Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Only Living Boy in New York

To understand this song, one must know a bit about what was going on in the duo at the time. Yes, they were breaking up. But one of the reasons is less well-remembered today, and that was Garfunkel's desire to pursue a career as an actor.

The song is addressed to "Tom." This was Garfunkel's name when the duo was going by Tom and Jerry; Garfunkel was Tom Garr and Simon was Jerry Landis. The reference, of course, was to the famous cat-and-mouse cartoon.

Garfunkel was about to shoot the movie version of the anti-war novel Catch-22, which was going to film in Mexico. Which explains the first verse, in which Tom has a "part" for which he is going there.

Leaving Jerry, which is to say Paul, as the one left back in New York. He will feel as isolated as if everyone else in the city were dead.

The next verse hearkens back to their earlier, perhaps simpler days. A verse about the weather being the only important news, and having "nothing to do... but smile," could just as well have been said by the speaker of "Cloudy" or "Feelin' Groovy."

The final verse returns to the sentiment of farewell. (Along with "So Long" and the Everly cover "Bye Bye Love," this makes three farewell songs on one album, in case anyone had missed the point.)

The word "fly" here, in "I know your eager to fly, now," means more than just to take an airplane flight. Simon knows Garfunkel is eager to "fly" in the sense of "flee." He wants to escape the group and embark on his new artistic adventure, and he does not begrudge him his enthusiasm.

Simon's only acting advice to his departing partner is "Let your honesty shine/ Like it shines on me." Interesting, that to be "honest" is the best way to play a fictional character in a fictional story. But honesty, Simon admits, is one of Garfunkel's strongest traits, and he might as well use it.

(As it turned out, Garfunkel's acting career was brief. Its highlights were Catch-22 with an all-star cast, and Carnal Knowledge, playing Jack Nicholson's friend. He would soon return to singing.)

The chorus is intriguing-- simply the line "Half of the time, we're gone/ And we don't know where." Again, this aimlessness is one of Simon's main themes. It echoes "Cloudy" and also foreshadows the line in "Me and Julio": "Don't know where I'm goin'/ But I'm on my way."

To this searching line comes the wafting "Here I am," which is present, yes... but faint and receding, as if drifting down from an airplane speeding away overhead. Garfunkel sings this line, appropriately. Even when he is gone, he will still be "there" in some sense.

While many of Simon's songs refer to events and people in his life, few are as autobiographical as this. There were so many emotions around the break-up-- anger, betrayal, disappointment, bewilderment, abandonment... resignation, and finally, acceptance. This slight song manages to work through many of them in a short space, focusing on the final two.

Go catch your plane, Tom, Simon says. If this is what you want, I wish you all the luck there is. I'll miss you, but don't worry about me-- I'll be fine.

And, if you were the one leaving, what else would you want to hear?

A pretty, if slight, song, it seemed destined to be forgotten by all but ardent S&G fans.

It was revived by inclusion on the emo-heavy soundtrack of the Wes Anderson movie Garden State. It is by decades the oldest song in the batch, and it stakes an interesting claim for S&G as a grandfather to today's emo groups (much as grunge fans rediscovered Neil Young).

Next Song: Why Don't You Write Me

Monday, August 23, 2010

Baby Driver

This song reads like a playground hand-jive, but sounds like a Beach Boys track. There is a great deal of childhood imagery... and then a whole lot of car-racing imagery. The title itself is, in fact, the two words "baby" and "driver."

The jump-rope sing-song element is the "my daddy"/"my mama" part. The information about the parents is adult, however, and at least somewhat autobiographical. Simon's father was a very successful session bass-player, for instance. In one interview, Simon recalls a song coming on the radio and his father off-handedly remarking, "I think I played on that." (I admit I have no idea if any of the military information has any basis in fact.)

Another childhood element is the phrase "once upon," as "once upon a time." Yet another is the invitation "come to my room and play."

(The speaker does mention the circumstances of his birth, but that can hardly be counted as childhood imagery. Many songs have lyrics like "born in the USA" or "born to be wild.")

As for racing imagery, there is the chorus, which mentions "wheels," the "road," an "engine," and the line "what's my number," as all racecars have numbers.

Whether childhood imagery or car imagery, by the end of the song, they both seem to be metaphors for sex. "I wonder how your engine feels" refers to the same thing as the line in Springsteen's "Born to Run": "strap your hands 'cross my engines."

