Monday, February 25, 2013

Beautiful

While there may be some question as to whom the speaker is on various songs on this album, I am fairly certain Simon has not adopted-- as the speaker here has-- three babies from overseas.

The song uses the activities of a growing family to mark the time. It begins with the image of a melting "snowman," so we can assume the time is either during the January thaw or in, say, March, assuming the speaker lives in the northern U.S.

The family depicted, two adults and one baby, must have built the snowman together. Now, this image of outdoor playfulness is falling victim to having "a little bit too much fun," and its snow head has evaporated. This symbol might serve as a reminder to the parents of the, well, head-erasing "fun" they used to have before the demands of childcare. Now, they "don't have time to waste."

Still, they must feel a fondness for parenthood, because the next thing you know, they (quite alliteratively!) "brought a brand-new baby back from Bangladesh." They name her "Emily" (not, say "Brenda" or "Bessie") and-- if they say so themselves-- agree she is "beautiful."

Yes, the snowman is headless, but he somehow retains a corpulent "belly" despite the lack of a mouth, which the speaker finds amusing. The adults are still doing laundry, stepping over their now "two [children] on the kitchen floor." This seems to imply that both babies are less than a year old, and are not yet walking.

But still, neither is "brand-new" anymore! So, they add one who is, adopting this time from China. This baby, another girl, "sailed across the China Sea," which seems like an unnecessarily long ocean voyage for a newborn. It is possible that the word "sailed" is used metaphorically, and she was flown. Be that as it may, it she traveled across the Pacific, that would seem to imply that our family lives in the western half of the US.

And now it is "summertime." (Simon throws in a Beatles reference, saying that you don't need a "ticket to ride" the children's go-kart.) No laundry this time-- just a "water-slide," "danicin' in the grass" and a trip to "the candy stand." And we have a "kid" in the grass, not a "baby."

While the earlier reference to danger only affected the snowman, now we have a more strident (repeated) warning: "You better keep an eye of them children... in the pool." Sadly, children have been known to drown even in the shallowest of pools, so this is sage advice: Try not to have "too much fun," kids.

It also opens up the realization that, as their mobility increases, the dangers children face increase and change as well.

Now, we see the couple adopt again, this time from the Balkan region of Kosovo. Only... this was not a new adoption. This was "seven years ago"! The implication seems to be that this was their first child, the one who was in the "nursery" in the first verse.

Then, this, about him: "He cried all night, could not sleep." Children are subject to danger even before they are old enough to build snowmen or go down water-slides. They are subject to war, poverty, disease, and any number of other threats. Why could this baby not sleep? Some trauma, either violence or being orphaned? Illness or colic?

Yet, as difficult as those sleepless nights were, the couple went on to adopt (at least! the song is only so long!) two more children, each from a dangerous part of the world. They brought them back to raise them in relative safety, calm and comfort.

Why? They cannot seem to be able to answer that themselves. Adoption is an expensive process, in terms of money, but also hassle and potential anguish. Perhaps they were infertile; perhaps they felt it was wrong to have their own children when so many already needed good homes.

Perhaps reasons are not at play, but emotions. Even though their Kosovar baby was sleepless (and made them so), they found his eyes "bright, dark, and deep." The found him-- and their other babies-- to be, in a word, "beautiful."

Yes, they will not bear children. Yes, adoption is a grueling struggle. As is baby-raising itself. When it is not tiresome, it's potentially terrifying ("Keep your eye on them children by the pool.").

And yet the answer to danger and drama is not to shut down or shut off. Yes, the snowman was doomed the minute he was patted together and adorned with button eyes-- but he did have some fun while he was around.

And yes, raising children is difficult, even dangerous. But the answer to fear is beauty. Even if life is fragile, it is still worth it. Even if the pool is hazardous, you still jump in-- you just make sure there is a lifeguard.

