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.

[Note: There really was a Kathy. She's on the cover of the "Paul Simon Songbook" album of material he recorded in England.]

Next Song: Somewhere They Can't Find Me


  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?!

  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.

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

  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.

  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.

  6. There is this story about Kathy, 50 years later:

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

  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.

    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..?

  9. I´d like you to explain the last line: there but for the grace of you go I. It´s so very hard to translate it mostly to portuguese.There´s an inversion that doesn´t sound good when literally translated.
    I ´d appreciate you to answer me.

  10. Anon-- Anything I can do to help more people hear Simon's work!
    The line originally something like "There but for the grace of God go I" or as Joan Baez put it, "There but for Fortune go you or I." The phrase is said when seeing someone in a bad way-- sick, injured, poor, etc. It is said to remind oneself that "that could be me" if things were different, and that one should feel lucky, or grateful to God, that is not me... and also to never judge someone who is suffering. After all, I could just as easily have been born in a country where I am repressed, or born to parents who scorned me, or born with some physical challenge others don't have. So who I am to blame someone else for their circumstances? I certainly wasn't responsible for mine.
    This is a common enough thought, and there may be a version of the phrase or idea in a Latin-based language.
    Here, Simon borrows that idea to say that he would just vanish like a raindrop running down a window if not for Kathy and her "grace."
    The whole song is about how he is struggling to stay positive when his life depends on writing songs but he can't think of any-- because he can't think of anything he believes in... except her. If not for her, he would have nothing to write about, and so would fade into obscurity and depression.
    I hope that helps. Please let me know if there is a way I can hear the final version of the translated song.

  11. Simon and Garfunkel rate first on my list since high school. I have to say Eva Cassidy
    did a fabulous recording of Kathy’s Song” dare I say better than S&G

  12. Unknown-- Well, everyone's entitled to their opinion, but I personally prefer the originals. There is no denying Cassidy's talent, I'll give you that. I imagine you also like Judy Collins and Holly Near.

  13. The Paul Simon Project is a collection of videos sung by various Irish musicians over the last two years (and ongoing once all the Corona Virus has settled down and we can leave our houses again). Thanks to Another Paul for allowing me post links to songs as appropriate here. Hope you enjoy. Feel free to share..

    Dutch singer (living in Ireland) Jane Willow sings Kathy's Song.

  14. ‘I stand alone without belief, the only truth I know is you’

    This for me is probably the most profound line in the song. I believe he is talking about the wisdom of ‘direct experience of the present moment’ or simply God, Zen, Tao, i am, etc.. Basically meaning that all knowledge other than that experienced first hand is just remembered information, and is not truth. Truth is known by direct experience alone. This is the knowledge passed on by many spiritual teachers such as Kristnamurti, Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts et all. Through striving for peace through identity with musicianship, he has finally cracked and discovered truth.