Monday, December 31, 2012

Pigs, Sheep and Wolves

The animal fable is at least as old as Aesop. And Simon himself used animals as human stand-ins in the song "At the Zoo."

But the most famous modern example is probably Orwell's Animal Farm. Here, Simon uses a similar set of creatures to represent various aspects of humanity.

First, we meet a pig. He's a "barnyard thug" who usually gets his way: "...nobody's gonna argue with him/ He's a half a ton of pig meat."

Next, the wolves. While wild, they pose no threat to anyone in the farmyard: "Never did no harm/ Sleep all day/ Hunt till four/ Maybe catch a couple of rodents /You know, carnivore."

Last are the sheep, passive and pacific. And then, one day, like the sheep that wandered away from Moses' biblical flock: "One of the sheep wanders.../ Separated from the flock/ Where'd he go?"

Sure enough, he gets picked off. A crime scene is declared. Is there any evidence that might point to a potential suspect? "Got a gash as big as a wolf's head." Well, there you go. Case closed.

Except... what's the pig doing? "Wallowing in lanolin/ He's rubbing it into his pigskin." Lanolin is "wool grease, especially when refined for use in ointments and cosmetics." (m-w.com) Yes, lanolin comes from sheep.

But no one is looking for the pig! "Police going crazy/ Say, let’s get him/ Let's get that wolf." Of course, the wolf has his day in court, but sadly the "court-appointed lawyer wasn't very bright/ Maybe it was just a late night/ And he files some feeble appeal."

The wolf has one chance left-- the governor can stay his execution. But would why he, and be tagged as soft on crime... and in an election year? "The governor says, “Forget it/ It's a done deal/ It’s election, I don't care, election/ Let's give that wolf a lethal injection."

"Here comes the media"-- well, likely they have been there all along-- "Asking everyone's opinion/ About pigs, sheep and wolves." At least they suspect that the pig was involved. But it seems that they are shouted down.

From his wallow, the pig laughs. “This is hilarious/ What a great time/ I'm the pig who committed/ The perfect crime.”

But there is hope. "All around the world/ France and Scandinavia/ Candlelight vigils/ Protesting this behavior./ It’s animal behavior/ It’s pigs, sheep and wolves." (Let's pause to give Simon a nod for his "Scandinavia/behavior" rhyme!)

The allegory works in many directions. The pigs seem to be the ones in power, whether governmental, financial, military, religious, or some combination thereof. The wolves aren't even in the barnyard-- they are the outcasts of society, minorities, useful as (to mix our metaphors) scapegoats... because we all know about those people and what they are like. And the sheep are the good citizens who try to go about their business and stay out of trouble... who get screwed over no matter what they do. 

Yes, sometimes the "wolves" do commit crimes. But a mugger can only rob one person at a time, and then only of whatever cash they have on hand. An embezzler can steal millions, from millions, and no one notices for decades. Yet, anyone who dares suggest that a business be a responsible citizen-- and not lie, cheat, steal, pollute, or impoverish people--  is declared "anti-business" and even "anti-American." 

A great book that is not a fable despite its title, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches by Marvin Harris (which predates Freakonomics by 20 years), argues that-- to use Simon's metaphor-- pigs stay in power, remaining "big and fat," by keeping sheep afraid of wolves. I doubt Simon has read Harris' book, but I imagine he would agree.

Next Song: Hurricane Eye



Monday, December 24, 2012

Love

"You've got the cool water/ When the fever runs high," Simon wrote in the song "Something So Right." He returns to that imagery many years later, in this languid song, which begins "Cool me/ Cool my fever high."

Here, the speaker continues "Hold me when I cry," indicating that love can be passionate, but also compassionate. 

"I need it so much/ Makes you want to get down and crawl like a beggar/ For its touch," Again, the desire is so intense, that, like an illness, it makes one lose one's inhibitions and dignity.

