Monday, August 29, 2011

All Because of You

As the first musical notes indicate, this is the early version of the song that became "Oh, Marion." It even contains the idea of love being an "easy game" for others. In the original incarnation, the line read: "...another lover/ Is an easy game."

Simon begins with an idea recycled from "Run that Body Down": "I went to my doctor." While the doctor might be able to help with a heartburn or even a heart attack, he cannot help with what the speaker has, which is heartbreak: "It’s all because of you/ It’s all because of you wouldn't say 'I do.'"

The doctor is no help, so he tries the drugstore. Or perhaps, the "drugstore," because one does not generally ask a pharmacist "Do the drugs on me," but a pusher. Again, this health-care provider demurs.

"Ain’t nobody loves me/ Nobody needs my love," our lovelorn speaker laments. Not only is he not the recipient of love, no one wants to be the recipient of his. Of course, the only one he knows this for certain about is the woman who would not accept his marriage proposal. Also, it could be that other women are steering clear of someone so clearly "on the rebound."

Then Simon comes up with a line he will use later: "This my only life." This is a cosmopolitan, existential disavowal of reincarnation/resurrection, which rather than comforting him with its enlightenment leads to a sense of mortality and despair. It shows up again as a line in "The Coast" on Rhythm of the Saints as "This is the only life" (and the variant "This is a lonely life.")

Frustrated with Western medicine, our despondent speaker turns to "alternative" or "traditional" cures: "So I went to the gypsy woman." While the word "Gypsy" is today considered offensive (and perhaps always was) and the preferred term is Rroma, the image of the kerchief-topped crone bending over a crystal ball is common in rock music, from "Madame Ruth/ The Gypsy with the gold-capped tooth" in "Love Potion #9" (originally by The Clovers) to Springsteen's line in "Sandy": "Well, the cops finally busted Madame Marie/ For telling fortunes better than they do."

The psychic admits, "I ain’t got no potions and no special kind of weed," but at least has some useful advice: "Go away, take a weekend or two." Staying where he is, brooding on the breakup, is not working, so perhaps a change of scene is in order.

The bridge explains why our Romeo is so beside himself, why his "brain’s all messed up." It's bad enough that his lover would not say "I do" and seems to have either rejected his marriage proposal or, worse, left him at the altar. But she won't break up with him, either: " would not say we’re through."

Although one has to wonder why the marriage rejection is not seen, in and of itself, as a break-up.

Perhaps Simon realized this and decided on a thorough rewrite of the song. He saved the medical metaphors in "Oh, Marion," writing about a "heart that beats on the opposite side," and a even reference to "brains," although it now means "intelligence" instead of "emotional state." Rather than being a song about a man who is troubled by a vexing woman-- a common song subject-- it is now about being a vexing man, who at least appreciates that he might be difficult to tolerate. A much more uncommon subject, indeed.

Next song: Stranded in a Limosine

Monday, August 22, 2011

Spiral Highway

This song, unreleased until recently-- when it appeared as a bonus track on the re-release of the One-Trick Pony soundtrack-- is a rough draft for "How the Heart Approaches."

The end of this song makes it clear, as it includes the entire chorus "After the rain on the interstate," here used as a verse. And then this: "Then I think it’s strange/ The way the body turns/ And how my heart approaches what it yearns."

Again, the song does not appear in the film or on the original release of the soundtrack; this is fine, since it not only repeats lines that ended up in a stronger song, but it also is another bemoaning of the travails of the road musician. Still, it contains an interesting idea or two, it shows another way a song could have gone, and it is a pretty number in its own right.

The most famous road that bears the name "Spiral Highway" is in Idaho. It winds around a hill, from the base to the summit, wrapping itself up and up-- or, I suppose, down and down, if you went in the other direction. Here, however, it serves as a metaphor.

In "Jonah," the speaker refers to "traveling around this circuit." This song takes that image to its logical extreme, and imagines the entire highway system as one endlessly looping Mobius strip: "Ride the spiral highway one more round," goes the chorus.

