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


  1. In the last month I've gotten deeply into Paul Simon's music, and your site has been great fun for me to browse through. I could spend all day just reading your breakdowns of these songs. I'm always searching for other people's interpretations of them.

    This is one of my favorites from Simon's solo period---it simply kicks a@@. I can confirm that it's *I* couldn't have been no more than one or two, because sometimes in live performances he will slip in the "I." (Listen to the Concert in the Park version for example.) I got a question about the last verse---it says "Once or twice I've been on the floor," which, in the context of the song, seems to imply that he's already had sexual experience. But I normally think of "on the floor" as referring to the dance floor. Any ideas as to what it actually means?

  2. Well, if Simon himself sings "I," then we'll have to go with that, won't we?
    As for "on the floor," take it to mean "brokenhearted." As in "I've been in love before, and once or twice fell to the floor, unable to stand with the lovesick pain I was in, yet, even with all of that intensity in my experience, this is this the most intense love I have ever felt."

  3. Also, Anonymous, thanks for the compliment!

  4. I just read something I should write these things down because then I can't remember but this was also about Carrie. They met in 1978 and they didn't stop seeing each other completely until 1990 so if you plug in those particular songs, 1980 Late in the Evening; 83 Hearts and Bones; 86 Graceland; October 1990 She Moves On, thumbnail sketch of their relationship.

  5. Uknown-- So you are saying the last verse of this song, written for the One Trick Pony soundtrack, was about Simon and Fisher? Had not considered that... interesting.
    Simon obviously wrote several songs about her, but not as many as, say, Billy Joel wrote about Christie Brinkley.