Monday, February 27, 2012

That Was Your Mother

The television show How I Met Your Mother is a hit, but I am not sure that the how-I-met-your-mother story told in this song would have made for a popular sitcom.

For one thing, the speaker is not exactly father-of-the-year material. His priorities are decidedly not family-oriented, and he seems too willing to share personal information with his son. Whom he addresses as "Dude."

As with any story, we must have a setting and characters. The place is Lafayette, Louisiana, named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of American independence. However, he was French, so it makes sense that a French-settled area of America would choose to name a town after him.

The time? Before the child being addressed was born. Was his future father lonely and longing for family life? Not exactly: "I was still single, and life was great!" He then explains that he chose a job that made him rootless.

He finds himself in this Southern town. Today, the population is 120,000, but at the time the song is set it was far fewer; the census shows 40,000 in 1960 and not even 70,000 in 1970. Even though he is a "travelling salesman," he was raised in a city (he considers himself a "city boy") and is therefore not impressed by the size of the place.

It is big enough, however, to draw an act the magnitude of Clifton Chenier, largely considered to be the father of zydeco music. This is a raucous, accordion-based party music, heavy on the saxophones and washboard percussion, and it is as much a part of New Orleans culture as the spicy food and spicier Creole language. (This song itself is set to such music.)

Our salesman has some time to kill, so he is looking for a bar. He would like to "get a little conversation," hopefully with "those Cajun girls." (Is this something a child needs to know about his father?)

However, he never needs to get to a bar. His hopes are answered by chance: "Along came a young girl/ She’s pretty as a prayer book." (While one hopes that his father is attracted to his mother, the attraction might be more than physical, one would have also hoped.)

The father continues, relating his reaction: "If that’s my prayer book/ Lord, let us pray!” (By now, the son is thinking: "Too much information, Dad!")

At this point, the first-time listener of the song is let in on why any of this is being discussed altogether: "Well, that [the pretty woman] was your mother/ And that was your father." It is at this point that we realize that this entire discourse was a reminiscence on the listener's parents' first encounter.

And now, as if life wasn't "great" enough when the father was "single," the son has to hear this: "Before you was born, dude/ When life was great." "OK," the son thinks, "I get it-- things are more fun before you have adult responsibilities. That's a fairly universal idea, even if it hurts to hear it from one's own father. If anything," he concludes, "I will be sure to enjoy my own pre-fatherhood years as much as you did, Dad."

But the father is not done. "I sure do love you," he says to his son, but "You are the burden of my generation... let’s get that straight."

"Wow," the son thinks. "It's really important for him that I know how much of a 'burden' I am to him, and how 'great' his life was when he was 'single' and 'before I was born.' If he hates this life so much, why did he ever choose it? And once he knew he hated it, why did he stay? I'd almost rather he'd left-- and let me be raised by someone who didn't think of me as a weight he was carrying."

Meanwhile, the father is lost in his reverie of recollection: "Well, I’m standing on the corner of Lafayette/ Heading down to the Lone Star CafĂ©/ Maybe get a little conversation/ Drink a little red wine/ Standing in the shadow of Clifton Chenier/ Dancing the night away."

"That's it, Dad," fumes the son to himself, "Just cards for you on Father's Day from now on."

Musical note:
The track was recorded in Crowley, Louisiana, some 20 miles from Lafayette.

The band on this track is a zydeco standby called Good Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters. The accordion is played by Alton "Dopsie" Rubin, Sr. and the drums by Junior. Another son, Dwayne, is also an accordion player with his own band.

Chenier died in 1987, a year after this album was released. He also was succeeded by his son, C.J. Chenier, who still plays and records.

It seems that the fathers related to this song were better at fathering than the fictional father described by the song itself. Maybe if our salesman had watched the musicians instead of the dancing girls...

The song samples a track called "At a Darktown Cakewalk" by one Charles Hale. I can only assume that it dates from when "Darktown" was an acceptable name for a certain part of town. A "cakewalk" was a competition at which couples would compete for a fancy cake by dressing to the nines and strutting their stuff, walking to music; the winners would literally-- and yes, this is where the expression originates-- "take the cake."


Next Song: All Around the World, or The Myth of Fingerprints

Monday, February 20, 2012

Crazy Love, Vol II

The title immediately provokes the question: "Was there a 'Crazy Love, Vol I?'" A brief glance at an alphabetical listing of Simon's songs reveals none.

