Monday, July 25, 2011


It is difficult to divorce this song from the movie One-Trick Pony, as Jonah is the main character of the movie, and the part Simon plays in it.

So maybe we can see why Simon chose his character's name to be Jonah. In the prophet's tale, Jonah is supposed to deliver a prophecy from God to a city, but defiantly sets sail in the opposite direction. God sends a storm over his boat and Jonah explains to the terrified sailors that it's his fault and they should throw him overboard, which they reluctantly do. But how to deliver Jonah to his God-directed destination, that he may in turn deliver his message? God sends a giant "fish" (as the text has it) to swallow him and carry him there in its belly. Jonah is spewed ashore before the city... and delivers the prophecy to its inhabitants as he was supposed to in the first place.

How is Jonah, the character, like Jonah, the reluctant prophet? The song explains, although not right away.

Like "The Road" (the Danny O'Keefe song popularized by Jackson Browne), "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson," Bob Seger's "Turn the Page," or Simon's own "Homeward Bound," this song is an autobiography of a travelling musician. (For another beautiful example, find Pierce Pettis' "Envelopes of Light," with EWI by Michael Brecker, whom we discussed earlier.) In point of fact, Simon and his Jonah character are both road musicians on never-ending tour.

The opening verse shows an average gig from the musician's viewpoint: Is my guitar in tune? How is the room filling up? Any cute "local girls" around?

Then, this odd line: "Misinformation/ Plays guitar." Does the musician somehow personify misinformation? "Disinformation" would imply willful deceit. But "misinformation" can be unwitting: "I'm sorry I said the movie started at 8:00 and you were late-- it had started at 8:00 last night, when I went myself, so I assumed it would stay the same the following night."

But how does a musician misinform his/her audience? There can be many answers-- for instance, the "truth contained by a lie" idea that fiction writers discuss. The chorus provides another, specific one: that the assertion that Jonah was swallowed by a "whale" has no "truth."

What is the truth? "I know (that) Jonah, he was swallowed by a song."

Jonah the prophet had his ideas about what he was going do with his life... and he was wrong. God had other ideas for him that literally consumed him.

So too, Jonah the film character misses his family (as we will see in the next song) but is compelled to follow his music. He is swallowed by his songs, which carry him in a way he can't control.

Or... isn't he in control? Isn't travelling and singing his choice, when he could take an office job and be home for dinner every night? In the next verse, he admits that he holds his dream of musical success "tightly," and that it keeps him "warm" in the otherwise "cold" world. Somewhat like a gambling addict who feels, again and again, that the next hand will break his losing streak, he feels that "one more year" of honing the songs and performance will result in a "gold," or at very least, a performance worthy of that. And at the end of this year? "One more year" again.

Along this "circuit" of bars and street festivals and such, one runs into the same people over and over-- others chasing their similar dreams of stardom. Obviously, they don't all make it to the Grammys and MTV. So... "Do you wonder where those boys have gone?" What does become of those who don't make the majors?

And, these musician must wonder... "Good Lord-- How do I know if that has happened to me? No, it can't have-- I'm still out here, touring and getting gigs. It'll happen, it'll happen; I just have to keep at it until I get my break."

They get swallowed by the songs as Jonah was by the fish. It must feel that the songs are in control, carrying them around from port to port, from bar to festival, and back around, to deliver their prophecies. And the Jonahs, prophetic or musical, are just along for the ride.

Next Song: God Bless the Absentee

Monday, July 18, 2011


Last entry, we discussed the songwriting method that uses a stock phrase or cliche as its basis. This entry, we see another popular tool in the songwriter's toolbox in use.

I call this idea "Making a List." The idea is to take what is basically a one-line idea and expand upon it by listing many examples. Take some great Temptations songs. Start with the idea "I can do many things that most would consider impossible, such as making a ship sail on dry land, but the truly impossible thing is winning your love" and you get "Can't Get Next to You." Start with "You are as good at something as the very thing that was made for that purpose, such as being as bright as a candle," and you get "The Way You Do The Things You Do."

The list this time is "Nobody does these things for me... except you." And like many list songs, each line starts with the same word, in this case, "Who."

Much of the imagery of the list is anatomical: "bone," "flesh," "eyes," "skin," "hands," "heart," and "blood." This choice relates to the sensuality and sexuality of the relationship-- "Who feels my flesh"-- as are other images from the natural world: "Who plows the earth," "When I am rising like a flood."

The other images are domestic: "bed," "door," "mirror." As Billy Joel put it, "You're My Home."

