." This small word serves two purposes. One, it shows that it has been the same speaker all along, merely continuing his thought-- sometimes poetically, sometimes more conversationally.

It also serves as the introduction to the counterargument to the fears of overpopulation. How? Well, here is a "baby girl." Also "found," and also "born at the right time."

Every baby is, potentially, born at the right time, the speaker realizes. Every baby has the opportunity, if the right people find and raise it, to be Moses... or Miriam. Carl Sandburg said it nicely: "A baby is God's opinion that the world should go on." If so, could not all babies be born at the right time?

And in a world without isolation, lies, fear, and want, definitely so.

IMPACT:
Simon evidently liked the song, as he titled the tour to promote this album "The Born at the Right Time Tour."

Next song: The Cool, Cool River


Monday, April 23, 2012

She Moves On

(Before I begin the analysis, I have to say that I am exceedingly disappointed with the Lyrics book here. The line is "Down in the maroon light," an evocative description of a sunset. The liner notes and website agree with this, which is what Simon's voice clearly says on the track. But the book has it as the simple, cliche "Down in the moonlight." Did anyone read this book before it was published? What's the point of having a book if its words cannot stand as THE definitive versions of the songs? All the book's editor needed to do was copy and paste from the website. Really! Not that this is the best move either-- the last word of the song, "on," is left off of the website version. Come on, people! Who's in charge, here? Listen to the songs, look at the liner notes, and get it right-- it's your job. I'm doing this in my spare time and I'm finding mistakes all over. OK, rant complete.)

The title says it-- She moves on. Ah, but he doesn't. He thinks he does. He thinks he did!

The song even starts: "I feel good/ It’s a fine day." He is at an airport, it is sunny, and "a cloud shifts." Since gray skies are gonna clear up, he's putting on a happy face. What happened? "She moves on."

Better to have loved and lost and all that. And he is OK with it. Well... sort of...

The speaker had really depended on her for a sort of salvation. He was "lost" and love "found" him (shades of "Amazing Grace"?). But when things change, and when he leaves the stage and "the song ends," well, "She moves on."

He feels happy just to be alive and to have survived having been left. But she just keeps... leaving! "She is like a top/ She cannot stop."

If, for example, "a sympathetic stranger" (himself, maybe?) um, "lights a candle in the middle of the night," or starts to spark something, she can't even handle that meager level of commitment and leaves again. Why a candle and not say, a torch? A candle is a religious, pure light.

She calls him her "storybook lover," perfect, and so too good to be true. She even warns him: "You have underestimated my power." This is not a candle, she says-- it's a stick of dynamite.

More worship imagery: "Then I fall to my knees/ Shake a rattle at the skies." He is now praying for her to stay, so he doesn't revert to being "lost" again; "I’m afraid that I’ll be... Abandoned, forsaken." Interesting that her eyes are like "coffee" only in their color-- they are not warm at all, but "cold."

Then, an interesting development. This woman, so insistent on keeping her distance and freedom, is somehow affected by him: "She can’t sleep now."

"The moon is red"-- this does happen, when certain particulate matter is in the atmosphere, or during a lunar eclipse. It is also a sign of the Revelation: "The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and awe–inspiring Day of the Lord comes."

So it's the end of the world! For him, because she does not want him. For her, because she does.

She can't sleep, she is so aroused and befuddled by him: "She fights a fever/ She burns in bed." This image of a feverish dream also appears in "How the Heart Approaches": "In a fever/ I distinctly hear your voice/ Emerging from a dream, the dream returns... I dream we are lying on the top of a hill... And your voice is the heat of the night/ I’m on fire."

So "she needs to talk." And instead of brushing this off as a case of "storybook" romance, she confides (in the "maroon" light of the "red" Moon, by the way!): “Maybe these emotions are/ As near to love as love will ever be.” This is as far as she has ever gone, emotionally, she says, and as far as he thinks she can go. But at least she was nice enough to tell him. What can he say? "So I agree."

Then "the moon breaks" (this may be sunrise) and the moment is over. "She takes the corner, that’s all she takes." While I am unclear if there is an expression "to take the corner" (British, maybe?) it is clear that she is not able to take any more than a small piece of him with her, again-- "that's all she takes." And... "she moves on."

The pain is a s bad as he had expected. Not just pain-- frailty, without her love there to prop him up. This time, he does not fall to his knees in worship, but in weakness: "I grow weak, I go slack." He can't "catch" his "breath," because she has "captured" it. He has had the wind knocked out of him.

