Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Learn How to Fall

Another advice-giving song, this time on the value of making mistakes.

A new book, Better by Mistake, references a still earlier one, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). And then there is The Blessing of the Skinned Knee. All discuss the value and methods of learning from one's mistakes. But Simon's song is earlier than them all, by decades.

In the first verse, the speaker urges the listener to learn how to lose with grace, and to "fall" while minimizing injury.

In the second, he encourages serendipity. The only book of mine I wore out as a child was called Little Bunny Follows His Nose, in which the title rabbit did just that, wandering over a meadow, chasing various scents as they wafted by. The metaphor here, however, is sailing. The word "occupation" is used, almost ironically, as that word is generally used to mean a "job," usually a structured endeavor. Here, it simply means "an activity one is doing."

All along, the guitar is tripping along amiably. The breezy ease of the song once again recalls "Cloudy" and "Feelin' Groovy." Someone who says "you got to drift in the breeze" would also agree that "you got to make the morning last" and observe that "[the clouds] don't know where they're going, and... neither do I."

Then comes the chorus, with its scolding horns. Seeming to shift voice, the speaker stridently and cynically excoriates all of humanity, for all its history. Why? They pursue "glory" and don't stop to see the long view, or their effect on the world.

This speaker seems to contradict the first. After all, if you "stop and scrutinize the plan"-- a studious and focused pursuit-- how can you also "drift in the breeze," and amble about, following your nose?

Perhaps the "scrutinizing" does not have to be done pondering books in a library or listening to a lecture. It can be done sitting on bus-stop bench, watching people... or lying on a beach or under a tree, thinking about all one has learned about history and psychology both from school and living life. Certainly, that is a form of "drifting" as much as going out on an actual sailboat. We even use the expression, "let your mind wander."

Overall, the song seems to be advice given to a child about to venture off to college, a sung version of "Don't be afraid to drop a class if you're failing it-- you don't have to be great at everything" and "Don't worry about declaring a major until your junior year" or even "If you want to backpack through Europe for a couple of months first, go ahead."

Lastly, a "tank town" is a very small town, whose only seeming use was as a stop for a train to refill its water tanks. Maybe tank towns "tell no lie" because they are too small to keep secrets. And maybe Simon heard the expression "...learn how to fall" in a town like that; it certainly seems like a rather homey, folksy piece of advice.

Oh... and if I have made any mistakes in this entry, I only hope I can learn from them.

Next Song: St. Judy's Comet


  1. Helps a lot in the understanding of this poignant song.

  2. I wonder if Douglas Adams had this song in mind when writing the scene in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where Arthur Dent is taught to fly by being told he has to 'learn how to throw himself at the ground and miss.'

  3. Anon-- Loved those books! Thanks for the nostalgic chuckle.