Then it gets specific: "Every bar and grill/ Every greasy spoon/ Anywhere a quarter buys a tune," the last phrase being a reference to jukeboxes. The repeated starting word "every" (employing a rhetorical device called "anaphora") recalls "Homeward Bound": "Every stop is neatly planned... And each town looks the same to me... and every stranger's face I see..."

Here, however, the thing that is repeated, aside from the music, is also another kind of performance. The idea of a "local call," and a "pink motel," Well... who are we calling, locally? Not the family, not the wife back home. Probably a groupie who was friendly last time through. And the motel is "pink" because is a not a business motel or family-friendly place, but one reserved for a rendezvous.

But even this repetition becomes meaningless: "Any time the strain begins to tell." The constant moving, setting up, breaking down, playing the same songs in the same kinds of places-- even the exact same places-- eventually takes its toll. And now even the after-show entertainment leaves a sense of "been there, done that."

Then we meet the "bone-weary traveler" watching "headlights slide past the Moon." But here, there is no longing passion to balance that image ("I dream we are lying on top of a hill..." Rather than the absent but desired lover in "How the Heart Approaches," we have a lover who is there, but no passion between them. Here, she is very "locally" ensconced in a "pink-"sheeted bed, with the exact opposite effect. Yes, here is a live a person... but no passion.

At this point, the lines "Then I think it’s strange/ The way the body turns/ And how my heart approaches what it yearns" come in. Oh, has he learned his lesson? Has the traveler answered the question "Where's he going?" with the word "Home"? Has he "turned" his "body" and started to finally "approach" what his "heart... yearns" for?

Um... Not exactly. The song concludes: "Ride that spiral highway one more round/ Ride that spiral highway one more round." He is "turning," he is "approaching" but he is not aimed anywhere. He is not yet finished with literally going around in circles.

Next song: All Because of You

Monday, August 15, 2011

Soft Parachutes

Simon is not the most political, protest-oriented of the Greenwich Village school/era of songwriters. He has, however-- to this point in his career-- made his feelings known on a few major events and issues: the Freedom Rides, church burnings, advertising, drugs, homelessness, aging, even (in another obscure number) Nixon and Castro.

But until now, Simon has not registered his sentiments on one of the most important issues of his day: The Viet Nam War. (Well, except for the offhand mention in "Punky's Dilemma.")

As usual, his approach is personal, not national or global. He song relates, in its one verse, the jarring experience of one draftee: "Last year, I was a senior... I had me a girlfriend/ We used to get high/ And now I am flying/ Down some Vietnam highway...God only knows why."

The speaker is shocked into submission by the suddenness and severity of the change in his life. He offers no protest, even though his life has been turned upside down for no discernible reason. All he can do is obey and hope to survive, even as he sees destruction, chaos, unreason, and death at all sides.

The music of the song is understated almost to the point of a whisper. War is supposed to be loud, but Simon's imagery is rather quiet as well: "soft parachutes" drifting hushedly down into jungles; "villages burning," but not the bombs, bullets, of flamethrowers that set them explosively ablaze; and "returning the bodies," done in passive voice (who is returning them?) and the silence of the dead themselves. He is not shown fighting, either, just driving to or from some battle zone.

The loudest thing in the song, in fact, is not part of the war at all. It's "The Fourth of July," easily the loudest of all American holidays. Even so, he does not mention fireworks. Just that this Fourth is being celebrated by parachutes in the skies instead... and the bright lights are on the ground instead of overhead. By juxtaposing the two types of pyrotechnics, the song implies the question: "What are we doing-- blowing up villages here, so we we can shoot off fireworks at home?"

This is one of the most obscure of all of Simon's tracks, and with a reason. It is in the movie, but not on the movie's original soundtrack.

