Monday, December 20, 2010

Peace Like a River

The opening line (and title) of this song seems mysterious. However, it comes from a late 1800s hymn called "It Is Well With My Soul," which begins: "When peace, like a river, attendeth my way/ When sorrows like sea billows roll/ Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say/ It is well, it is well, with my soul." (The reference to "sorrows" alongside "sea billows" is sadly personal to its author, Horatio Spafford, as the song was inspired upon his ship passing over the spot in the Atlantic where his daughters drowned.)

The original source of the simile "peace like a river," however, is Isaiah. Specifically, 66:12-- "I will extend to [Jerusalem] peace like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream." [The full verse is in the comments, after the request of a reader who asked that I cite the original citation.]

The rest of our song is somewhat concrete. People are staying up late, "misinformation" is being spread about a group, and a sermon is given about civil rights (more on that second verse in a moment).

But how does peace move "through a city"? Let us take the word "ran" to apply to the metaphor of a river moving, and not necessarily quickly. The verb for a river moving is "running," as in "A River Runs Through It," or the Carly Simon song "Let the River Run."

One can imagine the opposite of peace-- chaos-- running through a city in the form of a riot.

This is purely speculative, but the image of peace in the shape of a river calls to my mind a protest march. Like peace, there is an order and orderliness in the marching and chanting. Like a river winding its way through banks, a march winds its way down streets and past buildings, moving organically forward.

The subject of the march seems to be civil rights and, ultimately, peace between neighbors. As it was also itself peaceful in demeanor, it became the very image of peace.

Once we have a march, we can imagine the results. The participants sit up all night, amazed as the powerful experience, discussing it in awe and in detail, declaring it a success: "Long past the midnight curfew, we sat starry-eyed/ We were satisfied." Even their act of staying up was a protest, in this case against the government-enforced bedtime.

Meanwhile, their detractors were hard at work, spreading falsehoods about their intentions that were proving hard to shake. Perhaps they were being smeared as communists, agitators against the "social order" and basically wanting to disassemble America brick by brick.

Part of the problem with a peace movement is that it is by nature unorganized. Some responsible people need to see about parade permits and speak on behalf of the march to the media, for instance. However, once some sort of authority within the movement is established, that authority is immediately challenged as being overbearing, self-seeking, and illegitimate.

There is a great Saturday Night Live bit about this. A protester takes a bullhorn and ascends the ledge of a public fountain to address a rally. "OK, we are here to let America know... we want out of Iraq!" he says, pumping his fist. "Legalize it!" (meaning marijuana) responds a loud voice from the crowd. "Yes, that's important, but today we are here to talk about Iraq," corrects the bullhorn-holder. "Gay marriage!" shouts another protester. Throughout the sketch, the supposed rally leader is not able to get even two protesters to agree as to why they are there or what they are protesting.

This seems to have been true "back in the day" as well: "Nobody knew from time to time/If the plans were changed," Simon muses, let alone what those changes were for the plans.

The purpose of the protest, at least, seems clear in this case. The subject today is civil rights. "You can beat us with chains..." well, that was something that did, sadly, happen during slave days.

"You can beat us with wires" is an interesting turn of phrase, however. Whips, certainly, were used by slave drivers. Ropes? Not hard to imagine, if whips were not handy. But "wires"? Before someone takes the time to unbend a wire hanger to use as a lash, one would far more likely grab a broom, belt, hairbrush, pan... something else that could be readily used in its existing state as a weapon.

No, wires are generally not used as hand-weapons. They are used to transmit information. Ah, but cannot this, too, be used to inflict suffering? "Misinformation" spread by electronic media, such as radio and television (or, today, the Internet), is extremely damaging. Even Napoleon famously said he would rather face bayonets than newspapers.

Nevertheless, it won't matter what weapon is turned against us, said the protest-leading preacher. "You can run out your rules, but you know you can't outrun the history train." The image of a train is pervasive in protest songs, from the gospel "This Train" and "The Gospel Train" to Cat Steven's "Peace Train" and the O'Jays' "Love Train." Then there was Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," the second line of which was: "There's a train a-comin'."

But why a "history" train? Perhaps the preacher was recalling a line by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." The general trend of history is that (despite notable setbacks) more people become more free as time passes. Progress, even if slowed, is inexorably forward in motion. Like a train... like a river.

Just in case it was unclear that this was a sermon, the line "I've seen a glorious day" comes with its cry of messianic hope. (Interestingly, Simon's brand-new release, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," samples an actual sermon.)

Eventually, even the most starry-eyed must sleep. But then, "Four in the morning, I woke up from out of my dreams." (This hour is mentioned again, in Simon's song "Still Crazy After All These Years," so it must have some significance for him. Either that, or he simply likes the internal rhyme of "Four in the morning.")

Our speaker could-- perhaps even should-- go "back to sleep," but he can't. Why not? These last four lines are confusing in their explanation. The protest went off without incident; the speaker was powerful and moving. Yes, a smear campaign has been launched, but that was to be expected-- in today's parlance, "Haters gonna hate."

So what woke him up? What were his "dreams"? When he says he is "reconciled"... well, with what? Lastly, if he is reconciled, why would he be "up for a while"; shouldn't that peace of mind let him drift back to sleep?

Perhaps he means not that he will be "up for a while" in the sense of someone who can't sleep from worry... but from excitement (as a child, perhaps, getting ready for Christmas day). Maybe what they did today won't change anything-- not immediately, not ever. But it was still a thrill to be in the charged atmosphere of the march. And even if nothing changes, he can be reconciled in the knowledge that he did what he could. He moved through the city in peace, for peace, for justice. Something happened and he was part of it; he helped it happen.

Maybe he will be "up" for weeks to come in the sense of having a positive attitude and outlook. And maybe if more people did, we wouldn't need protest marches anymore.

In his "I Have a Dream" speech at another protest, Dr. King paraphrased the prophet Amos: "...we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Or peace, like a river.

Next Song: Papa Hobo

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard

One way to ensure an enduring hit is to leave a bit of mystery. People are still trying to figure out who Carly Simon thought was "so vain." And they are still wondering "what the mama saw," here, as well.

What ever it was, it inspired both an arrest and a sense of disgust. Not only was it "against the law," but it caused the mama to freak out, as they used to say. She didn't just call the cops on the phone, she "ran to the police station"... still in her "pajamas"! And after the arrest, she would still "spit" at the "mention" of the teen's mere "name."

The father, meanwhile, was both dismayed and incensed. He "started the investigation," wanting our speaker locked up in a hall for juvenile delinquents. But not before emitting a disappointed "Oy!"

So the crime was also something that evoked, as the saying goes, both "fear and loathing." Was it alcohol? Drugs? Sex? Burning a draft card? What could elicit such intense emotions?

Not simply someone stealing a bicycle; while a crime, that would hardly provoke such a visceral reaction. Not smoking a cigarette, which would seem insolent-- as it was something only adults should do-- but might not be a "crime." Nor could it be something truly indefensible by even a "radical" priest, such as throwing rocks at a stray dog or harassing a child in a wheelchair. Not even a progressive man of God would condone such cruel acts.

Simon has been asked repeatedly in interviews "what the mama saw," and staunchly refuses to say.

Whatever it was, it was something that marked a generational split. While the older generation recoils, the speaker still easily enlists his friends to hang out at the "schoolyard."

The crime must have been some sort of cultural touchstone, and have been seen as a crime by his parents' generation but not his own. Otherwise, the priest who intervened would not have needed to be dubbed "radical." Nor would the story have merited coverage by a national news magazine, and on the cover at that.

The crime, ultimately, is immaterial. What Simon seems to be remarking on is the widening ripple of interest and controversy the act inspired... among adults.

Through it all, the "criminal" himself is bemused-- perhaps even amused-- by all the fuss. He blithely whistles and makes plans for a game of stick ball or 3-on-3 basketball "down by the schoolyard"... while the adult world gnashes its teeth and wrings its hands. (In this, the song shares a certain sense of bewilderment at adult priorities with Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant.")

Our "hero" was no hippie who staged a protest or organized a sit-in. He did not throw water balloons in the stock exchange or streak through a campus quad. He doesn't even know where he is going to wind up later today: "Don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way."

The simple act of wandering aimlessly caused no consternation toward the speakers of "Feelin' Groovy" or "Cloudy." But now, the simple act of this young man "doing his thing" has caused a national uproar. He did not plan his subversion; maybe his most subversive act was having no plan at all.

On a musical level, this song is yet another example of Simon's fascination with breezy Caribbean music, the kind this Julio's family might make on a warm spring evening, just strumming on the patio.

(Personal/political note: This song came out in 1972. Now, at the end of 2010, staunchly conservative leaders are running women for vice president, shrugging at the decriminalization of marijuana, and supporting open homosexuality in the military. Not bad-- it only took them 40 years to catch up.)

A major smash and still popular worldwide, this single proved that Simon did not need Garfunkel to get a substantive hit. In other words, it meant that there was a "Simon" beyond the one in "Simon and Garfunkel."

The song peaked at 22 in the US charts, rising to 15 in the UK, which was probably more comfortable with its reggae influences.

Simon's performance of this song on Sesame Street is on YouTube, and on the box set of songs from that iconic children's show. During that episode, Simon also performed "El Condor Pasa" and some children's numbers as well as The Beatles' "Get Back."

The song was covered by a band with a great name: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.

Next song: Peace Like a River

Monday, December 6, 2010

Armistice Day

"Armistice Day" is the name given to the holiday that commemorates the end of World War I. After World War II, rather than create another holiday, Armistice Day was recast as Veteran's Day to honor those who fought in all American wars.

While the "new" name reflects a desire to honor those who served, the original name recalls the signing of a document calling for, in military parlance, a cessation of hostilities. In lay terms, a cease-fire. The actual peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, came six months later.

