Monday, June 27, 2011

How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns

The word "approach" is in the title, but mostly what happens in the song is the "yearning" part.

In this love song, it is unclear whether the speaker has broken up with the woman in his "dream," or if they have never had a romantic relationship to begin with. He does know her-- he can "distinctly hear" her voice, and is perhaps a friend.

But whether they were a couple before or not, they are not, now. And this is making him both "blue" with disappointment and "feverish" with desire.

The song is rich with the imagery of places. It begins in a motel room. The speaker is probably lying on his bed with the TV on, but he is not watching it. He is lost in thought, "wondering" how to "approach" the what he "yearns" for. Then the song moves to "the side of the road," "the top of a hill," and a "phone booth at a local bar-and-grill." There are even abstract places, like a "fever" and a "dream."

The song is also replete with the image of heat. First, the television passively "burns." Then, he has a "fever"-ish dream, from which he cannot wake. In the dream, there is "heat" and "fire."

After the speaker tells us about ignoring the TV and having his intense dream, the song shifts focus to another character, "a bone-weary traveler." Is this an actual person, or a dream image? Is the traveler the speaker himself? We know that he is in a hotel, so he is himself traveling. But he is not "by the side of the road," he is safe in a hotel bed. Unless he feels like he is "waiting by the side of the road."

About this man, the speaker wonders, "Where's he going?" If it's the speaker, we presume that he is in a motel as a stop-over on the way to a known destination. So if the question is metaphorical, the "where" could refer to where he is going in life-- toward his dream-woman or away from her.

Incidentally, it is "after the rain." This water image counters the hot images found elsewhere.

Now, we get to the dream. He does not dream that he and his would-be lover are marginalized "by the side of the road. Quite the opposite-- they are "lying on top of a hill," and are evidently making love. Again, the imagery is of heat: "Your voice is the heat of the night/ I'm on fire."

Enough "yearning"-- time to "approach." He calls her on a pay telephone at a bar. He does not get through, and his coin returns. He "approached," but so far he has not "reached."

He is in a state of coolness and passivity except when thinking about this woman. Aside from the cold/hot images, we have various verbs relating to lack of movement. When fantasizing of her, he "wonders," he "hears" (he never speaks to anyone in the course of the song), the traveler "waits," and he "rehearses," (but again does not get the chance to speak or perform).

But when he imagines himself with her, he becomes more active, and sees himself "rolling" in her arms. Ultimately, even in the case, he does not see himself as active-- he is in her arms-- she is holding and encompassing him, in his conception of the embrace, when presumably they would be holding each other. Alternately, the line could be "I roll you in my arms," in which case he would be the active one.

Two verbs more are repeated. One is the word "returns." First, the dream-- the one so intense he cannot wake from it-- returns. Then when he tries to call his dream lover, his coin returns as well. He is moving in circles, returning and returning and never progressing-- yearning and approaching but never attaining.

Then the line "headlights slide past the Moon" is repeated in its entirety. Both the headlights and the Moon are round and yellowish and glow in the night. As enormous as the Moon is, is can appear as small as a headlight in perspective.

So we have the contrast of one light staying still, and a set of two lights moving "past" it and leaving it behind. This might be a symbol for his situation and desire. If he is one light, like the Moon, he stays in place-- wondering and waiting "by the side of the road." But if he were paired with her as headlights are, the two would "slide"-- with no friction-- on the "interstate," right past such a lonely moon... or roadside traveler.

Even the roadway itself is different to him when he sees himself with her. When one is "waiting on the side," it's just "a road." But to those "sliding" along it together, it is a sleek, wide "interstate."

Ultimately, he is no further along at the end of this series of events than when he started. The question is, now that his coin has returned, does he return to the phone booth to try her number again? Has his courage been permanently raised?

Well, there is no more imagery of heat, or movement, in this verse. Even the bar is "some local" one. So has this simple disappointment brought him back down to the level of despair again? Yeah, that's more likely the case.

Next Song: Oh, Marion

Monday, June 20, 2011

One-Trick Pony

First, let us define the term "one-trick pony." It refers to a creature with one, and only one, talent. Superman has multiple powers, from flying to X-ray vision, while The Flash can only run fast. A vegetable steamer can steam various vegetables, while a rice cooker can only cook rice. You get the idea.

In this case, the "pony" in question is a performer. Simon likens a musician to a circus animal, performing the same trick over and over in various cities.

Yet, the focus on this one action has led to a remarkable result. Rather than die of boredom or burn out, the performer has reached a state of divine perfection and grace: "He moves like God's immaculate machine."

The first verse makes this clear. While "he does one trick only," when he does it, "You can feel the heat of his heart" (and let's pause to acknowledge that small marvel of assonance and alliteration). All of his concentration is focused on this one task, and he is truly enjoying the performance of it.

The second verse repeats this idea: "He’s just a one-trick pony, that’s all he is/ But he turns that trick with pride."