Is there war? Poverty? Death? Well, the answer to death is life, and more life. The answer to families being rent apart is families being sewn together. The answer to poverty and oppression and war is babies and beauty.

The answer to a melted snowman is to get some more snowman-builders, so you can build a bigger one the next time it snows, and he'll last longer. Or maybe you could build a whole snow-family, so even when they melt, they can all melt together and none has to face losing face (and head!) alone.

Oh, and my two-and-a-half year old already helps with the laundry. So there's that, too.


Next Song: I Don't Believe


Monday, February 18, 2013

Wartime Prayers

This is one of Simon's best, strongest songs. It ranks-- in terms of its sheer poetic quality, its moving melody, and its profound insights-- with his finest work overall.

Does Simon believe in God? Well, that depends on what you mean by "believe in." In the sense of "Do you believe in angels?" it seems so. In the sense that a coach means when he says, "I believe in you," to a nervous little-leaguer, perhaps not. Even in his first song with Garfunkel, "Bleecker Street," he believed that there was a "fog" that "hides the Shepherd from His sheep."

Yet, here, it seems Simon does believe in, does put stock in, prayer! It may seem disingenuous to say that prayer works if God is unresponsive. But again, it depends on what you mean by "works." Does God answer all prayers the way we wish? Well, no. Does praying help us feel better? It can.

The speaker, probably Simon himself, starts here by delineating the difference between peacetime and wartime prayers. Peacetime prayers, he says, focus on "appeals for love"-- maybe romantic, or familial, or even Divine-- or "love's release," a less clear idea. Is this a release from love? Does it mean that we pray to stop loving someone, or that they stop loving us? Or is this "release" in the sense of salvation-- yes, we have love, but we wanted it to save us, and it has not! (And perhaps it is a release of a more, ahem, physical nature.) In any case, peacetime prayers are "silent" and "private" and seem to take safety for granted, now upping the request for fulfillment.

Simon, unlike Springsteen, did not write an immediate response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still raging when he wrote and published this song, with what seems a clear reference to those attacks-- "the fires"--  which targeted his beloved New York.

In an post-9/11 world, "people hungry for the voice of God"-- one of commanding reassurance-- "hear lunatics and liars." These unspecified miscreants must include politicians, pundits, and clergy of all faiths, all in full-throated condemnation of each other, accepting no blame unto themselves.

So these days, we have "wartime prayers," given "in every language"-- including ours and those of our enemies! And not for love, anymore, but "For every family scattered and broken." All sides in a war send soldiers away... and either do not receive them back at all... or the same. Such families no longer take basic safety for granted. No longer is the prayer "please let him/her love me," but "please let him/her not get blown up."

Having defined his terms, Simon dismisses the notion that he has any answers to the situation, even cynical, public relations-style ones: "I don't pretend that I'm a mastermind with a genius marketing plan."

He does, however, lay out his personal plan of action. He acknowledges that prayers are not accepted from a less than pure heart: "You cannot walk with the holy if you're just a halfway decent man."

First, let us pause to find the source of this expression, "walk with the holy." In the early part of The Book of Genesis, we meet Noah, who it says is "a man of righteousness, perfect in his generation." The next line? "With God walked Noah." Noah was a man who also lived at a time of great destruction, yet was able to rise above it, both figuratively and literally.

Back to our speaker. What is the plan for achieving a higher state of decency, and thereby, holiness? To seek a source of "wisdom," to "rid [his] heart of envy," and "cleanse [his] soul of rage." So it is a matter of adding some more knowledge and insight, making room for these by ridding himself of some distasteful traits (that happen to be two of the Seven Deadly Sins, "rage" and "wrath" being synonyms).

"Wisdom" is more than just "intelligence," the ability to think. And it is more than "knowledge," the accumulation of facts. Wisdom is the result of the application of intelligence to knowledge-- what you think about what you know. This is such a laborious process that the speaker is willing to settle for "a little drop" of wisdom! (John Gorka's song "Wisdom" is very good discussion on this matter.)