"Armistice Day... that's all I really wanted to say." While we are not yet ready to make peace, the speaker seems to say, let's at least agree to end the war.

What happens in this limbo period? "The Philharmonic will play/ But the songs that we sing will be sad" [emphasis mine]. While a celebration is to be had in public, the individuals will be thinking somber thoughts in private. They will be mourning the dead, tending the wounded, repairing the damage done by the bombing. The soldiers will be "hanging around," waiting to see what will happen next-- will the peace hold, or will they be called back to the battle lines?

"Brown" in the sense used here is not a color, but an adjective meaning "unhappy, gloomy," as in the expression, "He was in a brown study." (A "study" in this case is not a personal library, but a contemplation, as in "a study of the issues.")

What caused the war to begin with? It may have been an actual affair, but perhaps merely too much time spent, and emotions shared, with a female acquaintance: "When I needed a friend, she was there/ Just like an easy chair."

It might make sense for a person in a relationship to get advice on the opposite sex from a member of that gender who is not themselves one's own significant other, and so is impartial and has an outsider's perspective. In other words, a man might ask a female friend for advice about his wife, or vice versa. But that logic may not impress the significant other him- or herself, who might see such emotional sharing by their spouse as a form of infidelity.

Still, our speaker is saying that's all that happened, that while he won't do it again, he won't apologize, either-- he feels he did nothing wrong: "No long-drawn, blown-out excuses were made."

In any case, the speaker is declaring an armistice-- "Let's stop fighting and put this behind us."

Until this point, the song has featured only Simon on vocals and acoustic guitar. The guitar part is very impressive, full of bent notes and flared strumming. But now, a maraca-like rattle is heard, then an electric guitar and horns, which cover over the acoustic.

The lyric changes drastically as well. The situation depicted is simply that someone is waiting in a Congressman's office, "but he's avoiding [him]." The constituent finally asks a passing congresswoman to intercede on his behalf and let the representative know that his patience is wearing thin: "I've about waited all I can."

The acoustic then picks back up, perhaps signaling that this "song within a song" has some meaning to the other verses.

The speaker may be saying, "My going to this other person was all I could do, since the person I wanted to speak with (you) was being actively unavailable. The fact that this other person was a woman was immaterial, as she was merely a means to an end (not unlike the female doctor in the previous song). If anything, the 'congressman' (again, you) is at least partly to blame, since he is my chosen 'representative' and I am supposed to have a relationship with 'him.' What else was I supposed to do, if not get someone else to help me?"

The imagery of the song is telling. The struggle within the relationship is put in political and diplomatic terms.

The order of the song's verses is interesting as well. First, it says that even if we declare an end to the fighting, things will be superficially better, but there will still be a lot of down-looking, foot-"shuffling," "around-hanging," and passive-aggressive moping.

Then, "I didn't do anything wrong and I'm not sorry."

Then "Let's declare a truce anyway."

Lastly, "Oh, and this was really your fault because I wanted to talk to you, but you didn't want to talk to me... so I had to talk to someone, didn't I?"

Why declare an 'armistice,' then trot out your reasons for your side in the hostilities? This sounds more like grinding an axe than burying a hatchet. Perhaps his point was, "Well, maybe this was a lousy way to get your attention, but it's all I had to work with. Now that I do have your attention, let's agree to stop fighting so we can just talk out the issue... which is that I never seem to have your attention."

The song ends there, with no response from the other party, and no "closure," as we say today, in either reconciliation (peace treaty) or a break-up (declaration of independence?).

But then, this is not the day they sign the peace treaty... just the armistice.

Next Song: Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard

Monday, November 29, 2010

Run That Body Down

Another unusual advice-giving song. The message here is clear: "How long you think that you can run that body down?"

In other words, how long do you think you can keep up this crazy schedule, with no rest?

This album was released in 1972. The speaker on this song is Simon himself; we know this because the doctor calls him "Paul." Although he was only in his early 30s at the time (yes, he had accomplished his entire S&G career by age 30), we might well assume that the strains of writing and recording his first (post-breakup) solo album-- with all the pressure for hits that came with it-- was wearing on him.

The "Peg" mentioned in the song is Simon's first wife, Peg Harper. She is mentioned again in the song "Call Me Al." A friend of theirs kept forgetting their names; instead of "Peggy" and "Paul," he would call them "Betty" and "Al."

The "kid" in the last verse might well be the listener... or it could (depending on when the song was written) refer to Simon's first child. His name is Harper, in honor of Peg's maiden name. He was born in... 1972. Babies, of course, are notorious for their sporadic and ever-changing sleeping and eating patterns, perhaps not unlike those of rock stars.

Harper's birth might also explain was Peg was doing that was running her own body down-- having and taking care of a newborn.

The somewhat lethargic tempo and languid tone of the piece fits the message: We're all going a mile a minute, and the pace starting to take its toll. Let's rein it in a bit, shall we, before we collapse.

As Billy Joel would later put it in his song "Vienna": "You better cool it off before you burn it out."

Speaking of Harper, he recorded his debut album in the past couple of years, and we will discuss the songs on it with which Simon helped him with after we discuss the songs on Simon's own Surprise. After that, of course, we will turn to the songs on Simon's 2011 album So Beautiful or So What.

Next Song: Armistice Day

Monday, November 22, 2010

Everything Put Together Falls Apart

An uncharacteristic bit of advice-giving from Simon. In the same year when Neil Young sang about "The Needle and the Damage Done"-- 1972-- Simon discouraged drug use with this somber number. (Originally posted incorrect date; corrected by a comment [see below])

"Paraphernalia," as in drug paraphernalia, "never hides your broken bones," our speaker explains. But most songs, at this point, might encourage the listener-- instead of turning to drugs-- to "get high on life" or perhaps find religion.

Not this speaker. He discusses, instead, the concept of entropy, the physics truism that states, as the title indicates, that "everything put together sooner or later falls apart." Yes, everything... from planets to forests to elements.

The Gershwins put it: "The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble." Not just "may," Simon insists, but "will." William Butler Yeats agrees, writing in his poem, "The Second Coming": "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." Nothing can reverse the process of entropy.

You might think, the speaker says, that drugs could ease or maybe mask the pain of this deterioration. But they cannot "hide your broken bones." The speaker also does not hold out the hope of support by friends, society, or God: "It's plain to see you're on your own."

Nevertheless, one should still not turn to drugs to wake "up" or lie "down," since they "change your style." One should not attempt to mask suffering or mortality by drugging, as that does not even provide an effective hiding place-- all they do is make you less yourself. "Some folks are crazy," the speaker admits, and some nearly so. But you are not; you are still rational. So why take drugs and become crazy? It's foolish.

"You can cry/ You can lie," but it will not help one bit. Instead, one should recognize that one is mortal, but not dwell on the matter, and simply get on with the business of living. Since "everything put together sooner or later falls apart" anyway, "spare your heart" the angst of focusing on that inevitability.

You are helpless to change, veer away from, or prevent your dying. Everyone and everything dies. And why think "Well, if I'm just going to die anyway, I might as well kill myself now" ("You can die")? Why not just live already?

Dorothy Parker agrees. Her poem, "Resume" assesses various suicide methods and reaches the same conclusion:
"Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live."

"When... they lay you down for dead/ Just remember what I said," about everything falling apart. So, first, stop avoiding the issue with drugs, and wasting time with them, advises the speaker, and just live the life you have left.

"Everything Put Together" is not a nihilistic or fatalistic song. Rather, it is an open-eyed assessment of the fact of mortality. As Kafka said, "The meaning of life is that it ends." And the best response Simon can find to that inevitability is to not waste what time he has left dwelling on that issue: "If I am going to die some day, I only have so much time to get things done, so I'd better get busy now."

In his book of philosophical essays The Myth of Sisyphus, novelist Albert Camus discusses despair and hope. Since we don't know what will happen tomorrow, both despair and hope are equally absurd mindsets, he reasons. But if one despairs, one might as well kill oneself today. Since the outlooks are equally absurd, he decides, one might as well hope and live.

Centuries before, the author of Ecclesiastes-- believed by many to be King Solomon-- also wrestled with the meaning of life, and death. "As the one dies, so dies the other... All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." Therefore, "The best thing we can do is eat and drink and enjoy what we have earned."

Simon doesn't state it in Camus' or Ecclesiastes' terms, but he might agree. Since entropy/mortality will get you in the end anyway... "spare your heart." You might as well live.

Next song: Run That Body Down

Monday, November 15, 2010


In this song, Simon revisits the down-and-out character type portrayed in "The Boxer" and sets his story to the Andean wood-flute music of "El Condor Pasa." The same ensemble, in fact.

However, this song is about, well, sex. It starts with the singer apologizing for the "couple in the next room" who have been "going at it" for a while. Now, he has given up waiting for them to finish and will proceed with his story, and the listener is just going to have to put up with the background noise.

He has an unusual name. Both his given name, "Lincoln," and his surname "Duncan," are those of famous assassination victims. Lincoln, of course, was assassinated by the fanatic John Wilkes Booth... and King Duncan by the treacherous Macbeth. Our speaker's name, therefore, is steeped in tragic death.

He is from Canada, he explains, from the Atlantic coastal region called the Maritimes. His father was a fisherman... and his mother, a "fisherman's friend." It is unclear what this means. A "fisherman's friend" is a flower, although I was unable determine why a land-based plant would help a fisherman. (It is also, incidentally, the brand name of a throat lozenge, presumably one that fishermen prefer. Perhaps the lozenge contains an extract of the flower..?)

Taken in the context of the song, however, it seems to either mean that his mother was very supportive of his father's sea-going, often-absent lifestyle... or that she kept other fishermen company while he was at sea. Possibly, she played at one while acting out the other.

