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