Monday, May 31, 2010

Fakin' It

The "Impostor Complex" is a phenomenon described by Freud. The idea is that one is getting acclaim for something that one finds easy, or that one is "phoning it in" but is still getting applause anyway... and that any minute the crowd will catch on to the charade and turn away-- or worse, attack one as a fraud.

These days, we are presented with one performer after another offering lip-synched, Auto-Tuned performances of sample-filled remixes; it seems that if you are an impostor, you can't have this complex. But the speaker here seems to have a severe case: "This feeling of fakin' it/ I still haven't shaken it."

The verses seem increasingly detached from one another narratively, joined only by the sense of impostor-ness in each case. The first is a romantic situation with a confident woman who both "knows" and "does" exactly "what she wants to do." In contrast, our speaker is merely "fakin' it."

The next verse could continue the romantic story, or be about some sort of group outing. In either case, the speaker is "a dubious soul" in social settings. (This word does not mean "doubtful," but "doubt-able, unreliable.") Even "a walk in the garden" is too much exertion; we are not given an age for the speaker, but the implication seems that the walk should reasonably be well within his range of endurance. Still, the "garden" seems more like a jungle, in that he is "tangled in the fallen vines." This image of awkwardness is probably metaphoric and meant to suggest social ineptitude. In the next line, he is "picking up the punchlines," either as the butt of those jokes or more likely simply the listener rather than the raconteur who comes up with them (he's "picking up" the jokes, not "laying them down").

The next verse seems less like a continuation of a discussion of interpersonal relationships than a comment on fearmongering by politicians and the media. In fact, he posits interpersonal relationships as the solution to such fearmongering: "Is there any danger?/ No, no, not really/ Just lean on me." (The line "lean on me" is not a reference to the classic Bill Withers song of that title, which was released four years later.) He then continues with the nice, if preachy, advice to treat one's neighbor's "honestly." Perhaps this is another dig at the powers that be; they teach the populous to be honest, then deal falsely with them.

The last verse is the most enigmatic. First, the speaker wonders about past-life experiences. Simon, whose lyrics show a general skepticism about religion and such beliefs, likely does not mean this literally. Perhaps he feels that his art is more accurately a craft, and he feels that he is no more a poet, as some dubbed him, than a tailor is a fashion designer.

Billy Joel once commented that he receives inordinate praise for his talents, that in a prior generation, being able to write, sing, and play songs was considered basic "competence" for any musician. So, too, Simon may have felt that what he did was not terribly special, compared to work of the great poets and songwriters of history whom he admired.

In the interlude, it seems someone walks into the tailor's shop and addresses the tailor, a "Mr. Leitch." This is likely a reference to Simon's contemporary folksinger Donovan; that is his actual first name, but his last name is Leitch. (It is not likely a reference to Cary Grant, as his original last name was spelled "Leach." No celebrity was comfortable with that last name, it seems, until Robin "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" Leach.) Why Donovan was cast as a tailor is, I admit, not readily discernible. It's possible that it was just a British name lying around, unused by its owner.

It is possible that the "tailor" is a reference to Simon's grandfather, who died before Simon was born, and who actually was a tailor back in the "Old Country." If so, Simon's "own[ing] the tailor's face and hands" is not just a metaphor, but a genetic fact. This also jibes with the imagery of past lives and personal histories.

The speaker's impostor complex, by the last couple of lines, becomes so intense that he is convinced that he is now the tailor: "I own the tailor's face and hands." If the verb "own" instead of "have" is not disturbing enough, the last line is truly Twilight Zone-esque: "I am the tailor's face and hands." (emphasis mine).

"Fakin' It" is truly one of Simon's most curious, hard-to-grasp songs. Perhaps the idea was to illustrate: "See! I'm just grasping straws and pulling random levers. Stop expecting genius from me all the time; it's an impossible standard and the pressure is too much. I know I'm not that good; why don't you?"

A note about the music-- the blaring, thumping opening and closing seem disjointed, and may exist to heighten the sense of unreality the speaker feels. Also, the "tailor" could have had his shop on Penny Lane, a street sung about by the Beatles in the previous year. As befits a song about uncertainty, the song swerves severely between melodic folk strumming and classical strings in the verses... and harder backing rhythms and horns in the choruses.

NOTE: The duo only released one 45 single of a song that does not otherwise exist on one of the 5 official S&G releases (Wednesday, Silence, Parsley, Bookends, Bridge).

That song is "You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies." Its flip-side is an alternate version (and not all that different, at that) of "Fakin' It."

We will deal with "Interest" and other non-album S&G material after the 5 S&G albums, but before Simon's solo work.

Next Song: Punky's Dilemma


  1. What year did this song come out? I definitely detect Sgt. Pepper both in sound effects and lyrics. Surprising for Paul Simon...he usually prides himself on being original.