And then there is the blatant line: "Yes we can play/ I'm not talkin' 'bout your pigtails/ I was talkin' 'bout your sex appeal."

My theory? It's about a guy trying to lose his virginity. Put together, the song seems to be one giant come-on. He is young, still a "baby," with no accomplishments to his name, so he brags about his parents as a way of strutting.

Further, he "wonders how [the girl's] engine feels", and wants to "play," but has as much intention of staying around as Dion's Wanderer: "I hit the road and I'm gone... scoot down the road..." (The Wanderer explains, "When I find myself falling for some girl/ I hop right into my car and I drive around the world.")

The line "What's my number?" could then mean "You don't even know my phone number or address, do you? I'm gone before you can find out."

The virginity theory also explains the line about carrying a "gun," but not yet getting a chance to "serve"-- i.e. use his "gun" to serve anyone else.

He is a "baby driver," with temporary tags and a learner's permit, but still no license. This would explain his ridiculous attempts at seduction... and his likelihood of crashing instead of making it all the way around the track.

Next Song: The Only Living Boy in New York

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Boxer

One of the songs on which S&G's reputation, indeed Simon's reputation, rests.

Less a full narrative like a Harry Chapin or Bruce Springsteen song-- or Simon's later "Duncan"-- "The Boxer" is a character study. In the few minutes of a song, Simon sketches a young male character as identifiable and indelible as Holden Caulfield, and one with a similar attitude of disappointment with the world (although Holden had higher hopes and was therefore more disappointed).

One might think that the second line of the song refers back to the first, given when the rest falls (at the end of that second line). But that would make little sense. Why would there be a "though," as if he expected his "poor boy" story to be told? Poor boys stories are seldom told, aside from those of Twain, Dickens, and Algren. It's mostly the rich boys' stories, like that of Richard Cory, that are recounted.

Rather, the second line addresses what follows: "Though my story's seldom told, I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles." Rather than hold out and insist that his story be told, he has used up his "resistance"-- or failed to use it-- and so has had to settle for "mumbles... lies and jests."

But he remains philosophical about that situation, noting that people will "hear what (they) want to hear" in any case. Since no one else will tell his story, he proceeds to, himself.

He started off "I am just a poor boy," but now says "I was no more than a boy." So how old is he now, and how old (or young) was he then? In the first line, he means "boy" as "guy," in the sense of being a "child" of certain circumstances. Compare this to, say, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," meant to be sung by a person old enough to "have a fine wife." And in the second instance, he means it in the literal sense of "youngster."

But it is significant that he does not characterize himself as "a poor man." With everything he has been through (as we shall see), he is resigned to dealing with life as it comes, with the powerlessness to change his situation equal to that of a boy's. At this point, anyway.

He leaves his home while still a child, at least at a child's small level of worldliness and maturity. He tries not to draw attention to himself, sensing he will be accepted or at least ignored if he stays among "strangers"-- others who also prefer to remain anonymous and mind their own business.

The phrase "quiet of the railway station" is odd, considering that such places are usually bustling with human and vehicular traffic. He must go there after the crowds have left for the evening, perhaps to pick up some scraps of food or clothing.

Eventually, he grows to young manhood and decides that such a hand-to-mouth existence is no longer necessary. He is old and strong enough to be a "workman," and seems willing to sell his efforts to the lowest bidder, if only to get a foot in the door. Frustratingly, not even this compromise is accepted.

While he found somewhat of a community among "the ragged people" before, he now finds himself only attractive to "whores." Given how everyone else in society has rejected him, he admits to taking "some comfort" in their embraces. He doesn't dare the listener to judge him for this sin or crime, figuring he is already beneath their notice, let alone contempt.

Now it comes clear that he is not from New York. Possibly, he was at that railway station coming in from somewhere else, somewhere warmer and more rural. Perhaps he was "laying low" and "running scared" from the inbound train's conductor, since he was stowing away on board, too poor for a ticket.

Next, see him "laying out [his] winter clothes." On what? A bed? Does he finally have enough wherewithal for a room, perhaps with a closet, and enough clothes to take him through seasonal changes? He must have finally found a job of some sort.

He is laying out winter clothes to prepare, presumably, for the winter. But while he does so, he longs for the milder winters of wherever his boyhood home was.

Then comes the line "leading me." Usually, things "lead" one to stay, or they "drive" one away. In this case, the "New York City winters" are (he wishes they weren't, which indicates that they in fact are) "leading [him] to go."