But the relationship is much more that sexual and goes beyond the bedroom. There is an emotional intimacy as well, one that shares a "secret" and a "dream," and even fears; "Who saw... the scream?"

There is a sense of support. She helps the speaker with his tasks ("Who took my two hands and made them four?"), and does things for him he cannot do for himself ("Who makes the bed that can’t be made?). She even helps him do things that are necessary but painful ("Who breaks the skin," and "Who is my blade?") like showing him his true self ("Who is my mirror?").

Lastly, she gives the encouragement to go out the "door" into the world and a "reason" for doing so.

The only problem? She's the only one who can provide these things for him. The answer to "who" is not just "you." It's "nobody but you."

Does he have no friends, no family, no colleagues? It seems not; he has "nobody in this whole wide world" but her.

Well, what is he supposed to do when she is not there? He believes she "feels his flesh" when he is gone, but he feels a black hole in his life when she is gone. The poor fellow seems not to be even able to shave himself without her, since she is his "mirror" and "blade."

There is a beauty in the intensity with which he needs her, but a sadness and weakness also in such dependency.

Coming back to Motown, we recall the song "Reach Out, I'll Be There," in which The Four Tops list all the situations in which the speaker will support the woman he is speaking to (the sentences start with "If").

And there is a difference, is there not, between "I love you for all the ways you support me" and "I love you and so I support you in all ways."

Next Song: Jonah

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ace in the Hole

One of the easiest ways to write a song is to expand upon a cliche: "Taking Care of Business," "Bad to the Bone," or even "It's a Small World."

It's not like Simon to do so, but then his One Trick Pony character, Jonah Levin, "wrote" these songs.

The real question is not why Simon chose to write such a song, but why it wasn't a hit. It has all the fun of "Kodachrome" or "Late in the Evening," with a nice, big blues-rock sound cranked out by a crack set of musicians.

Was it the opening, dismissive of Jesus, that made radio stations afraid to play it? Simply mentioning Jesus , as in "Mrs. Robinson," didn't seem to be a problem. But this first verse might have been one shade too sarcastic for general airplay.

The song itself is straightforward. An "ace in the hole" is a secret weapon, a sure-fire back-up plan, or, in another playing-card metaphor, a trump card. The song discusses various such aces in the hole and their varying dependability.

The first candidate is Jesus. The speaker dismisses this figure as a "man" and implies that if he cared, he would "call [him] on the phone."

Then Richard Tee's character, Clarence Franklin (Tee is Simon's keyboardist; more on him later), is introduced. Clarence explains that he has an "emergency" stash of $200.

Why that amount? "If you wanna get some quality/ That’s the price you got to meet." The item of "quality" in question is not mentioned, but one assumes that this is because the item is of an illicit nature, possibly drugs or a prostitute's attentions. While money is discussed good-naturedly, there is no overt disagreement or dispute as to whether it would provide an adequate ace in the hole.

The next "ace" to audition is self-awareness which leads to self-control: " ace in the hole/ Was that I knew that I was crazy." On a functional level, the speaker explains that he focused on moderation to avoid extremes: "I just walk in the middle of the road/ and I sleep in the middle of the bed."

This self-regulatory mechanism did have its drawbacks, however, because it served as a band-aid and did not address or rectify the problem at hand... which was that he was crazy. And so, even armed with self-knowledge and self-control as a way to safely navigate social situations, he would invariably (to use another playing-card metaphor) tip his hand and reveal his oddness by "stop(ping) in the middle of a sentence" while speaking. Why? To hear his brain saying that it was taking care of everything. Which, it then became clear to all present, it was not.

The last contestant is "music." The music doesn't have to be brilliant or special-- it can be "your basic rock and roll" (like, for instance, this very song! How handy.).

To "sit on top of the beat" is music jargon; it means to have the melody line adhere tightly to the rhythm, as opposed to swinging the melody, synchopating it, double-timing or half-timing it, etc. Simon takes this term and expands on it-- if a beat has a "top," it must have a "side" and a "bottom," no? And if you "sit" on top, you'd "lean" from the side and "hang" from the bottom, of course.

Listen to the verse again and you will hear the vocalists doing what they are describing. The first line does "SIT on TOP of the BEAT" (emphasis mine). The next holds the note on "Leeeean," imitating someone stretching out to lean. And the last line uses the fact that "bottom" has two syllables, plus the "b-t" alliteration of "bottom" and "beat," to syncopate the lyric.

