Friday, May 27, 2011

Silent Eyes

Paul Simon, most people know, is Jewish. In the song "Hearts and Bones," he states this outright calling himself and is recent ex-wife Carrie Fisher "one and one-half wandering Jews."

While he discusses religion in general at various points through his songs, his earliest religious recordings are Christian in nature (he and Garfunkel were singing on a Christian radio show in England around the time of their first official album), and there are references to Christianity, and other faiths, throughout his repertoire, from "Old" to his recent "Getting Ready for Christmas Day."

And while these other faiths do include Judaism, this is one of his most openly and outwardly Jewish songs. It is about Jerusalem, Judaism's most sacred city and the capital-- ancient, modern, eternal-- of Israel.

The last line in the song, "what was done," does not seem to refer to any particular event, or news item, regarding Jerusalem, at the time of the song's release (1975). In fact, the most recent major news about Jerusalem was (from a Jewish and Israeli perspective) the best news the city had received in centuries-- that its most sacred section, The Old City, with The Western Wall-- was once again in Jewish hands (as of the 1967 Six Day War). The reunification itself was such a historic milestone that it is celebrated annually in Israel with its own holiday.

So the profoundly mournful tone of the piece must refer to Jerusalem's millennia of suffering. According to the Jewish periodical Moment Magazine, "During its long history, Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times."

The line "bed of stone" refers to a particular material called Jerusalem stone, a local grade of limestone used to build everything from The Western Wall to modern office buildings and homes. It has a reflective quality, and in many lighting conditions, the city does seem to glow yellow, as referenced in an Israeli songwriter's beloved song "Jerusalem of Gold."

It is an ongoing source of worry, in the Jewish community, that Israelis themselves see Jerusalem as a proud, thriving, and even glowing city while American Jews see it much as Simon does-- a city shrouded in mourning. American Jews are raised with stories of Jerusalem's fall at the hands of the Babylonians and Romans, and we see media coverage of various wars and terror attacks today, and assume that the city is a battle zone and always has been. Slightly fewer than half of American Jews have been to Israel-- the last number I saw was 41%-- so the kind of personal familiarity with the city that would belay this image is lacking as well.

Turning back to the song itself, the speaker of the song seems helpless and helplessly detached. He "watches" in "silence." In other words, not only can he not help Jerusalem, but he can't put himself in a position to do so. In fact-- no one can: "No one will comfort her/ Jerusalem weeps alone."

Nevertheless, he feels that he should feel an attachment: "She calls my name." The city "burns like a flame"; it is not actually afire (as it has been during various battles), but it is undergoing an intense emotion, as in the Sting song "I Burn for You." This "burning" is linked to the "calling," they are connected by the word "and."

So here is the city, yearning and begging for his attachment. The choir surges, then subsides. Has the connection been made? Maybe not... he still watches with "silent eyes."

Only now, his eyes are "burning" like the city. He has caught the fire. He feels the desire for connection welling within him, and he even starts to move toward the city.

But as he pushes on through the "desert," he only gets "halfway to Jerusalem." He can see the city, but he can't get all the way there, which would mean to speak for her. The "desert"--the empty space between himself and the city, is too intense (the word "burning" might also apply here), and he cannot complete his journey. He can see the city's "sorrow," he can even share that sorrow... but he still cannot speak words of comfort or defense to mitigate that sorrow.

We have, for most of the song, silence: "Silent eyes," "watching," "no one will comfort." Then the city "weeps" and "calls." And only gets silence in response. Movement, yes, but not a completed one, only a "halfway" one.

This state cannot last, he concludes. God will judge him for not completing the journey. In the end, God will force him to speak-- to defend himself as if in court ("called as witnesses") --and explain why he did not speak to console or uphold Jerusalem.

The song phrases that idea differently. He-- and in fact "we... all"-- will have to "speak what was done." This is more profound, in that "we" will have to say... nothing. Because nothing was done. Nothing was even said. We stood there and watched Jerusalem "weep."

You know that thing parents say when children cry over, say, not getting ice cream: "I'll give you something to cry about"? Well, this is a similar situation. God's point? "You want to say nothing? I'll give you the chance to say nothing. I'm going to ask you what you did when Jerusalem wept. Then-- then!-- you will really be saying nothing."

