Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Stranger

While being touted as a "new Paul Simon song," this is in fact a remix of "The Werewolf," the opening track to Simon's Stranger to Stranger album; the "new" track also samples "The Clock," an instrumental on this same album.

On this track, according to Spin magazine, Simon is "backed and drastically overhauled by Nico Segal... and Nate Fox of Chance [the Rapper]'s default ensemble, the Social Experiment."

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Like to Get to Know You

Simon's current marriage to Edie Brickell is his longest by far, of his three. However, the course of true love never does run smooth, and the couple had an argument in 2014 that-- largely due to the fact that they are a celebrity couple-- made headlines. To show the public that they were fine after this bump in the road, they released a duet titled "Like to Get to Know You." (Thanks to my readers for spotting this one!)

This simple, Everly Brothers-style song is about a longtime couple who, despite their years together, seem frustrated that they still don't know each other well. At first, this is a source of frustration-- how can this be? Yet, they re-frame it is a positive: Well, it'll be like a new relationship, then!

"You share my heart/ you share my kids and my dogs," one sings, "But I swear I don't know you at all." They other responds: "You see my face/ Every night, every day/ But I swear you don't see me at all."

Echoing the classic "They Can't Take That Away From Me," with its intimate, personal observations about the way the other wears a hat and holds a knife, they sing: "I know how you like your coffee/ I know how bad you drive."

Meanwhile, they see other couples "in the movie line" or they "check out people in the checkout line." Those other couples seem very comfortable in their intimacy. They are "holding hands and laughing," and "exchanging loving glances." Unlike this couple, who seem estranged.

Still, they "wouldn't trade places" with those couples, even so. Why not? "I'd like to get to know you again."

In the title track to his 2016 album, Stranger to Stranger, Simon wonders if they would have gotten together had they met now: "Stranger to stranger/ If we met for the first time... could you imagine us falling in love again?"

He answered this question, in a way, years before. In 2014, they each said "I don't know you at all," but that they'd "like to get to know" each other now.

What's the difference, really, if the "stranger"-- the person you "don't know at all"-- is someone you meet on the street... or in your own bedroom?

Next Song: (TBA)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Insomniac's Lullaby

The song is about a lullaby, but we have to get to that in a minute. Because the song, while about a lullaby, is itself a prayer.

After all, it starts: "Oh Lord," and anything that starts that way is a prayer. And what is the insomniac's prayer? "Oh Lord, don't keep me up all night."

It'd be a lonesome vigil. The only other one up would be the Moon, what that only has "desolate eyes." And to journey all those "miles [to] the sunrise" with only such "sockets" as "travelling companions" [OK, so that's from "Graceland," but still] would be too much to bear.

But the darkness "invites" a tune. Simon has been personifying Darkness since he called it his "old friend" all those decades ago, and maybe now we finally know why they are so long acquainted. After all, Darkness would be an insomniac's friend, or at least a familiar face. Anyway, the tune the darkness invites seems to be this very tune.

While he is awake, he hears a "siren" sound "in the distance," but instead of being upset by it-- after all, it means someone is in trouble-- he calls it a "song." To let us know he is being facetious, he complains that the sound "rattles the old window frame."

And then, something unexpected happens: "Gradually, angels reveal their existence." So, they were there the whole time, only now they are letting themselves be seen. The fact that he does not elaborate about these divine visitors, as the listener might expect, leads us to believe that the thin wisps of light that must seep into his dark room resemble angels. "There's nothing and no one to blame," he says, worried that we might accuse him of abusing alcohol (etc.), or having a tumor, what with him seeing angels and all. Maybe he could see what was really causing these angelic apparitions if he put on his glasses..? Lack of sleep can cause hallucinations, after all.

Even if this is a prayer, these visions are not angels. If they were, the speaker would not be talking so much about being alone, as he does before when he says the "desolate" Moon is his only companion, and later when he... well, let's get to that part right now.

Now comes the prayer again. This time, the thing he fears is not the daunting distance until dawn but coldness of some sort also lasting a too-long time: "winter that lasts until June." This may be the lack of human companionship... at least the sort that is awake. So again, he's alone, with no angelic company. (Also, Simon just rhymed "Moon" with "tune" and "June" so slyly we didn't notice.)

Now, two choruses and a verse into the song, we finally learn what the Insomniac's Lullaby is. It's a song that turns out to be one word long:

"Sleep."

Well, of course. What else do you need?

The next verse seems to be about death. "They say all roads lead to a river." While I have never heard "they" say any such thing (all roads lead to Rome, I thought) it is true that every major city is built around a river-- every city more than 100 years old, at least. A river was necessary as a source of water, but also transportation of people and goods.

But, "they" supposedly continue, "one day/ The river comes up to your door." Well, there are plenty of places that don't flood, so this must mean something else. What comes to every door? Only, as Franklin said, "death and taxes."

Hearing this axiom, the speaker asks, "How will the builder of bridges deliver us all/ To the faraway shore?" This is less sincere doubt than simple amazement. When watching a magic trick or feat of athletic prowess, we mutter, "How does he do it?" but only rhetorically.