Perhaps, then, this is response to another songwriter's "Crazy Love"? Van Morrison had a song by that title; so did soft-rockers Poco. A quick online search reveals songs with that title by everyone from Sinatra to the Allman Brothers. So which "Crazy Love" is this the supposed sequel to?

I think it is none of them, specifically... and all of them in general. More to the point, it might not be a sequel to a song at all, but to the kind of love the songs are about.

What really happens to that crazy kind of love? Joan Rivers explains that romance is like running up a grassy hill. "And do you know what's on the other side of that hill?" she continues. "A basket of laundry, full of socks to be matched."

This song is about the discovery of that basket of laundry, and what happens after. It is the heretofore unsung "Vol. II" that must follow all such blissfully madcap crazy love stories after the credits roll.

The song begins by introducing a man with two nicknames. One is "Archangel," which implies he is a being of some importance and weight. The other (later to be revealed as more recent) is "Fat Charlie," also connoting a being with some weight, but this time the kind doctors discourage.

(We must take a moment to applaud the Wallace Stevens-esque opening line: "Fat Charlie the Archangel sloped into the room." That is not a line that could have remotely been conceived by any other songwriter, living or otherwise.)

Charlie is full not only of eclairs but ennui. He has "no opinion" about anything. He is aware of his "sad" mental state, telling his friends: "I don't claim to be happy" about things, even the things he just sad he had no opinion regarding. They do notice that he is as "sad" as a deflated "balloon," in contrast to his inflated shape-- just as his being "lonely" contrasts with the fact that he is married (which, again, is revealed later).

He is sure, however, on one point, which he repeats with great insistence: "I don’t want no part of this crazy love/ I don’t want no part of your love."

Charlie has come, perhaps to a bar, to gripe about his marriage. As often happens, he starts with, "Do you know what she said? Listen to this! She says the joke is on me!"

One of his friends replies, we imagine: "Oh, yeah?! What'd ya tell her?"

He is so apathetic, or perhaps so beaten down, that even this affront is met with, "I have no opinion about that." Then with terrible self-knowledge, he admits: "And I have no opinion about me."

Even if Charlie can no longer muster enough self-respect to be angered, his friends are distraught on his behalf. "Charlie," they tell him, "You're in trouble, friend! And, given your Archangel position, everyone knows it!" Simon phrases their response thus; “Your life is on fire! It’s all over the evening news.”

This exchange does seem to stoke Charlie's ire a bit; he unleashes another barrage of "I don't want no part of this crazy love."

And then Charlie takes action. The joke is no longer on him, because he is the one who "files for divorce."

Like the weighty personage he is, he takes stock and plans for the future: "Well, this will eat up a year of my life/ and then there’s all that weight to be lost." This indicates that he was not heavy before the marriage and let himself go during it. Now that he is going to be "back on the market" he plans to work to become as attractive as he once was.

Also, Charlie is now giving as good as he gets: "She says the joke is on me/ I say the joke is on her!" Not the most original of retorts, but at least a "Hah-- So there!"

But then he undercuts himself. "I said I have no opinion about that/ We'll just have to wait on confer." Wait, what? He has no opinion about what he himself just said? And now he wants to "confer" and arbitrate as to whom the joke is on? Oh, dear.

How will Charlie end up, now that he is single? Will he regain the fierce gravitas that earned him the rank of Archangel? Or will he, even now, still worry about what she thinks, since he has been so trained to?

The love was "crazy," and like all intense flames, burnt itself out. Now Charlie himself is burnt out. The damage seems to be deep, but we don't know how lasting. We do know that he was powerful before, and that he has friends who care enough about him to tell him the truth and encourage his return to emotional health.

Also, his last tirade-- again against his ex-wife's "crazy love"-- gives us hope that he has learned his lesson and stays away from "crazy love" in the future. And that there is no "Vol III," but a whole new story.

"Sane love" might not sell books, movies, or songs... but at least Charlie will be able to afford those entertainments again once he has finished paying off his divorce attorney. If he even wants to listen to such songs again (which he probably shouldn't).


Next Song: "That Was Your Mother"

Monday, February 13, 2012

Homeless

This is the only Simon song that is mostly in another language. In this case, Zulu.

The group providing the harmonies is called Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which means "The Black Hammer of Ladysmith," a township near the Eastern coast of South Africa. Simon saw them in a documentary on South Africans using music to resist apartheid. The group's leader, Joseph Shabalala (accent on the first "la"), wrote the song's Zulu lyrics, which I was lucky enough to find a translation of in an online Zulu forum. (Three cheers for the Internet!)

