Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Poem on the Underground Wall

Today's graffiti-drawers wield spray-paint cans and create self-aggrandizing murals so intricate that some of their creations ascend to the level of commercial art (or, post-Warhol, simply "art"). The term is now even accepted: "graffiti artist." Shanghai recently commissioned some graffiti artwork to show how progressive the city is.

The protagonist of this song, however, is both less and more an artist. He is less an artist in the craft sense, as he brandishes a child's implement, a "crayon," and only writes one four-letter word (we can imagine which one; Simon doesn't feel the need to reveal it, and we shall follow his lead. In "Sound of Silence," Simon says that "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls." Well, now we know what those "words" are.). He does not create an elaborate, six-foot-high, shimmery, pulsating, neon creation.

But Simon might contend that he is more of an artist because he does not merely promote himself (or his gang) with a logo. He comments on the world around him in a provocative way that, if not exactly profound, is profoundly felt.

The graffiti artist who writes his own nickname on an underpass leaves feeling grateful he was not caught, but full of self-promotion. He thinks: "Now, people will know I was here." Simon's hero here is glad he was not caught, but more overjoyed at the sheer act of self-expression: "His heart is laughing, screaming, pounding." This is the very picture of exhilaration.

It is also a rebirth. The second half of the poem is replete with the such imagery. The subway tunnel itself is a "womb." The subway "opens wide and welcome." Our artist leaves the tunnel to "seek the breast... and be suckled." Before a birth could be a wedding, and the artist, if the one (re-)born, is also the "groom."

The idea of rebirth also is a religious one, and there are two religious images in the bridge: The train's rhythm is that of a "litany," and the crayon becomes a "rosary."

The rhyme scheme tells the story, too. The first three verses are made of two pairs of couplets, followed by an unrhymed line. In the bridge, in which the train appears (offering a connection to the world), all four lines share a rhyme, only to be again followed by an unrhymed line (he declines the invitation). One more verse of two couplets plus and unrhymed line...

Then, in the last verse, we have "pounding/resounding" then "light/flight"... and "night." The song concludes on a rhyme.

The whole time, the poet was in a state of anticipation, lacking a sense of completion. Now that he has expressed his thoughts, he rhymes-- he finds a sense of wholeness.

Our poet here is also an outsider. He hides in "shadows." When the train arrives with its "welcome," he retreats back to these same "shadows." Once the train is gone, and he is again alone, he is free to create.

There are some ironies here, hinted at above. He wants to express himself, but he doesn't care if anyone knows who he is. He writes his "poem" where people can see... but only some people, if they happen to be taking the London Underground and if they happen to look in that direction. He reveals his deepest emotions about the world, but in an entirely generic and cliche way.

How different from Simon is this poet. Simon is a celebrity with a record deal and a large audience. He wants people to know what he wrote. His lyrics are intricate, unpredictable, and lovely.

And yet, he feels upset and conflicted much of the time, at least as revealed in his songwriting. How liberating to sneak into a subway and scrawl some anonymous obscenity on a wall. Not that Simon could (imagine if he got caught or recognized vandalizing a subway), except vicariously in a song. There is a freedom in anonymity (as the Internet has proven).

This song is Simon's declaration that art-- even in its basest sense-- is a basic, essential human need. Cavemen wrote on their walls, too.

Art is essential. Self-expression is worth committing a crime for. The drive to create is completely democratic, present even in this semi-literate semi-criminal.

Does Simon wish this individual would be apprehended, sent to a school to learn the rules of proper poetry and educated in the history of literature? Or is he better off as he is-- obscene and anonymous, but laughingly, screamingly, poundingly happy?

(I have recently learned that many photos from the shoot for the cover of Wednesday Morning, done in a subway station, could not be used. When they developed the prints, the duo discovered they had been standing in front of a four-letter word scrawled on the wall behind them. I can't prove that this song was inspired by that photo shoot, but it would make sense if it was!)

Next song: 7 O'clock News

Monday, March 15, 2010

For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her

Before delving into the mechanics and meaning of this song, let us take a moment to enjoy its misty, Impressionistic loveliness.

Here we have another dream song, like "The Sound of Silence." Another song about lying in bed next to a beautiful woman, like "Wednesday Morning." Here again are the image of walking alone down village "streets," the glow of "lamplight," the church bells from "Bleeker Street" and other songs.

And yet, how unlike these other songs in tone. The song is rapturous in its passion. Simon's other love songs are about leaving love ("Wednesday Morning"), losing love ("We've Got a Groovey Thing Goin'"), distant love ("Kathy's Song," "Homeward Bound"), dying love ("April Come She Will"), regretted love ("I am A Rock," "Dangling Conversation"), and even unregetted love ("Scarborough Fair").

This may be his first song about actively being in love. He dreams he is alone, and then in his dream he finds his lover. He wakes, and there is she is; he is so "grateful" that he is moved to "tears."

Some vocabulary: "Organdy" is a sheer, stiff, easily worked-with cotton cloth that can be embossed with a pressed-in pattern like stationery; "crinoline" is another stiff fabric, made of interwoven horsehair and linen, favored for hoop skirts. Burgundy is a region of France, known for its red wine, but here it is the color of that wine, purple-tinged red. The overall effect of these words calls to mind the French court or nobility of bygone days. Note that it is the "dream" that is associated with these clothes, not Emily herself. "Juniper" is a plant, a berry-bearing plant that has both woody, tree-like varieties and ones that cover the ground in spreading tendrils. If these are "fields of juniper" then the juniper here is most likely the low-lying sort.