However you relate this music, you have to "admit" that it is "sweet." We have a winner, folks-- music is the most reliable "ace in the hole."

Coming back to the bridge, about riding the tour bus, we see a foreshadowing of this realization. When he is on the bus, and the overcast, gray sky is "stony"-- stoic and unresponsive (shades of the reticent Jesus in the first verse)-- and the isolation and lack of distractions brings a flood of regret... then, when he is most in need of an ace in the hole, to what can he turn?

"Roll on, roll on," he tells himself. Just keep going to the next gig. The music is there, waiting for you to arrive.

Musical Note: Richard Tee was a very talented sideman. He worked with Simon on the track "Gone at Last," and later on his Hearts and Bones album. Further, Tee played in S&G's Concert in Central Park band.

He had long collaborations with Grover Washington, Jr., and George Benson. Much of his skill was spent creating sophisticated jazz with the likes of Quincy Jones, Lee Ritenour, Manhattan Transfer, Dave Sanborn, Lou Rawls, King Curtis, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Tee specializes somewhat in backing female vocalists, including Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Roberta Flack, Jackie DeShannon, and Esther Phillips.

But he was not limited to any one genre, backing a wide variety of acts including James Brown, David Bowie, The Bee Gees, and Hall & Oates.

Tee's keys appeared on landmark albums like Aretha Frankin's Young, Gifted and Black, Billy Joel's The Stranger and An Innocent Man, and Peter Gabriel's So. And he had some success with his own band, Stuff.

Sadly, Tee died of cancer in 1993, at 49.

Next Song: Nobody

Monday, July 4, 2011

Oh, Marion

In the previous song, it is unclear who the "bone-weary traveler" is. Is it the speaker, or someone the speaker sees from his motel window and identifies with?

Here, the pronoun shifts again. In the verses, the speaker refers to a "he," some confounding person. In the verses, the song has a man speaking in first person ("I think") to his lover, Marion.

We're going to have to assume that the "he" of the verses and the "I" of the chorus are the same person, otherwise what holds the two together? The "I" becomes "he"... when other people are discussing him.

The first verse opens with a line one might hear from a teacher about a distracted student: "The boy’s got brains/ He just refuse to use ’em and that’s all." The boy’s response is a version of "ignorance is bliss": “The more I get to thinking, the less I tend to laugh.” Simon revisits this idea in the twin songs "Think to Much" on his next album.

(In a moment of lyrical weakness or laziness, Simon ends the first verse with a new rhyme-- "brains/abstains," then gives up on that couplet idea for the second and third verses.)

In the second verse, his heart beats on his right instead of his left. This is no longer just a frustrating choice that beleaguers a teacher, it is something for a scientific journal: "a strange phenomenon/ The laws of nature denied." His response this time was that it was an adaptation make in reaction to some unnamed threat: "I shifted my heart for its safety’s sake.”

He refuses to use his mind, his heart's desires are dubious, and then he employs his nice singing "voice" to be duplicitous: "his words don’t connect to his eyes."

His response is hard to parse: "when I sing/ I can hear the truth auditioning.” An "audition" is an attempt to be heard, a prelude to being allowed to act or sing before an audience. So if the truth is "auditioning," at least he is trying to convey the meaning and emotion of the song.

So here is our man, according to those who know him-- purposefully unthinking, guarded in love, and prone to hiding his feelings.

Are we all that surprised that his relationship with Marion is "in trouble"? The true surprise is that he is in a relationship altogether.

He would rather "laugh" than "think." He hides his heart. He sings (to quote "Kathy's Song) songs he "can't believe." His entire life is lived as if he wants all of his experiences to be happening to someone else. In short, he is in massive, willful denial.

So of course he doesn't "believe" Marion at first when she says that their relationship is "in trouble." He doesn't want to think about it, he never allowed himself to get that close to her... and, like all insincere people, he cannot appreciate sincerity when he hears it.

What's his assessment? That love is a "game." (Which idea stands in direct contradiction to that of the speaker of "Congratulations," who says "love is not a game.") It is predictable that a shallow person such as this would be dismissive of love.

He also concludes that the game is "easy" for "other people." Once again, he externalizes his problems. Love is just a game he is not good at, like chess.

Suddenly, something is his problem. Something real, and really bad, is happening, and it is happening to him and not someone else. Well then, at least it's no one's fault (including his own). And of course there is nothing he could do about it anyway.

"Oh, Marion," we have to say, "How did you get mixed up with this guy in the first place?"

Next Song: Ace in the Hole