  2. Interesting. I hadn't heard this song for years and just downloaded. I see it as less about feelings of insecurity and more about feelings of detachment.

    He plays the game. He goes through the motions. He does all the things people do to lead a rich life. (has relationships, walks in gardens, picks up punchlines etc)

    What upsets him is that he just doesn't feel the way he imagines others do about these things. They seem to really feel it. It genuinely matters to them. But for him, it means nothing.

    It might seem like it does, but he's only faking it.

    I think everyone just wants to make these songs about themselves.

  3. I read that the Mr. leitch part came to him in some hash induced state.

  4. I suppose it's possible, although I have no knowledge of Simon's substance use at any point it time. Even so, he must have liked it, or he would have taken it out when he was no longer under the influence. For what it's worth, the 1960s was not the first era of composition while, um, enhanced. Various things from alcohol to opium have been used by all sort of people (not just artists) for all of history.

  5. Do you know the name of the girl who says, "Good morning Mr Leitch?"

  6. Sorry, I do not. If she is named anywhere, I would expect it would be in the liner notes of the Bookends album, either on CD or on the original LP (I only have it as a cassette, with no notes, and on the S&G "Collected Works" CD set). You could look directly after the song, where those who worked on that track are usually listed. Alternately, she might be mentioned at the end, with the "thanks" section or as a "special guest appearance," in which case it would be spelled out that she was the spoken-word vocalist on that track.

  7. Mr. Leitch has got to be Donovan. “Sunshine Superman,” his psychedelic coming-out, was released in September 1966. The Beatles came out with “Baby You’re a Rich Man” in July 1967. It works as a reference to Donovan’s new persona, a welcome to the world of heightened perception: “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?” But Paul Simon, who like Donovan had roots deeper into folk music, isn’t buying his conversion. “Fakin’ It” which has a somewhat cacophonous intro like “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” comes out in August 1967 and specifically references Donovan. Yes, says Simon, Donovan’s a tradesman songwriter.
    “When she goes she’s gone …” – that would be us, the audience, every songwriter’s love object. Translation: You’re a passing fancy. Paul Simon tells Donovan, faking it will only get you so far. He could have added: Try to write something original like THIS.

  8. Your theory is interesting, but I don't see Simon as having that kind of competitive streak. He collaborates and covers others' songs too much for that to be part of his own work. He seems to take all of that, put it into "Desultory" and have done.

  9. Not that quotes in teen magazines are always accurate, but circa 1966, Simon did say in one he did not care for Donovan, calling him first a Dylan copy then a McCartney copy who swung with the trends.
    He also conceded he understood where many others
    would like Donovan.
    Actually, Donovan is more talented than Simon and arguably a better musician than Dylan when you consider the music WITH the lyrics and the guitari work, etc.
    I've heard that Simon also resents Dylan too though, so I won't make any tribal allusions herein.

  10. Thanks for your comment, but I have to say I disagree all around. Donovan was more hippie-dippy, Ren-Faire, and psychedelic. Dylan was about roots music and worshiped Woody Guthrie. McCartney liked blues, but ended playing a more Tin Pan Alley/British Music Hall style a lot of the time.
    It's hard to compare talent. Dylan is solid, but Simon's skills encompass global styles.

    1. As for resentments, they were also businesspeople in a competitive market, and artists with large, fragile egos. So yes, feathers were bound to get ruffled.

  11. The woman saying the words "Good Morning Mr. Leitch ..." is Beverlye Martyn

  12. Thanks, wolf. I have tried to avoid using wikipedia for the purposes of this blog, but that piece of information is interesting.
    I didn't want wikipedia to influence what I wrote, I don't trust it fully... and also if you could just get wiki information on my blog, what do you need me for?

  13. The persona in the song seems to be suffering from an existential malaise: He likes his universe well-ordered and tidy, and controlled, but he cannot control the woman in the song, who is independent and self-sufficient. and wont to do her own thing. The garden symbolizes disorder, and is uncontrolled, contrary to what the persona of the song yearns for. Fear of the id. The tailor is the artist. Good artists borrow; great artists steal. Paul Simon is saying that there is a certain amount of fakery in the act of creating. And solipsism can be a dead end if it results in an inauthentic life. This is a small, but potent gem of a song, pregnant with meaning, especially in the spaces between the verses.

    1. Unknown-- I think there is also a contrast between the woman, so self-assured and self-propelled... and the speaker, who gets worn out just walking through a garden.

  14. A great part of the meaning of the song lurks in the spaces between the verses.

  15. Unknown-- As I explain, this blog is about the lyrics. I am not a musician and can't really speak to the meanings implied by the music or melody. There is a book on Simon's work by a British musician, if you care to find it.