One could dissect the imagery of French clothing, church bells, and "frosted fields"-- and the dichotomy proposed by the idea of the lover being "near" in the song... yet lost, according to the title.

But perhaps the best approach to this song is to simply allow its ethereal images and Garfunkel's lovely, wafting vocals to seep like mist into one's mind. Like seeing a Monet, lying next to one's love, or dreaming, this glowing song is likely better felt than thought.

Next Song: "7 O'clock News/Silent Night."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Simple Desultory Philippic

Decades before Billy Joel gave us a musical rundown of the latter half of the 20th Century with "We Didn't Start the Fire," Simon offered this reference-filled view of the mid-1960s he was then in (the album was released in 1966). In it, Simon name-checks many of the major players in the day's culture, with a focus on music.

The past is often seen through rose-colored glasses. Many yearn for the 1950s, for instance, believing it was a cross between a Norman Rockwell painting and "Leave it the Beaver." Well, maybe... if you weren't a woman, gay, black, Irish, Jewish, Asian, or anything but a middle-class, middle-age Midwesterner who was white and male. The same could be said of the nostalgia for Victorian life, as discussed in Suzanne Vega's song "Last Year's Troubles."

Here, Simon discusses what life in like in a culture in which everyone is trying to outdo each other to be more "out-there." From the standpoint of the 21st Century, it may look freewheeling. From inside that vortex, however, Simon reports that it was simply dizzying: "I been Rolling Stoned and Beatled 'til I'm blind," he says, using stressed syllables to hint at the violent words in those names-- "stoned" and "beat."

The song is also a friendly dig at Dylan, Simon's main competitor. Simon imitates his musical style (mixing electric and acoustic guitars backed by an organ), his declarative vocals, and his "Subterranean Homesick Blues" style of free-associative songwriting.

Now, to explain the references themselves:
"Desultory" means non -linear, marked by non-sequiturs and a lack of a plan; a "Philippic" is a public denunciation or condemnation.

(For word lovers, or horse lovers, this is an interesting couple of words. The first comes from the circus acrobat who jumps from horse to horse. The second comes from a series of speeches made by Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great; the name "Philip" means "lover of horses.")

Norman Mailer was a writer who pioneered the idea of presenting facts in a narrative way known as "New Journalism."

Maxwell Taylor was a high-ranking but controversial US general, blamed by some for hiding the Joint Chiefs' views on Vietnam from JFK.

John O'Hara was an author who wrote novels about the class struggle, like "BUtterfield 8" (made into an Elizabeth Taylor film).

Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. He is a highly controversial figure. The documentary Fog of War, about him, won an Oscar.

The Rolling Stones and Beatles were probably the most successful bands to come out of the "British Invasion," which came from England but was largely inspired by American blues.

Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, which prefigured the "greed is good" idea with the concept of "enlightened self-interest." Her selfish philosophy, called "objectivism," is still popular.

Communist/left handed: Left-handedness has always been suspect; in fact, it is the source of the word "sinister." In the French Parliament, liberals sat on the left, and that is why the terms "leftist," "the left," and "left wing" mean "liberal." So it is no coincidence that liberals are easily mocked for associating themselves with the left hand... by the "right-minded" people on the "right wing."

Phil Spector was a music producer and recording engineer responsible for the "Wall of Sound" idea of making music that surrounded the listener and enveloped him. This is best exemplified by the Righteous Brothers songs "Heart and Inspiration" and "Unchained Melody." Always prone to violent outbursts, he was found guilty of murder in 2008.

Lou Adler is a producer and manager of many famous acts, including Jan & Dean, The Mamas & the Papas, The Weavers, Sam Cooke, The Temptations. He won two Grammys for producing Carole King albums, including her immortal Tapestry.

Barry Sadler was a marine who went into singing, recording the hit "Ballad of the Green Berets."

Lenny Bruce was the most important stand-up comic in the history of the genre, insisting on blunt honesty. He ran afoul of the law repeatedly for using "curse words" in public, and became a hero of Free Speech. He was posthumously pardoned by New York State (the first time that's happened) in 2003.

"Smoke a pint of tea": Let's assume this is a marijuana reference.

(Bob) Dylan was (and is) a towering figure in American music and culture, and may be the single most influential songwriter in world history. In 2009, documentary-maker Michael Moore quoted a verse of "The Times, They are A'Changin'" on Larry King's talk show, and Larry asked him if he (Moore) had written that song himself. Moore joked that it was, after all, an "obscure" song.

Dylan Thomas was a great Welsh poet, most known for his poem about fighting against death, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," which contains the line "Rage! Rage against the dying of a light!"

"It's alright, Ma" and "Everybody must get stoned" are lines from the Dylan songs "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) and "Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35"

Mick Jagger is the lead singer of The Rolling Stones. He once said "I'd rather be dead than singing "Satisfaction" when I'm 45." He is now 67 and not dead. At last report, however, he is still singing that song.

"Silver Dagger" is an old folk ballad covered by both Bob Dylan and folksinger Joan Baez.

Andy Warhol is famous for elevating commercial art to the status of high art. His own paintings were mostly very accurate line-drawings of celebrities and common objects, which were then covered in wild fields of color "outside the lines."

Roy Hallee is a highly regarded producer and engineer, who worked with S&G, but also
The Byrds, Laura Nyro, and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Art Garfunkel actually had more of a role in S&G than most realize, especially in shaping their sound.

And, Albert, whom Simon tells he dropped his harmonica as the song fades? I have no idea. (An astute reader assured me it is producer Albert Grossman.)

Next song: For Emily, Wherever I may Find Her