"Envy" is the wanting of what someone else has. Not just ambition, wanting what you don't have, but wanting you to have it... and them not to. And "rage" is such a high level of indignation that one becomes undignified altogether. So both are self-consuming passions, devouring much while producing nothing.

Returning to current events, yes, there are wars, repression, and recession, "But everyone knows/ all about hard times." So what's your plan to cope? "Well, you cry and you try to muscle through/ And try to rearrange your stuff." Realizing your powerlessness over global events, you focus on yourself and your immediate world. (This passage echos the Serenity Prayer, which speaks of the "serenity to accept what I cannot change" and the "courage to change what I can.")

But then comes the breaking point. When that is reached: "We wrap ourselves in prayer." And so Simon comes back to his theme.

The image of "wrapping" oneself "in prayer" may come from the religion Simon was born into-- Judaism. The Jewish prayer shawl is called a "talit" (tah-LEET) in Hebrew, from a word meaning "to cover." To don the shawl, one wraps oneself in it, pulling it across one's shoulders all the way around one's bowed head. Once so cocooned, one utters the blessing regarding the commandment "to wrap" ourselves in this garment.

Nevertheless, the metaphor of being wrapped in prayer is so easily understood that the Jessy Dixon Singers are able to sing the line in soaring gospel harmony without, one assumes, guessing that it may have a specific ritual origin, let alone a Jewish one.

The song closes with none of the global geopolitics or moral philosophizing of the above verses. Rather, we see a "mother" allowing her babies to share her bed; she is falling asleep and "draws [them] closer." She nuzzles and "kisses" them. Then, "To drive away despair/ She says a wartime prayer."

Where is her husband? If this is the prayer she whispers, hers must be one of those "families scattered and broken." So he is at war.

Perhaps the babies are in the bed for their sake; they might be having nightmares with him gone. Or maybe they are there for her. Maybe she needs them close because of her own loneliness and fear; she is also at the point of "all that she can bear."

Does prayer work? It must, on some level. Otherwise, we would not keep doing it after thousands of years. As long as there are love and war, it seems, there will be prayer. Whether Anyone is listening or not.

MUSICAL NOTES
Jessy Dixon, along with his backup singers, performed with Simon in many contexts, including on his television special, on Saturday Night Live, and his Still Crazy and Live Rhymin' albums. Dixon died in 2011 of cancer, but not before writing for female superstars like Diana Ross, Cher, and Natalie Cole.

On piano is Herbie Hancock, a jazz legend. While he played with the challenging Miles Davis, he was remarkably accessible in his own work, integrating electronics and funk into jazzHe had a hit video with his instrumental "Rockit," and in 2008 won the Album of the Year Grammy for a Joni Mitchell tribute album.

Next song: Beautiful

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sure Don't Feel Like Love

While this song purports to be about "love," there is no story here of a relationship. Well, a reference to one toward the very end, but nothing like "Train in the Distance" or "Dangling Conversation," which also don't feel like love but at least are about love.

No, here we first hear about "register(ing) to vote." We know how Simon feels about the political process from the lines in "Mrs. Robinson": "Going to the candidates' debate... every way you look at it, you lose." So when he tells us he "felt like a fool" even though he registered out of a sense of obligation, we aren't surprised.

But then he says, self-referentially: "Thing about... 'felt like a fool'?/ People say it all the time/ Even when it's true." So... is he saying that he meant it, or that he didn't? If he would have stopped with "people say it all the time," then the listener would think, "Oh, so he didn't really feel like a fool, he just thought it would sound uncool to say that voting was cool."

Only now, we have "Even when it's true" [emphasis mine]. Which means, "Yes, I know people throw that phrase around-- but sometimes they do mean it, like I do now."

