Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Save the Life of My Child

I recently discovered that "A Most Peculiar Man" was, in fact, a response to a newspaper item; Simon explains that he thought the subject deserved more than a three-line obituary.

If that song is reaction to a news story about a suicide published the next day, this one is reported from the scene. The setting is a sadly familiar one-- a "jumper."

We hear quite a few reactions to the boy's peril. The ones truly concerned with the boy's welfare seem to be women. The boy's mother, of course, is beside herself, calling again and again: "Save the life of my child!" Another "woman" summons the police.

True, one concerned onlooker of indeterminate gender yells: "Don't jump!" (At least no one is yelling "Jump!" as is often the case.)

But another mutters that the boy must be "high on something," and when the police officer does arrive, he complains that his ineffectuality is the child's cohort's fault. Both of these latter remarks show disdain for "kids these days" in general; while the comment "What's becoming of the children?" shows concern, it passively insists that it is someone else's fault.

Then night falls, the crowd becomes more agitated... and the child "flies away." The literal meaning here is unclear. Was the child some sort of angel?

One pattern that emerges is that no one talks to the child, aside from the first person who yells "Don't jump!" Not the police officer, not the mother, not a psychological expert called in by the authorities. No one calls up to the child, no one uses a megaphone. No one goes up to the ledge or leans out the window (the one the child presumably went onto the ledge from) to try to coax or haul the boy back inside.

No one asks the boy why he is out there. Is he upset? Deluded by a Superman episode he saw to TV? Having a negative reaction to a medication? Clinically depressed? Seeking the attention he saw similar jumpers get when they were on the news?

Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine discusses the issue of guns in America. The best line is spoken by Marilyn Manson, the outrageous and spooky performer whose morose and grotesque lyrics are a lightning rod for parental blame regarding "what's becoming of the children." Asked what he would have said to those kids who shot up the Columbine High School, Manson replies, "Nothing. I would have listened."

"Everyone agreed it would a miracle indeed/ If the boy survived"-- yet who did anything to help ensure his survival?

For all of the despair and concern voiced by the crowd over the boy on the ledge, none are doing the obvious thing-- listening to the boy. No wonder he is done with the lot of them and simply flies away.

Simon implicates the whole hand-wringing-- and hand-washing-of-- crowd who always wails "What about the children?" only to underfund schools, urge that juveniles be tried as adults, and call for crackdowns on gangs.

Simon saw a generation of youth in crisis, a whole generation sitting on ledges... and whole generations of parents and authorities doing nothing productive to get them off of those ledges. So, of course, they largely "tuned in, turned on, and dropped out." Maybe someone told them not to do it-- "Don't jump!"-- but no one asked them why they wanted to in the first place.

The last verse, taken alone, could be about a rock concert: "When darkness fell, excitement kissed the crowd and made them wild... when the spotlight hit the boy and the crowd began to cheer..." Working this metaphor backward to the beginning of the song, the "boy" is a music star and the "ledge" is a stage. Simon could also be describing performing itself as an act so self-revelatory as to constitute self-endangerment, and musing on the proclivity of musicians to flee this constant self-peril... through drugs, other self-destructive behavior that ruins their careers, long sabbaticals, etc.

The music must be remarked on, as it is so dissonant and unusual. There is an electric, perhaps even electronic, sound at certain points, and there is a drum hit that sounds like a gunshot. These sounds shock us back into the immediacy of the danger the boy is in, after all the moaning and debating that surrounds the situation.

And then there is a ghostly choir wailing, at one point coalescing into the opening lines of "Sound of Silence." That song is about "people talking without speaking/ people hearing without listening." "Save the Life of My Child" is about people talking about the child without listening to the child.

His life depends on their attentiveness, not just their attention.

Next Song: America

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