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?
The version of this song on the In the Blue Light album has a much longer last verse. The original repeats the title, then contrasts that with, "Some folks' lives never roll at all/ They just fall/ Some folks' lives."
But in the remake/remix of the song, Simon adds quite a bit after repeating the title:
"Some folks' lives gaze out from a window to a wall
The sunlight written in a scrawl
The gift that God intended for us all
But some folks' lives"
This echoes one of Simon's very first published songs, "Bleeker Street," in which a fog prevents God from seeing the suffering of his flock. Here, the benighted person has the view only of a wall from his window, and sees not direct sunlight, but that which hits the wall. This reflected, refracted image of the "gift" makes God's "intended" message unintelligible. Their misfortune is compounded by the fact that the circumstances caused by misfortune itself makes their redemption impossible.
I just read an Angolan folktale about a slave who wanted to buy his freedom, only to have all of his side-job earnings confiscated by his master under the law that slaves-- being owned themselves-- can't legally own or earn anything. It is just this sort of Catch-22 Simon describes.
(In the folktale, the slave uses his master's greed against him, saying that he will split the side-job earnings with him. Eventually even half of his earnings are enough to buy his own freedom. Not that it relates to the song or its meaning-- I just wanted you to know the ending of the story.)
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