In the film, Simon's character, Jonah, is a trying to make his name on the blues and rock circuit. This is interrupted by the chance to do a big-deal gig... but one with a price to his rep. The gig is a folk-nostalgia concert, with the actual Lovin' Spoonful sharing the bill for context. Jonah has been trying to break away from his flower-child aura and forge a harder-edged one... so artistically, this is a backward step. But it's too much exposure (and cash) to turn down. So he swallows his pride and gives the crowd what it wants-- a thoughtful folk song.

At this point his his own career, Simon was ten years past his breakup with Garfunkel. It must have been a challenge for him to, in the middle writing the rock songs for "One-Trick Pony," suddenly have to switch back to his "He Was My Brother" mode (although this is actually closer in tone to "Old Friends"). The song does not fit with the others in the Jonah Levin Band's repertoire, so it was left off the soundtrack, to give it a more cohesive feel as a stand-alone album.

But it available on the CD reissue, and you can see the song's entire performance from the film on YouTube. It's worth watching, since I do not believe there is any footage of Simon's solo "Songbook" recording sessions.

Next song: Spiral Highway

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Long, Long Day

Simon has dealt with the subject of weariness before. The song "American Tune," for instance, ends: "I'm trying to get some rest." Here, however, is a whole song on the matter.

The speaker seems to be homeless, at least at present: "Ain’t got no place to stay/ But any old place will be okay." So to whom is he singing, "Good night/ Oh, my love?" Why can't he stay with her, if he is so desperate? Evidently, he is speaking to her across some distance, by phone or in his mind,

Knowing that the character in the film singing the song is a travelling musician helps. This information is related in the next verse: "I’ve sure been on this road... You don’t see my face in Rolling Stone." (Meaning the music magazine, of course.)

Again, though, if he is with a tour, surely some arrangements have been made for his accommodations. It could be that his sense of homelessness is more metaphorical.

Also, this cannot be the first "long, long day"; this fellow has spent in his 14 years on the road. However, this particular day seems to have been particularly taxing.

The next verse-- more a bridge, really-- is in's version of the song, but not in the film itself. The film version goes:

"Slow motion/Half a dollar bill/Jukebox in the corner/Shooting to kill."

On the website and in the Lyrics book, however, we see these words interspersed with what seems to be a potential woman's vocal (which I have in italics; the rest is in the film version):

"When I see him standing there (Slow motion)
I said, “Hey, there’s a guy who needs a laugh
That’s what I said to myself (Half a dollar bill)

What the hell, we’re both alone
And I’m just standing here

Jukebox in the corner
Shooting to kill"

This version implies that, even though the singer is in "love," he is so desperate for companionship that he is willing to cheat tonight.

As this material is not in the film, however, I am not sure what to make of it. Going back to the film's version, which is, again-- "Slow motion/ Half a dollar bill/ Jukebox in the corner/ Shooting to kill"-- the sense is much more abstract, and it seems the jukebox is what is shooting to kill. It might be that, to a musician who hasn't made it, seeing others' songs on a jukebox is just another painful reminder of his lack of success. Either that, or a specific song it is playing proves heart-wrenching.

The phrase "half a dollar bill" is interesting as well. The usual phrasing is "a half-dollar," meaning either 50 cents or a 50-cent piece. But "half a... bill" implies a bill ripped in half. This might be a play on the saying "Another day, another dollar," implying "Today was only worth half a dollar." Another meaning could be, "I feel about a worthless as half of a dollar bill."

The last verse reiterates the loneliness that is part of the weariness the speaker feels. At last, he is so spent, this songwriter admits that he is out of words and apologizes for it: "I hate to abuse an old cliché."

The day has been exhausting, both physically and emotionally, and the best that can be said about it is that it is over.

Not the most well-known song in Simon's catalog, he nevertheless sang it on his appearance on The Muppet Show, alongside his better-known hits like "Scarborough Fair," "50 Ways," and "El Condor Pasa." (Both the film and Muppet Show performances are on YouTube.)