The syntax then breaks down, as if the speaker is trying to assemble his thoughts: "Wishing I was gone, going home, where the New York City winters aren't bleeding me... leading me... going home..."

"Hey," he seems to think, "Why not? What do I have here that is keeping me?" And a decision is made. The clothes are not laid out on bed now, but folded into a suitcase.

Just a few guitar notes later, bent in country-music fashion, we have a radical shift. Now the point of view is third person instead of the first is has been thus far.

We are to presume that the "boxer" in the last verse is in fact the same person who had just been speaking to us all along. We assume that the job that enabled him to get his furnished room was prizefighting. We assume he has now gone home, to a place rural enough for a "clearing," which must mean far from New York City.

But why the shift in point of view? Why now "his" and "him" instead of "I" and "my"?

Because now, finally, someone else is telling his "story," which is what he said he wanted in the first verse.

And what is his story? One of survival. While he "carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down," he "still remains." His survival is his triumph. The hands of others made him fall, both before his boxing career and during it.

But the last verse asserts that he "stands," despite it all. He stood, and withstood, all of those hardships. They turned him from a "boy" into a "fighter," and while he was not a winner, he is far from a loser, simply because he endured and "remained."

The music is fascinating. It starts with a simply folk ramble, then adds a galloping drum, perhaps to signify the train that brought him to New York. There is also a twangy instrument, perhaps a bass harmonica, which disappears, then returns for the last verse, to make sure we know it is still the same character. This rustic instrument also marks his departure from and re-entry into the rural world.

The time lapse during which the young man takes up boxing and finds his apartment is marked by an electronic instrument tuned to sound somewhat like an oboe.

The famous "lie-la-lie" chorus hearkens back to ancient ballads, but the cymbal crashes give them significance of the cannons of the 1812 Overture. These choruses build and fade throughout.

Then, after the last line, they crescendo and swell to truly orchestral proportions, with soaring strings and a profound tuba filling in the bottom. Compare this symphonic arrangement to the one at the end of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," and you will find it much more cohesive and melodic (this is not a criticism of the Beatles' crescendo, just a mark of contrast; the effect is different, but so is the motive).

Why all the fireworks? Because the boxer is worthy of such a fanfare. As Willy Loman's wife ruefully observes after his death: "Attention must be paid." There is something to honor in the simply act of surviving excruciating circumstances, of enduring heaps of humiliations with one's dignity intact.

"The fighter still remains." He never won a belt, or perhaps even many matches. But through jobless poverty and friendless isolation, he still remains... and that is a triumph in itself.

IMPACT: The song is a unanimously hailed part of the S&G canon, and no S&G, or Simon, compilation is complete without it.

If the duo plays just one song for a public appearance, it might well be this one, and the audience is satisfied. This is only true of a handful of their hits, also including "Mrs. Robinson," "Scarborough Fair," "Sounds of Silence," and "Bridge."

When Paul Simon received an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a nearby Cleveland university held a smaller exhibit of materials regarding just one song-- this one. While it is true that many individuals have received museum exhibitions of their life and work, for how many songs is that true?

Next song: Baby Driver

Monday, August 9, 2010

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

Title aside, this song is not about the celebrated architect. Rather, "Frank Lloyd Wright" was one of Simon's nicknames for Garfunkel, who was an architecture student in college.

The "farewell" nature of the song is due to Garfunkel's leaving the duo to pursue an acting career. (More about this in the discussion of "The Only Living Boy in New York.")

The hand drums and flute are unusual, Caribbean touches. As is the fact that Grafunkel carries the vocals in a song in which Simon is saying farewell to him.

It is a pleasant-enough farewell at that, an amicable split. The "so soon" is interesting, given that the duo had known each other and worked together musically since high school. "I've never laughed so long" is also nice to hear, given the famous, or rather infamous, nature of their relationship as depicted in the general media.

The line "never change your point of view" is a nice way of saying that Simon felt he was continuously evolving, while Garfunkel seemed happily stuck in a groove. Their subsequent careers bear this out, with Simon collaborating with everyone from Brazilian drummers to avant-garde dancers....

...while Garfunkel, who had his pick of songwriters, did not choose, say, Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen to interpret, or even Cole Porter, but Jimmy Webb. Webb wrote "Witchita Lineman," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "McArthur Park."

Still, Simon admits, "when I run dry, I stop awhile and think of you." Perhaps Garfunkel's reliance on classic songcraft provided Simon with some structure, when his exploratory nature could have led him to take a song almost anywhere.