But by the next morning, as he watched her plane lift off, he is fine. Before her, he was lost. Then he thought that, because she found him, he was found. But then she left... and remarkably, he didn't go back to being lost again!

So maybe he needed her... to show him that he didn't need her. Or anyone.

And she? She was just the catalyst for this reaction. Did she change at all, because of him? If so, not that much. She... well, as always, moves on.

MUSICAL NOTES: Raymond Chikapa Phiri-- Ray, for short-- one of the guitarists on this track, was the founder of Stimela, a gold and platinum-selling band from South Africa. He was one of the first artists, along with Joseph Shabalala, whom Simon worked with on the Graceland album.

Vincent Nguini, the other guitarist, is from Cameroon, but first worked with Simon on this album. He arranged the guitars for this track, and also "The Coast," and "Cool, Cool River," as well as the horns on "Proof."

Next Song: Born at the Right Time

Monday, April 16, 2012

Further to Fly

Before we analyze this song, it is important to note the many allusions in it to other Simon songs:

The image in "Can't Run But" of a couple dancing return thus:
"Effortless music from the Cameroons
The spinning darkness of her hair"

while the "pencil-point/love bite" stab in the "shoulder blade" from that song is here softened to:
"...a love/ Who falls against you gently as/ A pickpocket brushes your thigh"

The "Dangling Conversation" reappears here as:
"A conversation... going nowhere"

The opening line to "Call Me Al" is now rendered:
"Sometimes I’ll be walking down/ The street and I’ll be thinking/ Am I crazy"

And the man who, in "Boy in the Bubble," said "Don't cry, Baby, don't cry" now tells the listener to:
"Take it up with the great deceiver/ Who looks you in the eye/ Says, Baby, don’t cry."

Lastly, a plant that we just encountered in "The Coast" returns, namely "The Rose of Jericho."

That taken care of, we can now turn to the song itself and consider it on its own merits. The song seems to be about desire and the many ways and reasons it can go unfulfilled. There is always, it seems, "further to fly" in order to reach such goals. (Also, the breathy alliteration of this phrase sounds a bit like feathery wings.)

The first verse returns to one one Simon's major themes: weariness. One reason desires remain unfilled is simple exhaustion. Some dreams seem to take so long to become realized that the dreams themselves seem to beg for euthanasia-- "Give me up already!" they moan.

But maybe, you will find a love... only it will present itself so gently you will miss it. It will breeze by and be gone before you even realize you should have tried to catch it, and like a "pickpocket" victim, you won't understand until later what you have lost.

There will be sweet "music", yes, and the hypnotic "swirl" of her hair in the "crowded room,"-- perhaps a bar, dance floor, or reception hall. But the "conversation" will frustrate and "go nowhere." (The Cameroons, today simply called "Cameroon," is a West African nation).

"Desire," the speaker insists, is insatiable, like an "open palm" that holds nothing, but keeps needing to be filled. It "wants everything," because it is always empty.

The futility of endless wanting ends up feeling like either madness-- "I’ll be thinking: 'Am I crazy?'"-- or some sort of cosmic sarcasm-- "'Is this some morbid little lie?'"

Desire is not only for things yet to be gotten, but for things once had and now lost. The next lines seem like a description of dementia or Alzheimer's disease: "A recent loss of memory/ A shadow in the family." The "shadow" is both the genetic reality of the illness in the whole "family," and the almost literal sense of "absence"-- the person is absent because he or she does not even remember being part of the family. The specific memory itself is also in "shadow," as it can no longer be seen clearly.

"The baby waves bye-bye" can mean several things. (This is clearly "baby" in the age sense, not "Baby" in the romantic one; all sources agree the word is not capitalized.) One is that childhood is lost as one matures; the "baby" is one's own infancy. Another is that one's children grow up and leave; to us parents, they are still our babies. Sticking with the Alzheimer's idea, whole family members can leave the awareness of the victims and fade into forgotten-ness and "shadow," another sort of farewell. Or perhaps, the Alzheimer's patient is the baby, since he is as helpless as one.

As for the speaker, he pleads, "I’m trying." If there is "further to fly," well, he's "flying" as hard as he can, and has not given up.

Knowing that things lost are desired, the speaker bemoans the idea that he might lose the things he still has, from his relationships to his sensibility. The image is of "falling backward" into a soft-yet-smothering blackness, a "velvet night."

