Monday, November 15, 2010

Duncan

In this song, Simon revisits the down-and-out character type portrayed in "The Boxer" and sets his story to the Andean wood-flute music of "El Condor Pasa." The same ensemble, in fact.

However, this song is about, well, sex. It starts with the singer apologizing for the "couple in the next room" who have been "going at it" for a while. Now, he has given up waiting for them to finish and will proceed with his story, and the listener is just going to have to put up with the background noise.

He has an unusual name. Both his given name, "Lincoln," and his surname "Duncan," are those of famous assassination victims. Lincoln, of course, was assassinated by the fanatic John Wilkes Booth... and King Duncan by the treacherous Macbeth. Our speaker's name, therefore, is steeped in tragic death.

He is from Canada, he explains, from the Atlantic coastal region called the Maritimes. His father was a fisherman... and his mother, a "fisherman's friend." It is unclear what this means. A "fisherman's friend" is a flower, although I was unable determine why a land-based plant would help a fisherman. (It is also, incidentally, the brand name of a throat lozenge, presumably one that fishermen prefer. Perhaps the lozenge contains an extract of the flower..?)

Taken in the context of the song, however, it seems to either mean that his mother was very supportive of his father's sea-going, often-absent lifestyle... or that she kept other fishermen company while he was at sea. Possibly, she played at one while acting out the other.

None of this seems to have affected our speaker, however, who left home for New England fleeing simple "boredom." His destination is vague, but hopeful, if only in that he seeks a place whose name has "New" in it.

Like his compatriot the Boxer, who went "looking for a job but [got] no offers," Duncan is broke. We get an entire verse about this "destitution" and its affect on his sense of self. There are "holes" in both his jeans and his "confidence."

And then he sees her. We do not learn the name of the "young girl," but that seems beside the point. She is less a person than a symbol. She is "young," parallel to the "New" in his chosen place. She is a "girl," and fertile. This is key; it might just as well have been an older person, or a man, preaching.

He hears her songs and stories and is enchanted. After her sermon, he approaches her and tells her he is "lost." So she speaks-- this time, not to a "crowd" but directly to him-- of the Pentecost. This is the revelation of the Holy Spirit to Jesus' core disciples after the Resurrection (50 days after, to be precise, thus the "pent-" prefix, as in "pentagon").

The Pentecost was taken as proof of Jesus' approval of the Apostles' mission; it is sometimes referred to as "the birthday of the Church." A startling contrast for a young man named for two historical figures who were, like Jesus, assassinated.

The result? "I seen that girl as the road to my survival." This last word Simon sings with several extra syllables, to emphasize the feeling of relief and ecstasy Duncan feels, or maybe a song sung at the prayer service.

This is followed by a curious lyric: "I know," repeated several times. It is as if Duncan is reacting to the reader's skepticism and concern. "I know what you are thinking," Duncan seems to say, "but please, let me finish."

Spellbound, he finds her tent in the dark, with is flashlight. He must see her again.

But what happens when he arrives at the tent of this pure, holy maiden who "just" earlier that day was so religious? What does she do? Read another passage of Scripture? Sing a hymn? Well, no. She takes him to the "woods," a primal place.

There, as Duncan puts it, "My long years of innocence ended." Why "long" years? At his age, his losing his virginity even in his late teens (he can drive; he speaks of himself as having "reached [his] prime," so we presume he was 17 or 18) must have felt like he had waited an eternity.

Duncan remembers that the girl took charge, once he approached her. She takes him to the woods, she is the one who speaks during the encounter. For his part, he was decidedly subservient and simply grateful: "Just like a dog, I was befriended."

Still, Duncan recalls the event as an entirely positive one and remarks, "What a garden of delight," perhaps referring to the Garden of Eden.

In the afterglow, he offers a prayer of his own: "I was playing my guitar... thanking the Lord for my fingers." His prayer relates to a physical part of himself, but also to what music his body can achieve, both with his guitar and... otherwise.

This is not the last time Simon links religious ecstasy with the more physical kind. In the Graceland song "That Was Your Mother," we meet another "young girl" who is "pretty as a prayerbook." His reaction? "If that's my prayerbook-- 'Lord, let us pray!'"

Here, Simon's point is somewhat more serious. Duncan has learned a lesson about sex and its power of transcendence. Now we can understand today's more mature Duncan, the one who tells us his "first time" story, and his withering assessment of the "couple in the next room." They seem to be after some earthly "prize" and are confusing quantity with quality.

