(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 allmusic.com page for "Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the 1960's": http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:d9fqxqykldke