Simon, according to one source, sent Shabalala the line "We are homeless, homeless/ Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake," and he fleshed it out with the Zulu lyrics that make up the bulk of the song.

The introduction is based on a traditional Zulu wedding song, with re-written lyrics to continue the idea of homelessness, the source continues. Whatever it once said, it now says: "Webaba silale maweni"/ "Hey, Mister, we sleep on the cliffs."

Which might seem dangerous, but without caves or walls to prevent approaches on three sides, a cliff might do just as well.

"Homeless, homeless," the song explains the situation. This might be a literal result of poverty. Or it may speak to to condition of an apartheid-stricken populace, "exiled" without leaving their homeland.

"Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake." One would only see such a night-time sight if one were outdoors at midnight for some reason, say, as in not having a roof or walls. Also, the transience of the light on water-- visible but without substance-- also symbolizes the plight of the homeless individual.

The next lines are also ones that might be spoken by someone with no home: "Zio yami/ amakhaza asengibulele" means "My heart/ The cold has already killed me." "My heart" could be taken several ways. One is to say this part hurts: "My heart! It is in pain; it is giving out!" Another is to say that this is a person addressing himself, as in "I said to myself, 'Self...'."

But I think he is addressing his girlfriend or wife, calling her "My heart," the way a Spanish speaker says, "Mi corazon," or an English speaker says, "Sweetheart."

The cold already having killed him, again, could be taken on the level of literal cold and hypothermia, or on the figurative level of being "frozen out" of society. As we say in English, receiving a "chilly reception" or a "cold shoulder." This ostracism and disenfranchisement is certainly a lack of person-hood, a living death.

Then comes a phrase that I can't parse: "somandla angibulele" which seems to translate to the words "The Almighty" and "ukulele." Perhaps this is a reference to some sort of celestial music, as in the Western concept of "music of the spheres." Perhaps it is the instrument of God, the way Apollo played the harp. Or maybe a conflation of the two, God played the world as an instrument. It is difficult to say.

Then comes the word "mama," which I could safely assume means that he is addressing his mother, as in Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door."

"Strong wind, destroy all out homes/ Many dead, tonight it could be you." Working still on both levels, this could be the description of a natural disaster, or the idea that apartheid destroyed the South Africans' homes and homeland, driving them into isolation, poverty, and death. And don't think it couldn't happen to "you,' whether "you" live elsewhere in South Africa, the continent, or the planet. Few countries, indeed, are without a case of oppression in their histories.

The "Somebody say..." segment was based on a Ladysmith song that Simon liked. The lines ask for both rescue on one hand-- "Somebody sing, 'Hello!'"-- and resistance on the other: "Somebody cry, 'Why, why, why?'"

One commentator, who spent some time in Africa, notes that "ih hih ih hih ih" is a lyric that connotes hard labor or strenuous effort. If so, this could mean that the speaker knows it will be, to borrow the title of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "a long walk to freedom."

The song proper is now over, and the ensemble takes a moment to revel in the glory of having recorded this song in, of all places, London's famed Abbey Road Studios. "Yithi omanqoba"/"We are the victors!" they shout. "Esanqoba phakathi e England"/"We have conquered England!" And "Esanqoba lonke ilizwe"/"We defeated the whole country!"

Thus satisfied, they let fly one more triumphant whoop: "Kulumani sizwe/Singenze njani/Baya jabula abasi thanda yo/ Ho" This is their signature sign-off line, meaning, roughly, "We hereby proclaim that we are the best at singing in this style."

Musical Note:
This is not the first time South-African lyrics have become part of the American songscape. The Weavers were introduced to the 1939 South African song "Mbube" ("The Lion") by folksong collector Alan Lomax. They turned it into the chant "Wimoweh," and The Kingston Trio and other folk acts picked it up in the 1950s.

Then The Tokens, including then-member Neil Sedaka, scored a 1961 #1 hit by taking the original South African improvised lyric "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight" and expanding on it.

Simon no doubt heard both versions, growing up in the US. But the song's journey did not end there. It appears on the Lion King soundtrack. It was incorporated, in 1992, by REM into their song "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" (the sidewinder being a sort of rattlesnake).

And the original "Mbube" version appeared in the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America. The performers? Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The ensemble has appeared with Simon on "Saturday Night Live," has won a Grammy for a Simon-produced album, and has done everything from a Lifesavers candy commercial to several Sesame Street appearances. Thanks to Simon, the group has become true worldwide sensation.

