Monday, June 21, 2010

A Hazy Shade of Winter

This song seems to be a struggle to determine what how much productive time the speaker has left. The music itself lurches between the fast lines that take up most of the song and slower interludes that seem to want to take a look around and enjoy the "scenery," only to succumb to the song's driving urgency.

The main question is: What state of development has the speaker reached-- is it "the springtime of [his] life"... or is "winter" hard by? The song as a whole seems to argue for the latter conclusion. It starts by worrying about time, repeating the word "time" like it is ticking away. "What's become of me," uses the past tense; the words sound like a TV special on "Whatever happened to" some child stars.

It continues, still in past tense, "I looked around... I was so hard to please." Also, he spent so much time choosing, he lost the time to actuate his choices. Is he wrong to feel that he has lost valuable time, not much of which is left? After all, the very weather agrees-- the leaves on the trees are dead, the sky is overcast. autumn is well underway, and the sky predicts "winter" soon.

(The imagery here recalls that of one of Simon's earliest songs: "The leaves that are green turn to brown..." That song, too, is out the inevitability of the passage of time and the nature is life as a series of partings: "Hello... goodbye/ That's all there is.")

Then another thought comes in: "What about what else is going on in the world? There's a band playing to raise money for the poor helped by the Salvation Army. I should go, and bring my cup to help collect donations from passers-by." After all, time is passing-- the leaves are still brown, the sky is still wintry.

Then the song seems to be quoting some helpful adviser, offering encouragement straight off of the "Hang in there!" poster with a cat dangling from a branch. The speaker admits such advice is only useful... if one buys into it, and "pretends" that there is enough time to rebuild hope.

But next comes a truer note of hope. Again, the imagery is taken not from platitudes, but from nature: "Look around, the grass is high/ The fields are ripe, it's the springtime of my life." What am I worried about? I'm young and have plenty of time!

Then this odd bit o "chicken-and-egg" philosophizing: "Seasons change with the scenery." Isn't it more true to say that "scenery changes with the seasons"? After all, it's either nice or bleak out because of what season it is, not the other way around.

But then, what is a "season"? Who determines what "spring" or "winter" is-- aren't these not just human, semantic labels for a natural events with no set start or end? It's the scenery that changes, with or without us, and we have to adjust our outlook.

Just when the speaker seems to have snapped himself out of his funk with this realization, there is a break. The next few lines seem to belong to another song. "Weaving time in a tapestry," seems to continue the poetic nature of the previous thought...

...Then the song snaps into a discussion about a relationship and turns sarcastic: "Won't you stop and remember me/ At any convenient time?"

It's disingenuous. Here is he saying that he must make use of the precious few moments he has left, what with "winter" coming... but this other person should stop whatever it is he or she is doing and make time for him! "Yeah, friend, I'm here, when you get around to me, I'm just sayin'..."

But then, right away, he is apologizing-- or rationalizing-- for himself having forgotten something or someone. After all, he was busy "looking over manuscripts/ Of unpublished rhyme" while having a drink.

Perhaps this is all to say that we make ourselves busier than we actually are, that, as John Lennon so nicely put it: "Life is what happens when you are making other plans." The speaker admits that he is just as guilty for ignoring relationships as he would blame his friend for being.

He wasn't busy as much as self-absorbed. He did not hear the Salvation Army band, and now instead of being with-- and helping-- other people, he is poring over things he himself has written but has not even shared.

Sadly, there is no time to learn this lesson. In the time it took to even think of all this, the weather has gotten even colder and time has gotten even shorter.

Before, there were dead leaves and a hazy sky. And now-- oh just look-- "there's a patch of snow on the ground." Winter isn't on its way-- it's arrived! Time's a-wastin'... better get back to work.

IMPACT: The song, one of S&G's fastest and hardest-driving, was covered successfully by the all-female New Wave band The Bangles.

Next song: At the Zoo

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mrs. Robinson

The S&G hits presented in The Graduate pre-existed the movie. Even this one. Simon was working on a song called "Mrs. Rosenberg" when Mike Nichols, the movie's director, asked them to provide the soundtrack.