This is a much nicer metaphor for death than some hooded skeleton reaping our souls with a huge blade, isn't it? A walk across a bridge, is all death is. (Or, if you're Jacob or Robert Plant, you may prefer a ladder or stairway.)

In the next iteration of the chorus, the speaker again asks for sleep, but now so that he can avoid having to face "questions [he doesn't] understand" and "wrestle [his] fears." This is completely understandable. Who wants to do that, all night?

"The sound in my ears/ Is the music that's sweeping the land/ The Insomniac's Lullaby." Maybe the "lullaby" is the agglomeration of sounds coming from everyone insomniac's radio and stereo. Or maybe it's his own radio, and he's listening to contemporary pop (on his headset, so as not to wake his wife) for inspiration. After all, a musician likes to stay current.

Finally, he arrives at dawn, the "light from the East." It is "soft as a rose," and that color, too. "As if all is forgiven," meaning that the questions and fears of the night are resolved, or at least feel that way.

"Wolves become sheep" at this time. The nocturnal animals, like wolves and burglars, are replaced by pleasanter ones, like sheep and ice-cream truck drivers. Also, the menacing gray clouds of night are supplanted by white, woolly ones.

It might be a reference to his song "Pigs Sheep and Wolves," but more likely it's a circling-back to the "Werewolf" of the opening track.

Alternately, one famous sleep aid is "counting sheep"; the idea of imagining sheep jumping a fence, and counting them doing so, is said to help one drift off. This connection of sheep and sleep is possible because of how the song ends: "We are who we are/ or we're not" but either way, "At least we'll eventually all fall asleep."

Like any good bedtime story, the song-- and the album-- end with a yawn and a "nighty-night."

Is the song about death? Is "we'll all fall asleep" about... the Big Sleep, as it is in Hamlet? I don't think so. There are no insomniacs when it comes to death, no "in-necr-iacs." Some people complain, "I just can't sleep," but no one complains, "I just can't die." So this is about sleep, and to the degree it is about the lack thereof, it is about the resolution of that issue.

It's also a very pretty song.

Simon has recently stated that he is retiring from music. If he is, he has earned it. But I can't imagine he is. Music has been his entire life. Now, he is 75. He just finished working on an album and touring the world in support of it. He's tired, is all, and he's talking like a tired person. Once he has a vacation, I bet we'll get another album-- or two-- out of him yet.

I just think that if he stops making music, he'll die. And he isn't ready to do that yet.


MUSICAL NOTE: Bobby McFerrin does the background vocals. In pop circles, he is considered a one-hit wonder because of the dippy-- but perfectly so-- song "Don't Worry, Be Happy." In jazz circles, he is considered a living legend and one of the greatest vocalists ever to live, able to create whole arrangements with just his voice and body slaps. In classical circles, he is that fun conductor who sings the notes along with the instruments and harmonizes with them. Just go on YouTube, type in his name, and enjoy.

Some of the instruments were invented by a man named Harry Partch, who could hear 43 tones to an octave; most mortals can hear only 12. So had to invent instruments to make those sounds. They have names like: cloud chamber bowls, sonic canons, kithara and the chromelodeon. The original instruments are at Montclair State University, in New Jersey, where the song was recorded.

Next Song: Like to Get to Know You



Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Riverbank

The widely reported figure of "22 veteran suicides a day" is an overstatement, with regard to young or recent veterans. Among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the early 21st Century, it's about 1 a day. That's still far too many, of course. Each such death sends a shockwave through its community, and this song is the story of one such impact.

But the song takes a moment to reveal its story. It starts with a startling nighttime phone call. The news is sad, and the recipient does not go back to sleep, but prays all night instead.

There was a "price already paid," but now on top of that price comes an awful tax: "A son gone to the grave." Nothing is sadder than outliving one's own children, we are told.

And so there is a memorial service, a "sorrowful parade," to be made to the riverbank.

This son was highly thought of. The high school and police station have shut down for the day so the entire town can attend the service. There is crying and hugging and a choir.

Now we get more information: "Army dude." So, the family lost a son in battle. How terrible-- yet we agree this is noble, and a price both the family and solider were willing to pay.

Except, no. That "price" was already paid. He was gone from his home and family, he was in harm's way, he lost friends to his enemies... he paid his dues.

So, if he didn't die in battle, he died after he came home? Oh, what a horrible irony. It must have been a car crash or something.

No, not that either: "Nowhere to run/ Nowhere to turn to/ He turns to the gun."

It was suicide. Brought on by PTSD, the psychological scars of war or other trauma.

"It's a cross" to bear. It's a "stone," a weight he carried. "It's a fragment of bone," which could be what he saw of a friend, or himself. And he found no one else who could help him carry this weight, or relieve him of it.

The song pivots again to the mourners: "It's a long walk home/ From the riverbank."

And then back to the victim. Surely, we can all understand the veteran's insomnia, his "nightmares" and their incessant reminders that "life is cheap."

We end with the "Army  dude's mama." She is "limp as a rag." Among her thoughts must be: "All these people, mourning now... where were they when my son was hurting?"

She is holding a flag presented to her by the Army, folded neatly into a triangle. She is walking home, past the car "dealerships and farms."

