Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Noise

In the deservedly obscure movie Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, a secret document is supposed to be transferred between spies... onstage, during an opera. Naturally, the movie had to show the opera. It opens during a party scene. The women in the chorus-- all in high, white powdered wigs and elaborate ballgowns-- sing the following, supposedly a translation from this (imaginary) opera's original Italian:

"We're at a party, we're dancing! Dancing at a party! Party party party-- party! Dancing dancing dancing-- dancing!"

From what I know of opera, this might not be far off from the actual dialogue in some cases. Just to make the audience clear that what they are observing is, in fact, a dance party.

The point is, people at a party seems to want to hear songs about... being at a party. Lionel Richie has "All Night Long." Pink has "Get This Party Started." Kool and the Gang has "Celebration." Miley Cyrus has "Party in the USA." The Black Eyed Peas have "I Gotta Feeling." Sam Cooke has "Havin' a Party," and even mellow old James Taylor covers Cooke's "Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha."

Here, Tom and Jerry stage a rave-up, 1950s-style. "Are you coming to the party tonight?/ Are you ready for the party tonight?/ We're gonna yell and we're gonna shout/ We're gonna make some noise-- watch out!"

The next line could also be from any party song-- "Everybody's gonna be there"-- but the following one "dates" the song to its era of inception: "Stompin' 'til the break of day." The Stomp was a dance step of the time. There is a line in Chris Montez's 1962 "Let's Dance": "We'll do the Twist, the Stomp, the Mashed Potato, too/ Any old dance that you wanna do."

It's hard to remember that rock was once controversial altogether. It was the music of youthful rebellion, reviled by parents and the establishment in general (like swing before it and rap after). In the 1960s, people were still burning rock records. (An accurate treatment of the hatred rock engendered is captured by John Lithgow's performance in the movie Footloose.)

Here, Tom and Jerry turn from calling for a party to warning such opposing forces, and assuring their fellow revelers: "Nothing's gonna get in our way."

Decades before the Beastie Boys' told us is ""You gotta fight for your right to party," Tom and Jerry lobbed this shot across the bow of the "sqaures": "Everywhere that I've been lately/ People say, 'Be quiet.'/ I'm gettin' tired of all that jazz/ And I'm gonna start a riot."

Now, who are the "people" saying this? Librarians, sure, but also parents, teachers, the clergy, the police and other governmental types, and of course the self-appointed morality-imposing pundits every generation must endure.

The line "all that jazz" is an idiom for "such nonsense," but it is also a glancing blow at jazz music itself, by then a somewhat sedate musical form, calmed down from the Louis Armstrong fun and not yet subject to the abstraction of the Miles Davis era. Naturally, there were still some experimental jazz composers at the time, like Dave Brubeck, but even their music was relatively sedate compared to, say, that of Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis.

But yes, like all teens, Jerry Landis here forgets that the music of his parents-- in this case, jazz-- was once just as eyebrow-raising and hand-wringing as his own generation's.

After the word "riot," we get sax and drum solos. Again, the teens thought they had invented such things, when in fact jazz musicians like Cannonball Adderly and Gene Krupa already had done so decades before.

Our song started with "Are you coming to the party tonight," and now we turn again to the addressee of that remark. "Don't be afraid, little girl/ It'll be out of this world/ I'll rock you, come on let yourself go/ And we're gonna make some noise."

Is this using dancing as a metaphor for sex? It would be foolish to deny it. And yet, it could just be about dancing, which has its own charms. Even rock's opponents might agree.

An illustrative joke comes to mind: A groom is required to meet with his clergyman before his wedding. "There will be no dancing at the wedding," he is told. "It's... inappropriate." The groom protests, but the topic is immediately changed to the wedding night.

The clergyman says that the missionary position is ideal. "Can the woman be on top?" asks the groom. "It's not preferred, but it is acceptable," comes the reply.

"Can the man be... behind?" he asks. The man of the cloth sighs. "It is the way of animals, but there is nothing written against it."

Last, the groom ventures, "What about standing up?" "ABSOLUTELY NOT!" the clergyman thunders. "It could lead to dancing!"


Next Song: Surrender, Please Surrender

Monday, November 18, 2013

Lisa

"I'm a ramblin' man." How many songs have had those words, that sentiment... that excuse. This song is one of those.

It starts with the speaker saying that he wrote a letter to Lisa. (How many writers will find these lines describe their own process: "I got a paper and I got a pen/ I started to write, then I started again"!)

But this is not a love letter. It's a "Dear John" (Dear Jane?) letter, "a letter of good-bye."