None of this seems to have affected our speaker, however, who left home for New England fleeing simple "boredom." His destination is vague, but hopeful, if only in that he seeks a place whose name has "New" in it.

Like his compatriot the Boxer, who went "looking for a job but [got] no offers," Duncan is broke. We get an entire verse about this "destitution" and its affect on his sense of self. There are "holes" in both his jeans and his "confidence."

And then he sees her. We do not learn the name of the "young girl," but that seems beside the point. She is less a person than a symbol. She is "young," parallel to the "New" in his chosen place. She is a "girl," and fertile. This is key; it might just as well have been an older person, or a man, preaching.

He hears her songs and stories and is enchanted. After her sermon, he approaches her and tells her he is "lost." So she speaks-- this time, not to a "crowd" but directly to him-- of the Pentecost. This is the revelation of the Holy Spirit to Jesus' core disciples after the Resurrection (50 days after, to be precise, thus the "pent-" prefix, as in "pentagon").

The Pentecost was taken as proof of Jesus' approval of the Apostles' mission; it is sometimes referred to as "the birthday of the Church." A startling contrast for a young man named for two historical figures who were, like Jesus, assassinated.

The result? "I seen that girl as the road to my survival." This last word Simon sings with several extra syllables, to emphasize the feeling of relief and ecstasy Duncan feels, or maybe a song sung at the prayer service.

This is followed by a curious lyric: "I know," repeated several times. It is as if Duncan is reacting to the reader's skepticism and concern. "I know what you are thinking," Duncan seems to say, "but please, let me finish."

Spellbound, he finds her tent in the dark, with is flashlight. He must see her again.

But what happens when he arrives at the tent of this pure, holy maiden who "just" earlier that day was so religious? What does she do? Read another passage of Scripture? Sing a hymn? Well, no. She takes him to the "woods," a primal place.

There, as Duncan puts it, "My long years of innocence ended." Why "long" years? At his age, his losing his virginity even in his late teens (he can drive; he speaks of himself as having "reached [his] prime," so we presume he was 17 or 18) must have felt like he had waited an eternity.

Duncan remembers that the girl took charge, once he approached her. She takes him to the woods, she is the one who speaks during the encounter. For his part, he was decidedly subservient and simply grateful: "Just like a dog, I was befriended."

Still, Duncan recalls the event as an entirely positive one and remarks, "What a garden of delight," perhaps referring to the Garden of Eden.

In the afterglow, he offers a prayer of his own: "I was playing my guitar... thanking the Lord for my fingers." His prayer relates to a physical part of himself, but also to what music his body can achieve, both with his guitar and... otherwise.

This is not the last time Simon links religious ecstasy with the more physical kind. In the Graceland song "That Was Your Mother," we meet another "young girl" who is "pretty as a prayerbook." His reaction? "If that's my prayerbook-- 'Lord, let us pray!'"

Here, Simon's point is somewhat more serious. Duncan has learned a lesson about sex and its power of transcendence. Now we can understand today's more mature Duncan, the one who tells us his "first time" story, and his withering assessment of the "couple in the next room." They seem to be after some earthly "prize" and are confusing quantity with quality.

As for his mother, well, he seems to have made his peace with her activities. She was just keeping company with "friends," after a fashion, lonely for his absentee father.

Duncan himself seems to see spiritual and physical transcendence as two sides of the same coin. The same person who taught him the ways of Heaven also taught him the ways of the world. She didn't have a problem with being overtly rapturous about both the Bible and the bed, so why should he? Why is one sort of revelation worth more than the other?

When he saw her as "the road to [his] survival," he had no idea how right he would prove to be.

Still, he concludes with another round of "I know, I know, I know." He knows that this is all, to a point, theory, and not always viable in practice. He knows that this girl is one in a million, perhaps rarer. He knows that she might well have been delusional herself... or even predatory. And he knows that he might well be fooling himself, and that his listener probably thinks that he is.

"I know I shouldn't believe," he seems to say, "but it is so nice to... and really, what's the harm?

Musical Note: The flutes here are played by an ensemble called Urubamba, after a river near Machu Picchu; Simon produced an album for them. Under their early name, Los Incas, they performed the flutes heard in "El Condor Pasa."

Next song: Everything Put Together Falls Apart

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mother and Child Reunion

In 1989, Lita Ford and Ozzy Osbourne caught a lot of flak for their duet "Close My Eyes Forever," which many claimed encouraged suicide, especially in impressionable teens.

Meanwhile, Paul Simon started his post-breakup solo career (or at least the first song on the first album) with a song on the same topic, with nary a murmur from the sensationalist media or distraught parents. It was his-- at least-- fourth song on the subject, the first three being "Save the Life of My Child," "A Most Peculiar Man," and "Richard Cory."

In the case of "Mother and Child Reunion," the issue is a bit more disguised than in those earlier tracks. Part of the reason the message of the song went largely unnoticed is the ebullient music, lit up with African-reggae guitars, organs, drums, and descants.

The title comes from a Chinese menu, the dish including both chicken and eggs-- thus, the mother hen reuniting with her offspring in a rather sad way, for them at least. (Interestingly, another Chinese restaurant meal is mentioned later on the album, in the song "Paranoia Blues.")

But how is the song about suicide?

The speaker refers to the listener as "Little darling of mine," so we must presume some familiarity between the two parties. Also, the listener seems to be at least a generation younger, given that form of address.

The speaker addresses the listener, first saying they would not offer "false hope," which implies he or she does intend to propose a real sense of hope... by means of a practical solution to the despair at hand.

The speaker begins by laying out the problem: "I can't for the life of me/ remember a sadder day." What could be sadder than the loss of one's mother (well, the loss of one's child, perhaps. But one does not truly compare on such occasions)? The conversation seems to be taking place at the funeral, or perhaps during the mourning after.

The song then alludes to the Beatles' song "Let It Be," released two years prior: "I know they say 'let it be.'" In that song, The Virgin Mary, referred to repeatedly as "mother," returns from Heaven to offer solace. Simon, or at least his speaker, disagrees: "...but it just don't work out that way." Mothers don't come back from Heaven...

...You have to go up to them. Which is not that difficult of a trip, it seems: "the mother and child reunion is only a motion away." Remember the recipe for that dish? The two are reunited... in death. With one swift swipe of a knife, or the twitch of a finger on a trigger, or a short jump off a bridge, the reunion can be completed. It's not much effort-- "only a motion"-- or much time-- "only a moment."

Simon then seems to allude to a song on his own. Here, he says, "I've never been laid so low." On the immediate previous album, he uses the same word, "lay," but in the active voice, to indicate that he will do anything to provide comfort for his listener: "Like a bridge over troubled water/ I will lay me down."

Why the difference? In "Bridge," the message to the sufferer is, "I know you are weak, but I am strong, and you can depend on me for support." Here, the speaker is just as affected and miserable as the person he is trying to console: "I can't... remember a sadder day... I've never been laid so low." So of course his advice is going to be different.

While "Let It Be" is quite religious, our song only obliquely refers to religion, in the line: "In such a mysterious way." That phrasing sounds familiar because it borrows from the expression "The Lord moves in mysterious ways." While the Beatles profess a benevolent deity who "comes to me, speaking words of wisdom," Simon quotes a hymn, to cast a sideways glance at an inscrutable God whose intentions are unknowable.

There also seems to be a reference to reincarnation. (Note that "resurrection" is coming back from the dead as oneself, while "reincarnation" implies that one returns in another guise.) "The course of a lifetime runs/over and over again" may mean that, since we come back anyway, what's the difference if this particular life ends?

Yet, he must believe in an afterlife of some sort, if he is espousing the idea that, once the child kills himself, he will have his "reunion" with his mother. Well, maybe there is a Heaven, but since we can't rely on God-- especially not a God Who goes about killing mothers-- we must take matters into our own hands.

Finally, who is the speaker? If a mother has died, we cannot imagine that a father would tell his son: "Listen, seriously, if you miss your mother that much, why not join her? Here's some pills." First of all-- from a sheer biological standpoint-- if the child dies, too, his genes will die out entirely. More humanely, what father would wish death on his own child? He's all he has left of the mother, and why would he (the father) want to be be entirely alone?

So whoever is saying "Little darling of mine" is not, in all likelihood, a relative. Rather, it seems an elderly acquaintance, perhaps someone who has been to one too many funerals, who can't bear to see the child suffer and miss his mother so.

Still, if this person is going to offer advice like this, one has to question the father's judgement in inviting such a one to the funeral! If he doesn't believe in religious faith being able to offer true comfort, why doesn't this "well-meaning" person tell the grieving child that he, himself, will be the bridge over his troubled water?

That seems a much more decent option than shrugging: "If you're that miserable, why not just kill yourself?"

The song went to #5 in the UK and #4 in the US.

By beginning his solo career with such a song, Simon seems to be declaring his desire to explore the world's music much more enthusiastically and regularly going forward. The album has several musical textures, many borrowed from other cultures, as we shall see.

The song was covered by Randy California... and a band with one of my favorite names: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.

Next song: Duncan

Monday, November 1, 2010

My Little Town

This is an odd choice for a reunion song. It is a sad and hurt song, full of anger and frustration.

The song does not seem to be autobiographical; are there "factories" in Queens? Rather, it seems to be a song about growing up feeling pent-up in, perhaps, a steel town; compare the song to Billy Joel's "Allentown" or Springsteen's "Youngstown." The images of factories and guns are later combined in John Gorka's number "The One That Got Away: "I grew up beneath the trees/ Not far from the refineries/ Aimed at the sky like smoking guns/ I learned to walk; I learned to run away."

Gorka, a folksinger-songwriter, is the laureate of leaving. He has over a dozen songs in his catalog on the subject, with titles like "The Gypsy Life," "Out of the Valley," and "You're On Your Way." But even he would be hard-pressed to come up with a leaving song as completely bitter as "My Little Town."

