Sunday, October 25, 2009

Leaves That Are Green

The first song on S&G's second album, Sounds of Silence, is its title track, "The Sound of Silence"... and the pluralized title of the album forever threw the exact title of the song itself into doubt. Further complicating the matter was the fact that, as a single, the song's title was "Sounds..."

(Why people think it's "...Waters" when every presentation of "Bridge" is consistently titled "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is just people relying on memory instead of bothering to check.)

But, as we already dealt with "The Sound of Silence" during its first appearance on the debut album, we will pause only to say it is this electrified version of the song that went to #1. The stoy behind the (as we would say today) "remix" is fascinating, but it has been already covered many times and in many places.

Now, we will proceed directly to the first new original song on the second album, "Leaves That Are Green." This is one of Simon's simplest songs to understand. While it does present a number of metaphors for its theme, it also states that theme outright: "Time hurries on." Further, it continues, all things must end.

Our age-- both the number we give to our years and our historical era-- passes. Leaves and other growing things wither. Love ends, either because it dies or one of the lovers do.

There is a term, now, for the feeling Simon relates. We have all heard of the "midlife crisis" faced by those in, well, midlife. But recently, the term "quarterlife crisis" has been used to describe the feeling twentysomethings get, often around college graduation. They realize that while they might have 70-some years of life they can expect, meaning fifty or so more years, how many of those are "quality" years in terms of health, attractiveness, and earning power?

Simon was way ahead of them, writing about mortality itself when he was only, as he says, 21 years old.

The saddest verse is probably the third. The love lost in the second verse at least existed before it was lost. There is a memory of shared time that two people have, albeit bittersweet. But the third verse speaks of a wholly ineffectual act. The "pebble" sinks, the "ripples" fade, and there was not even a satisfying "plunk" to mark that the action had ever taken place. It recalls Keats' epitaph, the low-self-esteem-classic: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

The song ends with a series of hellos and goodbyes: Hello.../ goodbye.../ That's all there is." There is a story that King Solomon asked his advisers to come up with a statement that was always true. They responded with the phrase: "This, too, will pass." Solomon reportedly liked this so much he had the statement engraved in gold and placed above the door to his throne room, so that he could always see it while sitting on his throne.

Structurally-- and musically, with its harpsichord accompaniment-- the hearkens to the olden-time British ballads. But watch how the deteriorating rhyme scheme marks this as a modern creation:
The first verse's lines end: "song/long/on," very close rhymes.
Then comes: "girl/night/write." Two out of three.
And lastly: "brook/away/sound."

The increasingly looser rhymes mirror the poem's theme of entropy. This term from physics is defined by Simon himself quite well on his first official solo album, with the title "Everything Put Together Falls Apart."

What's intriguing is Simon's simple acceptance of this fact. Simon-- for he seems to (for once) be the speaker, simply notes the facts that time flies and things pass. He agrees that this is sad, but does not seem to have much of a reaction to the fact ... or beyond that, to tell us that we should have one.

He does not cajole, like Robert Herrick, to "gather... rosebuds while [we] may," or like urge, like Dylan Thomas, to "rage/ against the dying of a light," or even sigh like Ecclesiastes that "all is vanity and pursuit of wind."

Simon simply notes that all things end. He laments this reality, but simultaneously accepts it. It is one thing to ponder mortality at age 21. It is quite another to be so... grown up about it.

IMPACT:
This album came out in 1966, a year before the Beatles single "Hello, Goodbye." It also presaged the line "Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes" in Billy Joel's song "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" by a decade.

This pretty but slight song is not considered a major element in Simon's catalog, but it was nonetheless paid tribute by folk aficionado Billy Bragg, who opened his song "Looking for a New England" with the verse:

"I was 21 years when I wrote this song
I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long.
People ask me, 'When will you grow up to be a man?'
But all the girls I loved at school are already pushing prams."

"Pram" is short for "perambulator," the British (which Bragg is) term for baby buggy.

While Simon's song is about endings altogether, Bragg is specifically thinking of ending a particular relationship. The chorus is:
"I don't want to change the world,
I'm not looking for a new England--
I'm just looking for another girl."

Next song: Blessed

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