Monday, March 26, 2012

Can't Run But

The song begins, uncharacteristically, with its chorus. The speaker seems frustrated with his progress, even acknowledging his limitations in this area: "I can’t run but/ I can walk much faster than this."

Then come three seemingly unrelated verses. The first is about the nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in April of 1986. It was one of the worst disasters in the history of such facilities, contaminating wide swaths of populated territory with toxic radiation. It was unequaled until the tsumani/earthquake-provoked nuclear catastrophe in Japan in 2011.

The verse summarizes the event's, well, fallout. The "rain" was "new" in nature due to the high levels of radioactivity, and everything from "trees" to "umbrellas" were used to shield the populace from it. Everything had to be analyzed for radioactive contamination, from the "soil" of what had been a Soviet breadbasket region, to the "food"-- now more "contemplated" than eagerly consumed-- to the "water" that had to be purified. Boiling water was supposed to free it of bacteria; if anything the radiation would have taken care of that, as radiation is used to kill, for example, cancer cells. Meanwhile, I doubt even boiling temperatures would affect uranium or plutonium radioactivity, given how this was itself spread by burning smoke.

The picture is one of overall incompetence, and the government's inept attempts to cover it up. The idea that umbrellas and boiling water would protect against nuclear fallout reeks of the same population-pacifying pablum as the films American schoolchildren used to watch, explaining to them that in the even of an atomic-bomb attack, they should "duck and cover" under their flimsy desks.

Next, the song turns to a description of the speaker's dream, possibly about his lover. It may have been brought on by drinking, given the mention of "bottles."

In the dream, he feels "a pain in [his] shoulder blade." His guesses? "...a pencil point? A love bite?" Both seem unlikely-- why would someone stab someone else with a sharpened pencil? And aren't "love bites" ("hickeys," in American slang) usually given higher, around the neck? The two guesses seem to equate the pain of writing with the pain of love. And why the "shoulder blade"? Maybe his subconscious is telling him that he has been stabbed in the back. Perhaps he senses some infidelity or other betrayal. (Or maybe he fell asleep while writing and was jolted awake when he rolled over onto the pencil.)

Also in the dream, there is another couple: "A couple was rubbing against us/ Rubbing and doing that new dance." So first, we realize that the initial couple-- the speaker and his lover-- were dancing, in the dream. Then, this other couple is not accidentally brushing against them as they shimmy on the dance floor-- the word "rubbing" is used twice. In the dream imagery, this is to show that this couple is somehow connected with them.

My feeling is that they are them-- a manifestation of this same couple as they could be. They are doing a "new dance" and so are "hip" and in sync with the times. The man is somehow both formal and casual at once-- "wearing a jacket and jeans"-- elegant, yet relaxed (ostensibly a combination the speaker has not himself mastered). The woman is "laughing in advance," probably in happy anticipation of where the night would lead (ahem). He feels this other couple could be what they themselves ought to be.

Taken together, the two verses are images of frustration. In one, a country believes itself to be advanced and sophisticated, only to learn it is not, when it counts. In the next, a man dreams about his ideal relationship and realizes that his falls painfully short. Also in both, someone realizes he is being told something less than the full truth, and is being appeased instead of actually helped.

The last verse is as free-flowing as the "river" that forms its thin cohesion. The verse begins with the image of the river winding, then it getting "wound around a heart." Is the river somehow emotionally important to the speaker, that his heart is wrapped up in it?

The noose of the river tightens, but the heart is not strangled; instead, the river breaks-- its "waters part." The image of parting waters immediately calls to mind the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus story of the Bible (although the river that turned back on itself to let the Israelites across was the Jordan, as told in The Book of Joshua).

However, the term "muddy waters" recalls something else: classic bluesman McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield. This is not an accident; the next image is of a "blues band" arriving at the banks of this river. (Performing a song with a "Muddy Waters part"?)

Last comes a dig at the music industry: "The music suffers/ The music business thrives." The idea is that the music was getting worse and worse, while the studio coffers overflowed more and more (this was before Napster, of course.) Now, the Muddy Waters story is a typical one of musicians suffering at the hands of rapacious studios, since the start of the recording industry. But--the implication is-- at least the music itself was worth stealing back then.

This last verse is a free-associative stream-of-consciousness. A river winds... it is wound around something... its waters are muddy... Muddy Waters played the blues... Muddy Waters is from Mississippi... the Mississippi is a river nicknamed "The Big Muddy"... the blues are played all along the river (there is a song titled "The Big Muddy," about the river)... the blues (the emotion, not the music) were made worse by the very industry that (like a river) carried the blues (the music) to the world. Compare this to the headline in the satirical Onion newspaper: "Affluent White Man Enjoys, Causes the Blues."

