Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kathy's Song

Before we analyze this song, let us take a moment to acknowledge that it is simply one of the most beautiful love songs ever written-- in any language, in any era. Each word, each note, is as pure and simple as the raindrops that begin and end the song.

Structurally, the song is a novella. This is a story that begins with a description of the circumstances of the storytelling itself, then proceeds to tell the story, then ends by connecting that story back to the present circumstances, with the idea of "and that's why I brought this up and am telling it to you now."

In this case: It starts with the image of "rain," then moves to a conflict between the life a songwriter has chosen and the woman he left behind, then ends with the songwriter comparing himself to the rain he opened with.

The movie Adaptation is about a man who is supposed to write a screenplay based on a novel, struggles with it, and ends up writing a screenplay about... a man who is struggling with writing a screenplay based on a novel. Here, Simon has Charlie Kaufman beat by several decades.

Struggling to write "words that tear and strain to rhyme," in New York, Simon misses Kathy, the woman he left behind in England. He had been there, and dated her, then came back to the States to capitalize on the success of the electrified remix of "The Sound of Silence."

Now, he is wondering if he made the right choice. He is trying to write some songs to support the remix in this album here (which is even titled after that song), songs of power and meaning.

Maybe the rain reminds him of famously rainy England (as Randy Newman once observed to a British reporter, "You'd have a great little country here if you could just roof it over."). But he keeps thinking back to Kathy-- "My thoughts are many miles away/ They lie with you." The word "lie" is a subtle pun on the expression "my thoughts lie elsewhere." More than that, Simon says, they are about lying in bed with Kathy and waking up with her.

It is easier to love than to live, Simon laments, or to make a living. Loving Kathy seems to easy, so effortless. Why is he breaking his brain over these songs? He's trying so hard to write important songs that the songs are becoming more important than the issues they are about.

He realizes he doesn't care about these issues... or if he does, he doesn't believe in his songs anymore-- he even calls them "songs [he] can't believe." He cares about Kathy. How can he focus on this album when he can only think of her?

Yet, he must write several more songs. Well, then... let's write about how hard it is to write "issue" songs when you can't think of anything other than this wonderful woman, and how hard it is to have to go through your day knowing you aren't doing that with her.

Thank goodness Simon had the courage to share his feelings as well as his thoughts. Because now we have a song about songwriting. About writing the songs you want to write instead of the ones you have to.

Only two of the songs unique to this album will make it on to Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. This is one of them. Funny how the songs you want to write resonate with listeners better than that other kind.

Simon ends the song with the line: "There but for the grace of you go I." The expression Simon plays with here is "There but for the grace of God go I," said when seeing someone in poor circumstances you realize might just as well be your own. By replacing God with Kathy, Simon again relates his struggle with religion and faith. Right now, it is not God getting him through, it's Kathy. And she's not there either.


Next Song: Somewhere They Can't Find Me

10 comments:

  1. Just come across this blog! I totally agree that “Kathy’s Song” is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written... I bought the "Paul Simon Songbook" LP in a record shop in Glasgow UK in the early 1970s, choosing it over S&G's Greatest Hits because it was cheaper and my older brother already had BOTW! I learned to play Kathy's Song listening over and over again to the track and putting the needle back endless times to figure out the guitar pick! I still sing it and when I do my whole body feels full of energy and light. The words and music just seep into my blood stream… Years later when “Songbook” came out on CD I bought a copy and have it here in Nicaragua where I now live. The last time I sang Kathy’s Song to a group of friends was to a delegation from England, visiting development projects here in Nicaragua. When I finished singing, one of the women in the group made a comment that Kathy was an Englishwomen that Paul Simon fell in love with (and vice versa) when touring in England before S&G fame. Whoa, I thought, a fellow fan! Not many people know that! I added to her comments that the original solo version was recorded in London whilst Paul was touring folk clubs and then re recorded for the “Sounds of Silence” album. To my amazement the woman then went on to say, “Kathy‘s surname is Chitty”, making me think that I was in the presence of a REAL Paul Simon fan. “How do you know that?” I asked and she replied, “Because she is a very close friend of my mother-in-law!” Stunned, I enquired, “Do you know that Katy appears on the cover of the Paul Simon Songbook album?” She didn’t, so I took the CD from the rack and showed it to her. “Oh my God, she looks so young!”, the woman exclaimed. She then took a photo of the CD cover to take it back to England to show her mother-in-law. Maybe she even showed it to Kathy or emailed her a copy. Who knows?!

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  2. First of all, hola/'allo to you! What a fascinating story-- there is always more to learn. And thanks for your nice comments about my blog. I bought a Simon album in England, too, and it was out before Songbook was on CD. As it happens, it is also called Songbook (I think one of them starts with "The," but now both come up in searches." The one I bought is an album of covers of his songs, including The Cyrkle doing Red Rubber Ball and an Elvis-y version of Graceland. I kept the price tag on because it had a "British pounds" on it, then leant it to my cousin who lost it! Thank God and the Internet, I have another copy now.

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  3. What a wonderful analysis. Very well written and attentive to every detail, every expression. Thank you so much for it.

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  4. This song has been stuck with me for a couple of months now. I recently returned to Singapore after three years of studying in England and listening to the song has been especially haunting as I reflect and remember the numerous rainy days I had while studying in Durham. The song and its soft, dreamy melody really takes you away to a place faraway and even though I didn't quite have to leave a lover there, the lovely English town that's Durham has, in a way, become my Kathy. Thanks for the wonderful analysis of one of the greatest songs ever penned.

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  5. Roobs-- Thank you for your lovely reminiscence. Towns are referred to as "she," and maybe this is why! This is one of the most visited pages of my blog, and I am clearly not alone in finding it both wistful and aching.

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  6. There is this story about Kathy, 50 years later: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2620266/50-years-British-girl-inspired-Paul-Simon-Woman-immortalised-Kathys-Song-lives-quiet-Welsh-village.html

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  7. Luiz-- Thank you! I'll have to read it, and soon!

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  8. Hi, nice blog! :)
    You write above:

    Struggling to write "words that tear and strain to rhyme," in New York, Simon misses Kathy, the woman he left behind in England. He had been there, and dated her, then came back to the States to capitalize on the success of the electrified remix of "The Sound of Silence."

    Kathy's song is on the album (with Kahty on the front) that Simon recorded BEFORE he returned to the US due to the success of the Sound of Silence remix. NO doubt the essence of the story is true, but it is not related to the release of the Single.

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    1. Anon-- Thanks for the compliment. As for the timing, I am not sure the Songbook CD-- the music for which, as you say, Simon recorded in England, in between the "Tom & Jerry" era and their breakthrough to success as "S&G"-- had been released at the time I posted this. Songbook is widely available now as a CD, of course, but for decades it was not.
      The question now is, why would the song say "I gaze beyond these rain-drenched street/ To England" if he was IN England when he wrote those words? Or was there more travel back and forth between England and the US than I realized; maybe even if he recorded the song in England he wrote it while in the US..?

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