The irony, of course, is that this wonderful, fever-reducing, anxiety-erasing "drug" is "free as air!" It costs nothing-- nothing material anyway-- to love someone. "Like plants, the medicine is everywhere," refers to the idea that many of our most common healing agents, from aloe to aspirin, come from plants (aspirin comes from willow bark). In this sense, love as as available as something that grows naturally from the earth.

Well, that's what happens when you don't have love. What about when you do? "Makes you want to laugh out loud when you receive it/ And gobble it like candy." It's so easy to find, and hard to get, that if we do, we tend to overindulge and make ourselves sick on it!

"We think it’s easy/ Sometimes it’s easy/ But it’s not easy." This three-stage realization is key. When we are not in relationships, it seems like everyone else is. What we forget is that, when we are in relationships, life is not necessarily any less complex. And when you have love, the question is how to keep it. "You’re going to break down and cry," it seems, either way.

Those who give love, knowing how much the other '"craves" it, can use it to control the other, telling them that they are "not important" and that they "should be grateful." This puts the beloved in a seat of power. When I have what you want, you will do what I want to get what I have.

So far, Simon does not paint a very happy picture of love. It is almost a drug, creating self-destructive, but coercive, desires. Unlike most love songs, it does not celebrate the emotion as much as lament it. 

But until this point, his focus is on interpersonal relationships. Then he shifts to geopolitics and history. Oh. he sighs, how high is "The price that we pay/ When evil walks the planet/ And love is crushed like clay."

The last lines use the imagery of the Nazis, who called themselves the "master race" and the Jews, the "chosen people," they committed virulent genocide against. But by speaking of these elements in plural, Simon broadens the concept of genocide to all throughout history who have declared themselves master races and lashed out against others in their imagined superiority. 

"The burning temples," are those of the Jews destroyed during Kristallnacht, the city-wide pogrom that initiated the Holocaust. But they are also all those from the Holy Temples in Jerusalem sacked by the Babylonians and Romans to the synagogues, churches, mosques, and ashrams that have been set fire to over all of human history. Very early in his folk career, Simon even wrote a song called "A Church is Burning," about a spate of arson attacks of black churches in the American south in the 1960s. Even today, houses of worship are regularly targeted by hateful violence.

The last words, "the weeping cathedrals," might refer to the response, over the years, by those who were not targeted (this time), saying that "this is a terrible tragedy" and that "something must be done." 

This song, despite its title, seems not to be about "love" but about its absence. On a personal level, a lack of love can drive a person to despair and desperation. On the global level, a lack of love leads to an inhumane, and inhuman, attack on one's fellow humans. Such killers see the other as less than human, while they themselves are the ones who have abandoned their claims to humanity.

Next song: Pigs, Sheep and Wolves


Monday, December 17, 2012

Senorita with a Necklace of Tears

There is no "senorita." This song, in other words, is not about an unmarried woman whose native language is Spanish. Rather, Simon tells us in the course of the song that, "If [he] could play all the memories/ In the neck of this guitar/ [He]'d write a song called/ 'Senorita with a Necklace of Tears.'"

See, if that were possible, he would write a song with that title. Which, since he cannot do that, he has not.

Except... he has. We know this, because you are reading about it right now.

Which implies that, indeed, he could play all of the memories in the neck of his guitar. The neck, of course, is where the notes are determined. The neck hand has to get into position (usually a split second) before the hand on the body of the guitar can strum it. So the neck, in a sense, is where the songs are stored before they are played for the listener. If a song is like a story, the neck-hand remembers it and the body-hand tells it.

But let's back up to the beginning of the song. Simon starts with a metaphor that he immediately abandons, about a "wisdom tooth."

Then he finds a much more fertile image-- that of being "born again." But his response to his friend's claim of being "born again," how a Christian describes having "found his Savior's grace," is to interpret it in terms of the Eastern concept of reincarnation. Aren't we all, in that paradigm, endlessly being reborn anyway? "I was born before my father/ And my children before me," Simon rejoinders, "We are born and born again/ Like the waves of the sea."

