Sunday, February 28, 2010

Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall

In his play The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen (Norway) shows that it is better for some to live with an illusion than with the truth that would devastate them. In his book of essays, "The Myth of Sisyphus," Albert Camus (France) explains that, since hope and despair are equally absurd guesses as to the quality of the future, one might as well choose hope. Another work this song calls to mind is Umberto Eco's (Italy) novel The Name of the Rose, which discusses-- since knowledge is power-- who gets to know what, and whether it might be better for certain people to not know certain things.

And then of course, there is good old Jack Nicholson (America), in the film, "A Few Good Men," frustratedly asserting that we cannot, in fact, "handle the truth."

Whether the speaker in our song is aware of any of these works is beside the point-- he would certainly understand them. He has tried to fathom something about reality, and it confounded him most horribly. He has nightmares about the unknown: "Through the corridors of sleep... my mind dances and leaps in confusion."

He is not sure whether the reality he perceives is, in fact, real... or is perhaps all in his head. He is unsure of even his own status as "real." It would be one thing if the "dark and small" image his mirror reflects was himself, for at least then he could try to come to grips with his insignificance... only, he's "not sure at all it's [his] reflection."

Understandably, he seeks explanations in the usual places-- "God" and religion, science and philosophy-- only to find that such intense "light" leaves him "blinded." It seems that he cannot, in fact, handle the "truth."

Before, there were too many "shadows," and now there is too much "light"! So, it's back to the darkness, and "wander[ing] in the night."

In the end, he basically gives up, and goes back to pretending. Not out of fear, exactly, but because he did find an answer, of sorts. The logic is simple, really. One of two things is true:

Position A is that reality is objectively true. Yet, it is unknowable by his limited, human mind, which means that, as far as he can know, reality can only extend.... as far as he can know.

Position B is that there is no objective reality, and what is "real" is only whatever he says it is. In which case, his experience is real... because he creates "reality" by believing it into existence.

His conclusion is that, ironically, whether there is an objective reality or not, he is in the same spot: only able to know what he can know.

So, to be fair, in the end, he does not give up as much as he takes Camus' insightful nonchalance. Since he can't even know IF there is a "real" reality or it's all in his mind to begin with, he might as well stop worrying about it and get on with the business of living ("I must... face tomorrow"), as far as he experiences life.

As he puts it, "my fantasy becomes reality." Again, that could mean that (Position A) there is a true "reality" that he only has a limited awareness ("fantasy") of, so it's true for him... or (Position B) his imposition of his opinions and biases (his "fantasy") upon experiences actually changes those experiences "reality") into what he says they are.

But it doesn't "matter," he realizes, if you "play" the "king" who imposes your will on reality (Position B), or a "pawn" who is moved about by hands unseen (Position A).

In either case, he sees, "I must be what I must be." In the case of Position A, this is so because he has no choice; he is fated. In position B, it's because whatever he wills (or stumbles) himself into becoming, he will become, due to simple cause and effect, even if he-- and not fate-- is the cause.

He started off by "hid[ing] behind the shield of [his] illusion." Ultimately, he returns there: "I'll continue to continue to pretend" as before [emphasis mine].

'As far as I'm concerned,' he decides, 'flowers don't bend when pummeled by heavy rains."

For instance, he will ignore mortality and "pretend/ My life will never end".' Mortality is too disabling a concept, so best to ignore it and "pretend" it away. If one is focused on death, one does not live.

Why this example? If one thinks too hard about what is inevitable, one stops trying to move forward at all. Reality gets in the way; illusion permits motion. Reality-- or at least the acknowledgement of it-- causes the death of progress. Only by ignoring reality/death can one truly live.

Yes, he will continue to imagine a world that works the way he needs it to, with all the myths that help him stay sane and functioning... even if he knows now that, yes, they are myths. (In the movie Unstrung Heroes, we have this exchange between an atheist and a believer: "Religion is a crutch." "Well, a crutch isn't a bad thing, if you need it.")

Our hero will continue to hunt the Wild Duck, he will continue to push his Sisyphean stone uphill, he will continue to copy Medieval manuscripts without reading them.

At least he can handle the truth... that he can't handle the truth.

Next song: A Simple Desultory Philippic.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Dangling Conversation

Simon is on record as saying, in interviews, that this is one of his least favorite of his own songs; the other I am aware of is "I Am a Rock."

