Monday, September 14, 2009

Bleecker Street

(Note: This is not the first song on the first album, Wednesday Morning 3AM, but it is the first original in its track list. As I said, I will go back and add thoughts about the covers later, after discussing all the originals on each album. For right now, on to the song.)

There is a saying-- I am sure it shows up in many faiths-- "If you are far from God, who moved?" The implication, of course, is that God does not move, so you must have.

Simon holds out a third possibility. If there is a remove between you and God, maybe there is something in the way.

The song starts out with an image of "fog" which "hides the Shepherd from His sheep." Something has come between God and his flock of humans, who "sleep" in the "alleys." God must not know about these hidden men, otherwise He presumably would do something about their predicament.

The song ends with, "It's a long road to Canaan/[from] Bleeker Street." Canaan being, of course, the original Biblical name of the Promised Land. And you can't get there from here.

And here, Bleecker Street, is a real place, too. The street runs through the Greenwich Village section of New York, the heart of the 1960's folk-music movement, of which Simon was a vital part. But instead of celebrating the songwriter's art, Simon laments its inherent weakness. Although the poet's intention, his "sacrament," is "holy," his rhyme is "crooked".

The repetition of the word "holy" is interesting in that the repeated word "holy" is said to be the call of the angels in Heaven. So this line could read either:

"Holy, holy is his sacrament" (read: Yes, his line is indeed very holy)
" 'Holy! Holy!' is his sacrament." (read: He is writing a prayer more than a poem).

The poet's "rent" is "thirty dollars," a reference to the 30 coins that Judas was paid to betray Jesus (the image of silver coins comes up later, too, in the title track). The poem is meant as a sacrament, a testament of faith. Instead, it must be sold, sacrificed for the coins it takes just to buy a place to live for another month. The betrayal is that the poem, meant to elevate, instead binds the poet to reality.

The first sound in the song, however, is not the poet "reading... his rhyme." The sound doesn't come until the second verse. It is "voices," coming from a "sad cafe" (perhaps the same one that shows up later in an Eagles song by that title?). But the voices merely "leak," they come from faces that can only "try to understand" but not succeed in doing so. The faces belong to insubstantial "shadows," which can make no true connection: "I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand." So we move from "fog" to "shadows," two images of... lack of image.

Now, in the last verse, we see the summation of the pattern that Simon was developing: From silence, through noise, to sound, then music.

In the first verse, there is stillness, just "fog" and "sleep." The second verse contains sound, but only broken snatches of muffled conversation. The third verse gives us an attempt at ordered sound, which is more coherent and contains understandable words; however, their structure is ultimately "crooked."

The fourth verse shows both the answer and its ultimate unattainability. It is a musical sound-- not a word at all, but the "soft" "chime" of a bell. This alone produces a "melody." And it is a melody that "sustains," both in the musical sense of an extended duration... and in the almost biological sense of sustaining the lives of those who hear it. Certainly in the metaphysical sense of sustaining a spirit.

The sound of the bell is not made by humans. Although of course humans made the actual bell, it is a "church bell," and represents the communication of the church to the people. Only this has the power to carry a coherent, sustained "melody."

(Soon, in "For Emily..." Simon will again mention the sound of the "cathedral bells." Decades later, Simon will revisit "the church bell's chime" once more in the song "Born at the Right Time." If anyone knows why church bells are such a meaningful sound for Simon, please share!)

In "Bleecker," the church bell sustains the people... while reminding them that no sound they make can ever match that simple, bell-like "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12) of the God hidden behind the "fog." As for the poets and well-meaning songwriters, they can barely sustain themselves, let alone solve the problem of men sleeping in alleys. (Simon will also revisit this theme many years later, in the song "Homeless.")

It's a "long road," indeed, from the "crooked" poetry of the bards of bleaker-than-bleak Bleecker Street to the perfect "melody" of mystical Canaan. Can you get there from here? Who knows... but Simon's going to try.