The speaker admits that he doesn't want to break up. "This hurts me/ Just as much as it hurts you," he says. "I love you and my heart's at stake."

So why is he breaking it off? "This is something I gotta do." Is his mother dying? Is he being called off to war? Did his father, or religion, forbid the relationship? Did he just find out his ex-girlfriend is pregnant? Did he get an once-in-a-lifetime job offer overseas?

No. It's just, well, you see, the thing is, "My feet start moving and a I gotta obey... I'm a restless man/
I gotta ramble, I gotta roam/ I can't have a house and home."

Yes, he's a "Free Bird," the "King of the Road," they call him "The Wanderer"... We romanticize the nomad, the drifter, the one with the restless heart. We apologize that he has a "fear of commitment," and we rationalize that he has "trust issues."

But let's be honest. What he is, is immature. A one-year-old, if he gets distracted by a new toy, or even if just gets bored, tosses the old one aside. But a woman, a person, is not a toy... and a relationship is not a game.

"Promise me that you won't cry," he asks of Lisa. He wants to have no consequences for his actions, also a mark of immaturity. But of course his actions affect others. It would be better if he said, "I don't love you anymore," instead of "I love you, yeah... but I'm leaving anyway just in case there is someone better out there. Oh, and even if there isn't, being alone is better than being with you." Who would not be hurt, hearing that?

"Lisa, forget me; though it hurts, you gotta try," he says, although in way of a parting gift, he tells her "I'll think of you when the spring is here." Well, that and a quarter will buy you a cup of coffee (this was the 1960s!).

The song closes with the speaker breaking loose from the lyric and just "riffing" on the theme of the song: "Lisa, I love you but I gotta move on."

No, he doesn't "gotta." He doesn't have to, at all. There is nothing else that should command his attention or his plans if he loves her as he says he does.

He wants to move on. But if he were mature enough to tell her that, he would be mature enough to stay altogether.

It'll hurt, and Lisa might cry. If she has a smart girlfriend, she'll tell Lisa the truth. "Let him go, if that's who he is. Better now than later. Next time, you'll find a tree, not a tumbleweed."

Next Song: Noise


Monday, November 11, 2013

The Lone Teen Ranger

The fictional vigilante known as "The Lone Ranger" has been part of American culture for decades. Basically Robin Hood reconfigured as a cowboy, he is a former Ranger, and as such usually traveled with a group of fellow Rangers. But his unit was ambushed and wiped out, save for himself. This is why he considers himself the "Lone" Ranger, even while he is always accompanied by his Native American sidekick, Tonto. Together, they fight criminality as it crosses their path, always on the hunt for the gang that left him an "orphan." The masked character has been a mainstay of American popular culture, his stories told on the radio (he debuted there in 1933), television, books and comic books, and film... even to this year (2013), his 80th anniversary.

This explains the gunshots, ricochets and galloping hooves heard in "The Lone Teen Ranger." Having explored the idea of adolescent loneliness in several other ways, Simon turns to the popular icon and adapts his "lone" status for this purpose. Only this time, the one called "Lone" has legions of followers, while the speaker is the one abandoned by his girl for the Ranger.

The song begins with the bass vocal intoning, "Hi-yo, Silver-- away!" which was the Lone Ranger's catchphrase for galloping off on his shiny white steed, Silver. It ends with the speaker asking "Who was that masked man?" another catchphrase from the show, asked by a witness as the Ranger speeds off into the sunset. Even the sax solo at the break is taken from The William Tell Overture, used as the show's galloping theme song.

The song is one of the few to register a common teen complaint-- a girlfriend's attentions stolen away by a teen idol such as a musician or actor. While totally inaccessible to the teenage girl, this figure's flashing eyes, wavy hair, and dreamy voice are nothing the average acne-ridden teenage boy can compete with for attention.

"Oh, he rides around on a big white horse/ He's as cool as he can be/ And my baby fell in love with him/ When she saw him on TV," laments the abandoned, now-lonely boy. "And since that day... She hasn't had time for me," he continues, "To save my soul, I can't get a date."

He points his finger directly at the character: "You know who's to blame!" Another reading is "You-know-who's to blame," as in, "you know whom I mean without my having to say his name, which I cannot bear to repeat in any case."

The bridge has the line "The Lone Teen Ranger stole my girl/ He left Tonto for me." Meaning not "he abandoned Tonto and chose me instead," but "left" in the sense of "He drank the water and all he left, for me, was the empty pitcher."

The speaker is determined to win back his girlfriend's attention, and affection. His plan? "Gonna wear a mask and ride a horse/ And carry a six-gun too/ She's gonna love me, too."