The song's anger is all the more shocking when one realizes that the subject is a child. The song's events and impressions are related by an adult remembering the claustrophobia-- both physical and emotional-- of his "little" town. The adjective is key-- the town is not just small, but small-minded.

The song begins with an unwanted prayer at school. "God" watches "us all," but he is especially oppressive to the speaker: "He used to lean upon me."

Then there is, of course, the Pledge of Allegiance. Only instead of pledging to a flag, the speaker pledges to "the wall." Perhaps his desk is by a wall, so he can't even see the flag clearly from his seat; he might as well be pledging his allegiance to that hard, blank surface. Or perhaps the school itself is a "wall," as in the Pink Floyd image of education: "Teacher, leave those kids alone/ All in all, you're just another brick in the wall."

The next images are of grim dinginess. There are the "factories" spewing the pollution that makes for a "dirty breeze" to hang clean "laundry" in. There is the black rainbow. The pall of grayness spewed by the smokestacks captures the "lack" of "imagination" the speaker feels in his surroundings, discoloring even a rainbow.

(The image of an all-black rainbow, Simon reveals in the Still Crazy liner notes, is Ted Hughes': "a black rainbow/ bent in emptiness.")

Only on his ride home does he engage in metaphor, as he "flies" his bike home. Only alone, in between the school and home, is there freedom. Yes, there is the omnipresent factory. But at school, he pledges allegiance to a wall, while on the ride home, he "flies" past restrictive "gates."

And what is waiting at home? A mother doing laundry, and a father who-- like everyone else in town-- defines the speaker in his terms, and his generation's: "I never meant nothin'/ I was just my father's son."

But then alone again, perhaps in his bedroom, he "dream[s] of glory." And he doesn't just dream, he plans, by "saving [his] money."

All the while, he is as ready to explode as a "gun," waiting until he is 18, or perhaps just old enough to drive, to leave. On his stereo, he might even have the (also 1975) LP of "Born to Run," with the rallying cry in its title track: "Baby, this town rips the bones from your back... We gotta get out while we're young."

Now an adult, he has no nostalgia for the place whatsoever. He regards those he left behind as "dead and dying." We imagine he means the latter term not literally (although, with that pollution...), but in the same way Bob Dylan did in his observation: "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Considering the negative emotion that caused the breakup and then followed it, this song would be a strange reunion song for any other duo... but perhaps not this one.

IMPACT: Simon included the track on his Still Crazy After All These Years album, which would go on to win a Grammy, and Garfunkel placed it on his album Breakaway. Both albums came out in 1975. The song went to #9 and the do performed it on Saturday Night Live.

Some Thoughts on Simon's S&G Material:
While Simon is primarily thought of as a serious and even somber folk songwriter, his S&G work also pulls a great deal from the lighthearted and innocent work of '50s pop. Further, while his world-music phase is often thought to start circa Graceland, we see a constant exploration of sounds outside the American sonic landscape even very early on.

Had Simon never written another song after the breakup, his legacy as one of the premier songwriters of all time would still be assured. Lucky for us, he kept going... and still is.

[If any reader knows of a S&aG track I have missed, skipped, or forgotten, please let me know. Next week starts Simon's post-S&G solo material. Those who "only" like music from this era of Simon's output are encouraged to stay and explore this fascinating series of albums, which is still unfolding.]

Next Song: Mother and Child Reunion

Monday, October 25, 2010

Someday, One Day

The song's theme is optimism. The very title speaks to the idea that, whatever the setbacks, one's goal can be achieved with persistence.

One notable feature of the song is its lack of consistent rhyme. The chorus is a/a/b/a, with the first and last lines ending in "day." The first verse's lines end with the words "mirror/you/of/love," for a rhyme scheme of a/b/c/c. The second verse: "dreamer/thinkin'/doin'/say," or a/b/c/d (which is to say, no rhymed lines). And then the third verse is "discouraged/slowly/doin'/movin'," so the slant rhyme of the last two lines brings us back to a/b/c/c.

Perhaps this lack of rhyme reflects the state of mind of the listener-- not so much the person speaking, but the one being spoken to. The listener is someone who is "down" and needs to be "bucked up." He (or she) is not feeling like there is much rhyme is his life.

The lyrics themselves are very straightforward and comprise a "pep talk." The way The Seekers perform it, it could be addressed to anyone needing encouragement.

While I am a bit hesitant to assign meanings to Simon's songs based on his circumstances at the time of their writing, I must wonder if in this case such an ideas isn't warranted.

Simon and Garfunkel, no longer Tom and Jerry, had regrouped as a folk duo and put out "Wednesday Morning." It did not do well. So Simon might have been addressing the song to Garfunkel, telling him that with some persistence, they might still find success.

Another, even bolder, interpretation might be that Simon addressed this song to himself. In England at the time, he recorded an album of solo acoustic material (his "Songbook") and was writing songs with Woodley, but neither was the success he had hoped for with Garfunkel.

One can imagine him "look(ing) in the mirror," trying to convince himself that in a "time not so far away," that could still happen.

What he did not know is that, back in New York, a producer named Tom Wilson was creating an electric "remix" of "Sound of Silence"... which would go to #1 and start Simon and Garfunkel on their way.

Another collaboration with Woodley, this was The Seekers' follow-up to their #1 hit "I'll Never Find Another You." (Thanks to a reader for correcting me; this was not The Seekers' first hit, as I had said.)

As The Seekers were the first act with international impact from Australia, it is fair to say that Simon, aside from his part in South Africa's musical history, is also part of that island continent's cultural story.

Later acts from Australia ranged from The Little River Band to Men At Work, and perhaps most notably another harmony act like The Seekers-- The Bee Gees. Well, not much like The Seekers.

Next song: My Little Town

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I Wish You Could Be Here

This song was co-written with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers, and performed by that Australian group. It was written in the short hiatus between the letdown of the first proper S&G album, "Wednesday Morning" and their follow-up, "Silence." (Woodley also co-wrote "Cloudy.")

While it does not seem to have been recorded by S&G, it is included in the songbook "Songs by Paul Simon" (Charing Cross Music, 1967), which largely contains S&G material.

Thematically, the song prefigures "Kathy's Song." The opening imagery, however, is of snow, not rain, as in "I Am a Rock": "Lookin' from my window at the freshly fallen snow/ That sparkles as it tumbles upon the street below."

The song does not discuss the internal angst of the speaker, as "Kathy's Song" does. It simply speaks of the speaker's longing for his absent love, describes the ambiance of the room, as in "Dangling Conversation," and discusses what the speaker does with his "lot of empty time to kill"-- There is a fire in the fireplace; "the room is warm and sleepy." He listens to "some records," and tries to "read the paper."

But, while he doesn't use these words, his mind is distracted and diffused. The words in the paper "aren't very clear," and his "thoughts return to you/ And I know there's somethin' missin', I wish you could be here."

While he aches for her return, he does not expect it. "I keep list'nin' for your footsteps or your key turned in the door/ I sure could use your company, but we've been through that before."

This last line is the only one that provides any context for the relationship. This is not just "I miss you," but "I miss you since we broke up."

Somewhat like "Somewhere They Can't Find Me" is a rock remake of "Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M." "I Wish You Could Be Here" is a pop remake of "Kathy's Song." It is roughly the same song, with simpler words and concepts substituted for the others' collegiate and poetic sensibilities.

Also, in "Kathy's Song," the couple is geographically apart but still together. More importantly, here the singer is upset but still "has it together," while in "Kathy's Song" he has a major crisis: "I have come to doubt all that I once held as true."

What makes this song interesting is that it shows that Simon is capable of presenting the same material in two different ways-- as a simple folk-pop ditty, or as a highly philosophical and emotional poem.

Next Song: "Someday, One Day."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hey Schoolgirl

Puppy love used to have a soundtrack.

This is an innocent little flirtation about a young "crush" that, in a situation that seems rare in Simon's later work, is mutual.

The boy makes the first move, and daringly whispers-- during class!-- that he'd like to meet up with this young lady after "after school."

She agrees, but is demure. Her school day is over an entire hour and a half later. If they are in the same classroom, they must be in the same school and even the same grade... how is her school day so much different? Does she have after-school activities? Detention? (Heaven forbid.)

She then puts him off three times more. "Maybe when we're older, then we can date" seems like a very big put-off. Her excuse about homework taking her "hours" would only mean he'd have to wait hours, not years until they are "older."

And then the vague "Someday we'll go steady" seems a timeframe of months, perhaps years again.

But each put-off is equalled by a come-on: "Let's wait" means later, yes, but not never-- as does "So don't you fret/ Ooh, not yet."

At this point, our poor young fellow might be forgiven if he feels "played" or "strung along," what with such mixed messages.

But then, just as suddenly, the girl changes her mind, and with a sense of purpose commits herself: "I'm gonna skip my homework, gonna cut my class/ Bug out of here real fast."

Our young Romeo could not be happier, with the situation or with himself: "Now we're going steady... You're mine/ I knew it all the time." Sure he did.

Still, what was it about him that won her over? His brazenness in approaching her during class? His confidence in suggesting a date before he even knew her name? His doo-wop influenced pick-up line: "hoo-babaloo-chi-bop"? The fact that once he made his overture, he hung back, letting her come to him?

We'll never know for sure. But this extremely early song does remain one of the few songs in Simon's portfolio about a successful relationship. Is such a thing possible only when the participants are as uncomplicatedly innocent-- or as obliviously confident-- as children?

This is the one song from the Tom and Jerry, pre-S&G, days that the duo still performs.

They were still in high school when, with this song, they found their first taste of success. It was their first professional recording, cut in 1957. It sold 100,000 copies and cracked the Top 50 (#49, but still).