On a larger scale, the speaker implies, we must all answer for what we did not do to stop suffering in general, in Jerusalem or during the Holocaust or at any time or place. We see the devastation wreaked by war and nature, we hear the "weeping," but we only watch with "silent eyes."

And if we say nothing, then when we are asked to speak for ourselves, we will have nothing to say.

The theme of "silence" has been part of Simon's lyrics since "Sound of Silence." The inability to connect on an interpersonal level runs through songs like "Dangling Conversation," "Most Peculiar Man," "Sparrow," "Bleeker Street," and many others. Here, Simon explores what happens when that detachment is writ large, on the stage of world events and history. Or rather, what doesn't happen.

IMPACT: The song appears in the soundtrack of the Warren Beatty movie Shampoo. "Have a Good Time" was also supposed to appear in that movie, but did not. "Feelin' Groovy" also makes a very brief, but recognizable, appearance.

The song was sampled by Access Immortal for a track titled "Authentic Made."

Next Song: Late in the Evening

Monday, May 23, 2011

You're Kind

I think this song might be unique in Simon's catalog in that the speaker is not a human, but an animal. The word choices seem-- to me-- to come from the mind of a dog or cat.

My theory is that someone told Simon (or maybe it happened to Simon himself) of an animal, adopted from a shelter, which escaped back on to the street. It would be an interesting topic for a song, the idea that even an animal might choose freedom over comfort... if comfort also meant constraint.

While this assertion may seem fanciful, a close reading of the lines, I feel, supports this hypothesis:

"You rescued me"-- This phrase is used frequently with regard to animals in shelters, which are often called, once they are adopted, "rescues." A person would more likely be "saved"; think of all the movies in which someone is saved from drowning or a fire. They say "Thank you for saving me!" or "(Gasp, hack, cough) You saved my life!"

"When I was blind"-- "when" means "I once was, but no longer am." And many small animals are born with their eyes shut, only to open them soon after.

"You put me on your pillow"-- Only an animal, and a small or baby one at that, would fit on a "pillow," or be invited to sleep on one. A person would not, and even a human baby is not set on a pillow, but in a crib or on a blanket.

"When I was on the wall"-- This is the phrase that clues me in to this reading of the song to begin with. I have been in animal shelters and that is how the animals are often kept, in cages that are stacked against a wall like bookshelves. A person is "against the wall," or "has his back to the wall." The only one "on" a wall was Humpty Dumpty; people are "on" a fence, maybe.

"You introduced me to your neighborhood"-- A person would be introduced to one's friends and family, not people who happened to live nearby. A dog, meanwhile, would be taken for a walk, during which it would likely be noticed and petted by shopkeepers and neighbors.

"Like the other humans do"-- Not "like other people do," as a person would say.

"...and you keep the window closed"-- A person would not leave over such an issue; they would politely ask for the window to be kept open. If the answer were 'no,' such a minor quibble would not amount, for most people, to be a "deal-breaker" and warrant leaving.

New pet owners, knowing that a lot of trouble had been gone through to get the dog off the street, and knowing that there were very good reasons for having done so, would naturally try to prevent their escape by keeping windows and door closed.

But an animal might, ironically, want the window open so that there was always the potential of freedom. The idea that freedom is not an option might induce a sense of being trapped and spark the urge to escape. If the window were open, the animal would feel that it was staying of its own accord; now that it cannot leave, it paradoxically must.

I understand that I may be alone in this interpretation of the song. It is possible that I have identified the underlying animal metaphor, and that the song is in fact about a person escaping a relationship that at first felt like a relief and now feels like a restraint; the lyrics certainly work on that level, too.

But I prefer to see the song as the thoughts of a dog or cat that was taken off the street by a shelter, then adopted, only to escape to the more familiar, free-ranging lifestyle it had grown accustomed to. It's certainly a new twist on the theme of songs like "Ramblin' Man" and "Free Bird," of the restless, dreamy drifter who just can't be tied down.

Next Song: Silent Eyes

Monday, May 16, 2011

Have a Good Time

Looking back over the last three songs, we find somewhat of a trilogy. In "Gone at Last," we find a sad person whose spirit was lifted when his "burden" was "shared" by another. In "Some Folks' Lives," we have a sad person who seeks solace from God.

In this song, the speaker is not sad, but by his own admission, he "should be depressed." Was his burden shared? Did he find religion? Nope.