And the song, while sharing a character with the movie, has little to do with what we see onscreen. The song starts with dialogue that seems to come from a doctor in a mental hospital. It has been suggested that the some is an epilogue of sorts; after the disturbing events of the film, Mrs. Robinson checks into a clinic or sanitarium for treatment or simply escape.

Then there is talk in the song of religion, politics, and baseball... none of which is part of the film. The filmic Mrs. Robinson would not come within a hundred yards of a "cupcake." So, for the purposes of discussing this song, we are going to basically ignore the film.

While some versions start with the first verse, the album version starts with the chorus. Which, as mentioned, offers religious solace to the main character, who evidently has gone through some trauma. The references to Jesus hearken back to Wednesday Morning, S&G's first album under that name, while the "hey," "whoa," and "coo-coo-ca-choo" utterances recall their even earlier work, as Tom and Jerry. (It has been suggested that "coo-coo-ca-choo" refers to the "I Am the Walrus" nonsense lyric "goo-goo-ga-joob," which The Beatles had released the previous year. Perhaps this is Simon's way of kiddingly taunting Mrs. Robinson, "nyah-nyah" style, with the nonsense of "kids these days.")

The song's overarching tension, then, is (as is the films's) between the Ozzie and Harriet superficiality of the 1950s and the more free-wheeling spirit of the 1960s. Obviously, the truth is more complicated; the 1950s had their share of societal and familial dysfunction and rebellion. But the kids of the 1960s seem to want to stop pretending, at least, that these things weren't real.

Now comes the verse that seems to come from the lips of a mental-hospital director-- soothing and euphemistic. This is not a madhouse, no, it's a place you'd "stroll around" and "feel at home," almost a resort! And yet, they have "files" on their, er, guests.

The following verse continues this idea of a veil of homeyness hiding some sort of less-than-flattering reality, with the word "hide" or "hiding" used three times. While the "pantry," with its "cupcakes," seems quaint, the fact is that "no one ever goes" there anyway; the deception is pointless. Just as the community knows about the indiscreet Roger from the previous song, "everybody knows" what all the tip-toeing is about.

The word "affair," following by the winking of the bent guitar note, is the only real connection between the song and the film. And, frankly, it wasn't the "Robinsons'"-- plural-- affair, in that Mr. Robinson was oblivious. Unless he had someone on the side too, which the movie does not explore... but we wouldn't be much surprised.

And, frankly, how does one hide the affair "from the kids" when one of the kids is whom the affair is with? Further, who is singing the song in the first place? People closer in age to Benjamin, certainly, than Mrs. Robinson. The kids already know, too.

So, medicine and religion are not helpful. Maybe it's society's fault. Maybe it's the tone the leaders set for the nation. Well, looking in that direction is not going to help much, either. In observing "the candidates' debate," it becomes clear that this is another no-win situation: "Ev'ry way you look at it, you lose."

And so we come back to the heroes, like DiMaggio, of that bygone era, the 1950s. Regardless of its racism, sexism, and other roiling issues that erupted into the 1960s, many citizens the United States are firmly fixed on that decade as having been some sort of pristine, perfect America that we are getting further from and need to get back to, as a nation. Meanwhile, many others are willing to take that era and, well, leave it to Beaver.

It hardly matters. Mrs. Robinson knows-- "Joltin' Joe has... gone away." Try as we might to get back to the perfection of the past-- which only truly existed in our childhood minds-- we cannot. We cannot have the 1950s again, any more than we can become teenagers again. The only direction we can grow is up.

The song has no answers. It looks hopefully toward, then disappointedly away from, science, politics, and popular culture. Its discussion of religion is never fully developed, although Garfunkel's lovely descant behind the mentions of Jesus hint that it might be the best hope among the available options.

The 1950s were long past, although those who grew up during them were still largely running the show. The following decade, with its willingness to question authority and its principles, rankled the earlier generation. This split has only grown deeper in today's political and social situation, the rift between the backward-lookers and the forward-lookers.

Dylan might have said it more plainly-- "The times, they are a'changin'"-- but Simon's take at least acknowledges that those who would put the breaks on progress deserve some glances from "sympathetic eyes." After all, they don't make 'em like Joltin' Joe anymore.