Then Simon introduces a two-tier system of approval: What is this concept's longevity, its staying power?  And does he want this system to remain in place, going forward? In the case of reincarnation, he concludes: "That's the way it's always been/ And that's how I want it to be."

Next up for evaluation is "news" of a species of "frog in South America/ Whose venom is a cure" and is "the antidote for pain." This elixir is said to be "more powerful than morphine/ And soothing as the rain." Simon adds a third tier, the present, to his approvals process. The frog-cure passes muster: "That's the way it's always been/ That's the way I like it/ And that's how I want it to be." It has always been true that the cures for diseases come from natural, but overlooked, places. It's a good object lesson to care for the Earth and take nothing for granted.

Then Simon evaluates various personality types: the sycophant and the stoic, those who choose to be ignorant and those who keep everyone else ignorant. Although all of these could be described negatively-- and may even be self-destructive-- once again, Simon says (twice!) that this reality meets with his approval; it was, is, and shall be.

Now we arrive at the verse about the guitar, its neck, and a seemingly absent senorita. I believe I have, in fact, located her.

It has been remarked by many that the shape of string instruments-- the violin, cello, and guitar especially-- resemble the "hourglass" figure of a woman; BB King even calls his guitar "Lucille." And the guitar as we know it today has its origins in Spain. So if a guitar is a woman, it is a "senorita."

Further, the fret-board of a guitar is called the "neck," as Simon states. Many of these fret-boards have small dots along their lengths. Small dots along a neck look like, what else, a necklace. And if these dots are shiny and opalescent (may are made of mother-of-pearl), they may, perhaps, resemble tears.

It is arguable that the "Senorita with the Necklace of Tears" is Simon's guitar: "If I could play all the memories/ In the neck of this guitar/ I'd write a song called/ 'Senorita with a Necklace of Tears.'," Simon writes. And the song would be about the guitar, and the tearful "memories" it knows, having helped him compose so many sad and regretful songs over the years; "Every tear" in her necklace, he explains, represents "a sin [he]'d committed/ Oh, these many years."

Of other people, their religions, and personalities, Simon is accepting. Also, of nature and science and those matters. Of himself, however, and his failings and sins, well, "That's who I was/ That's the way it's always been."

But he pointedly does not posit that this is the way he likes it, or wants it to be! He realizes he has caused many people pain-- pain which they wear like a necklace, on display, hanging on necks and weighing on their chests.

Then Simon assesses two more personality types. Some are unsatisfied, and are defined by "what they lack."  Some are remorseless; they "open a door/ Walk away and never look back."

Still, Simon refuses to "judge" others, only himself. He is very remorseful of "what [he] was" in the past. As for the present, he says, "I know who I am."

And for the future? "Lord knows who I will be." The future is unknown... and unknowable! Is this a reason to fear?

No, Simon asserts, it is a reason to hope! If anything can happen, then that must include good things. Is the future uncertain? Good! Then he has time to apologize, and to improve. "That's the way it's always been/ That's the way I like it/ And that's how I want it to be."

Next Song: Love

Monday, December 10, 2012

Look at That

This song, like "Train in the Distance," tells the story of a relationship, of a life, but in much more abstract terms. So abstract, in some lines there are not even words.

The song begins with the symbolic line "Drop a stone in the abyss." In a basic sense, all of our actions are only meaningful to us, in the scope of the infinite universe and its eternal timeline, naught but a stone dropped in the abyss. (Compare to the Kansas lyric, "All we are is dust in the wind.")

But in a metaphoric sense, this can refer to a conception, if one imagines the "stone" and "abyss" are a seed in a hole... or a sperm in a womb. From that beginning, "anything can happen."