And..."Then a triangle of light/ Kissed the red and blue and white/ Along the riverbank."

What might this be? Lights, from a spotlight down to a laser pointer, are usually round, not triangular. Was this a Heavenly light? Is the triangle a reference to the Trinity? I looked up the expression "triangle of light" but found nothing useful. I admit this image has me stumped. (NOTE: A comment by a reader gave me an idea of what it might be, weeks after I had posted this. It could be the sunlight refracting off the triangular, clear case the folded flag is kept in, once it was removed from the casket and folded. See the comments for a more detailed explanation.)

Whatever it is in specific, it is meant to be a calming, reassuring gesture, judging by the word "kissed." (In "Sound of Silence," Simon writes of eyes being "stabbed by a neon light," quite the opposite effect of light.)

In "Wartime Prayers," Simon discusses the kinds of prayers the mothers of soldiers might make. Surely many pray for their sons to come back, and come back whole if possible. But how many pray that their sons, and now daughters, come back mentally whole?

(This is far from Simon's first song about suicide, but his first in a while. Also it is not the first to use the imagery of a "riverbank;" that was also in the song "Can't Run But.")

How abysmally sad, to have a war kill your son even after he'd survived it. Some kinds of shrapnel just don't show up on any MRI.


Musical Note:
Flamenco music was a major inspiration for Simon on this album, especially the rhythmic stamping and clapping. One of his percussionists, Jamey Haddad, introduced him to a Boston flamenco troupe. They ended up recording the basic rhythm tracks for four of the songs: this one, "The Werewolf," the title track "Stranger to Stranger,"  and the first song to debut from the album, "Wristband."

In fact, the song intentionally uses the same clapping rhythm, and some of the same bass lines, as "Wristband."


Next Song: Insomniac's Lullaby

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Proof of Love

This is a deeply spiritual song, even a religious one.

Even though "love" is in the title, this is not romantic love that is being spoken of, asked for "proof" of, but... love itself, as a concept.

"Does love exist?" the speaker asks of God. "Well, then... prove it!"

The first part of a song describes a journey. The speaker has no "guide," but sets out anyway. Oh, and it is late in the day-- or perhaps late in life-- so he wants to set out "before the bells of twilight peal" (those would be the "vespers," for those unfamiliar with Catholic timekeeping; the ones in the morning are "matins," as explained in the nursery rhyme "Frere Jacques.").

We're going to guess the "twilight" reference means speaker is older, as the first line is "Begin again-- no easy trick." So he has begun before, and now has to start all over.

At least the road is easy, a "spiral" downhill path (this could be a reference to "Spiral Highway," an obscure Simon song from his One-Trick Pony film that did not end up on the soundtrack).

But is the road easy? It reminds him of a coiled "serpent." Not only does he not have a "walking stick," he doesn't have any food! Just a "teaspoon of desire for [his] meal." Also, "the road is steep/ The air is thin." It seems less like he's on a hill than a mountain.

So, this is not an easy downhill path. This is more of a "it's all downhill from here" path. In fact the whole "town" is downhill, which implies that others face this same fate.

At this point, our speaker needs a shot of faith. So he prays, crying: "I trade my tears to ask The Lord for proof of love." He's not even sure he believes in God, or if there are only "stars" above him (a far cry from the prayer offered at the end of the song "Duncan"-- which also mentions "stars" and "The Lord," which Simon has begun playing again in concert; in fact, a new recording of it is included on the deluxe version of this very album).

To his own prayer, he says, "Amen." Or it may be others in the town who testify to his prayer.

Then... he seems to receive an answer to his prayer! Only, it does not come from Heaven above but from "inside [his] skin." It is a response of consolation. "Your days won't end with night," it reassures, "Let your body heal its pain."

Another clue. This "road" is the road to recovery, perhaps from an illness or injury. That explains "begin again." In physical therapy, a person may have to re-learn skills mastered as a child, like speaking or walking.

What does the voice recommend as treatment? An injection of Nature, first: "Feel the sun/ Drink the rain." Next, a large dose of faith: "bathe beneath a waterfall of light."

This time, he tearfully prays for proof of love to know "what my dreams are made of" (The original line for Shakespeare's The Tempest is "we are such stuff as dreams are made on.") He wants to know that his dreams are made of something substantial and good, not flimsy and false. If there is love, he can dare to hope.

He has kept walking downward, meantime, and now he can see "the valley below." It is, he sees, "an ocean of debris." Not the answer he was banking on.

OK, time for another prayer. No tears this time. At long last-- does love exist? "Love is all I seek!" he says, and says again. Now, he is out of tears, and out of "words." So he turns to "music" to express himself.

He is exhausted with walking and worry. Spent, he lays down by a "white oak tree." He has had it. He asked for proof of love, and got a treacherous road that led him to a valley full of rubble. He was supposed to find nourishing sunshine and rain, and only has hunger and "pain" and not even enough "air"!

He as much as dares death to come-- "No deadly nightshade, belladonna, dare lay a leaf on me." Nightshade is a poisonous plant; its Latin name is "atropa belladonna."