But Simon, with The Weavers and The Tokens in his head, would probably just consider his championing the ensemble (he also produced a Grammy-winning album of theirs) simply repaying a debt.

Next Song: Crazy Love, Vol II

Monday, February 6, 2012

Under African Skies

In this short song-- two verses, one chorus-- Simon pays tribute to two remarkable singers.

The first is the man who started, and still leads, the South African chorus Ladysmith Black Mambazo. His name is Joseph Shabalala (accent on the first "la"). The verse, however, reveals precious little. We learn only that he is "black" and "African," and we might infer from the mention of the "moon" and "stars" that he liked to take walks at night.

The second verse seems to refer to Linda Ronstadt, a powerful singer with an enormous range, both vocally and genre-wise. As the song correctly reports, Ronstadt is from "Tucson, Arizona."

"Mission music" would be hymns emanating from the "missions," Catholic missionary churches (including The Alamo, in Texas) that dot the Southwest, which often had bells (the "ringing" in the song). What relationship a young Ronstadt had with such music I cannot find. Perhaps it was sung to her by her parents or grandparents, perhaps she joined a choir, perhaps he simply heard it as she passed by the church doors. In any event, the song suggests it was an influence on her music.

The word "harmony" seems to refer simply to "music." While Ronstadt has had several successful duets, notably with Aaron Neville of The Neville Brothers, the large majority of her work is as a solo vocalist.

Lastly, the idea that Ronstadt would ask no more of God than a beautiful voice and the ability to use it-- "Take this child, Lord... give her the wings to fly through harmony/ And she won’t bother you no more"-- is again a matter of speculation. I cannot speak to her religion, intensity of religious practice, or feelings on religious matters whatsoever, although that information may be available elsewhere. The lyrics suggest, however, that Ronstadt's relationship with religion can at least be described as aloof.

Why is it necessary to discuss where, and from what background, a musician comes? The answer is offered in the chorus: "This is the story of how we begin to remember... These are the roots of rhythm."

The story of the singer, in other words, is the story of the songs. In order to learn about the music he had loved his whole life, Simon had to trace the lineage of the sounds back to their sources... which was the point of the Graceland project altogether.

Simon found, on his journey, Joseph, a man whose lifetime in Africa, and African music, was a treasure-trove for Simon. He also discovered, or perhaps realized, that he had had fellow travelers on this road.

Ronstadt, his contemporary, was one. After a life of singing pop, rock, country, and jazz-- and two years after recording this song with Simon-- she recorded an album whose Spanish title means "Songs from My Father," who was (among other things) of Mexican descent. But she had already explored the rich variety of American song, as Simon had, in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

What else do the stories convey? "This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein." The basic rhythms of all music are traceable to the human heartbeat. But blood is only in the vein because love put it there, and the loves and heartbeats-- the people, soul and body-- who came before... and their stories.

When does one become very aware of one's heartbeat? Upon awakening from a nightmare: "After the dream of falling and calling your name out."

And, in this moment of despair, of fright, what does one's heartbeat do? Calms one down. It reassures the dreamer that he is still alive and safe. Similarly, music can have that reassuring effect on the throes of living itself.

The stories and the heartbeats form and inform the music. These things are ever new, but ever the same. There is both freedom and solidity in that.

"These are the stories of how we begin to remember"-- the stories of the musicians are the stories of the music, and the stories and songs both recall the past. "This is the powerful pulsing of love"-- these rhythms come from those heartbeats.

"These," then, "are the roots of rhythm," Simon concludes, "and the roots of rhythm remain." They were there, waiting for Simon to discover them, decades and oceans away from where he was born.

How wonderful to know that they will always be there, whenever we need to look for them.

NOTE:
Simon performed this song as part of his Graceland concert in Africa. Ronstadt did not join him on stage for this number; instead, Miriam Makeba did. She is known as "Mama Africa" on her home continent, but has an international hit called "Pata Pata" in the 1970s. She lived in exile for decades due to her opposition to South African apartheid. In her honor, Simon wrote new lyrics to the song for her to sing that were about her life instead of Ronstadt's.

IMPACT:
2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the Graceland release. It is being marked by the release of a documentary of the making of the album. The film's title comes from the title of this song: Paul Simon: Under African Skies. There is another documentary about the album, part of the "Classic Albums" series of videos.

Next song: "Homeless"