Why are things not better? Why, if you want to provide power for thousands, must you risk poisoning them with it? Why can't we be like that happy, dancing, laughing couple over there? Why does the music business succeed by destroying the very thing that sustains it?

By now, bemoans the speaker, I expect human progress to be slow. But slow is one thing-- I could even walk faster than this!

Musical Note:
On guitar is J.J. Cale, a bluesy performer from Oklahoma (not to be confused with the Velvet Underground's John Cale). He returns later in the album as well.

Cale's songs have been covered by Eric Clapton, Kansas, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Captain Beefheart, Carlos Santana, and Widespread Panic.

Next Song: The Coast

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Obvious Child

The speaker begins by trying to explain, perhaps to himself, where he is in life, now that he is getting on. He says he used to an easy life... or maybe he's just not assertive anymore and takes it easy. He doesn't want to be babied... but he doesn't expect an anxiety-free life, which he sees as the trade-off. He's got a lot to work though yet.

Now, the easier way to read the next passage would be to have it: "Some people say a lie’s a lie’s a lie/ But I say why/ Why deny the obvious, Child?" meaning, "Some people say all lies are equal, but I say, 'Come on, Dude, it's obvious that some are far worse than others.'"

But that's not what it says. The liner notes, Simon's website, and the Lyrics book all agree: The line is "Why deny the obvious child?"-- i.e., the child who is obvious.

So we have one side of the argument being: "All lies are equal," and the speaker taking up the contrary position, which is that we should not... deny the existence of a certain child. And just who is this "child" who is, or should be, seen by all? The Baby Jesus? I can't think of a more famous child...

Or perhaps it is not a "child" at all. Perhaps the word "child" is a metaphor for "result." If you think that all lies are equal, then the result of that logic means that, say, the lie of a president is morally equivalent to the lie "I've had a great time!" tossed backward while exiting a dull party.

Next, Simon has some fun with us: "And in remembering a road sign/ I am remembering a girl when I was young." Oh dear, what sign could that be? A disappointing one, like "STOP"? A welcome one, like "YIELD"? Perhaps an eyebrow-raising one, like "ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK" or even "DANGEROUS CURVES AHEAD." (Feel free to join in, in the comments!)

They did agree on the hopefulness and heightened emotion of youth: "We said, “These songs are true/ These days are ours/ These tears are free.” (Shades of Springsteen's line: "We learned more from a three-minute record/ Than we ever learned in school.")

The next enigmatic line was actually interpreted by Simon, in an interview. My mother guessed that it referred to a papal visit to a sports stadium. I thought it meant that the lines between first base and third, and then second base and home plate, resembled a cross in the ballpark.

But Simon said-- and he was clear that all listeners are entitled to their own interpretations-- that "the cross is in the ballpark" came from fusing two idioms; "The crosses that we bear, they're in the ballpark, they're doable." I have also heard this phrased: "God never gives us more than we can handle."

The speaker then explains why he brought up that "girl"-- he had a child with her: "We had a little son and we thought we’d call him Sonny." Then we hear Sonny's story, how he "gets married," "has a baby" and still feels as "sunny" as his parents did when they were young. Not like his father, the speaker (see the first verse).

The next chorus has the speaker talking about the actual Sun, and how he follows it across the entire day. "Some people say the sky is just the sky," he muses, "But...why deny the obvious child?" Again, the result of that thought is despair. The sky is more than just the atmosphere the sunlight passes through. It is a source of life-giving oxygen, the protective shield against the coldness of space, possibly the abode of angels.

Back to Sonny. Sonny is feeling uncharacteristically pensive and stifled, and is perhaps having a midlife crisis (his hair is "thinning"). So he finds his high school yearbook and sees how he is doing, compared to others his age.

Simon's site has a major error here; it has the line "roots are like cages." The book and liner notes, as well as the sound in the song, are clear. The line is "rooms" are like cages. This is key, as the word "room" appears three times in two stanzas "The light across my room"; "the room of my day"; and this line. While his father can feel connected to the whole "sky" from his "room," Sonny feels that his is a "cage." Then the site screws up again; the word is "idly," not "idle."

So... how are Sonny's classsmates doing? Not well. Some have "fled from themselves"-- Had breakdowns? Made compromises that denied their desires?-- and some have simply passed on. So Sonny "wanders beyond his interior walls"--either by simply going outside, or by realizing that his life now consists of others as well as himself (his wife, his baby) to whom he is connected.

The song closes with the first verse repeating, with alterations. The speaker, for all of the thoughts he has just worked through, seems unchanged. But then...

