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."
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