Ultimately, though, it seems that their deep appreciation for each other's musical talent --and each other's sheer love of the art form-- was enough to sustain their friendship as long as it has lasted.

"All of the nights we'd harmonize 'til dawn..." even when the concert was over, or there had been no concert, the two would simply sit and play and sing for hours... and revel in the uniquely beautiful sound they made together. The laughter must have been that of pure joy.

Perhaps they only "harmony" they had was musical. Even if so, what harmony it was.

Next Song: The Boxer

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Keep the Customer Satisfied

The most famous tracks-- somber title track, the elegiac and "The Boxer," and the lyrical "El Condor Pasa," aside-- much of the Bridge album is lively and upbeat. Count "Cecilia," "Baby Driver," and this track-- not to mention the Everly cover "Bye Bye Love," and this is as close to a party album as S&G ever made.

"Keep the Customer Satisfied" is also as close to a country song as the duo ever recorded. It has the rangy guitars, the loping bass, and even a reference to the "deputy sheriff" typical of that genre... plus the super-folksy, Andy Griffith-worthy opening line. (As for the horns, many country songs have them, such as Johny Cash's "Ring of Fire.")

The song is also a near sequel to "Homeward Bound." That song's chorus famously sighed, "I wish I was homeward bound." This one starts, "Gee, but it's great to be back home."

Similarly, the train "stop [that] is neatly planned/ for a poet and a one-man band" is also a likely place to find the "shoe shine" boy he is but one societal rung better than. "I've been on the road so long" is surely a reference to touring, something the duo had done in support of five albums over a decade.

Taken as a whole, the song is likely a response by Simon to critics, both the Rolling Stone magazine kind and the "Get outta town, ya hippie" kind. "Everywhere I go, I get slandered, libeled," might be a response to misinterpretations of his songs, public statements, or politics, something Simon would later face again when fighting apartheid through art during his Graceland years.

A generation earlier, the man who wrote "America" and "American Tune" might well have run afoul of Un-American Activities Committee. As it was, Simon likely faced at least some of the same reaction-- at least in the parts of the country where "deputy sheriffs' and "county lines" matter-- as the subject of "He Was My Brother." Of course, in these situations, the outside interloper is guilty of upsetting the local "peace," even if that means not so much peace as quiet, i.e. silencing local minorities and minority opinions.

But what is Simon trying to do, after all? Run for president? Stage a civil-rights protest? Please the critics?

Not at all. He is simply, he pleads, attempting to keep an audience entertained: "I'm just trying to keep the customer satisfied." He cares not for his detractors, but solely for those who buy his records and tickets to his shows, those who turn up the volume a bit when his songs come on the radio and select them on the diner jukebox, those who purchase the sheet music an learn to play his songs for others at camps and on campus.

Simon closes the song much the way Robert Frost closes his famed poem "stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening": "I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep." Simon's version reads: "I'm so tired/ I'm oh, so tired/ But I'm trying to keep the customer satisfied." The theme of exhaustion pervades Simon's lyrics, from the line in "American Tune"-- "I'm just weary to my bones"-- to the whole of "Long Long Day" from the One Trick Pony soundtrack.

"I only have so much energy," Simon seemingly protests, "and I choose to focus it on the audience." It take a great deal of mental and emotional energy to write such lyrics as Simon's, and more to perform it, and more still to traipse around the country to do that. And here he also has to put up with critics both small-time and New York Times, and flee from those too close-minded to truly hear his message.

Aside from the other things the song is, it is funny. The upbeat songs mentioned above-- like "Groovey Thing," "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," "Philippic," "Punky," and "Pleasure Machine"-- show that Simon is not only a serious songwriter, but a seriously humorous one.

Take the line "I hear words I never heard in the Bible," which is a great euphemism for being cursed at. But deeper, who is doing the cursing? Ah, it is those who hold the Bible to be sacred above all else. Well, then, if that's the case, where in Heaven's name did they learn all those foul words they attack him with? Not in the chaste Bible! So, really, how pure are these Puritans? What do they want instead, a country song? Well, then, here.

But the ultimate struggle is not between a man and his attackers, but between the world-weary traveler who longs to be "home"... and the troubadour who trudges about trying to please audiences nationwide. Both happen to be the same man, and he'd just like to do his work and come home and rest, and not have to deal with all of this other claptrap, thank you very much.

Next Song: So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright