Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Church is Burning

Simon released this song on his 1965 solo album Songbook, and it does not appear on any of the five official S&G releases. So, it's a Simon solo number, yes?

Well, it also appears on several S&G compilations, box sets, and concert albums, sung as a duet. And since all of the other material on Songbook appears on one of these five albums, and since it was written when Simon was part of the duo, we'll cover it here.

Thematically and historically, it fits here as well. It is clearly a 1960s protest song, along the lines of "He Was My Brother."

The story is a sadly common one, a church burning. Three "hooded men," evidently KKK members, set a black church ablaze at night. The devastation is contrasted with the hopeful prayers that were being said their earlier that day: "I won't be a slave anymore."

But while the church burns, the fire itself prays: "You can burn down my churches/ But I shall be free."

I have no proof of this, but I have a theory that this imagery was at least in part taken from the Jewish High Holiday service. The prayers on Yom Kippur include the story of the Ten Martyrs. These were ten Torah scholars tortured to death by the Romans for disobeying the order to stop teaching Jewish law; the text details the graphic horror of their tortures. The Chabad website puts the story in context and provides some background information on each of the martyrs:

"One of the martyrs was Rabbi Chananya ben [son of] Teradyon... one of the preeminent sages of his day, yet more than anything he was known as a man with an overriding concern for the poor. His efforts to raise funds on their behalf are legendary...

In the end, he too became a victim of Roman savagery. Before they burned him at the stake, the Romans wrapped his body in a Torah scroll and packed tufts of water-soaked wool around his heart to delay his death and prolong the suffering...

...In his final moments [he] continued to embody the triumph of a noble soul. His final words to his disciples were, 'I see the parchment [of the scroll] burning, but the letters themselves are flying up to Heaven'."

The text in the prayerbook continues that the executioner was so moved that he removed the wool, fanned the flames to hasten the end of the scholar's suffering... and jumped into the blaze himself.

While the imagery is only similar, we know that even the most uninvolved Jews tend to attend Yom Kippur services. Simon is highly likely to have been familiar with this story-- one of religious/racial persecution, with a book-burning image.

As far as the rest of the lyrics, they are fairly self-explanatory. Two images stand out, however. One is the comparison of flame's shape with that of hands placed together in prayer. Both rounded at the bottom and tapered at the top, like a teardrop, the shapes are undeniably similar. We have all seen both shapes our whole lives, but it takes the eye of a poet to connect them.

The other is "the ashes of a Bible." As he later would in "Keep the Customer Satisfied"-- with the lines "I been slandered, libeled/ I heard words I never heard in the Bible"-- Simon contrasts the proclaimed piety of many Bible-thumpers with the horrible things they actually, hypocritically, do.

Church burnings are, sadly, not a thing of the past. As recently as 2006, there was a rash of church burnings in the South. And houses of worship of all faiths continue to be bombed and desecrated to this day. [Note: a French synagogue was firebombed in 2014.] Like this song said in 1965, "The future is now."

Next Song: Red Rubber Ball

Monday, September 20, 2010

You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies

This 1967 song was released as a flipside to a (slight) remake of "Fakin' It."

The theme of the song is common enough: an entreaty to a potential lover. However, the speaker does not take the usual tacks of begging, promising, flattering, etc.

No, this person wants to argue and insult her into being his girlfriend. His premise? It is in her own best "interest," and she seems ignorant of that, to her own detriment.

The speaker posits himself as the more intelligent of the pair: "You don't know that you love me... What you think isn't always true... You don't begin to comprehend." He knows what is best for her, and it is him.

She doesn't appreciate his superiority, either, "You may think you're above me... You should know that I'm womanly wise... Don't try to debate me."

Another thing she is unaware of is that they are more than friends, or are soon to be. Our speaker is not going to let the fact of their friendship prevent him from trying to increase their status a notch, and is willing to risk losing her as a friend to gain her as a girlfriend.

A bold ploy, and a necessary one in many cases. But first, he says something cruel: "You're just a game that I like to play." What, then, is the point of risking the friendship? Not to gain a lover, but to win a "game"?

He says that she dare not "try to manipulate" him, but what would he like to do to her if not the exact same thing?

Musically, the song mimics many of the British Invasion songs of the time; played instrumentally (and, minus the bent blues notes), it might be mistaken for an early Police track, with its somewhat-reggae beat.

At this point, however, the song turns into an electric-piano lounge number for a few measures. Someone-- either a friend or a voice from his subconscious-- tells the speaker that his tactics will fail: "Obviously, you're going to blow it."

This wiser voice takes the idea of "you don't know" and turns it back on the speaker. His oncoming failure may be obvious to this detached observer, but "you [i.e., the speaker] don't know it."

So here is the speaker, bragging about his intellect and what his target doesn't "know," when it's obvious to everyone else that this person doesn't "know," ahem, squat about relationships or how to start them.

The beat picks back up, and our dogged if maladroit speaker continues his bluster unabated. Obviously, he is going to blow it.

For her part, she probably is well aware that her interest lies elsewhere.