The "open palm" now wants contradictory things (well, "everything" would presumably include opposites). It wants "soil as soft as summer"-- an easy life, in which no effort is required to flourish. It also wants "the strength to push like spring." Few things push as strongly as excited new growth; roots and shoots break stone and cement, and "spring" itself pushes away the drifts and floes of seemingly intractable, implacable winter. So the "palm of desire" wants strength, but the luxury to grow without it. No wonder it is never satisfied!

"A broken laugh," is a rueful thing, but "a broken fever" usually is a hopeful one, as in "I hope her fever breaks soon." For it to be another disappointment, this would have to be the "fever" of the type Peggy Lee sings.

And this is when the speaker calls the "Boy in the Bubble" speaker on his reassurances. Only a "great deceiver" would say "Baby, don’t cry." There is always a reason to cry, and something lost or not attained worth crying over. (It seems this is the "Baby" of the other song, since it is capitalized, but it would be wrong not to explore the possibility of it being the baby mentioned earlier in this song.)

"The Rose of Jericho," again, is a plant that may seem dead, yet can be revived. This may symbolize the endlessly regenerating nature of desire.

The last line, however, seems to finally express what is truly desired-- the ability to fulfill the desires of others, even if that means one's own desire is thereby unfulfilled: "The strength to let you go." It would be weak indeed to give in to one's own selfishness at the expense of the needs of another soul.

The song, in short, starts with the second line of the Serenity Prayer-- "the courage to change the things I can" and ends with the first: "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." Except this time, it's never going to be "serene" once his love is gone, which she eventually she will be, no matter what. And for that, he's going to need the "strength" to continue to "fly further" toward the ever-retreating horizon of contentment.

In a way, this song is a more mature version of "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha," and a more jaded version of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn":
"Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"

For Keats, having "further to fly" means always having a reason to fly, and isn't flying fun? For Simon, flying is exhausting, never reaching the goal is frustrating, and knowing that he will lose his love in the end no matter what is devastating.

He is "tired," the conversation goes "nowhere," and the whole thing might be insanity or a "morbid lie" of Fate. Yet, he flies... and hopes for, at the end, the strength to stop.


Musical Notes:
The flugelhorn here is played by Hugh Masekela, one of Africa's greatest jazz players. He had an instrumental horn hit in the US-- right around the time of Herb Alpert and Chuck Mangione-- called "Grazin' in the Grass" (1968), which went to #1 and went multi-platinum. Masekela later played on some Byrds cuts. He had left Africa in 1960, following a massacre of unarmed protestors. Years later, Masekela joined Simon onstage at his Graceland concert in Africa.

The trumpeter is Randy Brecker, with a long list of sessions with greats from Springsteen to Mingus. He is Michael's brother, they have recorded as a duo.

The notes that sound like a wood flute are Michael Brecker's EWI.

(There is another error in the liner notes. The guitar is not played by "Ringo Star" and this is not a misprint of the Beatles' drummer's name. It's actually an understandable misprint of the name "Rigo Star.")

The song was covered by folk songbird Holly Near.

Next song: She Moves On

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Proof

The song starts with a lover-- he calls the woman he is addressing "my darling" and "my baby"-- promising his beloved wealth, or at least security, and a plan for heading out for the big city. He ends with what might be a proposal, if they are not already engaged.

The three songs that leap to mind (mine, anyway) are "Fast Car," by Tracy Chapman, which includes such wishes and hopes, "Atlantic City" by Springsteen, in which a man is willing to even commit crimes if it would mean some upward mobility for himself and his girl... and "Bicycle Built for Two," which is not a promise of "stick with me baby, 'cause I'm goin' places" but quite the opposite: "It won't be a stylish marriage/ I can't afford a carriage/ But you'll look sweet upon the seat/ of a bicycle built for two!" (spoiler alert: Daisy declines this proposal).

That verse of "Proof" sounded like a young man talking to his intended. The next fast-forwards to the senior years, and a more realistic outlook. The "tools of love" (i.e., the specifically male and female anatomical features) cease to function as reliably (and, as drug companies have discovered, "that is worth some money"). The mind loses its acuity, the eyes need "reading glasses," and even one's "smile" has lost some of its vibrancy.

The speaker responds to this discrepancy between the wild promises of the young and the resignations of the old by demanding "proof." Other examples of those from whom whom should require some collateral include those who "call you up/ Tell you something that you already know," which recalls the complaint about consultants who "borrow your watch to tell you the time," and people who back out of deals at the last second with no reprecussions to them.

