Monday, February 28, 2011

American Tune

Not meaning to be rude in the face such a lovely piece, but aside from the title, in what sense is this tune "American?" The melody is borrowed from Bach. And nothing American-- a grand old flag, amber waves of grain, or even a baseball-- appears until the end of the chorus.

Let us now, in the words of Simon's previous "America," "walk off to look for America" in this song.

The first two verses are almost identical to each other in content, although the first speaks of the self and the second of the other. Rather than repeat the first four lines of the first two verses, let us again quote the earlier song: "I'm lost/ I'm empty and I'm aching." The sentiment seems remarkably similar.

Then, the speaker's response was the knowledge that all those with him on the highway were fellow seekers, all equally trusting what was at the end of "The New Jersey Turnpike," i.e.: America itself.

Yet, our song seems to begin where the last left off. Now, he reports, he is "weary" from travel and not yet at his destination. "Still," he accepts his fate as expected, and even throws in a French phrase to show how "far away from home" he still feels. Verdict? "I'm all right."

But when the song shifts to the "shattered dreams" of others, he is not as accepting: "I wonder what went wrong." Things were going well and they seemed to be chugging right along... but then, why so much misery?

Perhaps the answer lies not in this world, he muses. He dreamed that, in an out-of-body experience, his soul "reassured" him. And then an entirely new dream began and he himself flew.

The Turnpike must end where the land ends. The Statue of Liberty is on an island. From his perspective of height, he realizes that the goal remains ever elusive, as the island drifts out "to sea."

Which, not to put a point on it, would be eastward. In the next line, what comes westward but an early wave of immigrants, much too early to even be welcomed by Lady Liberty's torch: "We come on a ship they call the Mayflower."

And... more! We don't need dreams to fly, we can fly into outer space on "a ship that sailed the Moon."

When you come to "look for America," you might try to find it in New York. Then, maybe at the place others came to find it-- the legendary Plymouth Rock. Then, the spot millions journeyed to: Ellis Island. Yet, even an island can drift.

You will never find America in a place, concludes the speaker. It might as well be on that lunar plot where the grand old flag stands. America is the answering of a question with a question.

At "the age's most uncertain hour"-- insert your historic milestone here-- we ask, "Well, now what can we do?" Run out of land? Build a boat. Run out of Earth? Fly to the Moon. We're there. Now what? Cyberspace. Next? String Theory.

This is the answer to the "broken" and "shattered" dreams and souls mentioned earlier. America was the answer to monarchy and communism... and everything in between and after. It can be the answer for a person, too. "You can't be forever blessed," by a Deity, but you can rely on yourself and be reassured by your soul.

America is not about finding. It's about seeking. As tautological as it seems, America is about "looking for America."

"Resting" along the journey, yes, as our speaker begs to do in the last line. But only because "tomorrow is another working day." Tomorrow, the quest begins anew.

IMPACT: The song reached #35 in the US. The Brits, evidently, did not find it resonant... perhaps this is more proof of it being an American tune.

After the actual Statue of Liberty itself underwent restoration for its 100th anniversary, there was an unveiling. Two songs were played at it: "The Star Spangled Banner" and "American Tune."

Many covers have been done from across the musical and political spectrum. One of the most lovely is that done by The Indigo Girls, who are somewhat heirs to S&G altogether. It was also covered by their contemporary singer-songwriter, Shawn Colvin.

It is one of Simon's signature songs, even today, and has become part of the fabric of American culture. It would be interesting to see if it is included, today, in songbooks of American-themed choral works alongside "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America." Interesting... but not surprising. (Surprising would be if the naturalistic "America" made it.)

Next Song: Was a Sunny Day

Monday, February 21, 2011

One Man's Ceiling is Another Man's Floor

"I don't want to get involved." Not an uncommon reaction, seeing as how the cliche that seems to follow those who do get involved is, "No good deed goes unpunished."

Here, the speaker lives in an apartment building where there have been "some strange goings-on." Notably, some violence. The first evidence is an actual bloody nose, the result of which is some "clothes" stained with the same "purple" blood.

But what is the real problem, here-- how is the speaker affected? Is he concerned for the fate of the injured party? Does he want to see justice done to the assailant? Not really-- he just wants the "rules" to be adhered to... and someone to mop the blood that is "messing up the lobby floor."

He realizes that there are humans, and human emotion, involved-- "There's been some hard feelings here/ About some words that were said." But, ultimately, he just wants the fight stopped so that there is quiet, as he can hear through the "ceiling" and "floor."

As he said, this was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern. The elevator operator either quit or was fired. Then there was more noise, a "racket," perhaps caused by an argument. And then a "fall," which possibly hurt someone. Again, he does not want to get involved, at least past the point of asking-- again-- for a little quiet, please.

"It's just apartment house sense/ It's like apartment rents." In what way? Consideration for one's neighbors comes with the territory, just like paying rent. Everyone must pay what they owe to the landlord. Likewise what they owe to their fellow tenants, which is some tranquility.

So much for what goes on inside the building. What happens outside is just as troubling: "There's an alley in the back of my building/ Where some people congregate in shame." Over what? Possibly some sort of gambling, like numbers or craps, which would keep people "congregating" there. A user would buy drugs and then leave, and a dealer would likely not want a crowd around. Prostitutes might congregate, but not in "shame"-- they tend to flaunt more than hide-- and their clients would pick them up and, again, leave.

The song then ends on a chilling note. Our speaker, who has assiduously kept himself apart from his building-mates, thinks he hears someone "call [his] name." He is known, even unto his identity.

He is involved. Simply by living there and trying to enforce the minimal standards of propriety. Now, someone wants to talk with him. Perhaps to borrow money, perhaps to teach him a lesson about meddling, which he has done to such a minimal degree. Even if he runs now, he has to go home at some point.

As distant as he tried to make himself from the "mess" of his fellow tenants' lives, he is involved. He is a member of the community, whether he likes it or not.

Compare this with another loner of Simon's who also lives in a communal dwelling-- the "Most Peculiar Man." He is completely uninvolved: "He lived all alone... within a house/ within himself." Yet, once he died, he was revealed to be part of a community despite his efforts at solitude. His neighbors had an opinion or two of him, and he had a brother, and now there is an obituary in the public newspaper.

Other of Simon's songs along this theme are "Richard Cory," about the ironic solitude of fame, and "I Am a Rock," about withdrawal from social contact after a harsh breakup. Even "Sound of Silence" is about a lost society of loners who ignore each other, and the most vulnerable among them, at their own peril.

Simon has been pegged "Mr. Alienation" for even addressing the issue of isolation, for even saying, "I am an island." This is unfair, because the conclusion he keeps reaching is that, as Donne wrote, "No man is an island."

Simon agrees that the other side of your floor is someone else's ceiling. There is no point to pretending you are not invloved, he insists. If you are human, you simply are.

Musical Note:
The descending, and low, piano notes that open the song were sampled by a British rap duo performing as Biss N Eso. Their track is called "Up Jumped the Boogie."

Next Song: American Tune

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Something So Right

This is a love song of the "I can't believe how lucky I am that an angel like you is with a mess like me" variety.

In the first verse, the speaker explains he is a mess because he is frantic with a "fever"-ish panic, and she douses that with "cool water." In case that isn't clear, he repeats that he was "in a crazy motion" and that she "calmed [him] down."

In the second verse, the speaker is a mess because he is emotionally closed off. While the speaker of "I Am a Rock" says: "I build walls deep and mighty/ That none may penetrate," that seems small next to the wall this speaker builds, which is "a thousand miles long" (the Great Wall of China is about 4,000 miles long, incidentally). Yet, she was able overcome these formidable defenses and "to get next to" him.

In the bridge, he talks about how "some people" can't bring themselves to say "I love you," let "long" to "be told" exactly that. Hmmm, who might one of those hypothetical "people" be? This is yet another way he is a mess.

The chorus adds a fourth: "When something goes wrong/ I'm the first to admit it." This certainly means he is willing to admit that something is awry or amiss. But while it doesn't say he also accepts responsibility for the problem, it sort of implies that he does.

Meanwhile, "When something goes right," he is so pessimistic that he he can't believe or accept that it did happen: "It's apt to confuse me/It's such an unusual sight."

He is so used to things going wrong, he "can't get used to something so right." He is so accustomed to disappointment that he can't acknowledge that something good has happened to him, and he can't trust that it will last.

So here we have an anxious, introverted, undemonstrative person with a tendency toward doubt... and self-doubt. No one can say this person is not self-aware-- even a bit self-critical.

Yet, this amazing woman felt he was still worth it, and stuck with him until he was able to trust and appreciate her. With this song, he thanks her and expresses his astonishment that she is with him at all, let alone still with him.

This song is the inverse of a song like "My Funny Valentine," in which the woman says what's wrong with the man, yet she still loves him. This might be his response, in which he says, "Me? You want me? My mouth is a little weak and my figure is less than Greek! You... sure? Wow! That's great!"

Musical note: A previous incarnation of this song is called "Let Me Live in Your City." The verses are the same, but the choruses, which have the same melody of the final version, have these lyrics:

"Let me live in your city
The river’s so pretty, the air is so fine
Let me room where I can lay over
I’m just a traveler eating up travelin’ time
I’m just a traveler eating up
My travelin’ time."

IMPACT: The song went to #7 on the UK charts. It is very popular among female singers. British songstress Annie Lennox covered it on her Medusa album. It was also covered by Barbra Streisand, Simon collaborator Phoebe Snow, and country singer Trisha Yearwood. Someone tell Adele.

Next Song: One Man's Ceiling is Another Man's Floor

Monday, February 7, 2011

Take Me to the Mardi Gras

This song is so light and slight it is barely there. It recalls, even more than "Feelin' Groovy," its close cousin "Cloudy."

Later, on Graceland, Simon will do a more sterotypically New Orleans zydeco number, "That Was Your Mother."

But, until its closing jam by the Onward Brass Band-- which itself sounds more like New Orleans funeral-procession music than the Caribbean sounds associated with Mardi Gras-- this song is barely the kind of music one associates with New Orleans altogether.

It is not the tumbling piano of Professor Longhair, nor the zydeco shuffle of Clifton Chenier, nor the gospel-inflected harmonies of the Neville Brothers. And it certainly doesn't have the sparkle and throb of a Mardi Gras Carnival parade.

Instead, it is a gossamer breeze, a tall glass of cool iced tea, and a hammock on a beach. It is about escaping to a place of music (the whole first verse) and warmth, both physical-- "You can wear your summer clothes"-- and emotional-- "You can mingle in the street." It almost seems to be more about Aruba or Provence than raucous, randy New Orleans.

The lyrics are very simple, aside from the word "elite"... and the line "legalize your lows." Elsewhere, it seems, one's mad and sad moods are almost illegal, and people are obliged to put up a false front of cheerful professionalism/romance constantly. Here, however, one's "lows" can be hung out to dry openly, having been "washed" by the "music" and bleached clean by the sunshine.

Another interesting turn of phrase is "in the New Orleans," as if it were more a situation than a place, like "in the water" or "in the meantime."

Mardi Gras is a party, but it has religious origins. It is a last hurrah before the self-denial of Lent, which in some traditions includes fasting and confession.

At this point in the song, a gospel-like chorus is sung by the Reverend Claude Jeter, a member of the famous Swan Silvertones gospel ensemble-- and also of the Dixie Hummingbirds, who appear twice on this album ("Loves Me Like a Rock" and the "Tenderness").

"I will lay my burden down," he sings. This refers to one's sins and regrets. Once one's sins are confessed, the belief has it, and repented for-- once one's "lows" are "legalized" for open discussion-- the burden is forever dropped.

Many speak of confession as "getting something off my chest"; and after confession, they describe having "a weight off my shoulders." There is a sense of relief, of "resting [one's] head."

What of the "starry crown"? This is a halo-- the opposite of Jesus' "crown of thorns." The wording is taken from the gospel song "Golden Slippers" about what one will wear in Heaven. It may also be a reference to the shiny, sparkly headdresses worn by Mardi Gras parade participants. If so, it connects the fancy-free feeling of a reveler with the burden-free relief of one who has confessed. Not just compares-- connects. The revelers can achieve a state of bliss the penitent also seeks.

What happens when he is so coronated? "I won't be wanting anymore." This is an interesting idea to find in this context, as it seems more Buddhist than Christian, as the Buddhist ideal is to be free from desire and "want," which induce suffering.

It seems that having "burdens" paradoxically means having "wants." This is counter-intuitive. Maybe burdens are a bad thing, but they are not nothing. If one has possessions, how can one have wants? Ah, but that is the point. It is burdensome to desire. Once one wants nothings and one needs nothing, one is free of the burden of desire itself.

The song concludes wthe the advice that the listeners, too, "take [their] burdens to the Mardi Gras" and let the experience "wash [their] soul[s]." This is the second allusion in the song to water, the first being "the shore," where one rests one's head, presumably after a baptism.

The last line refers to Jelly Roll Morton, a New-Orleans born musician who claims-- with some validity, it seems-- to have "invented jazz." At the very least, he was the first to publish a jazz composition.

The madness of Mardi Gras, which has turned into a combination of Spring Break the size of a downtown and a Las Vegas showstopper on wheels, masks its origins as a last "blowing off steam" season before the somber sobriety of Lent.

Simon recaptures its original meaning as a way to relieve oneself of emotional "burdens," through the cleaning power of song: "Let the music wash your soul." This is why the song is so relaxed and relaxing. It's about finally being able to relax.

Lastly, what does "toomba" mean? Is it just a nonsense, sung syllable, like "tra-la-la" or "sh'boom, sh'boom"? Possibly. But to a Jewish listener, it could call to mind the folksong "Tum Balalaika." A "balalaika" is a Russian lute with a triangular body." The chorus to this waltz-time song goes:

"Tum bala-, tum bala-, tum balalaika
Tum bala-, tum bala-, tum balalaika
Tum balalaika/ Shpiel balalaika
Tum balalaika/ Freilach zol zein"

Which means: "Strum the blalaika, play the balalaika, be festive" (a balalaika is a large lute with a triangular body). The verses form a riddle song, along the lines of "I Gave My Love a Cherry." (I personally think the song also influenced "Chim-Chimeny" from Mary Poppins.) In any case, the chorus does capture the same relaxed ethos "Take Me to the Mardi Gras."

One last note-- this song was recorded at the famous Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. I urge you to look it up and read a bit about it. It deserves equal recognition with better-known studios like Sun and Motown. There is now a documentary about the studio.

The song has been covered by several acts.

Next Song: Something So Right