Monday, December 6, 2010

Armistice Day

"Armistice Day" is the name given to the holiday that commemorates the end of World War I. After World War II, rather than create another holiday, Armistice Day was recast as Veteran's Day to honor those who fought in all American wars.

While the "new" name reflects a desire to honor those who served, the original name recalls the signing of a document calling for, in military parlance, a cessation of hostilities. In lay terms, a cease-fire. The actual peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, came six months later.

"Armistice Day... that's all I really wanted to say." While we are not yet ready to make peace, the speaker seems to say, let's at least agree to end the war.

What happens in this limbo period? "The Philharmonic will play/ But the songs that we sing will be sad" [emphasis mine]. While a celebration is to be had in public, the individuals will be thinking somber thoughts in private. They will be mourning the dead, tending the wounded, repairing the damage done by the bombing. The soldiers will be "hanging around," waiting to see what will happen next-- will the peace hold, or will they be called back to the battle lines?

"Brown" in the sense used here is not a color, but an adjective meaning "unhappy, gloomy," as in the expression, "He was in a brown study." (A "study" in this case is not a personal library, but a contemplation, as in "a study of the issues.")

What caused the war to begin with? It may have been an actual affair, but perhaps merely too much time spent, and emotions shared, with a female acquaintance: "When I needed a friend, she was there/ Just like an easy chair."

It might make sense for a person in a relationship to get advice on the opposite sex from a member of that gender who is not themselves one's own significant other, and so is impartial and has an outsider's perspective. In other words, a man might ask a female friend for advice about his wife, or vice versa. But that logic may not impress the significant other him- or herself, who might see such emotional sharing by their spouse as a form of infidelity.

Still, our speaker is saying that's all that happened, that while he won't do it again, he won't apologize, either-- he feels he did nothing wrong: "No long-drawn, blown-out excuses were made."

In any case, the speaker is declaring an armistice-- "Let's stop fighting and put this behind us."

Until this point, the song has featured only Simon on vocals and acoustic guitar. The guitar part is very impressive, full of bent notes and flared strumming. But now, a maraca-like rattle is heard, then an electric guitar and horns, which cover over the acoustic.

The lyric changes drastically as well. The situation depicted is simply that someone is waiting in a Congressman's office, "but he's avoiding [him]." The constituent finally asks a passing congresswoman to intercede on his behalf and let the representative know that his patience is wearing thin: "I've about waited all I can."

The acoustic then picks back up, perhaps signaling that this "song within a song" has some meaning to the other verses.

The speaker may be saying, "My going to this other person was all I could do, since the person I wanted to speak with (you) was being actively unavailable. The fact that this other person was a woman was immaterial, as she was merely a means to an end (not unlike the female doctor in the previous song). If anything, the 'congressman' (again, you) is at least partly to blame, since he is my chosen 'representative' and I am supposed to have a relationship with 'him.' What else was I supposed to do, if not get someone else to help me?"

The imagery of the song is telling. The struggle within the relationship is put in political and diplomatic terms.

The order of the song's verses is interesting as well. First, it says that even if we declare an end to the fighting, things will be superficially better, but there will still be a lot of down-looking, foot-"shuffling," "around-hanging," and passive-aggressive moping.

Then, "I didn't do anything wrong and I'm not sorry."

Then "Let's declare a truce anyway."

Lastly, "Oh, and this was really your fault because I wanted to talk to you, but you didn't want to talk to me... so I had to talk to someone, didn't I?"

Why declare an 'armistice,' then trot out your reasons for your side in the hostilities? This sounds more like grinding an axe than burying a hatchet. Perhaps his point was, "Well, maybe this was a lousy way to get your attention, but it's all I had to work with. Now that I do have your attention, let's agree to stop fighting so we can just talk out the issue... which is that I never seem to have your attention."

The song ends there, with no response from the other party, and no "closure," as we say today, in either reconciliation (peace treaty) or a break-up (declaration of independence?).

But then, this is not the day they sign the peace treaty... just the armistice.

Next Song: Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard


  1. Very good reaction piece to the song's lyrics. I tend to include the returning Veteran from Vietnam, as well as the Veterans Bonus riot in 1932. I don't know if either of these themes were in Simon's mind while writing the lyrics, but the theme of "little guys owed something by the greater society" has always been something I've sensed in this song.

  2. zillustration-- Thanks for the compliment. I never thought of this song in terms of being about the military, just having used the idea of truce as a metaphor. But that war was certainly never far from anyone's thoughts then, and may have suggested the military/political image to Simon. Had it been at another point in the Cold War, perhaps the song would have be called "Detente."

  3. I always thought of it as “No long drawn blown out excuses were made [by her, as in excuses to not be there for him (i.e. the “I’m busy washing my hair” trope)]: when I needed a friend, she was there, just like an easy chair.”

  4. PT-- Interesting point. We might both be right. "No... excuses were made" by either party, the man or the woman. It could have easily been "I/you didn't make any excuses," but shifting to the passive sense (which is also diplomacy-speak, as in "mistakes were made") means it could be either or both parties not making excuses.