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


  1. Interesting summary.

    For some reason on Wikipedia teh song is described as 'a atirical take' on 60s protest songs, but i think you're right there's no satire here, he's just going back to his early style and writing a number that could have been produced at the time. I must say I think it's an absolutely brilliant song and only wish he'd written/recorded some more verses so it was a full track.

  2. The only reasons I check Wikipedia with regard to this blog is to confirm things like release dates are chart positions.
    The song is not a "full track" as you note, I suspect, because in the movie it only serves to provide a small taste of Jonah's early work; as it happens, it is performed as if it were a full track. Also, some folk songs are very short; "If I Had a Hammer," for instance.
    As far as it being satire, the performance is sincere and the audience reaction is somber and respectful.
    Lastly, I agree that it is lyrically and musically solid, probably better and more mature than "He Was My Brother" or "A Church is Burning," two other issue/protest songs.
    All of which goes to why I don't refer to Wikipedia on matters of interpretation or taste.

  3. I meant "release dates or chart positions." I wish I knew how to edit my comments.

  4. One of my favorites. Always yearn for another verse, but that is probably part of its appeal.

  5. It is a pretty number, but I doubt Simon will revisit it, or make a prequel to One Trick Pony about Jonah Levin's folk days. Probably the closest we'll get is Inside Llewyn Davis.