He's just decided to have a good time.

There is a line in the movie (I know, again with the movie quotes) Spinal Tap that informs. Viv, the keyboardist, is asked by the interviewer, "What is your philosophy of life?" Viv responds, inserting a dramatic pause, "Have a good time... all the time." Rather than be seen as a call to hedonism (which it probably was), it could also be taken in reverse: "All the time, regardless of what is happening, try to enjoy the situation and find the fun in it."

We begin with an idea one seldom hears in a song. Rather than a song about a birthday, it's a song about a day after a birthday. Whether the ongoing sex our speaker has been "exhausted" by was in celebration of the occasion or has been going on for some time now is immaterial. The point is, he has neglected his health and his need for sleep in pursuit of immediate gratification. His body is begging him to take a break... "But a voice in [his] head says, "Oh, what the Hell-- have a good time."

In the previous number, the speaker began by speaking in general terms ("some folks") and moved to the personal ("Here I am") and back. In this song, the speaker starts with personal information and now moves to commentary on the State of the World.

He derides Midwestern puritanism as mindless, phobic "paranoia," and shrugs that the press is less interested in informing him than seducing him for his "dime." He is neither, he concludes, "worrying" about the news or his soul, nor "scurrying" along with the rat race up the corporate ladder (that is not a mixed metaphor-- rats can race up ladders if they want to, so there).

He does ponder that he might be imprudent in his unwillingness to care for himself, plan for the future, or consider his fellow man. His conclusion again is a shrug: "What can be done?" Nothing he is willing to do, certainly.

God is interjected here, but not in a prayerful way as in "Some Folks." Here, God is just another commodity, another convenience. The same way a carpet cleaner might be called to deal with a stain on the rug, God Himself is told to bless our things --"the goods we was given"-- and to bless "our standard of livin'." In between is the usual "God bless America" we hear at the end of presidential speeches.

Usually, it is Randy Newman giving us cynical songs about careless Americans whose attitude is that the world is a paper cup-- there for their convenience and disposal-- with songs like "It's Money That Matters" and "My Life is Good." Here, it is Simon taking the voice of a heedless, feckless boor.

Who is, nevertheless, having a good time. Until he truly runs that body down.

Musical note:
The sax solo is by jazz bebop virtuoso Phil Woods, who has recorded with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Thelonius Monk. But you most likely know his solo from Billy Joel's song "Just the Way You Are."

Valerie Simpson, of Ashford and Simpson fame, does the backup vocals on this track, too.

Next Song: You're Kind

Monday, May 9, 2011

Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy

In his Oscar-winning turn in As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson's character has this memorable line: "Some [people] have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car."

And no one in this song, either: "Some folks' lives roll easy... some folks' lives never roll at all." In the first verse and last, the speaker talks in general terms about people in general.

He uses the metaphor of motion. Easy lives are depicted with the effortless "roll," the relaxing "drifting," and the purposeful "heading."

Other lives "stumble" and "fall." Not necessarily in the sense of heartbreak, as in the Mamas and Papas' song "Trip, Stumble and Fall," but somehow.

"Most folks never catch their stars" changes the imagery a bit, and it is a vague line. You can "catch" something that is fleeing away from you, like a bus... or something that is thrown to you, like a ball. Stars are distant, so it could be the former, but they are also said to fall, like a pop fly in baseball. In the end, "most folks never catch" them either way, so it matters little whether they failed to fulfill an "impossible dream" or didn't open the door when opportunity knocked.

The chorus is repeated twice, and it is much more personal. It is a prayer, one of the few Simon recorded. It states the usual supplication of "I'm not worthy" found in many prayers: "I ain't got no business [being] here."

But then he uses that humility to his advantage. Rather than slink away in his unworthiness, he says, "Well, You said You would raise me when I was down... and now I am 'so low,' I'm 'busted' flat. I have 'stumbled', I have 'fallen,' and I can't get lower. So now, I that actually qualify for Your attention, I'd like some, please."

The song is about weariness, but it is not simply weary. It is world-weary. It is about being weary of being weary.

The rest of Nicholson's quote is: "But, a lot of people, that's their story. Good times, noodle salad. What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you're that pissed that so many others had it good."