Then comes a "hug and a kiss." This could be between lovers, or a parent and child. The latter seems more likely, as the next thing that happens is going "off to school." In the larger sense, it might mean something my neighbor-- who never went to a university but still built a successful business-- once said: "Every day is college, if you pay attention." As Simon puts it: "You might learn something/ You never know,"

Well, after all that school, or at least schooling, comes what? Marriage. "Lovers merge and make a wish/ They close their eyes, and now their dreams are legal." 

Then comes an image of an "eagle," which admittedly might just be there to rhyme with "legal," or it might symbolize America, nature, or other larger forces at work, against the background of which the marriage will take place. 

These images also appear in the same section of the Bible. God says he will carry the Jews out of Egyptian bondage "on the wings of eagles," and is said to have guarded the Jewish camp in the wilderness with a "pillar of cloud" by day and a "pillar of fire" by night. Here, Simon's eagle flies "over the mountain" (Mt. Sinai?) through "clouds of fire" [emphasis mine]. So there might be a sense of God protecting this love-journey the way the passage in the wilderness-- envisioned by some sages as the marriage between God and the people-- was.

Then Simon backs up for a minute to the moment of the marriage proposal: "Ask somebody to love you/ Takes a lot of nerve." No one who has every made or received a marriage proposal needs to have this explained.

As the children's rhyme goes: "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage." The baby, of course, has to learn to talk. And we hear it do so: "ma ma ma," and "da da da." Then it learns to sing: "la la la/ Oom bop a doom." Now, this is Simon's imagined kid-- so when it learns to sing, it learns to sing doo-wop!

And, this is Simon's relationship song, so the relationship has to have... issues. "This is near enough to bliss." (Oh, gee, thanks... I love you too!) "Then over the top we go and down to the bottom." (Well, what did you expect, with that attitude?) "If you were looking for worries/ You got 'em." It's "Darling Lorraine" all over again.

Then there is a series of other nonsense sounds that are less recognizable: "tih," "guh," and "lih." This may represent being at a loss for words, being in a situation that's inexplicable. It may represent finding oneself, as the speaker in "Call Me Al" does, "in a strange world," in which the very words being spoken are unintelligible to him. 

Personally, I think these are supposed to represent the sounds of musical instruments. "Tih" sounds like a light, high tapping, maybe of a "high-hat" cymbal. "Guh" could be a bass or drum. And "lih" is perhaps the strumming of a guitar or other string instrument. Rhythm, bass, and treble are the basic building blocks of music worldwide, so this series of sounds may represent the learning of musical skill and composition.

Every once in a while, you also get an epiphany in life: "Come awake, come alive." And what is it, in this case? "Common sense, we survive." Evidently, there is a calming down, an acceptance, and "we"-- either this couple or the human race in general-- continues. 

And then? Why, life goes on, of course. "Down the road we go/ You might learn something, you never know. But anyway, you got to go." This last line might mean that life proceeds whether we like it to or not. Or it could mean we must "go" in the final sense: die. If so, it would be the logical end to a song about a lifespan.

The repeated title line: "Look at that!" means "Well, would you look at that!" in the astonished sense. But coupled with "look at this" every time, it implies: "Look far, look near-- and you will find the same patterns." Yes, marvel in wonderment at "that"... and now recognize it in "this," your own life...

"Just like that," in an unexpected instance. "Just like this," right now.

Next Song: Senorita with a Necklace of Tears

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Teacher

In "Old," Simon drops the names of  Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha, but seems to give his own religious heritage, that of Judaism, short shrift, not even explicitly mentioning it. Perhaps Simon was saving that discussion for another song-- namely, this one. Here, the imagery seems to come largely from The Five Books of Moses.

Or, at least, from his Tablets, on which the words of The Ten Commandments were inscribed by God. This Teacher's "words are like tablets of stone," as well.

The fact that he is a "teacher" as opposed to other religious titles (reverend, minister, priest, etc.) is indicative as well. Several major figures in Judaism are known by honorific appellations, such as Adam the First, David the King, Elijah the Prophet, Samson the Strong, Abraham our Father... and Moses our Teacher.

