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


  1. "No idea"? You're kidding? Albert is Albert Grossman, Dylan's Svengali manager and the manager of many other prominent folk acts of the sixties such as Peter Paul & Mary.

  2. Well, I guess I could have looked that up. It was obviously someone else in the studio.

  3. Just discovered this song and love your rundown, thanks! Witty indeed this song.

  4. Anon-- Thanks! You can see how it prefigured songs like "We Didn't Start the Fire" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It."

  5. The lyrics described are from the second version of the song, which was recorded for Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme in 1966.

    The version recorded in 1965 for the Paul Simon Songbook has a host of different characters, including (for example) Lyndon B Johnson, Jack Kerouac, John Lennon, Cassius Clay and Walt Disney. The Stones, Beatles, Ayn Rand, Dylan Thomas and some others are included in both versions.

  6. harriold-- Yes, I might go back and add those. Thanks for reminding me!

  7. "...Communist because I'm left handed
    that's the hand you use...well nevermind."

    is a reference to cultures in the Middle East who use their left hand to clean their anus after defecating. That is why the left hand was thought to be "dirty" in their culture.

    It is also a double entendre for Ayn Rand's disgust at the "Left." (You point out the origin from French legislature.)

    Good job, keep up the good work.

    Dwain Goforth
    Kelseyville, California

  8. Anon-- First, if you wish to be anonymous, that is your prerogative. But if so, you may wish to remove your full name and city from your sign-off. Second, thanks for the compliment.
    As to the content of your comment-- I am aware of the use of the left hand in some cultures for the purpose you described. However, even in such cultures that did not have this practice to begin with-- including, I believe, the USSR, Cuba, and other Communist nations-- the left hand was still considered suspicious. Take the expression, "a left-handed compliment," or the classic sci-fi novel "The Left Hand of Darkness."
    As for the end of the trailed-off sentence "That's the hand you use..." I really don't think Simon was indulging in bathroom humor; I can't think of another instance in which he "goes there." Rather, I think (aside from rhyming "nevermind" with "blind") he is just saying "the left hand is the hand you use to do left-handed (ie, underhanded) things."
    He is "nearly branded a Communist" because he prefers his left hand, which is considered suspect... and it is also conflated (by literalist idiots) that "lefties" are "leftists."
    Obviously, if 90% of people are right handed, and if 50% of the population is liberal, then political opinion and handedness do not correlate. Most liberals are right-handed because most people are, altogether.
    So what he's saying is: "Some people [namely, those who follow Ayn Rand, mentioned just above] are so dumb they think I'm a leftist just because I'm a leftie."
    For the record, Simon actually is a leftie. And a leftist... not that those two facts have anything to do with each other.

  9. Hey, I'm loving your blog and appreciate you posting your analysis, thank you.

    "That's the hand I use, well, nevermind..."

    This line has got to be a masturbation joke! Especially since Paul is left handed.

    That's the hand he uses to... well, nevermind (too inappropriate to say). There's a reason he doesn't finish the line and actually say what he uses it for, it's because it's inappropriate.

    The first time I heard this song and he said this line, my eyebrows shot up and I thought it was the most hilarious thing.

    Let me know what you think!

  10. Hello There-- First, thanks for the compliment. And no, I don't think Simon would "go there." It's wildly uncharacteristic.
    Further, "that's the hand YOU use" means "the hand one would use, the one the general public/ average person would use." Since only a small percentage of the public are lefties, the average "you" in the audience would use their right hand for... that.
    Also, "left-handed" is an idiom, as in "a left-handed compliment." Lefties were historically discriminated against; the word "sinister" literally just means "left-handed."
    Communists are liberal, liberals are said to be "left wing" or "leftist," so he's making a pun: leftist/leftie. There is nothing salacious here.

  11. I disagree with the assessment of this song being a friendly jab at Dylan, if we are to read into Simon's comments on his perceived rivalry with Dylan it bites a bit more.
    I think Simon digs at the 'free associative' writing style of Dylan, and if you look at the song a bit more cynically, the Dylan Thomas line, who Dylan borrowed his name from, seems a bit more mocking, as well as the outro and the borrowed dylan lines.

  12. Unknnown-- If I read your comment correctly, you agree with me that the song is a jab at Bob Dylan, but not that it is a friendly one. I don't really detect any mean-spiritedness in the song. It is arch, but not stinging. I must believe that a wordsmith as effective as Simon could land knockout punches if he really wanted to; all I see here is a poke in the ribs.