It even took them to the performance show of their time-- long before American Idol, MTV, Star Search or even Soul Train-- called American Bandstand. New artists took turns playing their hits, teens danced, and Dick Clark hosted the proceedings. (The TV show central to the plot of Hairspray is based on this show.)

When he introduced them, Clark asked them where they were from. Garfunkel admitted to being from New York, but Simon falsely drawled that he was from Macon, Georgia. This fib was, perhaps, in an attempt at authenticity... or at not wanting to be out-authentic-ed by the act that they were to follow: Jerry Lee Lewis, performing "Great Balls of Fire."

Next Song: I Wish You Could Be Here

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Red Rubber Ball

Simon wrote it, so it is his, but he does not seem to have recorded a solo version. Then again, neither did S&G except on a concert CD that was released many years post-breakup.

Since there is an  S&G  recording of the song, and since Simon wrote the song pre-breakup, let's call this an  S&G-era song, if not an S&G song proper.

While the previously discussed track recalls Simon's 1960's style protest work, this number hearkens back even further, to his Brill Building, "Hey Schoolgirl" days.

The lyrics, as befitting that time and place, are straightforward, if somewhat clever. The main imagery is childlike: a "roller-coaster," a "starfish," and the titular red ball.

But there is a sophistication in the message. Yes, there is some residual anger in this breakup song, but nothing like the venom of "Interest" or the petulance of "I Am a Rock."

Breakups can be like other losses, and move through the five basic emotions of grieving outlined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (she never intended for people to think that these had to be felt "in order," though, or even one at a time): Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

So if those other songs have a speaker stuck in Anger mode, the speaker of "Rubber Ball" is largely in a state of Acceptance: "I think it's gonna be all right/ Yeah, the worst is over now/ The morning sun is shining."

Yes, but why "like a red rubber ball"? Well, anything from childhood can be seen as a sign of hope.

One could read a sense of resiliency, of "bouncing back" from a let-down, into the fact that the ball is rubber.

That might be pushing things. After all, Bobby Vee's "Rubber Ball" uses the same image to refer to an overly pliant boy who can't get over a girl: "Like a rubber ball, I come bouncing back to you."

Instead, let's look at Simon's song as he uses Anger as a lever to move himself into a place of Acceptance. As the speaker looks back over the relationship-- the song itself starts with "I should have known"-- he lists the reasons that he is relieved the relationship's sun has set:

She was dismissive of, perhaps even loose with, his "secrets"... she treated him like 'arm candy,' as they say today... and she never had "time" for him. Overall, he felt uncared for, and uncared about: "You never cared... never caring."

Whatever good times there were do not seem to have been worth the anguish the relationship caused. Simon uses the somewhat cliche image of a "roller-coaster ride" to illustrate these ups-and-downs...

...then tries to extend the metaphor-- "I bought my ticket with my tears." Rather than smirk at the histrionics of that line, let us realize that this was at least an attempt to elevate a cliche, and that it is entirely in keeping with what passed for poetry in song lyrics of its era (again compare to the Bobby Vee song). Lastly, even if someone was trying to write a song in the voice of a wounded teen today, they might very well write that line; it is entirely in character.

Lastly, let us applaud the speaker for personal strength of the rest of the line: "...that's all I'm gonna spend." No Bargaining going on here, no "If only you'd..." or "I promise to..." The speaker has cried enough, and is done.

In case he was unclear, the speaker states his case plainly in other lines: "I don't need you at all... If I never hear your name again, it's all the same to me."

He realizes he's worth more than the sort of treatment he's been getting... and after all, she's not the only fish in the sea.

Not even the only "starfish."

The song was made famous by a band called The Cyrkle, who opened for The Beatles in the US and spelled their name like that because John Lennon told them to.

The song rose to #2, and "went gold," which means it sold over a million copies. It was co-written by The Seekers' Bruce Woodley.

Also, after I selected it last week for this week's post, I heard it blasting from a car stereo here in Chicago on a fall weekend afternoon.

Next Song: Hey Schoolgirl

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Church is Burning

Simon released this song on his 1965 solo album Songbook, and it does not appear on any of the five official S&G releases. So, it's a Simon solo number, yes?

Well, it also appears on several S&G compilations, box sets, and concert albums, sung as a duet. And since all of the other material on Songbook appears on one of these five albums, and since it was written when Simon was part of the duo, we'll cover it here.

Thematically and historically, it fits here as well. It is clearly a 1960s protest song, along the lines of "He Was My Brother."

The story is a sadly common one, a church burning. Three "hooded men," evidently KKK members, set a black church ablaze at night. The devastation is contrasted with the hopeful prayers that were being said their earlier that day: "I won't be a slave anymore."

But while the church burns, the fire itself prays: "You can burn down my churches/ But I shall be free."

I have no proof of this, but I have a theory that this imagery was at least in part taken from the Jewish High Holiday service. The prayers on Yom Kippur include the story of the Ten Martyrs. These were ten Torah scholars tortured to death by the Romans for disobeying the order to stop teaching Jewish law; the text details the graphic horror of their tortures. The Chabad website puts the story in context and provides some background information on each of the martyrs:

"One of the martyrs was Rabbi Chananya ben [son of] Teradyon... one of the preeminent sages of his day, yet more than anything he was known as a man with an overriding concern for the poor. His efforts to raise funds on their behalf are legendary...

In the end, he too became a victim of Roman savagery. Before they burned him at the stake, the Romans wrapped his body in a Torah scroll and packed tufts of water-soaked wool around his heart to delay his death and prolong the suffering...

...In his final moments [he] continued to embody the triumph of a noble soul. His final words to his disciples were, 'I see the parchment [of the scroll] burning, but the letters themselves are flying up to Heaven'."

The text in the prayerbook continues that the executioner was so moved that he removed the wool, fanned the flames to hasten the end of the scholar's suffering... and jumped into the blaze himself.

While the imagery is only similar, we know that even the most uninvolved Jews tend to attend Yom Kippur services. Simon is highly likely to have been familiar with this story-- one of religious/racial persecution, with a book-burning image.

As far as the rest of the lyrics, they are fairly self-explanatory. Two images stand out, however. One is the comparison of flame's shape with that of hands placed together in prayer. Both rounded at the bottom and tapered at the top, like a teardrop, the shapes are undeniably similar. We have all seen both shapes our whole lives, but it takes the eye of a poet to connect them.

The other is "the ashes of a Bible." As he later would in "Keep the Customer Satisfied"-- with the lines "I been slandered, libeled/ I heard words I never heard in the Bible"-- Simon contrasts the proclaimed piety of many Bible-thumpers with the horrible things they actually, hypocritically, do.

Church burnings are, sadly, not a thing of the past. As recently as 2006, there was a rash of church burnings in the South. And houses of worship of all faiths continue to be bombed and desecrated to this day. [Note: a French synagogue was firebombed in 2014.] Like this song said in 1965, "The future is now."

Next Song: Red Rubber Ball

Monday, September 20, 2010

You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies

This 1967 song was released as a flipside to a (slight) remake of "Fakin' It."

The theme of the song is common enough: an entreaty to a potential lover. However, the speaker does not take the usual tacks of begging, promising, flattering, etc.

No, this person wants to argue and insult her into being his girlfriend. His premise? It is in her own best "interest," and she seems ignorant of that, to her own detriment.

The speaker posits himself as the more intelligent of the pair: "You don't know that you love me... What you think isn't always true... You don't begin to comprehend." He knows what is best for her, and it is him.

She doesn't appreciate his superiority, either, "You may think you're above me... You should know that I'm womanly wise... Don't try to debate me."

Another thing she is unaware of is that they are more than friends, or are soon to be. Our speaker is not going to let the fact of their friendship prevent him from trying to increase their status a notch, and is willing to risk losing her as a friend to gain her as a girlfriend.

A bold ploy, and a necessary one in many cases. But first, he says something cruel: "You're just a game that I like to play." What, then, is the point of risking the friendship? Not to gain a lover, but to win a "game"?

He says that she dare not "try to manipulate" him, but what would he like to do to her if not the exact same thing?

Musically, the song mimics many of the British Invasion songs of the time; played instrumentally (and, minus the bent blues notes), it might be mistaken for an early Police track, with its somewhat-reggae beat.

At this point, however, the song turns into an electric-piano lounge number for a few measures. Someone-- either a friend or a voice from his subconscious-- tells the speaker that his tactics will fail: "Obviously, you're going to blow it."

This wiser voice takes the idea of "you don't know" and turns it back on the speaker. His oncoming failure may be obvious to this detached observer, but "you [i.e., the speaker] don't know it."

So here is the speaker, bragging about his intellect and what his target doesn't "know," when it's obvious to everyone else that this person doesn't "know," ahem, squat about relationships or how to start them.

The beat picks back up, and our dogged if maladroit speaker continues his bluster unabated. Obviously, he is going to blow it.

For her part, she probably is well aware that her interest lies elsewhere.

Next Track: A Church Is Burning

Monday, September 13, 2010

Song for the Asking

This simple song hearkens back to Simon's early S&G-era folksongs, like "April Come She Will" and especially "Leaves That Are Green."

The instrumentation, sparse as it is, shows some complexity. The string quartet-style accompaniment might seem an odd choice for the folksy guitar with the odd bent blues note thrown in. But this is the same Simon who would later write a song called "American Tune" based on a Bach piece. One of Simon's great musical gifts as a composer and arranger is exactly this kind of synthesis of Old and New World sounds, of ancient and modern styles.

Lyrically, the song is very straightforward. "Ask me and I will play," Simon tells his audience, perhaps an audience of one. "Take it... I've been waiting all my life..." he offers, and then it trails off. "Waiting" for what? For the addressee of the song to ask him to play, evidently.