The poor sap thinks it's the Ranger's accouterments that attract her notice-- the costume and accessories. He couldn't be more wrong. It's the raw masculinity, the brave feats of derring-do, and the flouting of authority that attract her.

Tarzan has no mask, gun, or horse-- barely any clothes, in fact-- yet he manifests the same attraction. D'Artagnan, Zorro, Batman... James Bond, Indiana Jones, Wolverine... back to Robin Hood himself, all such heroes are cut from the same shadowy cloth. Heroic rogues go back even further, to be sure, to Hercules, Pericles, Bellerophon, Thesus, Perseus, and the warriors on both sides of the Iliad conflict.

The song itself is light-hearted novelty fare, full of sound effects, silly vocals, and lines like "She even kissed the TV set."

Yet, even underlying all the ridiculousness, we find another signature Simon teenager abandoned and alone, "unlucky in love." Why, he can't even compete with a fictional cowboy. At least this time, instead of "Cry, little boy, cry," we get the line ""I'm gettin' mad" and an attempt, albeit misguided, at fighting back.

Maybe instead of finding himself a Halloween cowboy costume, our hero will find himself a young woman with standards that are less... two-dimensional.


Next song: Lisa












Monday, November 4, 2013

Cry, Little Boy, Cry

We start off with a disclaimer of an introduction, perhaps to allay our avoidance of the song due to its title: "Listen to my story/ It's got a happy ending."

It starts of lugubriously, then the drums kick in and, despite the dreary content of the song, an up-tempo rhythm begins.

And I do mean dreary: "Every night, I sat up in my room/ Feeling the silent gloom/ Of my lonely heart." [We pause to take note of the decision to have a rhymed couplet followed by an unrhymed line. This is rare in popular music, and perhaps indicates that the speaker, too, feels like an unrhymed line, while everyone else is in a couple(t).]

We also meet the isolated, alone-in-his-room character we encounter so often in Simon's songs with Garfunkel, like "I Am a Rock," "A Most Peculiar Man," "Patterns," and even "Kathy's Song." He also shows up as Sonny in "The Obvious Child."

Our speaker here is not entirely lonely. This sad young man is befriended by a "a voice [that] cried out/ From deep inside." Rather than offer encouragement, the voice suggested: "Why don't you cry, little boy, cry?"

So he does. A lot. The line "and so I cried" repeats several times in the chorus... for a total ten utterances of the word "cried."

The next verse finds him so despondent in his isolation that he nears the brink of utter despair: "I'm alone in this world/ Without the love of a girl/ Sometimes I felt that I could not go on."

The voice is still no help: "Everywhere I went/ That voice inside of me/ Kept saying 'Cry, little boy, cry'."

If he is crying literally everywhere he goes, he is really going to stay alone, we think. Misery loves company, but often does not find it. Also, it does not add to his attractiveness that he thinks of himself as a "little boy," defenseless and helpless. Today, the boy's parents would probably intervene and guide him toward therapy. Or at least get him a hobby.

Now, the promised "happy ending" arrives, in the form of another person who was "lonesome, too": "You seemed to understand just how I felt."

This relationship progresses remarkably quickly; the next thing we know, they are somewhat intimate: "And as I kissed you then/ I knew I loved you when/ You said, "Don't cry, little boy, don't cry."

And he agrees that he won't. Just as vehemently and repeatedly as he cried before, he now insists, "I won't cry." Happy ending achieved.

Is this a stable relationship? Probably. Is it a healthy one? That is another matter entirely. If anything should happen to her, we can only brace ourselves for what would happen to him. His entire happiness depends on her; hers, on making him happy. It's a model of what we today call codependency.

However, having been a teenager myself, I can certainly commiserate with the speaker. The feeling that everyone else is in a relationship except you and it will never happen to you so you will always be alone is both powerful... and popular. Well, maybe a better word is "widespread." This feeling also affects adults, of course, as demonstrated in the opening scene of the movie Bridget Jones's Diary.

Now, the question of whether or not to cry at all comes up again in Simon's solo work. The speaker of "Boy in the Bubble" consoles the listener: "Don't cry, baby don't cry." A later speaker, in "Further to Fly," refers to that one as "the great deceiver who looks you in the eye/ And says 'baby, don't cry'."

Yet another comes along in "The Cool, Cool River," resolving this dispute: "Sometimes, even music/ Cannot substitute for tears."

In other words-- if you have to-- cry, little boy. Cry.

Next Song: The Lone Teen Ranger