There are only a handful of songs in the rock canon that deal with the elderly or aging. "When I'm 64," by the Beatles. "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens. "Old Man" by Neil Young. And, of course, "Old" by, well, Paul Simon.
Rock is obsessed with youth. Most rock songs that do mention age share The Who's sentiment: "Hope I die before I get old." Mick Jagger once opined that he'd rather be dead than singing "Satisfaction" when he was 45. Yes, that was a while ago.
"Old Friends" is a closely observed portrait, almost a "word painting," of two elderly gentlemen sitting on a park bench. They have "high shoes" with "round toes." They have old overcoats now so large that their shrunken bodies are "lost" in them.
And what do they do, in the park? Reminisce about the good old days? Observe the people around them and comment? Brag about their grandchildren? Fume about corruption and politics? Feed the pigeons breadcrumbs? Play chess?
No. They sit, motionless, a bit apart, like "bookends." Ones with no books between them depending on their support. But there is a great deal more than empty air between them.
A "newspaper" tumbles by to land on their shoes, its "news" already history. They do not bother to toss it in the recycling bin or even brush it away. Nor do they react at all to the "sounds of the city," which simply "settle like dust" on their "shoulders."
So what are they doing out there? "Waiting for the sunset" in the "winter." These times are both literal and figurative. They are waiting for the inevitable, the ends of their days and years.
And they are friends, so they don't even have to say what is on their minds. They remember the "same years," and so do not need to rehash those events. But neither can they bring themselves to mention the ever-present thought that would make the all else pale into meaninglessness. They are "silently sharing the same fear."
It's not as if they are busy living, at the moment. But perhaps, having lived, they are now exhausted and enfeebled and just plain worn out. As the song "Old Man river" put it, they are "tired of living, but scared of dying."
This is a far cry from the Beatles' ditty about "rent[ing] a cottage on the Isle of Wight" and dandling "grandchildren on [one's] knee" in one's golden years. And the Cat Stevens and Neil Young songs are the voices of young people trying to express themselves to their elders: "How can I try to explain?" and "I'm a lot like you were."
The observer of the old friends-- perhaps on the park bench opposite-- from the first verse, turns to his own, young friend. "Can you imagine us," he asks him, living that long? Being friends that long? Being that old? It must be "strange" and "terrible."
Yet, he stops short of saying (as The Who did) that he hopes that he would die before getting old. It's not a sense of hope, or fear of suicide.
Rather, it's a preternaturally mature attempt to find some acceptance around the idea that for most of us, to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eloit, our world will end "not with a bang but a whimper." This is reflected in the music, which after the lyrics, surges in a swirling swell of unsettling strings... only to resolve in a single violin note that seems like the flat-lining tone of a hospital heart-rate monitor.
We grow up, we grow old. If we're lucky, we get to do it with a friend.
I have, since posting this entry, heard from a reader, one I have mentioned earlier who himself has published a book on Simon's songs (The Words and Music of Paul Simon (2007) by James Bennighof). His interpretation of the "Bookends" line that has befuddled me for years is straightforward and sensible, so I felt I should pass it along-- "Memories/They're all that's left you," he feels, should be read: "Memories are all that's left to you [after a dear one has passed away]." So, thanks to Prof. Bennighof for that insight.
IMPACT: The song, while not a huge, defining hit, is nonetheless one of the more popular among S&G fans.
"Old Friends" also served as the title for the recent S&G reunion tour and its attendant CD and DVD.
Next Song: Bookends Theme