"No man is an island," says John Donne. "I am an island," replies Paul Simon, several hundred years later and an ocean away.
But two years earlier than our album came out, Peter and Gordon sang "Please lock me away/ And don't allow the day/ Here inside/ Where I hide/ With my loneliness" in their song "A World Without Love." The attraction of retreating to a solitary hideaway once one is burned by love is neither new nor exclusive to Simon.
Taking Simon's song in the context of his others, however, we might see this as a sequel to "Kathy's Song." There, Simon sings of "gazing" through a "window" at "drops of rain," thinking of a faraway love. Here, scorned by (and therefore, scorning) love altogether, he looks not outward but downward, and sees only his immediate surroundings: "Gazing from my window, to the streets below." And instead of "weary" raindrops, he sees "a silent shroud of snow."
In "Bleeker Street," the "shroud," remember, was a "fog" that hid God from His people. Here, the shroud of snow is simply "silent." It serves to dampen and hush the world (like a layer of music-studio soundproofing foam?). Listen to the the f, s, and sh alliterations of the line, like footfalls (the four ds of the opening line?) muffled in powdery snow.
The song may also be an attempt to understand the syndrome of the Most Peculiar Man, who "lived all alone, within a house... within himself." That Man could well have written this song. Why did he remove himself from the world? Well... "friendship causes pain," and having "loved" means having "cried." So to Hell with all of it. (And what if the speaker in "Kathy's Song," and "I Am a Rock" are both the Most Peculiar Man, before and after a break-up. We do know that one person wrote all three songs!)
There is an interesting use, or non-use, of rhyme. Each verse starts with three unrhymed lines, followed by two rhymed lines, and then the two unrhymed lines that form the chorus: "day/December/alone," then "below/snow," and then "rock/island." The next verses rhyme "pain/disdain," "died/cried," and (more of an internal rhyme) "room/womb." The lines before and after these rhymes do not rhyme, forming a jagged barrier-- like barbed wire or a point-tipped fence-- around the sad, angry rhymes.
The major imagery of "I Am a Rock" is that of Medieval castles: In "a fortress deep and mighty... I am shielded in my armor." Perhaps the "books" the speaker is using as a "wall" against the world are of this era? (If so, they would be a poor choice; most of the famous ones are romances. The disenchanted works of the Beats or the existential novels of mid-20th Century Europe would have been wiser selections to inculcate a sullen solitude. For instance, "No Exit," Sartre's play that famously ends: "Hell is other people.")
"She is soft, she is warm" is the line in "Wednesday Morning." "Soft and warm" also is the rain in "Kathy's Song." In "I Am a Rock," there is no softness, only "walls... fortress[es]... armor." There is no warmth, only "winter... December... snow."
The images are of inertia, a lack of movement: "snow... sleeping/slumber... womb," and the title image. The other images are of barriers, especially the castle/armor images (as well as a moat of snow, and the water around an "island."). Paradoxically, both the isolating barriers of no-longer-alive ("shroud") and not-yet-alive ("womb") are brought to use. The result is complete alone-ness: "None may penetrate... I touch no one and no one touches me."
The word "deep" comes up twice in the first two verses. This December is "deep" (as in "the depths of winter"), and his metaphorical fortress is "deep." The word has many meanings. Another is "profound," and many have taken reclusion as an indication of "deep study" or "deep thoughts." And certainly, the speaker would like to think of himself as a Michel de Montaigne-like figure, holed up in solitary scholarship amid towers of books.
But more likely, he is bound up in deep sadness. By pushing away the world, the speaker hopes to stave off sorrow: "friendship causes pain... [but] a rock feels no pain."
It is odd indeed to end this album with a song about a person who retreats inward and rejects the world as only a source of suffering. A person who has never heard the warning prophet of "Sound of Silence"... who has not read the cautionary tale of Richard Corey in the volumes of "poetry" in his room.
The love songs on this album, however, are break-up songs. In "Leaves That Are Green": "I held her close, but she faded in the night." In "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," a robber tears himself away from his lover to flee the law. And in "April Come She Will," a woman arrives, then leaves, then dies. Even "Blessed" is, in a way, about breaking up with God.
In interviews, Simon has said that this is one of his two least favorite of his own songs (the other will be revealed when we arrive at it). Perhaps the severity of the isolation imagery is too harsh. Perhaps it simply makes no sense to create a character who so purposefully isolates himself after all the warnings, all album long, about the effects-- from societal breakdown to suicide-- of such a self-imposed hermit-state.
We can only hope for this depressed, disheartened character's sake that he takes his own "womb" imagery to heart-- that his solitary confinement is temporary, and that he emerges from it with a sense of birth and life and a connection with the world. To remain in exile within society would be, to borrow a phrase, most peculiar.
IMPACT: This is the only song the duo sang during their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, January 30, 1966.
Concluding thoughts on this album:
Many albums take their titles from the titles of one of the hits on the album itself. This is Simon's major practice, in fact. But here, the album title is a variation on the song title, and so gets its own meaning. Each of the songs presented reflects one of the many kinds of silence there are (just as a painter will explain that there are many shades of black).
Each song is about one of the sounds of silence... the silences of: unheard words, an unresponsive deity, a distant or fleeing lover, isolation due to privilege or poverty (there is even "Anji," an instrumental, or wordless song).
On this album, Simon explores the various tones of quietness, and may conclude: Yes, either noise or nothingness, taken to extremes, leads to chaos. But also, there is-- as the author of Ecclesiastes might put it-- a time for sound, and a time for silence.
Next song: "Scarborough Fair"