And then the song turns into an apology: "...I'd be more than glad/ To change my ways." First, the request not to "turn away," now this. What did he do, and on a regular basis, that upset the other party so greatly that they would leave, and leave him "sad"? We are left wondering.

There is a purposeful parallel Simon is creating: Just tell him, and he'll change. Just ask him, and he'll play.

The solution to both is his song itself. "Ask me, and I will play/ All the love that I hold inside." If you just give him a chance to play, to express himself in his terms, he will be able to explain and apologize and, well, love.

There are dozens of break-up albums, but very few about the break-up of the band itself. After several songs of farewell, it is curious to end the album-- and the partnership-- with this song. A song that says, "Don't go, I'll change-- whatever you want, just ask."

It is the first indication that Simon was perhaps ambivalent about the break-up. Unlike many bands thrown together by studio executives, or created through auditions, Simon and Garfunkel were friends. Even at their young age at this point, they were "old friends," having been performing together since high school.

Yes, together, they were once-in-forever team. But each was also immensely talented on his own, and each had musical and other artistic ambitions that the other did not share (Admittedly, like Garfunkel, Simon did have a brief acting career; Simon had a cameo in Annie Hall, aside from One Trick Pony. But he and Garfunkel never shared a film). And there was that personality conflict, too.

It seems to be taken as historical fact that the break was inevitable and mutual, and both parties felt relieved by it.

And yet... assume for a moment that this song, in the context of the album, is about the break-up. Then "Song for the Asking" might be the only indication that Simon was "sad" about the situation, was willing to admit fault, and even willing to make amends. He even offered Garfunkel his greatest gift, to play whatever Garfunkel wanted. But, as Simon said in "Overs," "Why don't we stop fooling ourselves?/ The game is over."

The album does not end with one of the farewell songs, or upbeat numbers. It does not end with the title track, and its promise to stay supportive as the other "sails on by." It ends with a song more suited for a re-beginning. And it really ends, not with the crescendo that ends "Bridge," but with a bent, bluesy, "sad" note.

As TS Eliot said, an ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Simon and Garfunkel would end up reuniting for concerts and a song or two. But "Simon and Garfunkel" was no more.

Note to readers: This is the last song on Simon and Garfunkel's official five albums. However, there were other Simon and Garfunkel tracks. One, which we will discuss next, was released on a 45. Others did not surface until concerts and box sets covering the S&G years were released. Some do not seem to have been recorded at all, yet are included in sheet-music books as S&G songs. We will deal with these songs-- as many as I am are of-- in the coming months.

After those, we will delve into the songs of Simon's solo career through the Surprise album, unless he comes out with another album by then [Note: as I edit this, he has-- the album So Beautiful or So What.] And, after that, we will double back around to discuss Simon's pre-Garfunkel, pop-oriented work.

So, those of you who are S&G fans, don't despair; there is plenty S&G left to go. And I will tell you where these tracks are to be found, naturally. And those who were expecting to move on to Simon's solo work at this point, don't tune out-- you may discover a track or two you'll like.

Next Song: You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies

Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Don't You Write Me

This song is more significant-- if at all-- for its music than its lyrics, which are either off-handed or half-hearted, depending on your level of generosity.

The bright spots are the inventive rhymes: "jungle/hungry," "write me/brighten," "sign/iodine." Also, the device of rhyming the end of one line with the middle of the next is quite clever.

Musically, the song hearkens back to earlier rock sounds while its loose ranginess looking forward to Simon's international explorations. And then the whole ending is rapped.

The notion that this song is aimed at Garfunkel-- that he left for Mexico and refused to get in touch from there-- seems hard to prove. First of all, he sings on the track itself. Second, the song is framed as a request for correspondence from a lover, not a friend.

The album is so strong overall that it is hard to fathom how this number crept in. It's not as if there weren't other fun songs included, such as "Baby Driver" and "Customer." And "Bye Bye Love" covers the duo as far as sending a salute to the sounds that inspired them.

Place this one in the column with "Groovey Thing" and "Pleasure Machine" as the sound of a songwriter having fun and blowing off creative steam.

Oh, and the title was "borrowed" from a doo-wop song by a group called The Jacks.

(I did not expect to be able to post an "Impact" for this song, but I just learned that Olivia Newton-John covered it. I had to listen to that. So I can tell you that you don't have to.)

Next song: Song for the Asking

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Only Living Boy in New York

To understand this song, one must know a bit about what was going on in the duo at the time. Yes, they were breaking up. But one of the reasons is less well-remembered today, and that was Garfunkel's desire to pursue a career as an actor.

The song is addressed to "Tom." This was Garfunkel's name when the duo was going by Tom and Jerry; Garfunkel was Tom Garr and Simon was Jerry Landis. The reference, of course, was to the famous cat-and-mouse cartoon.

Garfunkel was about to shoot the movie version of the anti-war novel Catch-22, which was going to film in Mexico. Which explains the first verse, in which Tom has a "part" for which he is going there.

Leaving Jerry, which is to say Paul, as the one left back in New York. He will feel as isolated as if everyone else in the city were dead.

The next verse hearkens back to their earlier, perhaps simpler days. A verse about the weather being the only important news, and having "nothing to do... but smile," could just as well have been said by the speaker of "Cloudy" or "Feelin' Groovy."

The final verse returns to the sentiment of farewell. (Along with "So Long" and the Everly cover "Bye Bye Love," this makes three farewell songs on one album, in case anyone had missed the point.)

The word "fly" here, in "I know your eager to fly, now," means more than just to take an airplane flight. Simon knows Garfunkel is eager to "fly" in the sense of "flee." He wants to escape the group and embark on his new artistic adventure, and he does not begrudge him his enthusiasm.

Simon's only acting advice to his departing partner is "Let your honesty shine/ Like it shines on me." Interesting, that to be "honest" is the best way to play a fictional character in a fictional story. But honesty, Simon admits, is one of Garfunkel's strongest traits, and he might as well use it.

(As it turned out, Garfunkel's acting career was brief. Its highlights were Catch-22 with an all-star cast, and Carnal Knowledge, playing Jack Nicholson's friend. He would soon return to singing.)

The chorus is intriguing-- simply the line "Half of the time, we're gone/ And we don't know where." Again, this aimlessness is one of Simon's main themes. It echoes "Cloudy" and also foreshadows the line in "Me and Julio": "Don't know where I'm goin'/ But I'm on my way."

To this searching line comes the wafting "Here I am," which is present, yes... but faint and receding, as if drifting down from an airplane speeding away overhead. Garfunkel sings this line, appropriately. Even when he is gone, he will still be "there" in some sense.

While many of Simon's songs refer to events and people in his life, few are as autobiographical as this. There were so many emotions around the break-up-- anger, betrayal, disappointment, bewilderment, abandonment... resignation, and finally, acceptance. This slight song manages to work through many of them in a short space, focusing on the final two.

Go catch your plane, Tom, Simon says. If this is what you want, I wish you all the luck there is. I'll miss you, but don't worry about me-- I'll be fine.

And, if you were the one leaving, what else would you want to hear?

A pretty, if slight, song, it seemed destined to be forgotten by all but ardent S&G fans.

It was revived by inclusion on the emo-heavy soundtrack of the Wes Anderson movie Garden State. It is by decades the oldest song in the batch, and it stakes an interesting claim for S&G as a grandfather to today's emo groups (much as grunge fans rediscovered Neil Young).

Next Song: Why Don't You Write Me

Monday, August 23, 2010

Baby Driver

This song reads like a playground hand-jive, but sounds like a Beach Boys track. There is a great deal of childhood imagery... and then a whole lot of car-racing imagery. The title itself is, in fact, the two words "baby" and "driver."

The jump-rope sing-song element is the "my daddy"/"my mama" part. The information about the parents is adult, however, and at least somewhat autobiographical. Simon's father was a very successful session bass-player, for instance. In one interview, Simon recalls a song coming on the radio and his father off-handedly remarking, "I think I played on that." (I admit I have no idea if any of the military information has any basis in fact.)

Another childhood element is the phrase "once upon," as "once upon a time." Yet another is the invitation "come to my room and play."

(The speaker does mention the circumstances of his birth, but that can hardly be counted as childhood imagery. Many songs have lyrics like "born in the USA" or "born to be wild.")

As for racing imagery, there is the chorus, which mentions "wheels," the "road," an "engine," and the line "what's my number," as all racecars have numbers.

Whether childhood imagery or car imagery, by the end of the song, they both seem to be metaphors for sex. "I wonder how your engine feels" refers to the same thing as the line in Springsteen's "Born to Run": "strap your hands 'cross my engines."

And then there is the blatant line: "Yes we can play/ I'm not talkin' 'bout your pigtails/ I was talkin' 'bout your sex appeal."

My theory? It's about a guy trying to lose his virginity. Put together, the song seems to be one giant come-on. He is young, still a "baby," with no accomplishments to his name, so he brags about his parents as a way of strutting.

Further, he "wonders how [the girl's] engine feels", and wants to "play," but has as much intention of staying around as Dion's Wanderer: "I hit the road and I'm gone... scoot down the road..." (The Wanderer explains, "When I find myself falling for some girl/ I hop right into my car and I drive around the world.")

The line "What's my number?" could then mean "You don't even know my phone number or address, do you? I'm gone before you can find out."

The virginity theory also explains the line about carrying a "gun," but not yet getting a chance to "serve"-- i.e. use his "gun" to serve anyone else.

He is a "baby driver," with temporary tags and a learner's permit, but still no license. This would explain his ridiculous attempts at seduction... and his likelihood of crashing instead of making it all the way around the track.

Next Song: The Only Living Boy in New York

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Boxer

One of the songs on which S&G's reputation, indeed Simon's reputation, rests.