Simon folds two ideas into one. The lines "a lie's a lie's a lie" combined with "the sky is just the sky" to form "a lie is just a lie."

In other words, some people think that a a lie is just that, an isolated untruth. But no, it is more than that. A lie can be a roadblock, or a burden you carry your whole life. But that burden, that cross, is actually "in the ballpark."

How does he come to realize this? Well, "why deny the obvious child?"

OK, already, who is that? Why, his own child, Sonny. Obviously.

The child who was there all along. The child who still carried the joy of his father's youth, the joy he was raised with. The youthful joy that said "These songs are true... and hey, the cross is in the ballpark."

And Sonny realizes this in his own "baby," his own "obvious child."

So maybe Kafka was wrong when he said "The meaning of life is that it ends." Kafka, who did not have children, did not have an obvious child to show him-- the meaning of life is that it begins all over again.

Musical Note:
The percussion part is performed by a Brazillian drum ensemble called Olodum. They were founded in 1979 and have brought many youths into music, while pioneering a blend of samba, reggae, and African rhythms. Simon brought them to New York for his Concert in Central Park.

To record this track, the ensemble performed outside, as no studio was large enough to hold their 20-plus drummers. (I am not clear if their name, "Olodum," is connected to that of the Yoruba deity "Olodumare," mentioned in a song later on the album.) They later appeared on the Michael Jackson track "They Don't Care About Us."

Another Brazillian act, a vocalist named Briz, sang backup. And two noted American musicians appear as well-- Fabulous Thunderbirds vocalist Kim Wilson on harmonica, and Michael Brecker on his Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI).

Simon brought several of his Graceland session musicians to Brazil with him for this album, his next major project.

The Rhythm of the Saints peaked at #4 on the US album chart, and while this track did chart, it did not crack the Top 40. The album did better in the UK, topping the charts; there, the song reached #15. Worldwide sales overall sent the album over the multi-platinum mark.

In 2014, a movie about "an unplanned pregnancy" titled Obvious Child was released; the song is on the soundtrack.

Next Song: Can't Run But

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Changing Opinion

Remember when Philip Glass provided a piece of music to end the song "The Late Great Johnny Ace?" Well, Glass went on to record an album called Songs from Liquid Days. He provided the music for all the tracks, with lyrics by Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne...

...and Simon, whose is the first song on the album.

Glass' form of music is called "minimalism," and Simon's song reflects the idea of doing a lot with a small amount of sound. Because, you see, the song is all about a sound: "Gradually/ We became aware/ Of a hum in the room/ An electrical hum in the room/ It went mmmmm." This "mmmmm" hum is repeated at the end of each verse.

The people in the room try to locate the source of the sound. The even thought the sound may be coming into the room from outside it: "We pressed our ears/ Against the walls... And put our hands on the floor." The sound seemed to almost willfully elude them. It would vary in frequency, and even "seemed/ To disappear" then reappear: "It would roll around the sofa/ A nimbus humming cloud."

As they traverse the room, the seekers offer possibilities to its source. The logical ones guess it might be a "refrigerator." More psychologically inclined think that the voices are in their heads, or memories: "Maybe it’s the hum/ Of our parents’ voices/ Long ago in a soft light... in a dim light."

(The song is available on Simon's website, but only to this point. In the Lyrics book [and on the album], there is more; the song runs onto a second page and concludes as follows:)

"Maybe it's the hum/ Of changing opinion/ Or a foreign language/ In prayer/ Maybe it's the mantra/ Of the walls and wiring/ Deep breathing/ In soft air."

The "foreign language" hypothesis is intriguing-- maybe the sound is merely a hum to us, but interpret-able communication to others. Or maybe the "refrigerator" idea is only half-right, and should be combined with the "foreign language" idea. Maybe the physical entities in the house, the ones with current running through them, are communicating, humming their "mantra" whether we can understand it or not.

But all suggestions of these presume that a sound is actually being, or was, made. By electricity, by people, by something. The suggestions assume that people in the room are hearing, or remembering having heard, sound waves striking their eardrums.

Simon seems to indicate, through the title, that the "hum" is none of these, but the one idea that was not elaborated upon beyond being stated: "Maybe it's the hum/ Of changing opinion."

In other words, when a paradigm shifts in the forest, it does make a "sound." In any case, we all somehow seem to sense it. If we try to pinpoint the source, it will elude us, because it does not come from any one place. It comes from around us, and then resonates within us. It's like that sound we don't hear, then with "a quarter-turn of the head," we do.

"Wait! Just then...! Did you hear that? I thought I heard something... No, I guess not, nevermi... there! There it is again! I think it's coming from over... wait..."

