Monday, May 27, 2013

Love & Blessings

The first thing we have to deal with is the official title of this track. The album's notes and cover use an '&,' but the website uses "And" (yes, with a capital 'A'). The Lyrics book, meanwhile, uses "and," with the grammatically correct lowercase 'a.' As there is no agreement, I am going with the &; because the album is the original document, and the one most listeners will encounter.

"Love & Blessings" is the last in the triptych of "Love" songs on this album (the others being "Love and Hard Times" and "Love is Eternal Sacred Light.").

The song seems to be about a revivification of an entire country or area. "Love and blessings/ Simple kindness/ Fell like rain on a thirsty land." This image seems to follow that of the second verse of "Boy in the Bubble": "the dry wind" "desert" "dead sand/ Falling." Here, "Fields and gardens.../ Came to life in dust and sand."

Relationships were revived as well: "as if old love was new." And business boomed, too-- along with, not in exploitation of-- this phenomenon: "Banker's pockets overflowing with gold and money."

Then the song shifts to a series of call-and-response phrases. A gospel choir sings "bop-bop-a-whoa," and the speaker replies "Ain't no song like and old song, Charlie," in reference to the fact that this is a sample of a song from 1938, at least (see the Musical Note below).

Who is Charlie? Is it Fat Charlie the Archangel from "Crazy Love, Vol II"? No, Simon uses this name to set up the next line: "Ain't no time like a good time, Charlie." A "good-time Charlie" is a "life-of-the-party" sort of fellow, so this line is a pun.

This, in turn, shifts to "Ain't no times like the good times, Charlie." The good times being, it seems, those filled with "love and blessings," "simple kindness," romance, and full granaries and coffers, all as described above.

Back to "bop-bop-a-whoa," a phrase that proves the link between gospel and doo-wop, two of Simon's favorite genres and ones referred to many times on this album in particular. But here, it seems a shorthand for... something. "Everybody [is] working for" it and one "Can't get enough of" it. But what is it? Money? Sex? Maybe it is different things for different people, the thing that makes them excited.

Tonally, we now shift back to the start of the song, with its imagery of nature and its effects on people. "If the summer kept a secret/ It was heaven's lack of rain." This is ambiguous at best. If it said, "If the summer kept a secret/ it was heaven's rain," then we would assume that the rain was held back, like a secret unspoken, and there was a drought. But "secret... lack of" is double negative of sorts. So... there was little rain, but the heavens didn't tell us about it? I think we would know how much or little rain there was, in any case! We would be the ones who were wet or dry.

From the next lines, it seems that rain was gone... but not missed, at least not by him: "Golden days and amber sunsets/ Let the scientists complain." However, the scientists soon have company in their worried grousing. The autumn leaves were "drained of color." How bad in the drought? "Ghosts in the water beg for more" (and what an evocative image!). Yet, is this true... or is it just that our "memory" was clearer?

The song ends with the speaker being "woken from [his] sleep" by "something." It seems to be the realization that "Love and blessings... [are] ours to hold but not to keep." This echoes Robert Frost's assertion that "nothing gold can stay."

Simon seems to be expressing two related themes, here. One is that the nature of abundance (and scarcity) is cyclical. The other is that people and society change in accordance with these cycles. Abundance brings warmth, which then turns cold when drought sets in. Once we become aware of this, however, we can adjust our behavior, and stay warm toward each other even when times are less kind.

Musical Note:
The "bop-bop-a-whoa" heard in the song is, appropriately for the "bridge" of the song, sampled from The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, specifically, their 1938 song "Golden Gate Gospel Train." (I am unsure whether the group named the song, vice versa, or neither). It was BB King who pointed Simon to the group, when they met backstage at Madison Square Garden for the 25th Anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Next Song: So Beautiful or So What

Monday, May 20, 2013

Questions for the Angels

This song ranges across many spectra, from poverty to wealth, from human to animal, and then from human to divine. As the title indicates, it contains many "questions," and as they are meant for "angels," perhaps it is foolish for us to expect answers.

The central image is a "pilgrim," one on a spiritual quest. Not just a journey-- a pilgrim is headed toward a destination, usually a shrine. At this point, we do not know what this is, merely that it lies on  one side of the Brooklyn Bridge, presumably the New York side. We also know that he is poor, as we wears "torn" shoes.