This is less the sentiment in this song. There is no resentment for those whose lives do "roll easy." Since those who have empty star-catching mitts have them "through no fault of their own," the same might be said for the easy rollers-- they are not responsible for the ease of their lot, either.

There is a difference between envy and jealousy. I forget which is which, but one means "I wish I had a lake house with a boat and noodle-salad picnics, like you." And the other means "I wish I had your lake house and boats... and you had none."

Jack's character seems to feel the latter, our speaker the former. He does not begrudge others their lives of ease-- he does not even pray to share it, to roll easy. Right now, he'd settle for any kind of rolling at all, instead of the endless falling. While he notes the sadness of others, he is mainly concerned with his own.

This is proven through the general/specific switch noted earlier. After noting that some people are fortunate and some not, the speaker prays only for himself (in first person). He does not pray that of his friends-- the ones with "battered souls" and "shattered dreams" from "American Tune"-- all get boats.

His weariness has led him to become self-focused. Not out of ego-- quite the contrary-- out of humility born of humiliation. If he is going to get a prayer answered, he figures will likely be a small one, so it might as well be for himself.

Simon revisits the theme of weariness often, but this is one song entirely on the subject. Another is "Long Long Day" from the One Trick Pony soundtrack. Understandably, these are short songs-- who has the strength for a long one?

Musical Note:
One of the sax players on this track is David Sanborn, a highly regarded jazz musician who just (as of this writing) put out his 24th solo album. He also has racked up a long career backing popular musicians of nearly every stripe since the '60s.

Next Song: Have a Good Time

Monday, May 2, 2011

Gone At Last [RIP, Phoebe Snow]

"My Little Town" was the first S&G collaboration in a while, "Still Crazy" was very relatable, and "50 Ways" had an irrepressible beat. So those being hits... well, sure. "Gone At Last" might have seemed too overtly gospel for pop radio (once again, the Jesse Dixon singers provide backup), but it grazed the Top 20.

The song itself is quite self-explanatory. It tells the story of an unlikely friendship. First, the man comes into a truck stop, presumably at the side of a highway. Is he a trucker? Maybe just a lone traveller. Regardless, he is cold and "weary" from driving down harrowingly icy roads. On top of that, he is wallowing in regret: "I was thinking about my past/ I've have a long streak of bad luck."

A woman sees him in his state of woe. She is possibly a waitress at the truck stop's restaurant, possibly a fellow solo traveller. She knows his despair is genuine and not some passive-aggressive plea for attention. The depth of his misery moves her, and she approaches him.

She offers something he needs more that a cup of coffee-- a sensitive ear. First, she asks what's troubling him so (shades of "Run That Body Down": "What's wrong, sweet boy?"), then adds that she can empathize. After all, she's also "had a long streak of bad luck."

He knows he has found a true fellow traveller-- not just down this one icy highway, but down the road of hard knocks. He enthuses that he has been "lift[ed] higher." In what way? He is less weighted down, as now his "burden [is] shared."

While she did not seem as "dejected" as he to begin with, she now admits that she had, in fact, been "sinking fast" as well under the weight of her own "burden." Her good cheer seems to have hidden some secret sorrow that, again, once shared, has been lessened.

Aside from the gospel setting of the song, the one-line chorus repeats the word "pray." While God does not reply directly to either pray-er, it seems that God has been instrumental in bringing these two lost souls together and used them to answer both of their prayers at once. They seem to agree that their meeting was "out of nowhere" and unexpected.

Can one person end another's "streak of bad luck" on a permanent basis? Perhaps not. But now that they each know that someone else shares their fates, and can relate to their stories, the streaks have been broken. Even if they do not end up together, each knows he or she is not truly alone.

Musical Note:
This is a hopeful, uplifting number, and it deserves a greater place in Simon's canon. It was wise of him to craft a number that allows him duets with women, say at festivals and tributes. But since it does require a female co-vocalist, it is not as often performed as it deserves to be, which may be why is is less well-known today.

It should be played on the radio more now, however, if only to make sure that his partner on the number, Phoebe Snow, is remembered-- she died on April 26, 2011 (a week ago tomorrow, as of this writing). Now that she is gone, there are surely many comprehensive obituaries online, which I will not attempt to duplicate here. But, as with any true performer, all you need to know about her you can find in her music.

Next Song: Some Folks Lives Roll Easy