Less a full narrative like a Harry Chapin or Bruce Springsteen song-- or Simon's later "Duncan"-- "The Boxer" is a character study. In the few minutes of a song, Simon sketches a young male character as identifiable and indelible as Holden Caulfield, and one with a similar attitude of disappointment with the world (although Holden had higher hopes and was therefore more disappointed).

One might think that the second line of the song refers back to the first, given when the rest falls (at the end of that second line). But that would make little sense. Why would there be a "though," as if he expected his "poor boy" story to be told? Poor boys stories are seldom told, aside from those of Twain, Dickens, and Algren. It's mostly the rich boys' stories, like that of Richard Cory, that are recounted.

Rather, the second line addresses what follows: "Though my story's seldom told, I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles." Rather than hold out and insist that his story be told, he has used up his "resistance"-- or failed to use it-- and so has had to settle for "mumbles... lies and jests."

But he remains philosophical about that situation, noting that people will "hear what (they) want to hear" in any case. Since no one else will tell his story, he proceeds to, himself.

He started off "I am just a poor boy," but now says "I was no more than a boy." So how old is he now, and how old (or young) was he then? In the first line, he means "boy" as "guy," in the sense of being a "child" of certain circumstances. Compare this to, say, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," meant to be sung by a person old enough to "have a fine wife." And in the second instance, he means it in the literal sense of "youngster."

But it is significant that he does not characterize himself as "a poor man." With everything he has been through (as we shall see), he is resigned to dealing with life as it comes, with the powerlessness to change his situation equal to that of a boy's. At this point, anyway.

He leaves his home while still a child, at least at a child's small level of worldliness and maturity. He tries not to draw attention to himself, sensing he will be accepted or at least ignored if he stays among "strangers"-- others who also prefer to remain anonymous and mind their own business.

The phrase "quiet of the railway station" is odd, considering that such places are usually bustling with human and vehicular traffic. He must go there after the crowds have left for the evening, perhaps to pick up some scraps of food or clothing.

Eventually, he grows to young manhood and decides that such a hand-to-mouth existence is no longer necessary. He is old and strong enough to be a "workman," and seems willing to sell his efforts to the lowest bidder, if only to get a foot in the door. Frustratingly, not even this compromise is accepted.

While he found somewhat of a community among "the ragged people" before, he now finds himself only attractive to "whores." Given how everyone else in society has rejected him, he admits to taking "some comfort" in their embraces. He doesn't dare the listener to judge him for this sin or crime, figuring he is already beneath their notice, let alone contempt.

Now it comes clear that he is not from New York. Possibly, he was at that railway station coming in from somewhere else, somewhere warmer and more rural. Perhaps he was "laying low" and "running scared" from the inbound train's conductor, since he was stowing away on board, too poor for a ticket.

Next, see him "laying out [his] winter clothes." On what? A bed? Does he finally have enough wherewithal for a room, perhaps with a closet, and enough clothes to take him through seasonal changes? He must have finally found a job of some sort.

He is laying out winter clothes to prepare, presumably, for the winter. But while he does so, he longs for the milder winters of wherever his boyhood home was.

Then comes the line "leading me." Usually, things "lead" one to stay, or they "drive" one away. In this case, the "New York City winters" are (he wishes they weren't, which indicates that they in fact are) "leading [him] to go."

The syntax then breaks down, as if the speaker is trying to assemble his thoughts: "Wishing I was gone, going home, where the New York City winters aren't bleeding me... leading me... going home..."

"Hey," he seems to think, "Why not? What do I have here that is keeping me?" And a decision is made. The clothes are not laid out on bed now, but folded into a suitcase.

Just a few guitar notes later, bent in country-music fashion, we have a radical shift. Now the point of view is third person instead of the first is has been thus far.

We are to presume that the "boxer" in the last verse is in fact the same person who had just been speaking to us all along. We assume that the job that enabled him to get his furnished room was prizefighting. We assume he has now gone home, to a place rural enough for a "clearing," which must mean far from New York City.

But why the shift in point of view? Why now "his" and "him" instead of "I" and "my"?

Because now, finally, someone else is telling his "story," which is what he said he wanted in the first verse.

And what is his story? One of survival. While he "carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down," he "still remains." His survival is his triumph. The hands of others made him fall, both before his boxing career and during it.

But the last verse asserts that he "stands," despite it all. He stood, and withstood, all of those hardships. They turned him from a "boy" into a "fighter," and while he was not a winner, he is far from a loser, simply because he endured and "remained."

The music is fascinating. It starts with a simply folk ramble, then adds a galloping drum, perhaps to signify the train that brought him to New York. There is also a twangy instrument, perhaps a bass harmonica, which disappears, then returns for the last verse, to make sure we know it is still the same character. This rustic instrument also marks his departure from and re-entry into the rural world.

The time lapse during which the young man takes up boxing and finds his apartment is marked by an electronic instrument tuned to sound somewhat like an oboe.

The famous "lie-la-lie" chorus hearkens back to ancient ballads, but the cymbal crashes give them significance of the cannons of the 1812 Overture. These choruses build and fade throughout.

Then, after the last line, they crescendo and swell to truly orchestral proportions, with soaring strings and a profound tuba filling in the bottom. Compare this symphonic arrangement to the one at the end of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," and you will find it much more cohesive and melodic (this is not a criticism of the Beatles' crescendo, just a mark of contrast; the effect is different, but so is the motive).

Why all the fireworks? Because the boxer is worthy of such a fanfare. As Willy Loman's wife ruefully observes after his death: "Attention must be paid." There is something to honor in the simply act of surviving excruciating circumstances, of enduring heaps of humiliations with one's dignity intact.

"The fighter still remains." He never won a belt, or perhaps even many matches. But through jobless poverty and friendless isolation, he still remains... and that is a triumph in itself.

IMPACT: The song is a unanimously hailed part of the S&G canon, and no S&G, or Simon, compilation is complete without it.

If the duo plays just one song for a public appearance, it might well be this one, and the audience is satisfied. This is only true of a handful of their hits, also including "Mrs. Robinson," "Scarborough Fair," "Sounds of Silence," and "Bridge."

When Paul Simon received an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a nearby Cleveland university held a smaller exhibit of materials regarding just one song-- this one. While it is true that many individuals have received museum exhibitions of their life and work, for how many songs is that true?

Next song: Baby Driver

Monday, August 9, 2010

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

Title aside, this song is not about the celebrated architect. Rather, "Frank Lloyd Wright" was one of Simon's nicknames for Garfunkel, who was an architecture student in college.

The "farewell" nature of the song is due to Garfunkel's leaving the duo to pursue an acting career. (More about this in the discussion of "The Only Living Boy in New York.")

The hand drums and flute are unusual, Caribbean touches. As is the fact that Grafunkel carries the vocals in a song in which Simon is saying farewell to him.

It is a pleasant-enough farewell at that, an amicable split. The "so soon" is interesting, given that the duo had known each other and worked together musically since high school. "I've never laughed so long" is also nice to hear, given the famous, or rather infamous, nature of their relationship as depicted in the general media.

The line "never change your point of view" is a nice way of saying that Simon felt he was continuously evolving, while Garfunkel seemed happily stuck in a groove. Their subsequent careers bear this out, with Simon collaborating with everyone from Brazilian drummers to avant-garde dancers....

...while Garfunkel, who had his pick of songwriters, did not choose, say, Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen to interpret, or even Cole Porter, but Jimmy Webb. Webb wrote "Witchita Lineman," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "McArthur Park."

Still, Simon admits, "when I run dry, I stop awhile and think of you." Perhaps Garfunkel's reliance on classic songcraft provided Simon with some structure, when his exploratory nature could have led him to take a song almost anywhere.

Ultimately, though, it seems that their deep appreciation for each other's musical talent --and each other's sheer love of the art form-- was enough to sustain their friendship as long as it has lasted.

"All of the nights we'd harmonize 'til dawn..." even when the concert was over, or there had been no concert, the two would simply sit and play and sing for hours... and revel in the uniquely beautiful sound they made together. The laughter must have been that of pure joy.

Perhaps they only "harmony" they had was musical. Even if so, what harmony it was.

Next Song: The Boxer

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Keep the Customer Satisfied

The most famous tracks-- somber title track, the elegiac and "The Boxer," and the lyrical "El Condor Pasa," aside-- much of the Bridge album is lively and upbeat. Count "Cecilia," "Baby Driver," and this track-- not to mention the Everly cover "Bye Bye Love," and this is as close to a party album as S&G ever made.

"Keep the Customer Satisfied" is also as close to a country song as the duo ever recorded. It has the rangy guitars, the loping bass, and even a reference to the "deputy sheriff" typical of that genre... plus the super-folksy, Andy Griffith-worthy opening line. (As for the horns, many country songs have them, such as Johny Cash's "Ring of Fire.")

The song is also a near sequel to "Homeward Bound." That song's chorus famously sighed, "I wish I was homeward bound." This one starts, "Gee, but it's great to be back home."

Similarly, the train "stop [that] is neatly planned/ for a poet and a one-man band" is also a likely place to find the "shoe shine" boy he is but one societal rung better than. "I've been on the road so long" is surely a reference to touring, something the duo had done in support of five albums over a decade.

Taken as a whole, the song is likely a response by Simon to critics, both the Rolling Stone magazine kind and the "Get outta town, ya hippie" kind. "Everywhere I go, I get slandered, libeled," might be a response to misinterpretations of his songs, public statements, or politics, something Simon would later face again when fighting apartheid through art during his Graceland years.

A generation earlier, the man who wrote "America" and "American Tune" might well have run afoul of Un-American Activities Committee. As it was, Simon likely faced at least some of the same reaction-- at least in the parts of the country where "deputy sheriffs' and "county lines" matter-- as the subject of "He Was My Brother." Of course, in these situations, the outside interloper is guilty of upsetting the local "peace," even if that means not so much peace as quiet, i.e. silencing local minorities and minority opinions.