It is dawn, "when the homeless move their cardboard blankets." This is how time is told in a city, not by, say, the crowing of a rooster. Image-wise, we are back on "Bleecker Street."

He has two questions on a piece of paper. The first one is philosophical: "Who am I in this lonely word?" As if his essence was defined by others-- if he was not lonely, he would know who he was. But he is lonely, and he does not.

The other question is practical: "Where will I make my bed tonight/ When twilight turns to dark?" (The question mark is improperly placed, in the website and liner notes, at the end of the word "tonight." It is properly placed, in the Lyrics book, after "dark.") It is only dawn, and yet he worries about his sleeping place for the coming night. As well he should, being alone in the world.

The speaker shrugs, sighing that these questions are for the angels, and who believes in those? "Fools and pilgrims all over the world," he answers himself.

In his series of essays published as The Myth of Sissyphus, Camus posits that hope and despair are equally absurd, since the future is unknowable. Given two equally absurd choices, he chooses the one that leads to life and not, as he puts it, suicide. So he uses wisdom and logic to wind up in roughly the same place this speaker does, on the side of hope and angels, even if both know the viewpoint is not substantiated by fact and never could be.

The speaker's next question is about love-- if you lower your romantic expectations and "shop for love in a bargain store," do you have the right to be disappointed? "Can you get your money back?" The question is moot. Even if you shop for love at Tiffany's, and "you don't get what you bargained for," you not only can't get your money back, but you may have to pay an attorney additional money just to be rid of your relationship.

His next question is about the life choices: "If an empty train... calls you... can you choose another track?" This question might well be directed, instead of at the angels, toward the pilgrim, since he travels, as it were, alone on an "empty train." Could he, instead, choose another track instead of his pilgrimage toward no shrine, even if he felt "called" to this life?  Just because we are called does not mean we have to accept, after all.

The penultimate question is not rhetorical or sarcastic at all. In it, the speaker finally reveals something about himself: "Will l I wake up from these violent dreams/ With my hair as white as the morning Moon?"

Wait, what "dreams"? Or are all of these images taken from his nightmares? The lonely, poor "pilgrim," the "bargain store" for love, the vacant "train"? In what way are they "violent"-- do they have a fearsome quality that is not readily observable?

A lone, aimless quest... a relationship that lived down to its low expectations... a train void of passengers-- these may well be haunted dream images. They speak of stark isolation; no other people appear in them, at least none that are interacted with. They are as stark as Hopper paintings.

The question comes again, "Who believes in angels?" This time the answer returns, "I do." The speaker now counts himself among the "fools and pilgrims."

Speaking of which, where is our pilgrim now? He is noticing a billboard, on which Jay-Z, the rap mogul, is pictured "with a kid on each knee." He isn't selling music, however, but "clothes that he wants us to try."

The image might recall that of the Virgin Mary, with the babies Jesus and John the Baptist, one on each knee. Or it just may be an image that caught Simon off guard-- here is a man who made his money on lyrics about crime and punishment, pride and prejudice. And now he wants to position himself as a father figure and fashion arbiter.

If nothing else, this pilgrim with "torn shoes" is miles away, in many senses, from the image he sees. But this is not the shrine he seeks in any case, as he is only "passing" it.

The last "question for the angels" is this: If the human species became extinct instead of another, would a given zebra "care enough to shed one zebra tear?" Given that this meant his hide was safe from becoming a wall hanging, probably not. He might wonder where all the camera-slinging tourists and gun-toting poachers went; probably not. But you don't need an angel to tell you that.

Still, if we don't matter to zebras, and-- as the song indicates-- we don't matter much to our fellow humans either, then, well,... who do we matter to? We matter to someone, right? Must be angels, then. We need to believe in them, if only to feel that someone believes in us.

This subtle track sounds lovely, almost lullaby-like. But the images it presents and the questions it raises are haunting. Simon hasn't been this chilling since "Poem on the Underground Wall" or "Patterns," only this time instead of impending dread, the mood is eerie emptiness.

Musical Note:
One interesting instrument on this track is the celetse, a proto-piano with metal plates instead of wires. The other is a marimba, a xylophone with resonators, or tuned tubes, hung below the wooden bars, as on a vibraphone.