Next Song: Soft Parachutes

Monday, August 1, 2011

God Bless the Absentee

Most people probably see the life of a travelling musician much the way the speaker of the song "Money for Nothing" does: "That's the way you do it/ You play the gee-tar on the MTV/ Money for nothin', chicks for free."

As we have already seen, the life of a travelling musician may be anything but glamorous. I recall seeing one folkie in college. A guy came out, set up a stool and a mic', put some water on the stool, came back with a guitar and tuned it, and left the stage. Five minutes later, the same guy came out, picked up the guitar, and started to play and sing. This guy was his own roadie-- glamorous, indeed! Like the guys Dire Straits sing about who have to "install microwave ovens," the speaker considers himself a "working man."

This is the level of the game our speaker plays. In earlier songs on this soundtrack, Jonah discusses the toll it takes on him. Here, he widens his scope a bit: "I have a wife and family, but they don’t see much of me."

The line "I play the ace of spades" can be taken several ways. It might be a reference to "Ace in the Hole"; one imagines many games of poker are played on tour! Another meaning could be that he must always play his highest card, his best material, as his he still making his name. Yet another, more unlikely, idea is that he plays the role of the ace, the leader of the group, but this is a role he puts on.

Then speaking of his family, he asks for a blessing for himself, "God bless the absentee." On the surface, this may seem selfish. After all, shouldn't his family be the one he is asking God to bless, having to make their way without him? Ah, but of course God is watching over them. He is the one who has to remind God-- "Hey, I need some blessing, too! It's hard out here!" (This is the third song on the soundtrack to mention "God," plus one that mentions "Jesus.")

The next metaphor for what he does is surgery: "Music is my knife." In what way? "It cuts away my sorrow." Yes, but doesn't it also, in a way, cause it? After all, if his sorrow is missing his family, the music is what takes him away from them in the first place. If he gave up touring, he could see them every night. Perhaps that is not his only source of sorrow, however.

Now, if his heart would be "released" from the rest of his body, it would need the Absentee's Blessing. A heart with no body-- "pure" emotion without that which to feel about-- is not present in a new, truer context as it would hope, but "absent" from its real home. That heart would need God's special attention, with no other support system.

The bridge may seem to be about his "woman," but all the sentences start with "I." He is the true subject of the song; without his wife, bed, and pillow, he feels alone. Even if it was his choice to go on tour.

The next few lines are about his "son," whom he says "do[es]n’t need me yet." Why? "His bones are soft." This would imply a newborn, and one could argue that all a newborn needs is a source of milk, a clean diaper, and a nice crib.

But is this child a newborn? Not in the movie, and not here: "He flies a silver airplane/ He wears a golden cross." This is presumably a toy airplane, and one might even guess the kind of gift bought by a hurried, harried parent at an airport on the way home, having forgotten to buy one at the other city. And the son is old enough to wear a necklace, something one certainly does not put on an infant or toddler. Perhaps our speaker is in denial about how old his child really is and how much he needs a present father figure.

The last verse seems like a cop-out, blaming societal changes for his own guilt. The comments about how the country is changing reveal that he has not changed while everything around him has-- and maybe he is just noticing now (for instance, his newborn is now zooming around the living room narrating the flights of toy airplanes).

Changing the subject and externalizing his "sorrow" proves useless, however. He sees in the metaphors available to a traveler-- "highways" and "airports"-- what he is avoiding at home: conflict. Why else would he look at something usually used as a metaphor for freedom and spontaneity-- the open road-- and see "litigation"? Why imagine something as sterile and efficiency-minded as an airport "disagreeing"?

Maybe his store of sympathy has run out at home. Maybe when he calls home to gripe about something that happened at a gig, his wife replies that her single parenting is hardly the life of Riley, either... and if he hates it so much out there, he could come home and wash a dish or two.

Home is warm and cozy but stifling and stultifying; the road is thrilling and full of possibility and opportunity but lonely. Perhaps our conflicted absentee is truly in need of a blessing after all.

Next song: Long, Long Day