My feeling is that this song led the album because it captured the purpose of the album. The concept of an elusive sound sneaking around us and calling us to play hide-and-seek with it perfectly opens an album meant to introduce the marginalized minimalist genre to the mainstream.

(The song is on YouTube; search for the title and Philip Glass. The track is about 10 minutes long. The vocalist is Bernard Fowler. Paul Dunkel is on flute, and Michael Riesman on piano.)

When Simon won the Gershwin Award from the Library of Congress, there was a concert in his honor (Simon's, not Gershwin's). The last performer was Glass, with a solo piano performance of "Sound of Silence." Well, what other Simon song would a minimalist pick?

Next Song: The Obvious Child

Monday, March 5, 2012

All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints

The thing people know about fingerprints is that each person's is unique. This truth is the basis for much crime-solving and now, with the advent of tiny scanners, security and crime prevention.

The main character in this song, however, the "former talk-show host," dismisses this idea as a "myth." As he says, "I've seen them all/ And... they're all the same."

Meaning that the idea of people being unique is a myth. The host is not bragging that he has literally seen every fingerprint of every person-- not even the FBI's experts have done that. Rather, in his line of work, he has met enough people of all walks of life-- from celebrities to those of us who will never be-- to know that people are truly more alike than they are different.

The opening line, "over the mountain, down in the valley," is likely not a throw-away line by Simon, but probably a reference to Hollywood, which lies in a valley... near the mountain the famous HOLLYWOOD sign is on.

The second verse shifts the scene dramatically to "Out in the Indian Ocean somewhere," where, on some island, lies a "former Army post." We can guess that this is a relic of the Viet Nam War, but might also date back to WWII.

In any case, the host explains that this is one of the results of the myth of individuality. If we did not separate ourselves into factions, insisting upon the reality of imagined (or over-emphasized) differences, he posits, there would be no more wars. And so no need of Army posts-- they would all become "former" ones.

The last verse returns us to the talk-show host's living room couch. This pernicious myth, he concludes, doesn't only foster international conflict. It also has more a personal impact. It causes us to "live alone." We can never be truly united and truly live together, he sighs, if we continue to declare that we are as unique as our fingerprints.

As if the jump from a "talk-show host" to an "army post" wasn't enormous enough, Simon elaborates that the "myth" is pervasive throughout time and space. For time, he talks about a day, from sun-up to a sunset (either "weary" or "bloody" depending on whether we are talking about a TV show or war). He evokes the concept "since the dawn of time" by picking a thing that has been on Earth for eons-- the "watermelon."

And while he acknowledges that some reformers have asked if the myth can ever be shattered by an alternative social construct ("Somebody said, 'What's a better thing to do?'"), he admits that this is unlikely, as the problem is so pervasive. It is both interpersonal and global: "It's not just me, and it's not just you/ This is all around the world."

And so not just South Africa. The myth lead to apartheid, to be sure, but the issues of discrimination and segregation do not by any means end with the borders in which this abhorrent practice dwelt.

As many problems as the myth causes, from individual alienation to civil-rights violation to international conflagration, the myth is too appealing for anyone to want to dispense with it. (To be fair, social experiments in which millions of people were treated exactly the same-- Mao's China, for instance-- have not necessarily been successful, either.)

In a sense, this song is Simon's response to John Lennon's "Imagine." In that song, Lennon explains what if would take for humanity to "live as one." Simon responds that this goal will remain imaginary as long as we buy into the "myth" that each of us is unique.

There is no "humanity," all the with the same ancestry and DNA, each of us says. There are only us "humans" and our own snowflake-unique "fingerprints."

(OK, fine... my personal guess? I think the "former talk-show host" is Phil Donahue, but I have no proof; the character may be entirely imaginary. The whole idea of using such a figure to deliver the message of the song might simply have been Simon's attempt to find someone who would have conversed with the widest range of people.)

Musical Note:
The backing band for this track is by the very talented and wide-ranging act Los Lobos.

Sadly, there is some contention over the degree of their contribution to the track. Los Lobos is credited with playing and harmonizing, but not co-authorship. They claim that Simon did not credit them properly for coming up with the song and outright "stole" it. The album's notes credit Simon solely.

While I, of course, have no idea who is right, it seems dubious that Simon would share credit with so many others on this album-- five co-writers, on five of the 11 tracks-- and not them. Simon also points out that the first he had heard of this accusation was six months after the record had been released.

At least Los Lobos can be "comforted" by the knowledge that this track was not a hit.

The song did not chart, but its title was taken for a movie. The Myth of Fingerprints is a 1997 release about a dysfunctional family on a Thanksgiving weekend. (The movie was not a hit either.)

Next Song: Changing Opinion