Next Track: A Church Is Burning

Monday, September 13, 2010

Song for the Asking

This simple song hearkens back to Simon's early S&G-era folksongs, like "April Come She Will" and especially "Leaves That Are Green."

The instrumentation, sparse as it is, shows some complexity. The string quartet-style accompaniment might seem an odd choice for the folksy guitar with the odd bent blues note thrown in. But this is the same Simon who would later write a song called "American Tune" based on a Bach piece. One of Simon's great musical gifts as a composer and arranger is exactly this kind of synthesis of Old and New World sounds, of ancient and modern styles.

Lyrically, the song is very straightforward. "Ask me and I will play," Simon tells his audience, perhaps an audience of one. "Take it... I've been waiting all my life..." he offers, and then it trails off. "Waiting" for what? For the addressee of the song to ask him to play, evidently.

And then the song turns into an apology: "...I'd be more than glad/ To change my ways." First, the request not to "turn away," now this. What did he do, and on a regular basis, that upset the other party so greatly that they would leave, and leave him "sad"? We are left wondering.

There is a purposeful parallel Simon is creating: Just tell him, and he'll change. Just ask him, and he'll play.

The solution to both is his song itself. "Ask me, and I will play/ All the love that I hold inside." If you just give him a chance to play, to express himself in his terms, he will be able to explain and apologize and, well, love.

There are dozens of break-up albums, but very few about the break-up of the band itself. After several songs of farewell, it is curious to end the album-- and the partnership-- with this song. A song that says, "Don't go, I'll change-- whatever you want, just ask."

It is the first indication that Simon was perhaps ambivalent about the break-up. Unlike many bands thrown together by studio executives, or created through auditions, Simon and Garfunkel were friends. Even at their young age at this point, they were "old friends," having been performing together since high school.

Yes, together, they were once-in-forever team. But each was also immensely talented on his own, and each had musical and other artistic ambitions that the other did not share (Admittedly, like Garfunkel, Simon did have a brief acting career; Simon had a cameo in Annie Hall, aside from One Trick Pony. But he and Garfunkel never shared a film). And there was that personality conflict, too.

It seems to be taken as historical fact that the break was inevitable and mutual, and both parties felt relieved by it.

And yet... assume for a moment that this song, in the context of the album, is about the break-up. Then "Song for the Asking" might be the only indication that Simon was "sad" about the situation, was willing to admit fault, and even willing to make amends. He even offered Garfunkel his greatest gift, to play whatever Garfunkel wanted. But, as Simon said in "Overs," "Why don't we stop fooling ourselves?/ The game is over."

The album does not end with one of the farewell songs, or upbeat numbers. It does not end with the title track, and its promise to stay supportive as the other "sails on by." It ends with a song more suited for a re-beginning. And it really ends, not with the crescendo that ends "Bridge," but with a bent, bluesy, "sad" note.

As TS Eliot said, an ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Simon and Garfunkel would end up reuniting for concerts and a song or two. But "Simon and Garfunkel" was no more.

Note to readers: This is the last song on Simon and Garfunkel's official five albums. However, there were other Simon and Garfunkel tracks. One, which we will discuss next, was released on a 45. Others did not surface until concerts and box sets covering the S&G years were released. Some do not seem to have been recorded at all, yet are included in sheet-music books as S&G songs. We will deal with these songs-- as many as I am are of-- in the coming months.

After those, we will delve into the songs of Simon's solo career through the Surprise album, unless he comes out with another album by then [Note: as I edit this, he has-- the album So Beautiful or So What.] And, after that, we will double back around to discuss Simon's pre-Garfunkel, pop-oriented work.

So, those of you who are S&G fans, don't despair; there is plenty S&G left to go. And I will tell you where these tracks are to be found, naturally. And those who were expecting to move on to Simon's solo work at this point, don't tune out-- you may discover a track or two you'll like.

Next Song: You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies

Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Don't You Write Me

This song is more significant-- if at all-- for its music than its lyrics, which are either off-handed or half-hearted, depending on your level of generosity.

The bright spots are the inventive rhymes: "jungle/hungry," "write me/brighten," "sign/iodine." Also, the device of rhyming the end of one line with the middle of the next is quite clever.

Musically, the song hearkens back to earlier rock sounds while its loose ranginess looking forward to Simon's international explorations. And then the whole ending is rapped.

The notion that this song is aimed at Garfunkel-- that he left for Mexico and refused to get in touch from there-- seems hard to prove. First of all, he sings on the track itself. Second, the song is framed as a request for correspondence from a lover, not a friend.

The album is so strong overall that it is hard to fathom how this number crept in. It's not as if there weren't other fun songs included, such as "Baby Driver" and "Customer." And "Bye Bye Love" covers the duo as far as sending a salute to the sounds that inspired them.

Place this one in the column with "Groovey Thing" and "Pleasure Machine" as the sound of a songwriter having fun and blowing off creative steam.

Oh, and the title was "borrowed" from a doo-wop song by a group called The Jacks.

(I did not expect to be able to post an "Impact" for this song, but I just learned that Olivia Newton-John covered it. I had to listen to that. So I can tell you that you don't have to.)

Next song: Song for the Asking