But the night is "silent." It is "still as prayer." And it's not "dark," either. In fact, "Darkness fills with light/ Love on Earth is everywhere." Beautiful.

But let's unpack it anyway. If he wanted to get underway before "twilight," and that implies that he was old or, as we learn later, near death, if due to not age but ailment... what does "darkness" mean? It means, well, death.

One prayer was answered by a sense of calm, the promise that his days would not end with night, and that he would bathe in a waterfall of light. If this is his death, then that promise comes true. His days don't end with "night" but with "light," and if the light fills the world, it is certainly enough to bathe in.

There is an alternate interpretation I would like to offer, though. It is foreshadowed by the reference to "bells of twilight." It's possible that this song is not just religious-- it's possible to read it so that it is about religion itself.

Some clues: A man is coming down a mountain. He doesn't have his usual "stick" with him. He is talking to God on the way. There is a reference to a "serpent." When he gets to the bottom, the valley, he finds disaster.

Might this be about... Moses? Walking down the mountainside of Sinai? And then coming to the bottom to find a pit of idolatry. (Moses turns his stick, or staff, into a serpent more than once.)

The next clue: "Silent night." Or should we say, "Silent Night." Simon already recorded that carol, so he knows it well, and it's about the birth of Jesus. A "tree" is a common metaphor for the Cross, too. So Moses asks for proof of love, and gets it, in Jesus.

I'm not saying this is what Simon means to say. But it is possible to read this interpretation into the song.

More likely, the song is about someone dying peacefully after suffering from cancer or a stroke or something, after there had been some initial hope of recovery.

We get some information as to the symptoms. Likely there was some blindness involved, requiring a "guide" or "stick" to help him find his way; now, he is supposed to be able to walk without that. He can see again, but has been spending much time in bed, gazing upward at what he hoped was more than just "stars." Also, he has trouble breathing ("the air is thin"), and at the end had trouble speaking ("words desert me").

He decides to try natural remedies ("drink the rain"), like a sunlamp ("a waterfall of light") and to "let [his] body heal" itself. He doesn't want toxic chemotherapy, or some poison that will kill him quicker ("no deadly nightshade"). But all he gets is sicker ("an ocean of debris"). Then he dies, and in death finds peace, and light, and love.

What is our the proof, then, of love? Of all things, it may be death. Dying is terrible-- painful, frightening. It takes you apart, piece by piece. But then you get to die.

And rest. In peace.

(NOTE: It would be interesting to contrast this song with Simon's similarly named "Proof," which contained the repeated lines: "Faith is an island in the setting sun/ Proof is the bottom line for everyone.")


Next Song: The Riverbank





Sunday, June 19, 2016

In a Parade

What is going on and what we think is going on may be two different things. If the difference is vast enough, we consider that a mental illness.

The song is set in the emergency room, or "ER," of a hospital. Some nights, it is quiet. The speaker compares this almost-silence to a piece of medical equipment that makes some noise, but not much-- the EKG. This stands for "electrocardiogram" (why there is a K in the abbreviation but none in the word being abbreviated is another story). It's the heart-rate monitor that goes "beep" every time your heart beats, and "beeeeeeep" when your heart stops.

Anyway, tonight is not one of those quieter nights. Tonight, the place is flooded with "broken bones" and "wounded souls" (compare this to the imagery in the folk-doctor's room in "Spirit Voices" or even the first part of "American Tune"). The injured are doing paperwork or calling someone. The place is busy, even bustling, but not at all chaotic.

Into this scene comes someone, however, who does not see this commotion for what it is. To him, it's a "parade"... and he is smack in the middle of it. He can't even "talk to you now," because after all, a parade is no occasion for a conversation.

Clearly, this person cannot fill out his own paperwork. So someone else does, and we get to read it. He is diagnosed as "schizophrenic"; his outlook is judged as "guarded," meaning there is a smidgen of hope, but not a wide smidgen, as smidgens go. He is given an anti-psychotic medication meant to re-balance his brain's chemistry.

We don't see the lines on the form regarding name, age, address or the other usual information, possibly because these are blank, in turn because they are unknown and unknowable. The only person who could answer is otherwise... occupied. But that line on the form, his occupation, they are able to determine.

He's a "street angel."

Yes, the same one we met a couple of songs back. He was brought into the ER by someone who didn't know where else to bring him.

The clinicians do try to have a conversation with him, but it's not all that informative. He tells them that he drank some orange, then grape, soda. And he may have... perhaps along with some medicines that may have been added to these in order to make dosing him easier.

But this seems to focus him on sugary imagery, because next, he explains: "My head's a lollipop and everyone wants to lick it." That may seem odd, but he's not necessarily being inaccurate, just metaphoric. Examining a true schizophrenic is fascinating to medical science. He may have been in another institution or institute in which everyone around him wanted to use him as a guinea pig for their experiments or analysis. We often forget that such probing is noticed by its subject... even if we think they are, mentally, on another planet. As for the lollipop image, we use the expression "Everyone wants a piece of me" when we feel overwhelmed with requests.