Next Song: Love & Blessings

Monday, May 13, 2013

Love is Eternal Sacred Light

"Man plans and God laughs" is a classic Yiddish saying. Here, Simon paraphrases that: "Mankind theorizes, and God laughs." (This is the second of three songs on this album whose titles start with the word "love.")

This uptempo song starts with the chorus, defining the opposites of "love" and "hate." The former is a "light," the latter a "darkness." The former is "eternal," but the latter is a destructive "demon that feeds on the mind."

The first set of verses summarize the theory of the universe's beginnings: "Started with a bang... stars and planets... fire... colors... Moonlight... earth." While scientifically accurate, Simon's version is poetic as well, with verbs like "sang," "flew," and "warmed."

The next verse summarizes all of human history. "Earth became a farm/ Farmer takes a wife" (this last phrase is from the children's song-game "Farmer in the Dell"). So we have agriculture, society, even religion and poetry: "Wife becomes a river and the giver of life."

The next line takes us up through the Industrial Revolution-- "Man becomes a machine"-- and then terrorism: "a bomb in the marketplace." This takes up some of the themes and images of Graceland, especially the "Boy in the Bubble."

Well, now it's God rebuttal. Creation? "Big Bang/ That's a joke I made up." How do we know it's God? He says he has "eons to kill." Sadly, we haven't figured out when He's "joking/ someday they will."

God's summary of human existence is different as well. "'Love me'/ That's the main request I receive." Does He answer such prayers? "I love all My children/ Tears me up when I leave."

[Note: in the song, Simon lowers his voice to indicate that God speaks these two verses. He then raises it to its usual pitch for the next verses, which indicate that it is no longer Him. However, in the lyrics, the first-person is not changed at this point, so from the point of view of the song as a poem-- without the clues of the performance-- it continues to be God speaking.]

The idea of God leaving is reiterated from the previous track, "Love and Hard Times." The same way that this off-hand God jokes, He also is, in the words of the Allman Brothers, a ramblin' man: "Sometimes you gotta fly down that highway... [in] a new pre-owned '96 Ford."

Of His ability to take such vacations, God mockingly quotes some human cliches: "Free as a bird, knock on wood, thank the Lord." He's not thanking himself, just pointing out that such pagan concepts as knocking on wood sit comfortably in human minds alongside religion, despite our protests to the contrary.

According to Simon, God is not a fan recent human culture, either: "...pop music station/ That don't sound like music to me." Turning the dial allows Him to comment on another human innovation: "Politics is ugly." God, it seems, is not impressed with millennia of human endeavor.

Except... "At the end of the dial there's the gospel show." While Simon is no secret fan of such music, it is interesting that he thinks God might be, too. Yes, it is beautiful and powerful and harmonious, but it also praises God endlessly. Seems that while God gripes about how all the humans want is for God to "love" them, He's not above soaking up some admiration and adulation Himself.

At this, God pulls off the highway. Why? "There's a blizzard rolling down off the banks of Lake Michigan." Wait, can't God stop the storm? Or divert it only away from Himself?

Sure... but why? God, being omnipotent and beyond time, is in no rush. He also has no real reasons to interfere with the weather patterns He set in motion. Lastly, he seems glad for the excuse to "rest."

Throughout the song, the chorus repeats. Love is light, hate is "sight without sight." As Simon said long ago in in "Sound of Silence," "talking without speaking" and "hearing without listening" lead to despair and idolatry. So "sight without sight," or "looking withing seeing" is a result of hate-- you see the person's skin or clothes, not the person.

Regardless of which is true-- the Big Bang or The Good Book (or even the Big Bang being the "how" of Creation, and the Bible being the "why")-- love is eternal, and eternally good. And hate is evil and destructive, the opposite of creative.

This is the second song on the album so far to deal directly with the idea of Heavenly love, and here that seems the focus, love as a concept, not a romantic relationship. We shall return to the triptych a few songs hence.

Musical note:
The musical referents on this song show that, while Simon has explored the world's music, he is still an aficionado of American roots music.

The background vocals are done by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, a bluegrass act we met in the earlier song "Dazzling Blue."