Meanwhile, "faith" is no longer something accepted by most people-- it's an unconnected "island"; it belongs to the past, and the sun is setting on its relevancy.

In the next verse, the speaker elaborates on which demographic elements still "matter," with regard to the proof of someone's merit. While "race" used to be very significant, he posits, it no longer is. Now, gender is still significant, as is wealth-- although those two have opened (or shut) "doors" for all time.

The last verse seems to be an argument against all that, however. The lover from the first verse picks back up-- again addressing his "darling... baby"-- but trades his puffed-out-chest promises of materialistic success (talk of "silver") for a more poetic (and alliterative), nature-oriented philosophy:

Even though it is "hiding," at least half of the Moon is visible, he tells her. The sky bodes omens of "hope"; these "flecks" might be stars, long considered symbols of potential ("reach for the stars," "hitch your wagon to a star," etc.) Even if you can't fly in the "rain," you can still raise your wings to protect yourself "against" it. And if your head is sprouting a "tangled" thicket of self-doubt and imagined pains, try "washing" that anxiety away by thinking like a "gambler" and just trying your luck-- you can't win if you don't play.

In other words, have faith, but in the right things. Should the woman listening to the speech in the first verse have married this man, who promises that "soon," everything will be "silver"? No, she should ask after his bank statement, his diploma, and his job prospects. You know, proof.

But the second speech doesn't promise perfection. In fact, it acknowledges that there are "clouds" and "rain"... that people can get "weary" and situations "tangled." But it also promises that they will weather the worst times and always hope and work for better ones, and that he will always approach life with this sense of possibility. This is a more attractive offer, one more like Springsteen's speaker in "Thunder Road," who says, "I know it's late/ But we can make it, if we run."

So "proof" is the bottom line. But what gets proven, sometimes, is that you should have some faith... sometimes.


IMPACT:
While not a huge hit, the song did have a popular video, as it featured both Chevy Chase (also prominent in the simple but silly "Call me Al" video) and Steve Martin. (The video mostly takes place on a parade float, but pauses to parody the video for "U Can't Touch This" by M.C. Hammer.)


Next song: Further to Fly

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Coast

Before we begin the analysis, we have to provide a glossary for some of the terms Simon uses.

I assumed "St. Cecilia" was a coastal town in Brazil, but when I went to look up exactly where it was, I discovered that St. Cecilia is the Catholic patron saint of musicians. (Now that I know this, of course, the song "Cecilia" now has an entirely new meaning or two... that music is a fickle muse, for one.) There is a Santa Cecilia neighborhood in Sao Paolo, Brazil, which is some distance from the coast itself. The Lyrics book does not capitalize the word "church," so it is not "The Church of St. Cecilia," such as the ones I found in San Francisco or LA. So let's just say this church, alongside its holy orders, has a poetic license.

A "batรก" is a drum with an interesting shape, somewhat like an hourglass, but with one end larger than the other. It has a head on both ends, and it seems to originate with the Yoruba people of today's Nigeria.

The "Rose of Jericho" is a name given to several plants, but at least two share the distinction of being able to seemingly "resurrect," or revive after seeming to be dead and dried out. These are not pretty plants, an I cannot find an image in which it has blooms, let alone rose-like ones; the stems themselves form a somewhat roseate pattern. And "bougainvillea" is a beautifully flowering vine that seems to exist in most tropical climes.

The image in the opening verse is of a band-- which may or may not be related in blood as well as spirit-- being taken in by a church on a harbor, surrounded by lush growth. Even though they are too poor to rent a room, and the church is "little," there is a warmth to the image.

The speaker then comments on the poignancy of the scene, sighing: "This is a lonely life/ Sorrow’s everywhere you turn..."

And then a lower voice (but still Simon's) cynically adds: "And that’s worth something/ When you think about it/ That is worth some money." No matter how much misery there is, or how deep it is, someone is willing to capitalize on it rather than alleviate it.

The scene shifts to Washington, probably DC and not the US state, since one would not speak of something as specific as "sunlight" over such a large area. It seems that this "market" is less a supermarket (or stock market!) than an open-air farmers' market, as "we" are going "into" the sunlight. The merchandise is so varied, one feels that one has not simply been to one market but on "a trip around the world." The shoppers have made a day of it, it seems, for they started off in the "morning sunlight" and now consider "the evening meal." This meal is "negotiable," which again suggests a farmers' market, since haggling is permitted. "If there is one," might mean the shoppers have been sampling as they went and perhaps are in no mood for more food, let alone a full dinner.