He explains why he wears a hooded sweatshirt, twice. The first time, he says he wants to "cover his mistake," and the second time "so I won't get a ticket." Well, is someone were trying to get in your head, wouldn't your instinct be to cover it? Maybe his mistake, to him, was letting someone analyze him in the first place. And "getting a ticket" is sure to mean being punished, possibly for resisting treatment.

Lastly, he says, "I write my verse for the universe," which echoes what he'd said in the original song. "That's who I am," he concludes. He is a poet, and he generously shares that poetry, with everyone, for free.

Not insisting you get paid for your work? Now, that's just plain crazy.

The Street Angel is-- fundamentally and mentally-- a poet, and so he speaks in poetry. He needs a psychiatrist who was a minor in literature to interpret what he says. This is how he interfaces, to the degree that he does at all, with the world. So he needs a poetry-to-mundanity translator to communicate.

Now, where are angels? In some other-where called "Heaven." Yet, they interact with us, on our plane of existence. What must they think of us humans-- how must they perceive us, through that veil between the physical and meta-physical? And if they tried to explain that to us in ways they could manage, in ways they think we could perceive... would we think they were poets? Or mentally ill?

In any case, our Street Angel is off the street. Let's hope the doctors let him keep some of the angel part, too.


Musical Note:
Some of the drum tracks here were recycled from the song "Cool Papa Bell," also off of this album.

But the more interesting sample is slowed-down, played-backward tracks of gospel songs from the 1930s. These sounds sounded, to Simon, like the words "street angel" and some of the other lyrics.

Next Song: Proof of Love






Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Stranger to Stranger

The title track to this album is a love song, and a lovely one, at that. Simon married singer-songwriter Edie Brickell in 1992, so this song comes nearly 25 years into their marriage.

He asks if they would fall in love again if they met now: "If we met for the first time/ Could you imagine us falling in love again?" The language echoes his song "Old Friends": "Can you imagine us, years from today/ Sharing a park bench?"

(Side note: in that song, he muses, "How terribly strange to be 70." The year this album was released, Simon was 74.)

This song continues: "Words and melody... fall from the summer trees," he says, "So the old story goes." I have never heard the story of songs falling from trees... if any of my readers have, I hope they share that story with me.

Why is this here? Perhaps he means to say that he and his wife pair as well as words and melody, and as naturally as leaves falling from trees.

In any case, how wonderful and amazing that, after two decades and more, he still awaits her very "walk[ing] across his doorway." He is "jittery" with "joy," even. She is like a drug to him: "I cannot be held accountable for the things I do or say," when she is near.

He finds their relationship an "easy harmony," and it must be something when two such great singers actually do harmonize. And when there is a problem, the "old-time remedies" still work.

And oh, problems do happen. Some can be compared to repetitive-stress injuries: "Most of the time/ It's just hard working/ The same piece of clay / Day after day." The "clay" represents the banality of life... or, seeing as how Adam was made of clay, the banality of people.

Other problems lie not within the relationship, but its individual members: "Certain melodies tear your heart apart/ Reconstruction is a lonesome art." Some losses, like the death of a parent or a career downturn, affect one of them more than the other.

What else? "All the carnage." Again, this could refer to death or illness, but also fighting and saying hurtful things, separations and silences-- psychological damage. But these things are discreet and definable.

Others are more effusive and evasive: "All the useless detours." A couple could spend five years in a house neither likes, because each thinks the other one likes it. A couple could take years to decide to get married, or divorced, and just be living in a limbo of inertia.

But despite all these thing, he still believes: "Love endures." The song ends with Simon repeating "I love you" over and over in waltz time, then: "Words and melody/ Easy harmony." When they are in tune, what a beautiful song.

"I love to watch you walk across my doorway," he tells her-- still crazy about her, after all these years.


Musical Note:
This is one of the four songs Simon spiced with flamenco on this album; the others are "The Riverbank," "The Werewolf" and "Wristband." In this, some of the rhythms are actually recordings of the dancer's steps.

Some of the guitar was done by Cameroons native Vincent Nguini, who has been with Simon since Rhythm of the Saints.

Next Song: In a Parade



Sunday, June 5, 2016

Street Angel

There has always been the impulse to-- ironic as it seems-- glamorize the poor, from the holy hermits of yore to movies like With Honors in which a self-proclaimed "bum" out-debates a Harvard law professor. Likewise, there has been an long-held impulse to sanctify the mentally ill.

It's true that some indigent or lower-class people are undiscovered geniuses--like "Good" Will Hunting-- and some-- like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind-- struggle with mental illness while still contributing genius-level work to society. But, in fact, the poor and/or mentally ill are just as mixed a bag as the rest of society, goodness-wise and intelligence-wise.

In this song, we get another sacred genius who has not been able to make his way in society and so has wound up homeless. The speaker calls him a "Street Angel," but doesn't give us his name.

He begins by saying that he sympathizes with those good, decent people who are, nevertheless mentally ill and/or homeless: "My heart goes out to the street angels." He "saves his change" for them, too, and is especially impressed with the ones "working their way back home" either geographically or psychologically.

He doesn't just give them his money, either-- he gives them something more rare: his attention. He talks to one Street Angel who confesses: "Nobody talks to me much." The speaker says he can relate: "Nobody talks to me much." [The italics are not in the lyrics but implied in the delivery and inflection when sung.]

