Monday, January 24, 2011


This is a sardonic song about the dual nature of nostalgia.

We tend, as a species, to look at at the days of our youth through rose-colored glasses. We speak lovingly of "back in the day" as "the good ol' days," singing: "Those were the days." As other songwriters said, "It's the laughter we will remember/ whenever we remember/ the way we were."

Other songwriters... not Mr. Simon.

When our speaker remembers "high school," he remembers it as an empty experience. What he did learn was "crap," and the method of thinking that was encouraged was so poor that today, "It's a wonder [he] can think at all."

The lousy grammar of the next two lines proves his point. He says, "didn't hurt me none," which is not only a double negative but has an extra word. What he should have said was "My lack of education didn't hurt me." But adding the extra/wrong word to a sentence about how he was not hurt by his lack of education, Simon cracks a joke; obviously, he was hurt in that regard. It would be akin to saying: "I'm not as dumb as you think I are."

The next line is even more convoluted, its content being: Even though he wasn't hurt by his lack of education, he still can read. Come again? Of course, if his lack of education didn't hurt him, he can read. If his lack of education had hurt him, then he couldn't read. Well, like he said, "It's a wonder [he] can think at all."

And what can he read? "The writing on the wall." This could be a reference to "Sound of Silence," with its line: "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls." Or to "Underground Wall," where we learned what that word of "four letters" was likely to be. However, I think we should just take the line at face value for its common, cliched meaning: "Even though I was poorly educated, I can tell what's going to happen." (The original "writing on the wall" was done in the biblical Book of Daniel.)

In the next verse, we see another snub of nostalgia. First, think of a song like the Willie Nelson/ Julio Iglesias duet "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." Now read our lyrics here.

All the girls this guy has loved before can "never match [his] sweet imagination." If he really got to see them again, now, he knows he would remember not the great times they shared... but the reasons they broke up.

So what is better than memory? Photographs. With their "nice, bright colors" they "make you think all the world's a sunny day."

He knows that he is so realistic that if he relied only on his memories, he'd only have bad ones.

So there are two possible reasons why he "love[s] to take a photograph." One may be that the photographs help him remember that good things have also happened to him, and that his life was not all years wasted in high school and disappointing relationships.

The other is that, in the words of a current pop hit, he "loves the way [they] lie." He knows that the photos are only the best images of the best times, that they are selectively happy. No one takes a camera to school or work-- they take one to amusement parks and parties. But he wants-- and needs-- that lie.

He asks us not to "take [his] Kodachrome away" because without their comforting lies, the way they make all the world "bright" and "sunny," life is disappointing, dull, and gray. And "everything looks worse in black and white." (Interestingly, the concert version of the lyrics says they look "better" this way.)

There is a lot of literature about the necessity of a comforting lie, perhaps none as pointed as Ibsen's play The Wild Duck. In order to appease an elderly relative who, in his dementia, thinks he is on a perpetual duck hunt, the family hides a wooden decoy in their apartment every day so that he can find it. This is the obvious lie.

The man of the house, meanwhile, is working on some sort of invention that will never work. While this seems more respectable than looking for a toy duck every day, it is ultimately as futile a pursuit. Again, the family humors one of its members, as it makes him happy.

And then the man's friends secretly debate as to whether to reveal to the man that his doting daughter in not, in fact, his biological child. One friend says the truth has the highest value; the other says no-- his relationship with his daughter is. The truth would destroy his marriage as well.

When our speaker "think[s] back on high school, he knows it was "crap." When he thinks back on his past girlfriends, he knows now he could have done better.

But he "love[s] to take a photograph," so please, don't take his film away. He has to take pictures of what's going on now, so he can (mis)remember it later.

(It would be interesting to do a side-by-side comparison of this song to the short "Bookends Theme," also about the relationship between "photograph[s]" and "memories.")

Kodak has bowed to the digital-photography revolution and, in spring of 2009, announced it would no longer manufacture the Kodachrome line of film. The film stock itself is now... nostalgia.

The song was a significant hit, going to #2 in the US and #1 in Canada.

But it was not released as a radio single in the UK due to the British broadcasters' unwillingness to air any song with a brand name in it.

It was covered by soul singer Percy Faith, best known for "When a Man Loves a Woman."

Next Song: Tenderness


  1. Thank you for this! I checked out a couple of websites looking for interpretations, and a lot of them are just such obvious personal projections ("I think Simon is saying that he's mad his wife left him and he had to move into his sister's and brother-in-law's condo" - that kind of thing). Your interpretation was detailed and well-thought out.

    I do think it would be nice if you listed the lyrics in their entirety, either at the beginning or end of the post. Thanks again.

  2. Thank you! As to the addition of lyrics, that would take a great deal of time and space. Additionally, the lyrics are readily available in liner notes, Simon's own Lyrics book, on YouTube, and many lyrics sites (and they used to be on Simon's own site). As to the older, pre-S&G songs, I am trying to include as many as necessary within the analyses.