Even after this jaunty spree, our two commentators chime in again with their sad assessments, the one finding "sorrow everywhere" and the other claiming that this misery "is worth some money."

So now we have two questions-- why the hand-wringing and fingertip-rubbing here... and what has this marketing trip to do with the musicians we left sleeping in the little harbor church?

Leaving the bridge aside for a moment, the next verse connects the two places and groups, by reusing the words "morning sunlight." The idea of a soul returning to Earth seems to imply the Resurrection of Jesus, as what other soul has left Earth to "return" to it? It cannot mean the idea that every soul ascends during sleep and returns, for in that case, why would "we" all gather to praise "a" soul's return, and not "our" souls' returns? If so, the "morning" in question might be Easter morning. That would also explain why a group of people happens to be at the church that a band happened to have slept at the night before.

The fact that there are "summer skies" might only refer to the summer-like nature of the skies... or to the fact of summer-- but then one can celebrate the Resurrection on any day, really.

Some, it seems, venture out into the sunrise to pray... and some, to shop. Sorrow is everywhere, and the money made off of it is in distracting people from it. Say, with an all-day, shopping trip for food, none of which is even taken home. And why travel to distant lands and spend your money there, when you can just buy your plantains, persimmons and pomegranates for more, at the local farmers' market?

The idea that only one soul in history returned in emphasized in the next line. Instead of again saying "This is a lonely life," the speaker now says "This is the only life." There is no resurrection for anyone else, and even the knowledge of one's own mortality needs to be distracted from; what could be more "lonely" or universally "sorrowful" than the finality of death?

OK, now to the bridge.

There is an error, both in the website's lyrics and, shockingly, in the Lyrics book's lyrics in the bridge of this song. Both of these sources have it:
"To prove that I love you
Because I believe in you
Summer skies, stars are falling
And if I have money
If I have children
Summer skies, stars are falling
All along the injured coast"

But the CD's liner notes have it correctly-- Simon clearly sings:
"To prove that I love you
Because I believe in you
Summer skies, stars are falling
All along the injured coast [emphasis mine]
And if I have money
If I have children
Summer skies, stars are falling
All along the injured coast"

The lines "Summer skies, stars are falling/ All along the injured coast" repeat in four different contexts. My contention is that these lines form their own chorus or refrain within the context of the bridge. Have someone else sing them, and it becomes clear. They do not necessarily fall, grammatically, as part of the phrases they follow. Taking them out, we have these unfinished phrases:

"To prove that I love you/ Because I believe in you" and "And if I have money/ If I have children" which seem to struggle to be heard against the insistent refrain, which focuses on externals: the weather, astrological events, and the somehow-- erosion? pollution? poverty?-- damaged coastline. It's as if someone were proposing to his beloved, but she was raptly watching the news.

And the news is saying that, if the coast-- the line between the land and sea, the firm and the vague, the physical and the metaphysical-- is "injured," well, Heaven is the lesser for it, too. Stars are falling over this, in commiseration. After all, the physical is not so bad a place-- we have pretty flowers here! At at least one (or One) who left it wanted to come back.

Also, taking out those lines reveals a hidden rhyme:
"If I have weaknesses/ Don’t let them blind me now...
Leaving the shadow of the valley behind me now"

The "shadow of the valley" is a reference (even if the words are reversed) to Psalm 23, which reads in part: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou Art with me" (KJV). In leaving this fearsome place "behind" him, the speaker joyously declares that, while he cannot deny death, he no longer fears it-- Simon inverts the words since a valley often lies in a mountain's shadow, and to leave a valley, one must ascend.

Lastly, the seemingly throwaway nonsense lyrics: "Ooh-wah Ooh-wah, Doo-Wop a Doo-Wah" are, in fact, some of Simon's most important! They summarize the entirety of his life's musical discoveries to this point. The first set of vocalizations are African; the second are from the pre-rock "doo-wop" harmonies. The lyrics should really come with a mathematical symbol in between: "Ooh-wah Ooh-wah => Doo-Wop a Doo-Wah." From there, to here.

The song starts with poor musicians seeking shelter, and ends with what these thin human connections weave-- a rope that spans time and space.

Next song: Proof