The Street Angel also has something else in common with the speaker (assuming it's Simon himself); they are both writers. But the Angel does it for free. The Street Angel says he makes his verse "for the universe" and asks nothing in return-- he does it for the "hoot" of it. This is an old expression-- "Wasn't that a hoot?" once meant "Wasn't that so very funny?"

"The tree is bare," says the Angel, "but the root of it/ Goes deeper than logical reasoning." Maybe nothing he does bears any fruit, in other words, but there is a reason to do it beyond the expectation of return, or rather not a reason but an emotional compulsion.

Then the Angel switches topics to religion: "God goes fishing/ And we are the fishes." So religion is a trap, complete with a lure: "He baits his [sic] lines/ With prayers and wishes." Does it work? Yes: "We're hungry for the love, and so we bite." God uses our loneliness against us, he argues.

So he is not changing topics as such, but returning to the original one, about how nobody talks to him. He's in a bind-- he's lonely, but on the one hand, human-type people ignore him... and on the other, God while does seek his company, it's only for selfish reasons.

His response is two-fold: To retreat from the world ("We hide our hearts like holy hostages") and to assume all communication is a one-way street-- to/at the world, but not back from it ("I tell my tale for the toot of it.")

What becomes of the Street Angel? Even though he was "working his way back home," he is removed from the street by the same society that dumped him there: "They took him away in the ambulance... He waved goodbye from the ambulance." One last gesture of communication with the one person who ever acknowledged him.

There is one note of possible hope. Remember how he was "working his way back home"? Well, now, he "made a way with the ambulance." So even though it's only "a" way and not "his" way-- and even though that way is not "back home"-- at least he is not on the street anymore.

And he still gets to be an angel.

The song concludes with the line: "My heart goes out to the street angel." Does it matter if a homeless or mentally ill person is angelic in some intellectual or spiritual way? Can't you still feel bad for them, even if they are ordinary, just because they live on the street?


Next Song: Stranger to Stranger

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Werewolf

Of all the classic movie monsters, the werewolf is obviously the most animalistic. A vampire can be fought with a whole arsenal of weapons, and a zombie like Frankenstein's monster or a mummy is ploddingly slow. But a werewolf is not undead-- he's very much alive, completely relentless, and full of teeth and claws.

We never really know what the werewolf in this song represents. (In an interview, Simon said it was planetary environmental disaster, but that's not even hinted at in the lyrics themselves.) If anything, the song implies it's an impending economic collapse-- the rich will either cause it by greed, or the poor by revolt.

But let's start where the song does. In Milwaukee.

A man who lives there with a "fairly decent" life, career, and wife is-- seeming out of nowhere-- stabbed and killed by that wife: "Now they are shopping for a fairly decent afterlife." Why does it say "they," which means she is dead, too? Was it a murder-suicide? Was she caught, convicted, and executed?

We don't know if the wife kills her husband because she is dominant and he won't submit, or because he is domineering and she kills him out of rebellion. The fact that he only feels she's "fairly decent" might anger a spouse, but to the point of murder? What about couples' counseling, or divorce, first?

Now we get into the economic point: "Life is a lottery a lot of people lose." And "the winners"? They "eat all the nuggets and order extra fries." OK, there is a class war: the rich declared war on the poor, and easily, handily won.

Next comes the first ominous mention of the Werewolf. All we know is that it's "coming," by the sounds of its "howling" and "prowling." "The Werewolf is coming," the speaker tells "Bill" and "Joe." These seem like easy rhymes, but they also personalize the threat (Springsteen, by comparison, often refers to the listener with the anonymous "hey there, mister."). It's not just coming, it's coming for you.

The problem--whatever it is-- is "national" The sides are staked: "Ignorance and Arrogance, a national debate." This could refer to certain political parties, and how they see each other. And these two sides will debate-- any issue-- agreeing on nothing.

But as Simon said in "The Coast," "that is worth some money." How? "Put the fight in Vegas-- that's a million-dollar gate." The take "could be healthy." But who wins? Well, the box office revenue "all goes to the wealthy" no matter the victor in the ring.

So, this is a problem! Not to the speaker: "I know it's raining, but we're coming to the end of the rainbow," presumably where the pot of gold awaits.

This point is never paid off. Instead, we shift to a quick jab at the pervasiveness of surveillance: "The lying and the spying through." This results in a retreat into privacy, isolation, and anonymous screen names: "Oh, you don't know me? OK, I don't know you."

But wait-- what about... what was it? Oh, right, the Werewolf. It's still coming! So we prepare for disaster: "You better stock up on water, canned goods." But be a dear about it, won't you, and "loot some for the old folks who can't loot for themselves."

And now, the wolf is at the door: "Doorbell's ringing... it's probably the werewolf." It's a "full moon," people, and it's already "a quarter to twelve." (We should also probably mention that this Werewolf is, right at the end of the song, revealed to be female, which ties it in with the murderess at the start of the song.)

