Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Red Rubber Ball

Simon wrote it, so it is his, but he does not seem to have recorded a solo version. Then again, neither did S&G except on a concert CD that was released many years post-breakup.

Since there is an  S&G  recording of the song, and since Simon wrote the song pre-breakup, let's call this an  S&G-era song, if not an S&G song proper.

While the previously discussed track recalls Simon's 1960's style protest work, this number hearkens back even further, to his Brill Building, "Hey Schoolgirl" days.

The lyrics, as befitting that time and place, are straightforward, if somewhat clever. The main imagery is childlike: a "roller-coaster," a "starfish," and the titular red ball.

But there is a sophistication in the message. Yes, there is some residual anger in this breakup song, but nothing like the venom of "Interest" or the petulance of "I Am a Rock."

Breakups can be like other losses, and move through the five basic emotions of grieving outlined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (she never intended for people to think that these had to be felt "in order," though, or even one at a time): Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

So if those other songs have a speaker stuck in Anger mode, the speaker of "Rubber Ball" is largely in a state of Acceptance: "I think it's gonna be all right/ Yeah, the worst is over now/ The morning sun is shining."

Yes, but why "like a red rubber ball"? Well, anything from childhood can be seen as a sign of hope.

One could read a sense of resiliency, of "bouncing back" from a let-down, into the fact that the ball is rubber.

That might be pushing things. After all, Bobby Vee's "Rubber Ball" uses the same image to refer to an overly pliant boy who can't get over a girl: "Like a rubber ball, I come bouncing back to you."

Instead, let's look at Simon's song as he uses Anger as a lever to move himself into a place of Acceptance. As the speaker looks back over the relationship-- the song itself starts with "I should have known"-- he lists the reasons that he is relieved the relationship's sun has set:

She was dismissive of, perhaps even loose with, his "secrets"... she treated him like 'arm candy,' as they say today... and she never had "time" for him. Overall, he felt uncared for, and uncared about: "You never cared... never caring."

Whatever good times there were do not seem to have been worth the anguish the relationship caused. Simon uses the somewhat cliche image of a "roller-coaster ride" to illustrate these ups-and-downs...

...then tries to extend the metaphor-- "I bought my ticket with my tears." Rather than smirk at the histrionics of that line, let us realize that this was at least an attempt to elevate a cliche, and that it is entirely in keeping with what passed for poetry in song lyrics of its era (again compare to the Bobby Vee song). Lastly, even if someone was trying to write a song in the voice of a wounded teen today, they might very well write that line; it is entirely in character.

Lastly, let us applaud the speaker for personal strength of the rest of the line: "...that's all I'm gonna spend." No Bargaining going on here, no "If only you'd..." or "I promise to..." The speaker has cried enough, and is done.

In case he was unclear, the speaker states his case plainly in other lines: "I don't need you at all... If I never hear your name again, it's all the same to me."

He realizes he's worth more than the sort of treatment he's been getting... and after all, she's not the only fish in the sea.

Not even the only "starfish."

The song was made famous by a band called The Cyrkle, who opened for The Beatles in the US and spelled their name like that because John Lennon told them to.

The song rose to #2, and "went gold," which means it sold over a million copies. It was co-written by The Seekers' Bruce Woodley.

Also, after I selected it last week for this week's post, I heard it blasting from a car stereo here in Chicago on a fall weekend afternoon.

Next Song: Hey Schoolgirl

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