This is another story of a "crime." Not a hate crime, as depicted in "He Was My Brother," but a common, poverty-motivated robbery. Only this time, the speaker is the criminal himself.
If Sgt. Friday of TV's Dragnet would ask for "just the facts," they are these: On a "winter" Tuesday evening, a man "held up and robbed a hard liquor store." As far as we know, no shots were fired, and no one was injured. The robber left with "$25" and change. He is now hiding in his girlfriend's apartment, with plans to continue to flee in daylight.
But the song is about more than the crime. It is about the criminal and what-- if anything-- he was thinking when he did his foul deed.
The song tells an entire story, starting at the middle, going back to the beginning, then forward to the future. It starts with a man in bed with "the girl that [he] loves[s]." She is asleep, and peacefully and "gently" so. It seems he has not told her of his crime, or-- we imagine-- she would be having some reaction to it.
In describing her, he reveals he is somewhat a poet: "And her hair, in a fine mist/ It floats on my pillow/ Reflecting the glow/ Of the winter moonlight." He clearly thinks she is beautiful, and refers to her with the word "love" twice.
Meanwhile, he is awake and agitated; his "heart remains heavy." He lets us know that he must "be leaving" with "the first light of dawn." And only now, halfway through the song's four-verse length, does he shift to the past... and let us know why.
He speaks as if quoting the news, saying that he has "committed a crime/ Broken the law," perhaps imagining how his act was seen and categorized by others, for he cannot understand it himself, in his own terms.
Then he takes his own voice again, referring poetically to the small change, the "pieces of silver" he stole (see also "Bleecker Street"). This is both to wonder aloud at the inexplicability of his act-- he now must become a fugitive and give up his lady-love... and for what, this measly amount?-- and to recall the "pieces of silver" for which Judas betrayed Jesus.
Yes, but who did our robber betray? The store's owner? His girlfriend? Society at as a whole? Or... himself? He has betrayed his image of himself as a law-abiding, moral person, one with a commitment to another person at that.
Again, for what? It seems his initial motivation was poverty, but is $25 going to help? We know from earlier that "$30 pays your rent on Bleecker Street," so this amount is not going to even cover a month's rent in the cheapest neighborhood.
The song leaves us with a man whose mind is torn in three directions. One is to enjoy the brief moment of peace he has now; one is to try to figure out why he did what he did; and one is to plan his next move, how to "leave."
But he is torn in another way-- in half. His image of himself is now completely broken. In court, character witnesses are called to say of the accused that such an upstanding person could never have done such a low-down thing. But, called into witness against himself, the robber is appalled at his own actions: "What have I done? Why have I done it?" Yes, he was poor... but now he is not only no less poor but also on the lam, lovelorn and homeless. So what was it all for?
The rational part of his mind is left with no recourse but disbelief: "My life seems unreal, my crime an illusion." He even imagines some clumsy outside entity forcing his actions, making his act an "act" in the dramatic sense: "a scene, badly written/ In which [he] must play."
Ultimately, Simon has sympathy for the criminal he has created. Society must take some blame for leaving such a creative mind with no employment, leaving his only choice desperate acts like thievery. He also tries to grasp the criminal's detatchment from his own actions, the "How does I have done such a thing?" and "I could never have done such a thing!" feelings.
The listener is left with as much remorse for the criminal as he has for his own acts. Before, he had no money, but he did have love in his life. Now, he has barely enough to get on a bus out of town, and he must leave behind all that he holds dear.
The message is not that "crime doesn't pay." While the song does show the negative consequences of criminal behavior, it never takes on the moralizing tone of a parental warning: "See what happens when you rob a store? Let this be a lesson to you not to try something so stupid yourself!" The song does not end with the robber turning himself in, returning the money, and doing his jail time.
Rather, the song is simply, and hopelessly, sad. If it has a message, it's that some people, no matter how hard they try to improve their lot in life, cannot. Society does not value their potential contributions, and they have no knack for anti-society, crimimal success. They are left homeless, hopeless, and alone.
Next: The Cover Songs of Wednesday Morning, 3AM