So, what is the werewolf? It's any big issue that people refuse to deal with because of how big it is-- poverty, the deficit, environmental calamity, the wealth gap-- you name it. It could be a national issue, or some rage your spouse has toward you that you have no idea about until the "sushi knife" is making sashimi of your aorta.

"Life is what happens while you're making other plans," mused John Lennon. And the werewolf is what's coming when you refuse to deal with it before the moon is full, or even during daylight.

So let's not wait until "midnight... when the wolves bite."


Musical Note:
Flamenco music was a major inspiration for Simon on this album, especially the rhythmic stamping and clapping. One of his percussionists, Jamey Haddad, introduced him to a Boston flamenco troupe. They ended up recording the basic rhythm tracks for four of the songs: this one, "The Riverbank," the title track "Stranger to Stranger,"  and the first song to debut from the album, "Wristband."

The twangy sound that opens the song (and the whole album) is made by an Indian instrument called the "gopichand." That twang sounded, to Simon, like the word "werewolf."

As if Spanish and Indian music were not enough, an Italian EDM (electronic dance music) composer who goes by Clap! Clap! (his birth name is Digi G'Aleessio) also collaborated on this track (and also "Wristband" and "Street Angel") via the Internet from his studio on the island of Sardinia.

Next Song: (Street Angel.
Here's the thing. Werewolf is the third track Simon has released before the new album in its entirety drops. Which, as of this writing, is just over a week away. So probably no more freebies before then, is my guess. The whole album is only 11 tracks long.

This track is the first on the album and Wristband is the second; those have been released and I have written about them [Cool Papa Bell is Track 10]. The third is The Clock, but that's an instrumental. So the one after that is Street Angel.)




  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Cool Papa Bell

[Warning: This song's lyrics include "swear words."]

This is the second song from Stranger to Stranger that Simon has released to the public prior to "dropping" the album in June of 2016.

The Cool Papa Bell in question was a baseball player. His first name was James, and he was an outfielder in the Negro Leagues for nearly 30 years, starting in 1922. He's in the Hall of Fame, and as the song indicates, his feats of speed became legendary.

However, this song is as much about him as "Mrs. Robinson" was about Joltin' Joe DiMaggio...

The speaker of this song is someone whose job-- if he has one-- is quite enviable: "It's not my job to worry or to think," he explains.

Instead, he says, he is simply "grateful" for being alive. He realizes that this may come across as "New-Agey," but he says he is sincere about it. His proof? A tattoo! He has literally labeled himself "Mr. Wall-to-Wall Fun."

When he encounters a group, he asks, "Does everyone know everyone (else here)?" And then he introduces himself as: Mr. Wall-to-Wall Fun.

At this point, he points out that there was once this baseball player who had several such nicknames! He was "The Fastest Man on Earth," for example, and also, he was known as "Cool Papa." So he was known for being calm, even in situations where one might not be. And he was known for being in charge, like his fellow ballplayer David "Big Papi" Ortiz... or musicians like "Big Daddy" Kane or Puff Daddy.

So that's three nicknames for one James Bell: Fastest Man, Cool, and Papa. (Kool Moe Dee is just cool, Earl "Fatha" Hines is just a father, but Cool Papa Bell is both.)

Now, the speaker talks about what might be the most common, um, nickname, and it's an "ugly" one: "Motherfucker." He says this is "often heard as a substitute for someone's Christian name." Which is an old fashioned expression for "first name."

He brings up the example of animals. Conservationists have long bemoaned the fact that "charismatic mega-fauna" get all the attention. This is their term for large animals that anti-extinction efforts focus on-- te tigers, giraffes, elephants, and the like. No one struggles, in other words, to save a slug, toad or warthog species, even if they may even be nearing extinction... and just as key a part of the ecosystem.

How the speaker puts this idea is: "Not every rodent gets a birthday cake/ Now, if you're a chipmunk, how cute is that? But you, motherfucker, are a filthy rat."

So he "asks" Cool Papa Bell (who died in 1991): "Is it true... That the beauties go to Heaven/ And the ugly go to Hell?" Bell might be equipped to answer. He was a great player (and, by his photo, a handsome gent) but because of his skin color, he was never able to pit his famous speed against all his fellow ballplayers. He could be fast, he could be Hall-of-Fame talented. He could even get a fantastic nickname. But, fast as he was, he could not outrun his blackness, or the bigotry that denied him true success. Do the ugly go to hell? Well, first, who gets to say who is "ugly"?

Our speaker is not done, though. Having brought up Heaven, he announces that this place is "finally found." Before you get in line for a ticket, however, you should know that "it's six trillion light-years away." But that's OK, because "We're all gonna get there someday."

All? Well, "not you."

Wait, what? Why not? What did I do?

"You stay and explain the suffering and the pain you caused," he orders. "The thrill you feel when evil dreams come true."

Oh. So that's what ugly is! It's ugly behavior. Ugly schadenfreude-- the joy at others' pain.

So here's an irony for you... What's "ugly"? It's standing around, pointing out who you think is ugly! It's bullying, name-calling. It's judgmentalism. That's what's ugly.

It's deciding that this Cool Papa Bell-- this handsome, talented man-- doesn't meet your aesthetic standards, and so can't play ball against his true peers, because they are white. Now, that's an ugly thought.

