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