One way to ensure an enduring hit is to leave a bit of mystery. People are still trying to figure out who Carly Simon thought was "so vain." And they are still wondering "what the mama saw," here, as well.
What ever it was, it inspired both an arrest and a sense of disgust. Not only was it "against the law," but it caused the mama to freak out, as they used to say. She didn't just call the cops on the phone, she "ran to the police station"... still in her "pajamas"! And after the arrest, she would still "spit" at the "mention" of the teen's mere "name."
The father, meanwhile, was both dismayed and incensed. He "started the investigation," wanting our speaker locked up in a hall for juvenile delinquents. But not before emitting a disappointed "Oy!"
So the crime was also something that evoked, as the saying goes, both "fear and loathing." Was it alcohol? Drugs? Sex? Burning a draft card? What could elicit such intense emotions?
Not simply someone stealing a bicycle; while a crime, that would hardly provoke such a visceral reaction. Not smoking a cigarette, which would seem insolent-- as it was something only adults should do-- but might not be a "crime." Nor could it be something truly indefensible by even a "radical" priest, such as throwing rocks at a stray dog or harassing a child in a wheelchair. Not even a progressive man of God would condone such cruel acts.
Simon has been asked repeatedly in interviews "what the mama saw," and staunchly refuses to say.
Whatever it was, it was something that marked a generational split. While the older generation recoils, the speaker still easily enlists his friends to hang out at the "schoolyard."
The crime must have been some sort of cultural touchstone, and have been seen as a crime by his parents' generation but not his own. Otherwise, the priest who intervened would not have needed to be dubbed "radical." Nor would the story have merited coverage by a national news magazine, and on the cover at that.
The crime, ultimately, is immaterial. What Simon seems to be remarking on is the widening ripple of interest and controversy the act inspired... among adults.
Through it all, the "criminal" himself is bemused-- perhaps even amused-- by all the fuss. He blithely whistles and makes plans for a game of stick ball or 3-on-3 basketball "down by the schoolyard"... while the adult world gnashes its teeth and wrings its hands. (In this, the song shares a certain sense of bewilderment at adult priorities with Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant.")
Our "hero" was no hippie who staged a protest or organized a sit-in. He did not throw water balloons in the stock exchange or streak through a campus quad. He doesn't even know where he is going to wind up later today: "Don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way."
The simple act of wandering aimlessly caused no consternation toward the speakers of "Feelin' Groovy" or "Cloudy." But now, the simple act of this young man "doing his thing" has caused a national uproar. He did not plan his subversion; maybe his most subversive act was having no plan at all.
On a musical level, this song is yet another example of Simon's fascination with breezy Caribbean music, the kind this Julio's family might make on a warm spring evening, just strumming on the patio.
(Personal/political note: This song came out in 1972. Now, at the end of 2010, staunchly conservative leaders are running women for vice president, shrugging at the decriminalization of marijuana, and supporting open homosexuality in the military. Not bad-- it only took them 40 years to catch up.)
A major smash and still popular worldwide, this single proved that Simon did not need Garfunkel to get a substantive hit. In other words, it meant that there was a "Simon" beyond the one in "Simon and Garfunkel."
The song peaked at 22 in the US charts, rising to 15 in the UK, which was probably more comfortable with its reggae influences.
Simon's performance of this song on Sesame Street is on YouTube, and on the box set of songs from that iconic children's show. During that episode, Simon also performed "El Condor Pasa" and some children's numbers as well as The Beatles' "Get Back."
The song was covered by a band with a great name: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.
Next song: Peace Like a River