As for his mother, well, he seems to have made his peace with her activities. She was just keeping company with "friends," after a fashion, lonely for his absentee father.

Duncan himself seems to see spiritual and physical transcendence as two sides of the same coin. The same person who taught him the ways of Heaven also taught him the ways of the world. She didn't have a problem with being overtly rapturous about both the Bible and the bed, so why should he? Why is one sort of revelation worth more than the other?

When he saw her as "the road to [his] survival," he had no idea how right he would prove to be.

Still, he concludes with another round of "I know, I know, I know." He knows that this is all, to a point, theory, and not always viable in practice. He knows that this girl is one in a million, perhaps rarer. He knows that she might well have been delusional herself... or even predatory. And he knows that he might well be fooling himself, and that his listener probably thinks that he is.

"I know I shouldn't believe," he seems to say, "but it is so nice to... and really, what's the harm?

Musical Note: The flutes here are played by an ensemble called Urubamba, after a river near Machu Picchu; Simon produced an album for them. Under their early name, Los Incas, they performed the flutes heard in "El Condor Pasa."

Next song: Everything Put Together Falls Apart

18 comments:

  1. Why the Maritimes of Canada? Simon has no links there - don;t know if he ever even visited.
    Any connect to Acadian Driftwood from Robbie Robertson et al?

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  2. "Acadian Driftwood" came out two years after this song, in 1975. Not sure why The Maritimes specifially, but the word "marine" is in there, and the second verse is about coastal life, but mostly the leaving of it.
    There may be something literary here. He leaves a coastline-- a place of indeterminacy and blurry edges. He heads for "New" England, a place of new settlements and new chances; compare this to the Billy Bragg song in which he says: "I'm not looking for a new England/I'm just looking for another girl."

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  3. Not that it matters much for the Paul Simon song, but I can tell you a bit more about the "Fisherman's Friend" lozenges. I do not think they are especially loved by fishermen, but their name is linked to their strongly minty taste, which could (hyperbolically) cause tears to come to your eyes. In the commercials, which almost invariably feature tough fishermen about to take leave of their wives, or fondly remembering their families at home, the lozenges' strong taste is used to cover up their emotions. The sweets are fishermen's friends in the sense that they are humorously supposed to conceil the fishermen's soft spots.

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  4. I think I recall those commercials. What I got out of them was that you (the viewer) were supposed to think the fishermen were sad over leaving their wives or something, but really it was just that the mints were so darn strong. The idea of super-string mints was somewhat revisited with the Altoids "curiously strong" campaign.

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  5. I think the Fisherman's Friends lozenges contain menthol and eucalyptus and are supposed to help you breathe more easily. They're made in a small fishing town in the north of England (so did originally have a fishing link). My guess is Paul put in the line because it amused him! As he'd lived in England in the 60s he would have been familiar with the lozenges long before they were exported. They have long been commonplace at English newsagents and tobacconists and because of their reputation for helping you to breathe more easily they became popular with performing artists and singers.

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  6. Anon-- Thanks so much for that information and insight. I can certainly see how a powerful throat lozenge would be a singer's friend as well as an angler's.

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  7. "She" did not visit "him" at his tent as the lyrics state, "Later on that very same night / When I crept to her tent with a flashlight..."

    Source: www.paulsimon.com/track/duncan-5/

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  8. Anon-- Right you are. I mis-remembered a key lyric, which altered the meaning I found in the song. I have corrected the appropriate paragraphs in the post. Thanks for the correction.

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  9. Actually, although nearly all the printed lyrics say that he visited her tent, there are versions of the song recorded where she visits his tent. ( see YouTube ). Be interesting to ask him

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  10. Anon-- I'll keep with the printed ones until I have a chance to ask him... I think in some cases, you sing a song for decades, every so often you're gonna mix things up.
    Billy Joel has retired a song or two because he realized he was signing them on autopilot and heard the audience correcting him on his own words...