But now our speaker brings up his tattoo again, as if to say-- maybe the antidote to the poison of bigotry, of ugly nicknames, is to come up with nicknames for ourselves!

"You can't call me 'motherfucker'," implies the speaker, "because I already have a nickname! I'm 'Mr. Wall-to-Wall Fun.' Pleased to meet you. And you are?

"Cool Papa Bell, you say. I bet everyone thinks you're awesome, since they gave you that name..."

Well, maybe Bell never played outside the Negro Leagues. But he's considered one of the 100 best ballplayers in the sport's history, he's in the Hall of Fame... and now he's the only ballplayer to also be the title of a Paul Simon song.

Sounds like he made it to Heaven, after all.

Next Song: The Werewolf

Monday, March 28, 2016

Horace and Pete

This is the theme song to the web series Horace and Pete, created by stellar comic Louis CK.

Each verse is three lines, the last two of which rhyme. The whole thing is less than three minutes long.

The show is set at a bar, and as in the theme to Cheers, the speaker seems to be a patron thereof.

"Hell no, I can't complain about my problems," he says. "I'm OK the way things are/ I'll pull my stool up to the bar/ At Horace and Pete's." Which sounds like he wants to complain, but feels the need to ask permission. He is hoping to hear: "No, go ahead, man, get it off your chest."

Either he has been given the go-ahead but is still reluctant to simply start in, or he has not... so he speaks in generalities. In either case, he offers: "Sometimes, I wonder, 'Why do we tear ourselves to pieces?'"

And... no response is forthcoming. Twice rebuffed, he decides the sour-grape approach, that he really didn't want to interact anyway. "I just need some time to think," he says. Ha! He wasn't rejected... he rejected them! He didn't want to talk anyway.

But he still wants to be around people, even as he sulks, so he adds, "Or maybe I just need a drink/ At Horace and Pete's." As Billy Joel put it in his song Piano Man, also set at a bar, "They're sharing a drink they call 'loneliness'/ But it's better than drinking alone."

In a small space, Simon creates a character who is in misery and wants company. Even though no one will interact with him, he'd rather be alone among people than truly alone.

And a bar is a good place for that.

Next Song: Cool Papa Bell

Monday, February 8, 2016

Wristband

On February 6, 2016, on Prairie Home Companion, Paul Simon debuted this song.

When someone gives the ticket-taker their tickets at concerts these days, they receive a wristband, a paper strip with a bit of tape to seal it to itself, as a bracelet. It serves as a ticket stub, allowing those who leave to return.

In this song, the hapless narrator is the performer. He "stepped outside the backstage door" into the alley or parking lot behind the theater, to "breathe some nicotine" (which is to say, smoke a cigarette) and check his phone for messages...

...when he heard an ominous "click." Yes, he had locked himself out of his own theater. Now, he resigns himself to walking around to the front to get back in.

Only, once there, he is confronted by a bouncer who will not let him in without, you guessed it, a wristband: "A wristband, my man... If you don't have a wristband/ You don't get through the door."

Now, the speaker's dander is up: "My heart beats like a fist/ When I meet some dude with an attitude/ Sayin' 'Hey, you can't do that, or this."

There is no grappling with him, physically, either: "The man was large, a well-dressed 6-foot-8." And he takes his job very seriously, "Like St. Peter, standing guard at the Pearly [Gate]."

Brawn being out of the question, the speaker opts for brains, and tries reason: "I don't need a wristband/ My band is on the bandstand." This is my show, sir-- kindly let me inside where I can perform it.

We imagine the situation is eventually resolved-- the performer had his phone on him because he was checking his messages, remember? He probably called someone inside to come let him in.

But we don't get to hear that part of the story. Instead, the speaker realizes that he is in a situation that others know all too well-- that of being shut out from access to the better aspects of life, all for want of a "wristband."

And so the song takes a turn: "The riots started slowly/ With the homeless and the lowly." And after the economically disadvantaged, came the rural dwellers in small towns: "It spread into the heartland/ Towns that never got a wristband."

Then it spread still further, to the poor teens: "Kids that can't afford a wristband/ Whose anger is a shorthand/ For... 'If you don't get a wristband, my man/ Then you don't get through the door,'" and, by the way, "You'll never get a wristband."

This irksome incident, or not being able to enter his own concert for lack of a wristband, was just the basic disenfranchisement of whole swaths of society writ small. But it takes someone with the compassion of a Paul Simon to make that connection.

Musical Note:
The rhythms here are flamenco ones. Simon had been listening to this music and incorporated an actual flamenco troupe, from Boston, for this and other tracks on the album. It was actually two years between the recording of these performers-- a dancers, rhythmic clappers, and a percussionist-- and the writing of this track.

One of the other tracks that used the flamenco troupe was "The Riverbank." That song and this one share the same clapping rhythm and the same bass line.

Speaking of clapping, an Italian musician who goes by Clap! Clap! also contributed to this track. His real name is Digi Alessio and his genre is electronic dance music.  He also contributed to "Werewolf" and "Street Angel."

Next Song: Horace and Pete.