One would assume that there are two sides to this hyper-focused perfectionism-- that someone that good at one thing would be bad at everything else. How many concert pianists, for instance, are also famed for their investment portfolios? How many football players are asked for advice on home repair?

And yet that is not the case. Our speaker, the audience of the performance, is amazed that he himself is not as good at navigating the life he has, the life he has had every day to practice and perfect, as this performer is at his art: "He makes me think about/ All of these extra moves I make."

This creature does "one trick" and does it well... and then has all of its other needs attended to, so he doesn't have to be good at anything else! Meanwhile, our speaker needs a whole "bag of tricks" to get through an average day. So the situation is not fair on the other end, either.

This performer has been given the luxury to hone his craft to the point of nearly holy perfection, then being able to "relax in the wings." Meanwhile, those in the audience, who must do everything, don't get to be good at anything. And so they just wander around, "herky-jerky," doing everything partway and calling it good enough.

Additionally, once the trick is perfected, "that's all a pony needs." How many performers never replicate an early hit's success, yet are lionized and made financially comfortable forever after because of it? And yet the average person changes relationships and careers and homes constantly.

There is a mixture of reverence and resentment here. An appreciation for the wonder that is being seen, yet a jealousy at not having been given the time to achieve it oneself.

There is also some recognition that, no matter how long one would have practiced, one lacks the talent to do what one is witnessing. This acceptance is manifested by the religious imagery: "God," "immaculate," "testimony." Watching a God-given talent can be a somewhat religious experience. And there is a realization that there is a reason beyond rehearsals that allows this creature, and not others, to have some time "in the spotlight."

IMPACT: Simon's performance of the song was nominated for a Grammy. The song went to #40 on the US charts. In his biography, Paul Simon: A Life, Marc Eliot confuses this track's chart position with that of Late in the Evening, which did go to #6, not this track. Anyone can make a mistake, but someone should have realized that Late was not mentioned even though it was the standout hit from the soundtrack.

Next Song: How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns

Monday, June 13, 2011

That's Why God Made the Movies

The story told in this song is extremely sad, yet there seems to be a sarcasm about the telling of it by the speaker. Whether the sarcasm is bitter or dismissive-- or both-- is hard to tell. Maybe the speaker has mixed emotions about his mother dying on his birthing table; maybe one of those emotions is such a deep sorrow that he dare not approach it, for fear of falling inescapably in. So he builds a protective wall of nonchalance around it.

Surely, we cannot take what is said about the story literally. The main character is a newborn who can talk, walk, and even "pack" his own "bag." Later, he claims he was raised "by wolves."

Then come two more seemingly unrelated thoughts. The song shifts in the chorus to a love song. The speaker pleads with his lover not to leave, to accept him for who he is.

And then there is the repeated line about God having invented the film industry.

What's going on here?

Let's agree that the speaker's mother did, in fact, die in childbirth. What would have happened, absenting any family to claim him, would be that the foster care system would take charge of him. Being raised by unfamiliar people and a bureaucratic system could certainly feel like stealing away in to the night and being raised by "wolves," especially if those who fostered him were uncaring and only in it for the stipend.

Now that he is an adult, he is sharing his painful story with his lover. He pleads with her not to leave-- he is trying to explain why he would have what today are called "abandonment issues." "Say you won't leave me for no other man," he begs.

He is trying to make this woman replace his mother: "...take me to your loving breast/...nourish me." As if to make it clear that this is the case, Simon refers back to the previous song with next the line: "...the way the ladies sometimes do." Recall that in the immediately previous song, "Late in the Evening," the speaker's mother laughed "the way some ladies do."

With "Say you'll love me just the way I am," the speaker asks for acceptance not just in the general sense-- all people long to be accepted-- but for his specific issues and "baggage." His mother died just as he was born, and this loss is still painful, and he would have a very hard time experiencing another such loss.

As for "the movies," look at the images Simon pairs with that line. In the first and third verses, we have the last words "I'll only be gone for a while," and the idea of a feral child. These are movie-level experiences, heightened and false. They only happen in the realm of the imagination.

Then the line about movie is preceded, in the second verse, with "hoping things would turn out right." Is this as imaginative and fanciful a concept? Do things, in fact, only turn out right in fiction?

So it is possible that God made the movies because such imaginings needed somewhere to reside. Somewhere both visual and auditory, and in some means through which they could be shared with others. Both movies (which this song is in a soundtrack of) and music (which is what the movie itself is about) fill this bill.

Another reason is that movies, by dint of their artifice, allow an escape from the true pains of life. It is true that mothers die in childbirth. It is true that children are raised by those who would qualify as "wolves," or are left to fend for themselves.

And what could be a bulwark against having to deal with the severity of that reality, especially if one were facing it oneself? Sarcasm. Love, both parental and romantic. Art. All of these for alternate realities in which one might escape from the real reality. All create worlds in which things can "turn out right."