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  11. First, I'd like to thank you very much for taking the time to make this blog. It's helpful, thoughtful and in times like these where music is treated as mere singles, your work feels essential. Something I would like to add about this particular song, though, is how the narrator (in this case Lincoln Duncan) doesn't seem to be actually in love with the girl. My take is that he is with her only as a way to survive, financially speaking.
    We know he has no confidence nor money since he decided to left his home, so when he sings how he wished he wore a ring so he could hock it we start to see his real intentions. Judging by the rest of the song we could assume the ring as a metaphor for marriage and the benefits he could use from it at this moment. There's is also a double entendre when he realizes that girl as a road to his survival. We were just told about the way she was preaching from the bible, making one assume he was talking about something spiritual, but we know about his precarious condition and the term survival easily takes another meaning, here related to his economic status and incapability to make ends meet. The "I know" part only sums up to this theory and was perfectly explained by you. It's his way of saying towards the listener's skepticism: "I know what you are thinking, but please, let me finish."
    By the time he mentions the adventure in the woods and says he was lying underneath the stars, it all wraps up to me. Yeah, of course he was lying as in "laid on the floor", but if we assume he was lying to her about his feelings and desires (thus one reason he had to use his fingers) the song finally comes full circle. Just like the entire album, Duncan also deals with the traps of marriage and relationships and the reason why they may not work sometimes.
    I don't know, but I think this explanation expands the song's reach and it shows a lot about Paul's geniuses mind and craftsmanship.

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  12. John-- Thank you for the compliment! I did enjoy working on this blog, and I am glad people find it worthwhile.
    I would like to take your economic idea in another direction, however. Yes, he starts off as broke-- but by the end of the song he is just as broke! Even after having "befriended" the preacher-girl, who didn't give him any money or help him get any.
    But before, he was sad because he was broke. Now, he is grateful to God even just to be able to have his health and talent. He is still penniless but no longer sad, because he has found some things more meaningful than money or a ring-- relationships, both of the physical and metaphysical kind.
    Remember, he starts off by telling us about the "couple" having sex in "the next room," while he is alone and not in a couple. Then he tells us about his poverty. He is doubly poor-- penniless and friendless. But by the end of the song, he has had sex and made a friend, plus found a spiritual awakening. So while he is still financially broke, he has gained riches in other ways, ways he realizes matter more.
    Thanks for your comment. I love the ones that make me think, and see something new in a song I have heard dozens of times.

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    1. I see your point, and as we already know from a bunch of Paul's songs, the things you mentioned are common subjects in his work. But I also think his music will always be this great blank canvas from which people can expand its meaning (obviously attaining their ideas to what's written).
      PS: Something I would also like to mention is a recurrent theme I noticed that permeates the entire album, but I don't know if I'm reading too much, so it'd be great to see if you have any thoughts about it. Curiously, the words "lay" and "run" (quite opposites) appear in almost every song in the album. From the "never been laid so low" verse in Mother and Child Reunion to the "peace like a river ran through the city" part of Peace Like a River. There are only two tracks (Armistice Day and Paranoia Blues) that don't have any reference to the words I mentioned. I don't know if that was something deliberate from Simon's part, but I tend to think someone so careful with his own words wouldn't just throw them without any prior thinking.

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    2. John-- Simon has said in interviews that not only (as you say) he would like to let others take the songs as they liked, but that sometimes even HE has no idea what he means or meant. Often, the music will come to him first and then he just finds words that seem to fit.
      Without re-listening to the whole album, I will say that "lay" is more emphatic than just "sit" or "stay" and "run" more so than "walk" or "move." Perhaps he is (or was at the time) given to extremes?

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  13. No, you had the lyric right to begin with. Paul changed the lyric. You can hear the old and new versions on YouTube. In the original, as recorded, Lincoln Duncan is the one who crept to the tent of the young girl with a flashlight. In the new song, as re-released in 2016, she is the one who makes the first move. I suppose it seemed to creepy, though they were about the same age, it seems.

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  14. Anon-- Thanks. It's nice to know that I'm not going crazy or losing my memory.
    Although I suppose I now have to analyze the song BOTH ways...

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  15. .........I was singing along to 'Duncan' on the radio when I clearly heard Paul Simon sing 'she' instead of 'I'and wondered why PS had made the change - which is how I got hooked into this post. Interesting that there doesn't seem to be a clear answer, which leaves it open to speculation - so here's my take on it!!! I think that the original song was about a passionate young man who was so fired up by his encounter that (actually like a dog) followed his instincts and went for it - maybe not realising in his innocence what it would lead to. When recorded years later, I tend to think that an older man would think and act differently - PS is 75 now as I write this and I'm sure his attitude about chasing girls has changed. On the other hand of course, he probably just switched it around for a laugh!

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  16. Gripper-- In a way, there is no confusion, just two versions of the song! In one version, he goes to her; in the other, that's reversed. In either case, the meaning of the verse changes. If he goes to her, yes, it could be as you say-- he wants to keep talking to her about God and she takes the conversation down a different road. If she comes to him, maybe she just saw him in the crowd and thought he was cute, and so was willing to bend her religiosity for the night.

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