IMPACT: This song is one of a handful on which S&G's reputation truly rests. It was a huge hit, one of the few instances in which the popularity of a movie and a song enhanced each other. Up through 2002 (the most recent figures I could easily find), it was one of the most-played songs on the radio, with over 6 million airplays (While several other songs have as many, only five have 7 million or more).

Simon won Best Pop Vocal at the Grammys for this song, which also won Record of the Year (an award for a performer and producer, while Song of the Year goes to the songwriter and Album of the Year is for an entire album). The song was nominated for Song of the Year, but did not win. However, it is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Simon also shared in the Grammys given to those responsible for the movie's score.

Simon sang this song in a lovely, solo acoustic version on Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium... another icon that has left and gone away.

As for "Mrs. Robinson," she was replaced by the "MILF," and now the "cougar." But she's still very much around.

Next song: A Hazy Shade of Winter

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Punky's Dilemma

A lilting litle melody, similar in tone to "Cloudy" or "Feelin' Groovy."

The imagery here is possibly drug-related, or -induced, which is hinted at by the tune whistled at the end: "When I Was High and Mighty."

That said, there are plenty of druggy songs that have nothing to do with breakfast. Even given that it is a psychedelic lyric, why this imagery?

The imagery seems to conflate the images of breakfast foods with being on the beach or poolside, "relaxing a while." The speaker wishes to "float" like a cornflake and "com[e] up brown," as if tanning, in the toaster.

Hollywood imagery is here, too. The cornflake would be "talking movies... living in style." The other character is a raisin (long before the Marvin Gaye-singing claymation ones of commercials) who "occasionally plays L.A." The two-word bridge, wafted in by Garfunkel, is simply "South California"... which is where Hollywood is, map-wise.

As the speaker notices the raisin's toupee, it seems the speaker longs for the easy pace of life in that part of the country... but not the obvious falseness of the social scene. As Oscar Levant famously quipped, "Behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood lies the real tinsel."

But this is not the speaker's reality. Not just the not-being-breakfast part, but not having the carefree life he imagines the food has. The first two lines of the first two verses are, "Wish I was..." Implication: "...but I am not." He is not relaxed or at ease.

Actually, he is the opposite-- he is at attention. The imagery abruptly shifts to reveal why the speaker wishes he was lounging in an LA pool; it seems he was drafted: "If I become a first lieutenant..."

As dire as this possibility is, the speaker is determinted to romanticize it, or at least be sarcastic about it. He imagines a spiffy portrait of himself ensconced "on the piano." The note on the photo seems more WWI than Vietnam, however, in tone and in name-choice; a simple, chaste "To Mary Jane-- Best wishes, Martin." ("Mary Jane," may, of course, be a reference to marijuana. That would explain the drugginess of the song, and the desire for food.)

Chances are, he would not fit in within the army structures and strictures. After all, he does not "prefer... ordinary jam." Rather, he likes the obscure, obtuse "boysenberry."

Anyway, this new idyll, of the soldier and his best gal a-missin' each other, is now broken, too. While he's away, a man who has cravenly decided not to serve his country is also cravenly having his way with this very gal! But the tone is still light-hearted, and the sound effects here are of "Roger, (the) draft dodger" not "tip-toein'" down the stairs discretely but stumbling down them loudly and clumsily. Now, "everybody knows" not only "what" he is after, but when he is after it.

Going back to the title, what is "Punky's Dilemma"? We don't know who Punky is, having only been introduced to Martin, Roger, and Mary Jane. But we can guess at his dilemma. If he goes to war, he is guaranteed that his girlfriend will not wait for him. But if he dodges the draft to stay with her, he ends up like Roger, sneaking around "the basement door," and having no kind of above-ground, above-board life.

How to decide? Bleary-eyed from a night of indecision (and other escapist pursuits?), poor Martin looks at his breakfast and longs for a simpler, more relaxed life free from war and potentially unfaithful girlfriends.

Maybe lying on a pool raft, like Benjamin in The Graduate.

Note: This song was covered by Barbra Streisand on her 1969 album What About Today?. She traditionally had performed older standards; this was an attempt to interpret works by the acclaimed composers of the day.

Next song: Mrs. Robinson