I don't feel too much should be made of the mention of God. It seems to simply be part of an idiom, meaning "that's why X exists." There is no expansion on the concept of God, no other religious or Biblical images that make religion an overarching theme. However, if any-One knew that humans need to escape reality once it a while, it would be the Architect of reality and humans both. (Tune in next week, though, for a song that mentions God and is surprisingly religious despite its other themes).

On one level, this is a song about a man who, losing his mother, seeks to make his lover a surrogate maternal figure. On a larger level, it is about the need to find an escape, a haven, from the brutal realities of life.

But it must be mentioned that this is a song about the power and necessity of movies... that was written for a movie.

Next Song: One Trick Pony

Monday, June 6, 2011

Late in the Evening

[Note: The songs on the soundtrack of Simon's film, One Trick Pony, do explain characters and progress the plot as one might expect, but for the purposes of these analyses, they will each be treated on their own terms. While the plot of the movie is basically a "what if," as in "What if Simon had not hit it big or stayed big?" I will not speculate on the relevance of the songs to Simon's own life, or relate them to the character of Jonah Levin, whom Simon plays.]

Well, this is interesting. I have been listening to this song for decades and always assumed the second line, "Couldn't have been no more than one or two" meant "It couldn't have been past 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.," which would make the hour, well, late in the evening.

When I looked online for the lyrics, however, it seemed I was alone in that assessment, and that the words, most agree, are "I couldn't have been no more than one or two," as in years old. Which would be incredible poetic license, as current psychology has it that no one can remember events in their own life before the age of three, because the necessary memory structures have not set up in the brain until that point. Also, at that age, one would not necessarily have a "bed" yet, but still a crib.

So I looked at Simon's own site, which lists the lyric as only "Couldn't have been no more..." with neither "I" nor "It" to break the tie (yes, I put myself even with the rest of the intelligence on the Internet. This is less a boast than a swipe at the general quality of the information available online). His book of lyrics, titled simply Lyrics, also has just "Couldn't've." While I still believe my hearing of the lyric makes more sense, I have to side with Simon and the grammar he uses.

In my hearing, the first thing than happens is a teen is lying on his bed, then gets up to go cruising, then goes into a bar to play his guitar. It forms one relatively smooth series of events that could well take place in the span of one evening. Then there is a verse about meeting his, as we would say today, significant other, which could have also happened that night, perhaps at the mentioned "bar." So "the first thing I remember..." would not mean "...altogether, in my entire life" but simply "...about that night." Which was a significant night, worth remembering, because it's when he met his sweetheart. So that is what I was going to say here.

But now I can't. The grammar of the song has the phrase "couldn't have been" referring back to the "I" of "The first thing I remember." So.

So the song is, at first, about the speaker's first memory. He remembers his bed, a radio, and his mother laughing. It's the kind of sensory, piecemeal impression one would expect of one's earliest memory.

Then, his entire childhood is evidently a blur, because the "next thing" he remembers is walking through his neighborhood as a teen with his friends, again "late in the evening." The guys not in his "troop" are playing pool at bars and parlors, the young women are hanging out on the "stoops" of the apartment buildings (not likely houses, if there were pool parlors in the same stretch of sidewalk).

Oh, and when he was a baby, there was a "radio," and now there are "a cappella groups" busking on the street corners. Two memories, and both times the hour is late and there is "music seeping through."

OK, enough of other people making music and his being on the receiving end. Now it is our hero's turn. He has learned to play some "lead guitar" (in some concert versions, Simon changes this to "rhythm guitar"), and-- after partaking of some, um, herbal courage-- he starts "to play... and [blows] that room away."

All of his life, he has been absorbing the music seeping through. Now it is coming back out of him. Now he is replying, joining in the conversation he has been on the receiving end of since he was in his receiving blanket.

Next, we would expect another "next thing." Instead, we get another "first thing." This is because the meeting of the love of his life is a new beginning. Now empowered by his musical triumph, he has the confidence to actively pursue her as well: "I'm gonna get that girl no matter what I do."

And, shockingly enough, when did this meeting take place, and under what circumstances? "It was late in the evening, and all the music seeping through."

Music is not just a part of our speaker's life. It is the water he swims in. It has been part of his life since his earliest memories, it is the mode through which he reached adulthood, and it was the reason he was in the same place at the same time as the person he wanted to share his life with.

Musical Note: The firework-like Latinate horns were arranged by David Grusin. This is the same composer who worked on the soundtrack of The Graduate. There, he composed the instrumental music that represents the parents' generation, with Simon and Garfunkel's songs representing the youth.

It was nice of Simon to show the world that the guy who wrote the "old people" music on that soundtrack had something in him beside "The Singleman Family Foxtrot." And it's also interesting that both of Simon's movie soundtracks have Grusin contributing.

The rhythm is borrowed from one of Simon's all-time favorite tracks, Elvis' Mystery Train.

IMPACT: The song went to #6 in the US. The song as been sampled by at least two other acts.

Next Song: That's Why God Made the Movies