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


  1. I think on the surface it's about a drug dealer (better get your bags and flee... two steps away from the county line...) but you're correct that it's a metaphor for Simon himself. The group was often criticized for being too "safe" and not singing about drugs etc. like the Beatles or other contemporaries. So this is a very sneaky, clever way of rebutting those criticisms---putting it in a song about a drug dealer!

  2. Yeah, I don't that sense from the song. A deputy wouldn't shoo away a drug dealer, he'd arrest him.

  3. I'm in agreement about this being, at least superficially, about a drug dealer. For instance, look at the line 'I'm one step ahead of the shoe shine', implying he is close to poverty and working as shoe shiner. Now I know Paul Simon was never fully mainstream, but I'm pretty sure he was never close to any kind of poverty in his career. .

  4. While I understand that a travelling singer could serve as a metaphor for a drug dealer, I see no evidence of that metaphor at play in this song. It's about being a travelling musician, dealing with critics along with everything else.

  5. For goodness sake! "The customer". So - it HAS to be about drugs! There are a ton of different customers, and, given that both Simon and Garfunkel are two fo the few not to have been smashed to a pulp physiologically by the use of drugs in that period, I don't see it either. The most likely answer is the simplest. Those they entertained with their music asked a lot of them, their time and their energy, and they used up plenty of both trying to "keep the customer satisfied" Us, in other words!

  6. I'm not saying that Simon never wrote about drugs, or that he'd be more subtle about it than say a song like "The Pusher." I'm saying I don't see this particular song as being about a drug dealer.

  7. He keeps it vague enough and the many references to being a 'traveling salesman" of no particular type does let the imagination take some liberties there, sure. I get the overall impression that the protagonist is forthright and well meaning, but gets repeatedly misplaced in a hapless manner.

  8. Yeah, I think a drug pusher would have been outright arrested, not just hurried along. It's either a salesman of Kirby vacuums or something, or a metaphor for someone "selling" his music.

  9. Although I doubt Simon intended this way, the song makes perfect sense today if you imagine the singer as an undocumented Mexican migrant laborer who has returned to Mexico after a stint in the North. It works perfect. Undocumented laborers try to keep their many customers satisfied.

    Note though that Donald Trump could use the song in his own campaign by turning the lyrics "Tell me what you come here for boy . . . and now you're headed into more" as a slogan in a pro-fence campaign ad.

  10. Bruce-- Interesting take on this! It's not often that a song changes context entirely simply by being translated into another language.

  11. The sense of the song is completed in each listener's mind. Pointless to try and pin down any kind of 'meaning' that works for everyone.

  12. Anon-- I guess you're right. Hang on while I delete this entire blog.