The two share a sense of unease with the world, and a retreat into literature as a way of avoiding social contact. In "I Am a Rock," the speaker declares: "I have my books and my poetry to protect me." Here, the tone is softer, but the result is the same: "You read your Emily Dickinson/ And I my Robert Frost/ And we note our place with bookmarkers/ And measure what we've lost."

This song also shares an image with "Bleeker Street," which says, "I saw a shadow touch a shadow's hand." Here, "I only kiss your shadow, I cannot feel your hand."

And again, "Sounds of Silence," in which communication is lost in "the wells of silence," in an nightmarish, abstract dreamworld. Only here, the setting is a parlor of some sort, and communication just drifts off, time and again.

There are three types of communication this time. There is silence, which is uncomfortable. Then there is the meaningless, yet high-sounding and academic "conversation" about "analysis" and "theater" and the popular poets they are reading. Both of these do happen.

But the scholarly chitchat only serves to break the silence, which itself replaces the third subject. It is that which really should be talked about, only no one wants to. And that's that this relationship is in serious trouble. That conversation is yet to get started.

"We are verses out of rhythm, couplets out of rhyme," he explains, using the metaphor of the poems they are reading instead of talking about their relationship. "I cannot feel your hand/ You're a stranger now unto me."

The silence in "Sounds of Silence" was bad enough. Now, as there, we have "people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening." But here, it is not society at large that suffers in the abstract, but two lonely people making believe to be keeping company.

Why can neither speak of the distance they feel? Partly because it would not be proper. Partly because it is easier to pretend to converse than to truly interact, in the "Honey, we need to talk" sense.

But mostly, because of their basic "indifference" to one another. They don't care enough about how little they care about each other to trouble the silence with a whole discussion about how they'd rather be with other people. Better to be together with the pretense that all is fine than rattle the coffee cups and upset the "curtain lace."

Except that, while they are reading to themselves, they "measure what we've lost." The time spent in this limbo-like relationship is time lost. The passion, the romance, is not there; they do not write poems to each other. And so the conversations start, and then trail off, leaving both of them "dangling"-- attached at only one end.

Lyrically, there is only one jarring image. Everything else in the poem follows the metaphor of things found in a living room-- bookmarks and poetry, watercolors and coffee cups. And then there is the word "couched"-- again , a living-room image-- but one followed by beach images of "shells," the "shore," and the "ocean." Pretty, but out of place.

As to the music, the sound is lush, and the orchestration seems like one of the chamber pieces this couple must enjoy. But once again, the beauty of the music belies the emotional turmoil in the lyrics...

...Just as this lovely drawing room with its polite erudition is, in reality, awash with "shadows," barricaded with "borders," and permeated with frustration and resentment.

Simon explained that he did not like this song because he felt it sounded like a college student wrote it. But it could just have easily been because it was hard to talk about, well, not talking about things.

Next song: Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The 59th St. Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)

One of S&G's most beloved, if shortest, songs... and no compilation is complete without it.

The song is shorter than "Cloudy," but with much the same breeziness. It also recalls some of the London imagery of "Sounds of Silence," with its "lamppost" and "cobblestones," while being nearly opposite that song in tone.

(Later, The Lovin' Spoonful would capture some of this songs summer-Sunday ease with "What a Day for a Daydream." So would the Rascals, with "Groovin'," which even borrows from S&G's title.)

The first verse here exhorts the listener to "slow down" and enjoy the morning, even if the music itself skips along as excitedly as a hopscotching child.

The next verse continues this vein, with the speaker playfully asking an inanimate object for help in composing the song. The lamppost, sadly, does not have any "rhymes," leaving the speaker to improvise some 1950's-style doo-wop.

The final verse, structured more like a chorus, paints a lovely picture of falling asleep, perhaps on the grass in a park, being covered in "dappled" sunlight and falling flower-"petals." "All is groovy," indeed.

(Note: This seems to be the only other time, aside from "We Got a Groovey Thing Goin'", that Simon uses this quintessentially '60s word. As to why the titles spell the word differently? It's a slang word with no official spelling; perhaps one song was written in England and the other in the U.S.)

The song is more about creating a mood than telling a story, and the mood is simply one of languid tranquility, something very rare (unless you are a cat).

Since it does not require much explanation, let us take this opportunity to examine some of its technical aspects. Even is a song about being unstructured, Simon weaves in patterns.

The song is replete with alliteration and assonance:
The first verse gives us: "move too," "make the morning," "last/Just," "kickin' down the cobblestones," "for fun and feelin'"
The second: "Hello lamppost," "What 'cha/watch your" and then "ain't 'cha"
The third: "deeds to do... dappled and drowsy and ready"

The meter is mostly iambic (two syllables, accented on the second) in the first verse: "Slow down, you move too fast." The effect is of someone putting their foot out in front of them to brake while running downhill.

The meter shifts to trochaic (two, accent on first) on the words "feelin' groovy." It stays that way for the second verse: "Hello, lamppost, what 'cha knowin." The speaker is now propelled forward by the joy of being out in the sunshine.

The thid verse shifts meters again, to anapests. These are three-syllable sets, accented on the first. Usually, they imply urgent movement, as they simulate a horse's galloping (notably in the Tennyson poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade," about a cavalry attack: "Half a league, half a league, half a league...").

But here, Simon uses anapestic meter to evoke sunlight broken up by tree branches and the random fall of flower petals: "...dappled and drowsy and ready to... morningtime drop all its petals on..." The speaker, now lurching, can barely drag himself forward, so complete is his relaxation.

The song is about expending no effort at all, and it seems like an improvised little ditty. Turns out, it takes a lot of effort to sound effortless.

IMPACT: The duo performed it, one of their most popular tunes, on the show of another key duo of the decade-- The Smothers Brothers!

Next song: The Dangling Conversation

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine

This song is not on the soundtrack for The Graduate, but it should have been. When Ben takes Elaine out, they end up at a car-hop (a restaurant where the waiters come out to the parking lot to take your order and serve you in your car). The car next to theirs is playing a discordant song on the radio, and playing too loudly for Ben and Elaine to talk. They ask the teenagers in other car to turn it down; being teenagers, they turn it up.

Bad news for our couple, who have to roll up their windows and pull closed the ragtop to keep out the noise. But good news for the viewers, because they get to hear a snatch of this tune, one of S&G's most fun and energetic songs.

The song makes fun of advertising, its willingness to prey on the vulnerable, and its outlandish claims of alleviating all ills. The snake-oil being pushed this time is the unexplained Pleasure Machine.

All we know about it is that is both "big" and "bright green." But we are told that it can: "eliminate your pain" and even "end your daily strife"... all for "a reasonable price." It is possible that the device is narcotics-related; one of its abilities is to "neutralize your brain." But that could also mean it is some sort of television or computer.

The nature of the device, however, is irrelevant. The salient point is that we are told to "buy" something, and that will erase our problems.

The main customer for this device is your average emotional doormat. The song starts, "Do people have a tendency to dump on you?" Then it lists these people: "hippies," "figures of authority," "[ones'] boss" even "[one's] girlfriend." The target consumer, it continues, is one who "sleep[s] alone," has no occupational or financial security, and tends to "nervously await the blows of cruel fate." Our poor fellow is "worried and distressed," and "looking for a way to chuck it all."

The Pleasure Machine stands in for anything that offers an escape rather than a solution: drugs or candy, TiVo or the Internet, a day spa or an amusement park. This thing will make you happy... "you'll feel just fine." At least, for "now."

All of these claims are false, of course. No one thing could magically wipe away all your problems.

Not even a ShamWow.

Next song: The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Homeward Bound

Many of Simon's songs are enigmatic and elliptical, but not this one. It's about a bad case of homesickness, and Simon can't say it more plainly: "I wish I was homeward bound." (This is not to say that no one can say it more plainly; in the Beach Boys song "Sloop John B," they sing, even more simply: "I wanna go home.")

The song's straightforwardness does not mean it is not artistic. Like Springsteen and Harry Chapin, Simon is a keen observer of detail, using concrete images to evoke the crushing monotony of life on the road: "Every day's an endless stream/ of cigarettes and magazines... And each town looks the same to me,/ the movies and the factories." (A very good, very similar song, is "The Road," by Danny O'Keefe, popularized by Jackson Browne.)

The speaker, if not Simon himself, is someone in the exact same situation. He likens an endlessly touring musician to an itinerant lover, calling his gigs "one-night stands." The irony is that he moves from place to place, singing the same song over and over... about what? About going home! Why, what's there? His actual "love," who "lies waiting, silently, for [him]."

(The fact that his love waits "silently" is interesting, considering Simon's stated opinions of the dangers of silence, as in "Sounds of Silence." Here, it is probably best interpreted as "uncomplainingly.")

This is the core Catch-22 of the life of performers-- to make their living, they must travel... but the reason they make their living is to support their loved ones... whom they never see, because they are travelling. (Pierce Pettis' excellent song "Envelopes of Light" addresses this same tension.) Going back to the image of lovers, these "one-night stands"-- even if they involve no actual sex with groupies-- feel like a form of infidelity. He is sharing, through his songs, his deepest thoughts and dreams... with "strangers."

Aside from his lover, two other things are at "home." It is "where [his] thought's escaping." This colloquial grammar gives two meanings to this line. One is that home is a place where his thought can "escape," or roam freely (as in the last entry, "Cloudy": "my thoughts are scattered... they echo and they swell"). The other, more likely, interpretation is that home is where his thoughts are escaping to.

The other thing that home provides is a place "where [his] music's playing." But wait... he is on the road to play his songs: "Tonight I'll sing my songs again." Why would his music be playing at home?

Ah, but his he really "playing" on the road, or just "playing" at it? The rest of the line is: "I'll play the game and pretend." His performances on the road are perfunctory and forced, it seems, while at home, his music practically plays itself; the line is not "Home, where I play my music" or "where my music is played," but, "Home, where my music's playing."

The phrase might also mean where his "music's playing" in the sense that his favorite music is playing, either the literal music he enjoys hearing (as opposed to making)... or, metaphorically, where the sounds of his family's lives and voices are more like music to him than the stilted, forced music he plays on the road.

Even deeper, home is where his own internal music is playing, where he "sings his own song," as it were, and does not simply function (as he does on the road) as a walking jukebox. Singing, say, an old doo-wop number at home might end up being "[his] music playing"-- his own emotional state being revealed in melody-- more than his singing a song he actually wrote, but without any genuine emotion attached to it.

The usual grammar allows for such interpretations. Things don't just "escape," they escape from or to somewhere... and music doesn't "play," children and puppies play, and music is played. But at this magical place called "home," such considerations are suspended. Thoughts can simply "escape," and music can "play" like a kitten.

But he is not home. He is on the road. And while he is out there, performing the role of happy performer, he feels his lack of sincerity affects the songs themselves. He sang to Kathy that he'd been "writing songs [he] can't believe," and now that he is out performing them he says: "my words come back to me in shade of mediocrity, like emptiness in harmony." Harmony, which involves more than one voice, should feel more full, but it does not.

French author Jean Giradoux famously quipped: "The key to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made." Well, our performer can no longer fake it (we will discuss the issue further in the song "Fakin' It"). He is "all pretended out," and he wants to come home to a place of authenticity... of real, not fake, sincerity. As Simon later sings, in "Keep the Customer Satisfied": "Gee, but it's great to be back home/ Home is where I wanna be/ I've been on the road so long, my friend."

One need not be a travelling performer to feel this way. Those in business who work long hours, teachers who tuck their children in and then grade papers and plan the next day's lessons, doctors and clergy forever on call, soldiers and salespeople and truckers and athletes who are away for months at a time... many can relate to the feelings to disconnectedness Simon relates in "Homeward Bound." They perform the same tasks-- which they perhaps did once enjoy-- again and again to support the loved ones they rarely see. When they'd rather just be home.

No doubt this is why "Homeward Bound" is one of Simon's most popular compositions. Its world-weariness and homesickness are easily understood and appreciated. Its message that home is where "love lies" is at least as old as the lyric: "Be it ever so humble/ There's no place like home."

One last note: Simon describes a rail depot as being an appropriate performance space for "a poet and a one-man band." That phrase evokes Simon himself incredibly well, encompassing his songwriting and musicianship both. I'm surprised no one has yet used it for the title of a biography of Simon; perhaps he is saving it for his own memoir.

As noted, "Homeward Bound" is one of Simon's signature works; no compilation of his output is complete without it, certainly every collection of Simon & Garfunkels' work includes it. They performed it on The Smothers Brothers show in the late 1960s... and The Today Show in 2003.

And it is one of the first Simon and Garfunkel songs those learning guitar will play, starting with those indelible opening chords.

There even is a UK-based Simon and Garfunkel tribute act that calls itself "Homeward Bound." For the curious, they are on YouTube, but I do not vouch for their skills.

Next song: The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine