Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Night Game

There are many songs about baseball (although many more movies that come to mind), but this is likely the saddest.

I don't know what the official rule is for the death of a player during the game. It seems inappropriate to continue the game with a replacement player, yet unfair to call a winner. I do know that ties are not permitted, and that innings are simply added until one team wins. Perhaps the game is "scrubbed" and a new one scheduled in its stead.

But that is not what happens here. The pitcher and his team have handed two outs to their opponents, with one more to finish the 8th inning and start the 9th and final one. Then "the pitcher died."

It seems like a sudden incident. We do not see the pitcher fainting, clutching his head or chest, or giving any indication of injury or illness. It's just "when."

The pitcher's shoes are laid, it seems ceremoniously, on the pitcher's mound. But the rest of the uniform is handled differently. The jersey, with it's "number," is simply "left" on the turf...

After being "torn." Why was this item of clothing treated so roughly? Were they ripping it to be able to do a medical procedure on his chest, perhaps his heart?

The tearing of a garment often signifies evil tidings. In the Bible, Joesph's brothers tear his multi-colored coat to fabricate (no pun intended) evidence for their father that Joseph was mauled to death by a beast. King Saul tears his garment, and the prophet Samuel sees it as an omen. Many ancient people, hearing of a death, tore their clothes... and Jewish mourners still wear a torn shirt, jacket, or lapel-ribbon while grieving to this day.

That the jersey was "left on the ground" seems unlikely today. It would probably be kept as a memento, either by the team or the player's family. It must have been left in a rush, perhaps, to hurry the pitcher to the hospital.

It seems odd that the reaction of everyone else is absent from mention. What did the fans, the teammates, the opponents, the management and staff, the sportscasters do or say? Was their pandemonium? Did the medical professionals on hand leap in and prevent chaos? We are not told.

But we are told what happens to nature-- it grows "cold," as if in reaction. The stars, often described as yellow or golden, are now "white," and not just white, but "white as bones," which of course are only seen after death. It's as if nature's elements were reflecting the sudden chill and severity of the situation. Or signaling the humans as to the proper sentiment to be taken.

Why mention the age of the stadium? It has seen teams and fans come and go. It can no longer get excised about one death, more or less. But the "night," the "stars" are millennia older than the stadium, no? They are made by nature, or God, or something eternal, while the stadium was made by people... fickle people, who are gentle with shoes but harsh with shirts. Nature, at least, grows respectfully somber as it notes one more lost life.

Then comes a cruel pun. The song started with "two men down," in the sense that they had be standing "up" at the plate and now, having been gotten out, had to sit back "down" on their dugout bench. Now there are three men "down," except one is "down" in the ultimate sense: he has fallen down dead. Perhaps this comes to put the sport in perspective-- as sad as we might be that a player has been taken out of the game, how much sadder when one has been removed from all of life's activity altogether.

Much of the imagery, in fact, has to do with lowness. Consider these words: "down," "bottom," "laid," "on the ground," "cold," "down" (again). And now comes the tarpaulin, rolled-- like a shroud-- over the ground, over the frost on the ground. The song itself is set at "night," as well, when the Sun and light are down.

The music echoes this lowness. Aside from the guitar, which is played low-- and Simon's hushed voice, which is in a low register-- the only other instrument that plays the whole song is Tony Levin's bass.

The pitcher is gone, the game is done. And for some reason, the whole season is lost. I do not think this is meant in the sense of the sport. As discussed above, an individual game can be replayed (as happens when a game is called off due to bad weather). A team continues even if one of its members dies mid-season. Even if that team suffers a psychological blow that does, in fact, end its own season, the season as a whole continues for the other dozen-plus teams in the sport.

Yes, the song might mean that this team's season is effectively over. But it might also mean that the sport as a whole suffers and mourns so much from the loss of one player that, whatever the season might have meant before, and whatever comes after, it's now "the season when that pitcher died during the game." It's former momentum and meaning have been eclipsed by the shadow of this one profound incident.

With the humans still not responding appropriately, nature cues them again by spreading a white funeral shroud on the field, in the form of "frost." Finally, the humans take the hint, and add a synthetic shroud, the tarpaulin, over the field.

Much could be made of the repeated "and" throughout the piece. The story is related in a series of staccato statements, like someone trying to piece together a sequential narrative out of a memory of impressions. There is very little 'poetry' in the work. This is reserved for the statements that follow "then," which breaks the sequence of "ands," which pick back up in the final verse. The main effect is someone recounting something he experienced but can't quite believe.

Simon is a baseball fan. He plays it in the video to "Schoolyard," and more famously, name-checked DiMaggio in one of his biggest hit songs. Yet this is his only piece entirely set in the world of that sport.

I am unaware of an incident like the one described happening in baseball in 1975. So perhaps some sudden loss in Simon's life could only be likened to a pitcher dying while trying to break a tie in the bottom of the 8th. It is certainly one of the saddest songs in Simon's entire repertoire.

Musical Note: The mournful harmonica bridge is played by Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans of Belgium, better known as "Toots." He is one of the greatest harmonica players alive, and has been for decades. His work has largely been in the jazz arena. While he doesn't play long here, you can hear a lot more of him on the Billy Joel hit "Leave a Tender Moment Alone."

Next Song: Gone at Last

Sunday, April 17, 2011

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

One question often asked of songwriters is: "Where do you get your ideas for songs?"

Sometimes, it is something a child says or does. For instance, one of John Lennon's sons showed him a drawing he'd made of "Lucy in the sky with diamonds."

In the case of this song, Simon was explaining to his son what rhymes are, illustrating by rhyming words with names.

The structure of the song is interesting. It is one side of a conversation, reported by the other person. If the song were the dialogue of a play, the woman would be speaking 90% of the words.

The man has asked her, evidently, for advice. Or, perhaps she asked him what was wrong, and responded to his answer. In any case, he seems to be in a bad relationship and wants out... but is unsure of how to effect an exit.

She reframes his question: "The problem is all inside your head." And her advice bears this out-- all of her proposals involve leaving without a farewell: "Slip out the back... hop on the bus... drop off the key." No talking things to a close, no therapy sessions, not even a note. Just leaving.

It sounds like the other person involved-- the one being left-- deserves no better, or perhaps wants it to be over but is also not able to initiate a breakup. In fact, the one being left might be grateful if he'd simply vanish instead of dragging things out by talking about their feelings. Regardless, the advisor implies that the issue of propriety or sensitivity is all his own: "The problem is all inside your head" [emphasis mine].

What is interesting is that the man would seek the advice of a woman in this case. And one he does not seem to be heading toward. In other words, it does not seems to be the case that he is leaving his relationship to start one with his advisor. She is too offhanded and uninterested.

Further. it is unlikely that this is his therapist, bartender, or co-worker, for at the end of the conversation she kisses him. More likely, is a female friend, perhaps a sister or cousin, who would give him a kiss goodnight.

Again, we might assume the advice "You think too much, man-- just leave," to come from a man. It is surprising that a woman would advise his insensitivity toward another woman, which is what makes me think that she is more familiar with the particulars of his case.

Another interesting thing about the adviser is her sudden change in tone. In the verses, she uses words like "logically," "furthermore," "intrude" and "misconstrued" (an amazing rhyme, incidentally). She uses locutions like "it grieves me so." Then, in the chorus, she switches tone and becomes more colloquial and clipped: "Don't need to discuss much." It is almost as if she is mocking his over-intellectualization of the situation. Her basic message: You're complicating things, dude. Just scram.

For all of her protestations of help, when he asks her straight out, "Would you please explain...?" she shuts him down, with "Why don't we just sleep on it?" Once again, he is trying to analyze something that requires no analysis. If he can't understand "Just slip out the back, Jack," then there is nothing more she is willing to say that night.

After all, even the five of the "50 ways" she lists all amount to the same thing: Just. Leave. Now.

The solution is not always difficult or painful. Sometimes, "the answer is easy."

Like "Still Crazy," the title of this song has entered the popular lexicon. No doubt part if its popularity can be attributed to Gadd's military-style drumming and the catchy chorus.

The backup singers themselves were sort of a supergroup, consisting of Phoebe Snow (famous for the song "Poetry Man), Valerie Simpson of the duo Ashford and Simpson, and R&B/jazz singer Patti Austin.

The song went to #1 in the US, where it stayed for three weeks, and also topped the charts in Canada. It went to #2 in France, and brushed the top 20 in the UK. The song went gold and remained a top seller for nearly half a year.

The song has been covered by The Drifters, Miley Cyrus, and an outfit called G. Love and Special Sauce.

Gadd's militaristic drumbeat opener has been widely sampled by rappers-- twice by Eminem, and also by Common, Kool Moe Dee, and even Kid & Play. And also by a band called Pop Will Eat Itself, which is as good a definition as any for what sampling is.

Next Song: Night Game

Monday, April 11, 2011

I Do It for Your Love

And so it is that when a person reaches a certain level of success, and perhaps comfort, that historical revisionism sets in. Buffeted by the demands of contracts and deadlines, we daydream back in time to the days when we slept on a used futon, wore the same pants all week while saving quarters for the laundromat, and subsisted on ramen noodles. And, sitting back in our wall-to-wall carpeted living rooms, under the hum of whole-house air conditioning, we sink back in our leather recliners and decide that those were the "good old days."

Here, we find a man musing on his wedding day and early living arrangements with his bride. Aside from the lousy weather, the ceremony was less than romantic, and possibly presided over by a justice rather than a clergyman: "We signed the papers and we drove away." Then their apartment was moldy and leaky. Then they both got sick and, not being able to afford medicine, simply "drank... orange juice," hoping that mega-doses of vitamin C would do the trick.

Even the rug the husband buys for his young wife-- a splurge, no doubt, even if it did come from a thrift store-- turned out to be a less-than-pretty addition to their abode, as they colors ran together before he could get it home. This luckless pair reminds one of the couple in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi."

And yet there is an affection for this time. Again and again comes the line "I do it for your love." It was OK. The sacrifices were worth it. Instead of saying "one day we'll look back at this and laugh," it seems that they were laughing at the time. Because, despite the lack of physical comforts, there was an emotional comfort. A sense that they as a couple, were building something together. Maybe out of noisy pipes and blurry rugs, but a home.

And then... the breakup. "Love... disappears." Wait, when did that happen? In the space of three lines, the relationship dissolves. What has withstood such an uninspired start and such wretched living conditions succumbs to "the sting of reason." One would think that living in a musky hovel would mean that the couple was dealing with reality and surviving despite it.

But no. The reality they get "stung" by is not physical. It is emotional. While living in a physical netherworld, they were emotionally dwelling in fantasyland. They are two "hemispheres." They can meet, but not merge.

The clue is in the color imagery. From "The leaves that are green turn to brown" to the all-black rainbow of "My Little Town," color has been an important metaphor for Simon, but perhaps never more so than in this song.

Even at the outset, the colors are wrong: "The sky was yellow and the grass was gray." Then, they both tried being the same color... by filling themselves to bursting with "orange." That didn't work.

So then we have "the colors ran/ the orange bled the blue." Now, the colors are intermingled, but in an unappealing way, resulting in what today we might call "co-dependency." Each one is relying on the other for his or her identity... and the "fabric" of their relationship is a mess.

Another interpretation of the rug-color imagery is the colors themselves. Orange is a sunny, hopeful color, while blue is the color of sadness (as in "the blues"). The orange person is making the blue one "bleed," in this case, or perhaps dilute his or her identity and sense of self.

Surely, a sad person would not mind losing his sadness and have it bled off by sunniness? Yet we know from experience that, if someone is baseline serious and somber, having a Pollyanna for a roommate could become oppressive in its own way.

The suddenness of their realization is felt in the word "sting," but also reflected in the abrupt change of imagery from concrete to abstract. Aside from the surreal colors of Nature on their wedding day, the first two verses and the bridge are full of bold, realistic images.

Then comes the last verse, with its abstractions ("reason" instead of "pipes" and "papers"), synecdoches ("tears" for "sadness"), and metaphors ("hemispheres" for "personality types"). Poetically, the frozen "north" is traditionally associated with seriousness and the sunny "south" with passion).

The uncomfortable reality of their "room" made them feel a sense of solidarity, as in the lyric, "You and me against the world." This misery kept them together, but also distracted them the real, tectonic problem of their whole planet. A couple should, after all, share more than a "cold."

So what is the "reason" for the "tears"? To paraphrase: "North is north, and south is south-- and never the twain shall marry."

Well, they might. But they might ultimately regret it and part ways. Still, even this painful parting is done out of care for the other. "I am not right for you," each says, "But, because I care for you, I want you to have the chance to find the one who is. Even leaving you is something I do... for your love."

Musical Notes:
The drums and bass are played, respectively, by Steve Gadd and Tony Levin. These long-time Simon backers are among the best studio musicians in the business. Gadd has extensively studied African rhythms, so he is a great match for Simon. He also has a series of instructional videos and now leads his own supergroup, the Gaddabouts, which features Simon's current wife, Edie Brickell.

Tony Levin is an influential bassman altogether, but perhaps is best known in musical circles for his virtuosity on an electronic bass-range instrument called the Chapman Stick; he is one of the few bassmen to lead his own band, called simply the Tony Levin Band.

I mention these names because, as a teen, I read all of the liner notes to the albums I liked after I finished reading the lyrics. I soon found that, for albums in the 1970s anyway, the same "usual suspects" kept coming up as backing musicians. Read the bios of men like Gadd, Levin, Danny Kortchmar, Larry Knetchel, Russ Kunkel, Danny Federici, and Waddy Wachtel, and you'll see how "solo" stars like Jackson Browne, Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Elton John, Dan Fogelberg, Linda Ronstadt and dozens more all used the same expert craftsmen on the road and in the studio.

There is a category in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for "Sidemen," and all of these guys belong in it. They-- and a few dozen others-- were in a loose outfit called The Wrecking Crew, and now they have their own documentary, at least.

David Sanborn, who has worked routinely with Simon, covered the song.

Next Song: 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

Monday, April 4, 2011

Still Crazy After All These Years

For all of his insistence that he is "crazy," the speaker of the lyric seems less unhinged than simply sad.

The song begins with an incident of his running into his "old lover." While she seems happier than he is for the coincidence, he agrees to join her for a drink and some reminiscence. It seems that the "crazy," here, follows the plural of "we" and "ourselves"-- they are both still crazy.

The next verse is not narrative, but confessional. He admits to to being solitary, unsentimental, and somewhat a stick-in-the-mud. Perhaps not someone you'd invite to a dinner party, but still not "crazy," although now he limits that adjective to himself.

So why, in the bridge, is he awake at 4 a.m.? Especially if he is exhausted ("crapped out," on some TV appearances, has been softened to "tapped out").

He seems trapped between two truths. One is that he wishes for things he does not have; he is "longing [his] life away."

On the other hand, is working to get those things worth the trouble, if "it's all gonna fade," and he's just going to die anyway?

He still can't sleep; perhaps it is the same night he met his old flame, but after he said good night to her at the bar. Perhaps meeting her is, for some reason, keeping him up. He doesn't seem to be missing her; we saw in the first verse that he was over her. Perhaps he wishes that he weren't-- that he cared about something in his life.

(The sax solo here is by Michael Brecker, a phenomenal jazz talent who passed away in 2007. His other work, especially with the haunting Electronic Wind Instrument, is definitely worth finding on YouTube.)

In any case, he is "watch[ing] the cars" by his window. He muses that if he ever did anything violent-- which is hardly likely, as that would require either physical motivation or emotional passion, and he seems to affect neither-- he would not be held responsible for his actions, but found not guilty due to his insanity.

In reality, as upset as he is, all he can do is watch traffic. He hardly seems like the type about which the neighbors say to news crews: "Oh, he was so quiet and he kept to himself."

Rather, he seems lethargic, moody, and just generally miserable. Not even clinically depressed, as that level of any emotion would be too extreme and taxing.

It is interesting to contrast this song with "I Am a Rock," also about a miserable loner, but one who is more adamant about insisting (unconvincingly) that he is not upset, but also that he is never going to allow that possibility because he will avoid relationships altogether, so there.

Our man here is upset, admits it, but just shrugs, "Oh well, so what, who cares."

Maybe in a world in which everyone ambitiously pursues happiness, allowing oneself to be noncommittal, solitary, and pessimistic is "crazy" by default.

People seem to react to this song as if they approve of the sentiment that one can still be as spontaneous and wild in middle age as in one's teen and college years. Upon reading the lyrics, that reaction proves unwarranted-- that sentiment is not really to be found.

For instance, many, upon re-meeting an enthusiastic old lover, would try to capitalize on the the opportunity of that enthusiasm, either for brief physical or longer emotional re-connection. Not our man, who has been down that road before and sees no reason to want to revisit its destination.

Neither is the song a longing look backward, as are Springsteen's "Glory Days" or Mellencamp's "Small Town." Our speaker seems to feel that while things aren't great now, they never were, either (see "My Little Town")-- and there is no real reason to expect they ever will be.

So he will continue to "long" and leave it at that, content with his overcast sadness and unwilling to risk his comfortable malaise for true happiness-- which would also mean the possibility of true misery. Maybe what's "crazy" is that he accepts that in his character, too, and doesn't care to change that-- and even takes some pride in his resistance to change.

IMPACT: This was a major hit for Simon. Simon won a Grammy for his vocals on the track, and the whole shebang won Album of the Year.

The album went to #1 in the States, #6 in the UK, and even cracked the Top Ten in Norway and Sweden. In a famous bit on a Saturday Night Live Thanksgiving show, Simon performed the song wearing a turkey costume.

The song and its title have become an idiom, part of common parlance; I saw an ad for a furniture store once that said it was "Still Sale Crazy After All These Years." That the song still elicited such recognition decades after its release is at least as much a compliment as a Grammy.

The song was sampled on a track called "Ninna Nanna" by an Italian band called Colle Der Fomento.

Next Song: I Do It For Your Love