Even the lines "I was an only child of the city/ My parents were of immigrant stock" could refer to the situation of one of the Jewish slaves to Pharaoh in the city of Cairo, whose parents were descendants of Jacob's sons, themselves residents of The Promised Land and not natives. And like Moses, The Teacher leads his flock on an exodus: "Gather your goods and follow me," he intones, meaning to literally travel after him as well as to follow his teachings. The Teacher's warning is also Biblical in tone; "...or you shall surely die" is a line often repeated in the Old Testament.

But this is not Moses, merely a Moses-like figure. How do we know? This teacher leads his followers to a mountain, but not to Mt. Sinai. First, the Children of Israel never ascended the mountain themselves as those in this song do. Second, while it may snow every once in a great while in the Sinai Desert, Moses encountered no "napkin of snow" there, and it was not "cold" enough to prevent people from "catch[ing] their breath." at The Revelation. Further, Moses' followers ate manna from Heaven, and these forage for "berries." Lastly, Moses dies. This Teacher enigmatically "divided in two."

Very well, then, while this teacher in some ways recalls and evokes Moses, he is not meant to invoke, to be, Moses. So who is he? He is some sort of charismatic leader who can persuade people to leave a nice, warm "city" and subsist on "berries and roots" in the frozen wilderness.

And what is his very alluring message? "It's easier to learn than unlearn." You can't unlearn things where you are; you have to move outside of your comfort zone, away from the things and people that would re-enforce your spiritual status quo. Abraham was told by God to leave his land and home-- and Jacob, Joseph, Moses and David all had to as well-- when they underwent spiritual growth.

After The Teacher ages to a certain degree, he undergoes a division usually reserved for one-celled organisms-- he splits in half. One half eats, and the other drinks. The eating half consumes "the forests and  fields" the other drinks-- not the rivers or seas as we might expect (perhaps there are none at the tops of freezing mountains)-- but the "moisture from the clouds."

This is surprising, considering that he could not have been hungry to begin with. After all, it was partially "abundance" that slowed his "step." And, in fact, the followers are "amazed at the power of his appetite." (To consume all that-- and on a full stomach, too!)

The Teacher, who so far has seems powerful but still human, reveals himself to be some sort of unearthly force, if we are to take this imagery literally. If not, he seems to abandon his beliefs of frugality once he experiences "abundance" and becomes a megalomaniac, commandeering every resource and leaving his followers with nothing.

"Sometimes we don't know who we are," the follower laments. Of course, he means himself, but his "we" could include The Teacher, who seems to have forgotten himself. "Sometimes force overpowers us and we cry," the follower continues. First, the Teacher's persuasion led them on a quest into the wilderness, only to abandon them to their privations, but again, The Teacher himself might have been overpowered by a greater force: greed.

Lastly, he calls out to The Teacher to "carry [him] home." Yes, he wants to go back to somewhere warm already-- enough with this endless wandering in the wilderness!-- but he might also be calling The Teacher to return to his own senses and mission: the care of his flock. Maybe by remembering his goals, he will come back to himself. It is unlikely that he will; even before leaving, The Teacher asserted that they were "past the point of no return."

The follower calls out to his leader, recalcitrant though he may be. The follower does not, however, call out to God! Why not? Well, when the followers were subsisting on berries and roots, The Teacher helped provide those. But "The Dreamer of Love" was not helpful even to that meager degree. "Deeper and deeper," He was asleep "on a quilt of stars." Again, when The Teacher began to ravage the land and sky with his insatiability, The Dreamer only slept deeper still.

This is a tale of double abandonment. The Teacher led his followers into a place of danger, and rather than protecting them or taking them to a new home, simply begins to satisfy himself. And God is only interested in dreaming of perfect love, not in the messiness of life.

This profoundly sad song ends with an unanswered plea: "Carry me home!" Perhaps, it is time to stop being followers, to stop asking to be carried. Perhaps it is time to lead themselves out of the wilderness. To walk.

Next Song: Look at That