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

7 comments:

  1. Hello Another Paul,

    And thus yet again I find myself enjoying your take on the rich trove of meaning ensconced in Paul Simon's lyrics.

    I hope you don't mind my attempt to shake out some meaning from that last bit of imagery, the Triangle of Light.

    Here's the last stanza:

    Army dude’s mama
    At the edge of the river
    Limp as a rag
    American flag in her arms
    Then a triangle of light
    Kissed the red and blue and white
    Along the riverbank
    Past the dealerships and farms

    Look above to the second stanza, especially the final lines of interrogatives presented in a list, without a question mark (Simon's use of anaphora is particularly noteworthy):

    Must be half the county come down
    To the riverbank
    High school is closed
    Same for the local police
    Shall we tearfully embrace
    Shall we sing “Amazing Grace”
    Will the shallow river waters bring us peace

    Those questions thrown as demands suggest confusion in the mind of the mother. In the midst of the duty of participating in the sadness of what comprises a funeral procession, the minds of the living are likely wrought with frustration and resgnation. She might as well be disembodied from the entirety of it whilst it's happening (the singing of Amazing Grace, the blessings of a priest, the military honor are likely a blur).

    Upon reflection, the trinity likely referenced throughout the day’s burial actually kissed the triangular flag folded and presented to the mother.

    In other words, yes, in solitude, after the procession has gone, the mother's mind exhausted, weary, and perhaps now open to the idea that the triangularly folded flag gifted her, limp as a rag, has been blessed by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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  2. Michael M-- Thank you for your insights (and compliments). In reading your comment, I remembered that the flag itself is folded into a right triangle... and that such flags as were draped on military caskets are often kept in specially designed cases, wood on the sides and glass or clear plastic on the front. This allows the flag to be visible, yet protected from stains, etc.
    So perhaps the "triangle of light" is a religious reference... and ALSO a reference to the clear material pressed against ("kissing") the flag, now folded and ensconced in its case. Clear material-- glass, acrylic, plexiglas-- often catches and reflects sunlight. And this piece would be triangular.
    So now we have the mother in the car looking at the flag in its triangle-shaped case, and the sunlight makes it glare and glow: "a triangle of light/kissed the red blue and white."

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    Replies
    1. Hi, Another Paul,

      Love your update, and your very interesting take on the triangle of light (through a clear case).

      The mother in a car makes for a striking image, and your idea has given rise to another from me.

      I see the mom at rest, past the dealerships and farms (and thus past the crowds that previously headed towards the procession), at the edge of the river, with the triangularly folded flag limp as a rag, being touched by the trinity and perhaps the light reflected up from the water (evening light reflected up from the water has a golden hue).

      Just a thought.

      Let us hope more music is to come. I really enjoy Paul Simon.

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    2. Michael M-- I think we may yet see still more music from Simon. Just after he announced his retirement, he went on a European tour.
      Getting back to the song-- the words "limp as a rag" come between "mama" and "flag" and so it is unsure which (or maybe both) are limp-- a mourning mother could certainly be, and so could a cloth. But the triangular flag case could still reflect sunlight onto the flag, even if the flag were not yet inside the case.

      Delete
  3. Michael M-- Thank you for your insights (and compliments). In reading your comment, I remembered that the flag itself is folded into a right triangle... and that such flags as were draped on military caskets are often kept in specially designed cases, wood on the sides and glass or clear plastic on the front. This allows the flag to be visible, yet protected from stains, etc.
    So perhaps the "triangle of light" is a religious reference... and ALSO a reference to the clear material pressed against ("kissing") the flag, now folded and ensconced in its case. Clear material-- glass, acrylic, plexiglas-- often catches and reflects sunlight. And this piece would be triangular.
    So now we have the mother in the car looking at the flag in its triangle-shaped case, and the sunlight makes it glare and glow: "a triangle of light/kissed the red blue and white."

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hello!

    http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/50-best-albums-of-2016-w451265/paul-simon-stranger-to-stranger-w451306 - Rolling Stones claims that The Riverbank is about the mourning of "mass shooting victims." I don't really see how it could be interpreted that way, but I thought you would be interested nonetheless. This song is most definitely about an army vet suffering from PTSD; perhaps Rolling Stones guessed that instead of killing himself, the vet first went and massacred a bunch of people. I can't find any lyrical evidence for that, and in fact there's evidence that contradicts it: the "army dude’s mama" is honored with the triangular American flag.

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  5. Emily, Thank you for the news. I agree with you-- that interpretation is way off base.

    ReplyDelete