The next line implies that a "conscience" is a person, or at least the kind of entity that could be referred to as a "who." The one that comes to mind (I think is does for most of us) is Jiminy Cricket, the embodiment of the conscience we all all familiar with from the 1940 Disney version of the Pinocchio story (In the original 1883 Italian version, Pinocchio kills the cricket, but its ghost still advises him. In that version, the cricket has no name, but "Jiminy Cricket!" is one American euphemism for the interjection "Jesus Christ!" among many, ranging from "Jeepers Creepers!" and "Judas Priest!" to "Cheese and rice!").

Perhaps Simon is familiar with the original Pinocchio version after all, for in this song, the conscience ends up "sticking on the sole of [his] shoe" like a squashed bug! Does he stomp on the conscience intentionally, or is he so unaware that he has one that he trod upon it unknowingly-- is he immoral or amoral? Either way, it is silenced.

And "it sure don't feel like love." The pressure of a stepped-on thing underfoot, we must agree, is not the sensation we associate with love. Nor is (depending on what "it" refers to, what its antecedent is) registering to vote, or feeling like a fool.

Still, we are not sure why we need to be told this-- were we supposed to expect that these things should feel like love? Perhaps, insofar as voting, yes. Perhaps we are supposed to feel love for, and feel loved by, the person leading and protecting us and making laws and decisions on our behalf. Yet, we don't.

The next verse gives us a short lesson on biochemistry: "A teardrop consists of electrolytes and salt." This bit of trivia reminds us of the line from "Senorita" about the cure-all frog. But Simon again says that tears, "blame" and "fault," all do not feel like love.

How does a conscience feel, then? Simon asks as much, responding: "Feels like a threat/ A voice in your head that you'd rather forget." A conscience is less of an unconditional affection type and more of a potentially punishing, always-scolding nag. And while it is a "voice," it is an internal, "in-your-head" one and so "unspoken." Nevertheless, its harangues can make you "sick."

Well, if a pebble-in-your-shoe, thorn-in-your-side, bee-in-your-bonnet conscience doesn't feel like love, what does? "Some chicken and a corn muffin." Simple sustenance, nurturing nourishment. It's called "comfort food" for a reason! Being told that you are OK and being taken care of-- fed warm, handmade food-- that feels like love. Mothering, not smothering.

Not the "Yay! Boo!" of the cartoon angel and devil on one's shoulders. Doing the right thing because you "had to do it," because of a carrot or stick, doesn't feel like love. Doing something because you want to does.

Being scolded makes you feel awful. You aren't just "wrong," and then told, that, however, you are mostly, usually right and that this is the exception. No, you are told you are "wrong again" [emphasis mine], that being wrong is the pattern... and just look, you have learned nothing after all your trials and errors.

As one does when one is told "wrong again!" Simon thinks about other times he was wrong, proving his accusing conscience's point. He immediately hits upon "August 1993." Not sure what else he was working on then, but his multi-disc box set dropped in September of that year, so perhaps it related to that. For is next example, he cites "one of [his] best friends turned enemy," which might be Garfunkel, but there is too little to go on-- it could be many people, including one his biographers don't even know about.

Then he remembers a fleeting assignation-- at least, that's what "this one time" sounds like-- in a "load-out," a military-supply storehouse. We can imaging anything happening such an unromantic place would not "feel like love," either (although he stops short of saying that he felt the incident was "wrong"!).

Of all songs, this makes me think of "Beat on the Brat" by The Ramones, a song lambasting the inanity of corporal punishment and the mindless sort who practice it. There, the response to a "brat" is to "beat" him "with a baseball bat." This sounds like the kind of thing this conscience, as described in our song, would do. Its response, asked if that were the proper recourse, would be: "What can you do/ With a brat like that?"

Well, there are other things you can do with a brat, actually! Have you tried, instead a baseball bat... maybe a corn muffin?

Next Song: "Wartime Prayers"



Monday, February 4, 2013

Outrageous

The out-and-out rock song is structured like a series of switchbacks and hairpin turns.