But what is Simon trying to do, after all? Run for president? Stage a civil-rights protest? Please the critics?

Not at all. He is simply, he pleads, attempting to keep an audience entertained: "I'm just trying to keep the customer satisfied." He cares not for his detractors, but solely for those who buy his records and tickets to his shows, those who turn up the volume a bit when his songs come on the radio and select them on the diner jukebox, those who purchase the sheet music an learn to play his songs for others at camps and on campus.

Simon closes the song much the way Robert Frost closes his famed poem "stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening": "I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep." Simon's version reads: "I'm so tired/ I'm oh, so tired/ But I'm trying to keep the customer satisfied." The theme of exhaustion pervades Simon's lyrics, from the line in "American Tune"-- "I'm just weary to my bones"-- to the whole of "Long Long Day" from the One Trick Pony soundtrack.

"I only have so much energy," Simon seemingly protests, "and I choose to focus it on the audience." It take a great deal of mental and emotional energy to write such lyrics as Simon's, and more to perform it, and more still to traipse around the country to do that. And here he also has to put up with critics both small-time and New York Times, and flee from those too close-minded to truly hear his message.

Aside from the other things the song is, it is funny. The upbeat songs mentioned above-- like "Groovey Thing," "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," "Philippic," "Punky," and "Pleasure Machine"-- show that Simon is not only a serious songwriter, but a seriously humorous one.

Take the line "I hear words I never heard in the Bible," which is a great euphemism for being cursed at. But deeper, who is doing the cursing? Ah, it is those who hold the Bible to be sacred above all else. Well, then, if that's the case, where in Heaven's name did they learn all those foul words they attack him with? Not in the chaste Bible! So, really, how pure are these Puritans? What do they want instead, a country song? Well, then, here.

But the ultimate struggle is not between a man and his attackers, but between the world-weary traveler who longs to be "home"... and the troubadour who trudges about trying to please audiences nationwide. Both happen to be the same man, and he'd just like to do his work and come home and rest, and not have to deal with all of this other claptrap, thank you very much.

Next Song: So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

Monday, July 26, 2010


Musically, this ebullient number falls in the "world-music" column. Lyrically, it's in the "love gone wrong" category.

But look at how different the reaction is this time. Gone is the wounded poet of "I Am a Rock," who responds to heartbreak by withdrawing from the world altogether.

Here, the speaker first re-woos his wayward lover. Although he lacks "confidence" in her, he asks her back: "I'm beggin' you please to come home."

She does come back in body, but is still a wandering spirit. Their reunion intercourse is interrupted briefly, but that is already enough time for the inconstant Cecilia to stray again, without even leaving the bed!

But this time, she begs forgiveness and asks him to be taken back. Well, several-times bitten is finally shy, and he responds with laughter.

The last verse repeats itself. Perhaps one time, the speaker laughs at Cecilia's tissue-thin declaration of love... and the second, at himself for embodying the idea that you can't do the same thing and expect different results (the so-called "definition of insanity").

In just a few short verses, our speaker goes from one form of prostration to another. First, he is down on pleading knee. But after realizing the folly of his ways, he is literally ROFL ("Rolling on the Floor Laughing," much more of a reaction that simply LOL), as the kids say today.

This song is joyous, for it marks a realization in the speaker that it's not him... it really is her. Maybe he needed to have it rubbed, so to speak, in his freshly washed face, but he has finally had his "a-ha moment." Even greater, he does not cry over his foolish waste of time, effort, and emotion, vowing to never love again.

No, he laughs. He laughs at Cecilia's immature estimation of love, and at the joyful future his new insight offers him. His cry of "Jubilation!" is entirely sarcastic. She loves him again, after having cheated on him in the time it took to wash his face? Oh, really? 'Tis to laugh.

Incidentally, the word "jubilation" comes from the word "jubilee," itself a Biblical term for the freeing of indentured servants (the Hebrew word is "yovel," said "YOH-vell). In fact, it is also from this passage from Leviticus that the quote etched on the Liberty Bell originates. So "jubilation" is not just a synonym for "joy," but an expression of joy at liberation.

And our hero has experienced that free joy at, of all things, a declaration of love, something that should joyfully bind. This is because he now realizes that, in the light of her fresh infidelity, Cecilia's "love" is as thin as the washcloth he just used on his face, and so he is free from his affection for her. "Jubilation," indeed.

Next Song: Keep the Customer Satisfied

Monday, July 19, 2010

El Condor Pasa

[Note to readers: I know I missed last week's post, but I have a good excuse. His name is Joe, he was born in July 15, and he is sleeping in my left arm.]

Simon has already drawn from native folk sources for his material, as he did with "Scarborough Fair." This time, he presages his Rhythm of the Saints work by decades with a Peruvian folk tune, replete with authentic wood flutes from the Andes.

The song's title means "The Condor Passes," the condor being a large vulture-like bird native to the Andes and Rockies. It soars, huge wings outspread, barely flapping, riding on air currents.

Gravity, as much as it gives to us, is considered the enemy of humanity. For as long as we have seen birds, we have tried to fly like them. Babies love being tossed in the air, children ride swings as high as they can, and we adults do everything from high diving and BASE jumping to parasailing, skydiving, and hang-gilding... all in the attempt to fly. Even our greatest superhero's most super superpower is to make people point skyward at his soaring form, crying: "It's a bird! It's a plane!"

Simon gives that yearning-- to be a bird-- a voice, here. He'd "rather be a sparrow." He'd rather "sail away, like a swan/ That's here and gone."

The song is about longing to fly like a bird, a "sparrow" (perhaps not as destitute a one as in "Sparrow") or a "swan." The lyrics are a series of comparisons, with the flying birds winning out over those creatures bound by gravity, like snails... or humans. Similarly, natural settings like "forests" win out over urban ones like a "street."

It interesting that he chose a "sparrow," since his song about that very bird showed how vulnerable and ignored it was. Perhaps this strengthens his point-- anyone could wish to be an eagle (or a condor) rather than stay a human. But they might prefer to stay human and earthbound if the other option was to be a mere sparrow. Not him. He wants to fly so much, he'll even be this fragile bird.

After all, "a man" might as well be a "snail." He's so "tied up to the ground" that he "gives the world its saddest sound."

Than comes the last line, which is a half a comparison: "I'd rather feel the earth beneath my feet." Rather than what? Does this continue the thought of the previous line, so that "earth" underfoot is better than the asphalt of a "street"?

Or is it a refutation of all the soaring imagery that came before? Would the speaker rather "feel the earth beneath [his] feet" than not? Would he walk forever rather than fly?

The idea of preferring the woods to the city fits somewhat with the idea of preferring flying to walking. The benefit of flying is, aside from the convenience, freedom to wander, explore, and simply-- as the Mamas and Papas encourage-- "Go where you wanna go." Wandering in the un-peopled woods is about as close to that isolation and roadless-ness as most of us will be able to get.

The answer may come from the repeated refrain: "If I could, I surely would." But he can't. Since all of these bird scenarios are impossible, wouldn't it just be better to accept one's situation, and not continue to pine away and make "the saddest sound" over what can never be? Maybe some predictability is, ultimately, better than complete, bird-like freedom.

The condor glides overhead, inspiring awe in the earthbound viewer below. It swoops... circles... and soars. But then it passes.

The speaker next lets us know that he'd rather even be a tyrant than a victim-- a "hammer," rather than a "nail." Compare this to the imagery of hammers used to symbolize fascism in Pink Floyd's movie The Wall (even though the word "fascism," which derives from the symbol of the "fasces," should be symbolized by another tool, the ax; look up "fasces" and you'll see why.).

But a true drifter wants no attachments at all, which would include power over-- and responsibility for-- others, as much as it includes being beholden to no one. He wants to be neither hammer nor nail. He doesn't want to be a tool in anyone's toolbox! We must conclude that the line is only really there to rhyme with "snail."

So why didn't Simon go back and change the opposite of "sparrow" to something other than "snail"? Perhaps he wanted to keep the alliteration with "sparrow," but dismissed other one-syllable, small, land-bound forest animals as being even worse in their imagery or rhyme-possibilities: "snake," "squirrel," "sloth." Maybe what's here is fine. We could have had: "I'd rather be a sparrow than a skunk."

Overall, the song is a lovely and haunting rumination on the limitations of the human form. Here we are, with the best brain-- and the knowledge that we would truly appreciate flight if we could have it-- and we can't even fly up into a tree like a simple sparrow. Let alone a soaring condor.

While Simon is largely credited with bringing "world music" into the mainstream of American pop culture with Graceland, this song reminds us that musicians have long been doing so. Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte were just some of the folk musicians of the 1960s who worked non-American, non-English songs into their sets. Desi Arnaz was bringing Cuban music into suburban living rooms on the Lucy show as early as the 1950s, and Latin dances were part of Xavier Cugat's swing music even before that.

The story of this song is long, but here is a short version: The melody began as a traditional Andean folk tune in Peru. It was adapted and included in a longer, theatrical piece (called a "zarzuella") along with other such melodies by one Daniel Alomia Robles.

When Simon heard the Peruvian wood-flute ensemble Los Incas playing the melody in Paris (with the arrangement of their leader, Jorge Milchberg) he asked to write words for it; Simon toured with Los Incas, who perform the backup on the Bridge version of the track. He even produced their first US album. Milchberg's later band, Urubamba, accompanies Simon for this track on Live Rhymin'. They also provide backup on his solo song, "Duncan."

And anyone who thinks Simon was only interested in "world music" during his Graceland period need only listen to this and the next track to know that he has been exploring this music for much, much longer.

The song reached #18 on the US charts. But it went to #1 all over Europe-- Spain,  Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, Austria,and Switzerland-- as well as Australia. It was covered by, of all people, crooner Perry Como.

Next song: Cecilia