When appropriate, I will mention the impact of a given song beyond the self-contained world of Simon's verses.

In this case, a tribute album was released in 1999, subtitled: "Greenwich Village in the 1960's." The content was recent folk artists performing songs by their predecessors from that storied era. Some of the 16 artists covered were Tom Paxton, Tim Hardin, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs and of course Dylan. The first track, performed by Jonatha Brooke (late of the duo The Story) is none other than Simon's "Bleecker Street."

Which is also the title of the compilation itself. What a compliment, to have your first original song on your debut album stand for all the songs of that amazing time and place. "Bleecker Street" is the theme for Bleeker Street and the melodies that sustain... and sustain us... to this day.

This is the page for "Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the 1960's":



  1. Great song, great analysis, great site, great work. :-)

  2. amazing! really good job on analysing. I've missed so much hidden meaning that you have helped me to understand. Thank you

  3. Donnie-- Thanks for the compliment. I'm just glad someone is still listening to this great music.

  4. I just discovered this song and haven't been able to stop listening to it. Thanks for sharing the great analysis of its meaning.

  5. Ram-- It is a pretty, if sad, song, isn't it. One of the nice things about the S&G catalog is that is there is so much great stuff beyond the "Greatest Hits." It's only 5 albums' worth but very "deep."

  6. Could this song be about a land of the dead? Shroud cover the entire street, men sleep (in death), shadows touching shadow's hands. The churchbells could be ringing to call people to a funeral, and this sound is sustaining, which means it's constantly calling people to funerals. Just a thought.

  7. Cameron-- That is a great insight. I had not noticed it before but yes, there is a lot of funereal imagery in the song, especially the "shroud" and the "church bells."

  8. What about the commercialism that began blinding the true art created by the community there? I believe in the album notes this meaning is indicated. Artists selling out to be popular...that's the fog covering Bleecker Street. That's why the sad cafes are there -- nothing as individual as former tenants; that's why the shadow touched the shadow's hand. The whole community became a shadow of its former self...

  9. I wasn't in the Village in the 1960s, so I can't speak to encroaching advertising there. I took another look at the song, however, and it seems to me the imagery is largely religious and spiritual in nature.
    If there was advertising, it was not in the subway where the cover photo of Wednesday Morning was shot. The story is that they couldn't use many of the photos, but because of a certain word graffiti'd on the wall behind them, which no one noticed until the photos were developed (they had been photobombed, in today's lingo, by an f-bomb). Simon probably used this as the basis for "Poem... Underground Wall."

    1. I think that "A poem on the underground wall" might shed some light on Bleeker Street also. Simon makes a great effort to show the "poetry" - i.e. the writing of the word on the wall - as a religious act, performed with the "crayon rosary" (why Catholic symbolism? God knows). If poetry is indeed a religious act, then this must reflect on how we understand Bleeker: the poet with the crooked poetry may sell his art and betray it, but the possibility of redemption lies not in the actual Church (Simon himself, of course, is Jewish - though a lot of his writing and singing of the time contains Christian motives and hymns) but in the art of poetry as it should be - an act of protest against a rotten society rather than a commodity within its system.

    2. Micha-- Thank you for pointing out another poetry-as-prayer image in Simon's early work. Why Christian symbolism? Aside from the fact it is much better recognized, S&G sang on a Christian radio show in England before making it big in the US (which also explains the hymns on the Wed. Morning album).
      As to whether selling a poem is betraying it, a poet still has to "pay [his] rent," doesn't he.

  10. Also, the cover photo of the tribute album Bleecker Street shows no visible ads.

  11. Allen Ginsberg's poem "Kaddish" (Holy) opens in a sunny Greenwich Village. I always thought that Simon was shouting out to Ginsberg here.

  12. Jeff-- I'm not sure I follow. Ginsberg is talking about a sunny winter day. Simon's first words here are about "clouds rolling in."