It begins like a rant against injustice, against those who "line their pockets off the misery of the poor" and other human rights abuses. Why can't we all just enjoy the blessings of nature, Simon muses, and "wash our face[s] in the summer... rain"?

Then the song takes an unexpected twist. Rather than continue to point his indignation outward, he directs his accusatory finger at himself; "It's outrageous a man like me stand here and complain." (Yes, with this lack of punctuation and prepositions!)

We expect the song  to then proceed in one of two ways. One would be to encourage himself to "do something" rather than just "stand there." The other would be to say that all people should do likewise.

But neither course is taken. Instead, Simon immediately pardons himself. "I'm tired/ Nine hundred sit-ups a day!" His self-maintenance is taking up all of his energy, and he has none left to volunteer, say, or advocate for a cause. On top of that, he has to disguise his age, which is also time consuming... and dispiriting! Instead of simply saying "I'm dying my hair, even-- can you believe it?!" Simon moans: "I'm painting my hair the color of mud!"

Between his age and his deceptive practices toward hiding it, who would take him seriously, anyway, should he bother to advocate for some cause: "Anybody care what I say? No! I'm painting my hair the color of mud!"

Now comes a deeper insecurity, repeated several times: "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?" So the bluster that began the song has turned to doubt and self-pity.

But... this is uncomfortable, so he lashes out again, first against the poor quality of "food they try to serve in a public school," and then being talked down to and patronized by... well, it hardly matters! Them!

Yes, there is a "blessing" to be found, not this time in nature but in relationships, in "the circle of your love." There, he finds "rest." But no peace. The last thing he finds "outrageous" is that he "can't stop thinking 'bout the things [he's] thinking of." This is the same mental restlessness that has dogged Simon for ages.

Simon repeats his litany of self-care, again wondering if he will be lovable when he is no longer attractive: "Tell me/ Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?"

Surprisingly, he hits upon an answer: "God." God's love is unconditional and free-flowing. Why, He even "waters the flowers on your windowsill." Surely, He would not abandon a human, simply because he has outlived his attractiveness! What cares God, Who has no appearance, for yours, one way or another?

So far, Simon has been speaking to the general "you," but now he makes it clear he means himself: "Take me," he says, for example. "I'm an ordinary player in the key of C," a very ordinary key. While we might see Simon as an exceptional musician, he evidently compares himself unfavorably to even more skilled players.

"My will/ Was broken by my pride and my vanity," Simon confesses. For decades, Simon has been a vocal advocate of social justice and human rights, ambitious in his career, and in general an "alpha male." But now he realizes that this fire has been doused. He seems to say: "Who's going to listen to a old codger, who can't even pull off a decent dye job to look young? Who is going to love some geezer, all gone gray?"

And he tries to find some solace that, at the last, he will still be loved by God. But even his hoped-for source of acceptance rings hollow. Even though he knows, on some level, that his lack of self-confidence is more unattractive than his gray hair, he can't help himself.

So the song that began with the soapbox orator railing against all things "outrageous" trails off with the unanswered, unfulfilled longing question: "Who's gonna love you when your looks are gone?" What began with a bang has ended with a whimper.

Yes, all of the things Simon said were "outrageous" and unacceptable are indeed so. But what he finds most unacceptable is his own mortality and impending frailty. No amount of outrage, no number of sit-ups, no tonnage (gallon-age?) of hair dye is going to stop the march of age.

He flails-- maybe he can find meaning in standing for a cause, or basking in nature, or relishing love, or worshiping God. The one place he doesn't look for love is... inside himself. But then, if no one will love him, he is unlovable! And what is the love of an unlovable person worth, anyway?

And so he unceasingly seeks outside confirmation and assurance, all while projecting the supposition that he may now be too wrinkly to love. The quest is endless, and so the song ends with an unanswered question.

Next Song: Sure Don't Feel Like Love