The harmonica solo is performed by blind harpist Sonny Terry, a folk-blues legend. He played Carnegie Hall back in 1938, made recordings for The Library of Congress, and accompanied Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. He even had a two-year run on Broadway as part of the musical Finian's Rainbow. In the 1950s, he turned to R&B, then back to folk when that wave swept through the '60s. His recordings with guitarist Brownie McGhee are acoustic classics, prized by fans of both folk and blues music. He passed away in 1986, at age 74.

There is also a sample of a 1929 song called "Train Whistle Blues," a Jimmie Rodgers... track. Known as "The Singing Brakeman," Rodgers was a country singer specializing in train-related songs. This particular song is a standard-style blues number about a penniless man hopping a passing train. It is used in the background when the radio in the song reaches the gospel station.

Next song: Questions for the Angels

Monday, May 6, 2013

Love and Hard Times

This song seems to be part of a triptych, on this album, of songs whose titles start with the word "Love."

It is a curious song. Like many other of Simon's songs, it seems like two songs sewn together. At first.

The first records a visit, or perhaps a "visitation," by God and Jesus on Earth. Naturally, this happens on a "Sunday morning," when it was Sunday in the Western Hemisphere, that is. We know this because of the "cottonwood" trees mentioned.

In any case, Nature welcomed Them with "orange blossoms," and "songbirds." And the humans? "Old folks wept for His love in these hard times." God, not the Son, seems to be the antecedent of "His." Also, it seems that the "times" were known to be "hard" already, and that the Divine Presence(s) brought "love."

It was only to be a brief visit, a "courtesy call," so it soon came time to leave. After all, as the Lord says unto His Son, "There are galaxies yet to be born/ Creation is never done." Furthermore, God doesn't care much for the "slobs" of Earth who will only create a "mob scene" if They stick around. Interesting that of all the pejoratives, the Lord thinks of humans as messy; perhaps it's the way we dress, but more likely the way we spread our mess all over God's (once) Green Earth.

"But," God does note, if They "disappear," then what's left is "love and hard times." Which implies that "love" is a constant whether God is here or not, but "hard times" return when He leaves.

At this point, it is as if another song starts, a love song (and the music agrees, as more instruments are added and the melody shifts). "I loved her the first time I saw her," the speaker says, immediately apologizing, "I know that's an old songwriting cliche." He follows it with another: "The light of her beauty was warm as a summer day." Actually, that's not only a cliche, but a mixed metaphor; light is "bright," not "warm."

But then, we see the pen of a true songwriter: "Clouds of antelope roll by/ No hint of rain to come in the prairie sky." So this love at first sight gives no sign that sorrow will follow. Everything from here to the horizon is "just love." And... no hard times.

Yes, but this is Earth, not Heaven. "When the rains came, the tears burned/ Windows rattled, locks turned." Well, sure-- there was no sign of rain, so no one thought to bring an umbrella, and now everyone is soaked and miserable.

Here, the speaker offers this observation: "It's easy to be generous when you're on a roll/ It's hard to be grateful when you're out of control." So... hard times? "...love is gone."

Then "dawn" comes back into the bedroom. The house noises are keeping the speaker awake. And he is "uneasy," probably now more than before, since before he was just "out of control"... and now it seems that his relationship is suffering because of that, too!

"But then your hand takes mine." Oh, so the relationship is stronger than his unease after all. And even stronger than the turmoil and ingratitude that his unease caused. His reaction? Sheer gratitude: "Thank God I found you in time."

Excuse me? Thank whom? Or, rather, Whom? Why, God, of course. Who we thought had left. Guess not. Oh, omnipresence... right.

So it's not "love" or "hard times, but "and." We think that hard times come and go whether or not God is Present. Or that both can't co-exist without God.

But neither is true. Love and hard times are always with us. Sometimes, we feel God's love directly. Sometimes, the love comes from others. Sometimes we feel that human love is a manifestation, or gift, of Divine Love.

But love is there despite hard times. Or, for all we know, because of them.


Musical note:
The word "celli" in the liner notes does not refer to an exotic instrument; it is the formal plural of "cello."

(Also, there are rhymes in this song, but you have to find some of them.)

Next Song: Love is Eternal Sacred Light