[Note to Readers: These next several posts, before we head on into the Hearts and Bones album, will be dedicated to some of Simon's material which was written before this point, but did not appear on any of the regular albums up to this point. So expect to discover some lost treasures .]
In keeping with the chronological idea of this blog, this song should have been discussed before One-Trick Pony. It was intended for Still Crazy and now appears (albeit in demo form) on the CD reissue of that disc.
It was first released on Greatest Hits, Etc., and was the lead-off track on that compilation, which was issued in 1977, two years after Still Crazy and three years before Pony.
So, if this blog ever turns into a book, the order will be: "Silent Eyes" (the last track of Still Crazy), then "Slip Slidin' Away" and "Stranded in a Limosine"... and then "Late in the Evening" (the first track of Pony).
That bit of housekeeping taken care of, on with the show...
This song is an expansion of John Lennon's dictum, "Life is what happens when we're making other plans," or the expression "Man plans and God laughs" (which is found in Yiddish, but I can't believe exclusively.)
It has a nihilistic theme that presages the Kansas song "Dust in the Wind"... and an episodic structure that prefigures Springsteen's "Glory Days" (further, both songs first present a man, then a woman, then a father [in a lesser-known concert version of the Springsteen song], then a philosophical conclusion).
The song begins, in fact, with this famous chorus: "Slip slidin’ away/ You know the nearer your destination/ The more you’re slip slidin’ away." Often, Simon is not so declarative of the message of his song.
First, we meet a man who is a martyr when it comes to love. The first clue to this Christ imagery is the word "passion," which at first we think just means "lustful affection." But then comes the image of the "crown of thorns" Jesus was forced to wear during the Crucifixion, which causes us to reinterpret the idea of "passion" to also mean something more like a "Passion Play."
In his protestation, he explains that his love for her is so intense, he is in danger of losing his sense of self: "My love for you’s so overpowering/ I’m afraid that I will disappear." So, the "nearer" he gets to her, the more his self "slips away." Imagine an ice cube in love with a lit candle-- the closer it gets, the smaller it becomes, until it is no longer ice at all, let alone a cube.
The second verse is about a woman who lives in regret. She has already lost herself. She's not a woman who "got married," she "became a wife." As if that meant she was no longer a "woman" unto herself, but now defined by her relationship to a man. A good day, to her, is not even one that is "sunny," but simply one that "ain’t got no rain,” which is a pretty low standard for nice weather. Meanwhile, when it does rain and she is stuck in the house (because she can't buy a raincoat or umbrella?), she simply wallows in regret: "I lie in bed/ And think of things that might have been.”
In her case, she is not in process of "slidin' away"; it may be fair to say she has already slid. She is not beyond hope, however, as she is aware of her situation, and may someday grow tired of it and reassert her own identity.
Now, the man and woman in the first two verses speak. The third verse presents a father who intends to, but does not: "He came a long way/ Just to explain/ He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping/ Then he turned around and headed home again."
His silence is immense. The child does not even know that his father was there. We can only imagine that the "boy" in question is relatively young to receive that appellation, and is not married in any case. Is he a child or teen, still living with his post-divorce mother? Probably. The other possibility is that the son lives alone, in which case, he is in college or is working and living in an apartment. But how did he fall asleep and leave the apartment door unlocked for his father to enter? Did his roommate let his dad in?
The first scenario seems more likely-- a wayward father (maybe like the one in Springsteen's "Hungry Heart") returns, wants to explain himself, then considers the possibility that the son has gotten over him and that his return will only prove disruptive. Who is he doing this unburdening for, anyway? If it's for himself, maybe he should leave well enough alone. Certainly, waking a child up with, "Hi, remember me, your dad? Anyway, here's why I left. OK, then... back to sleep, now," is not something any therapist would recommend.
He has reached his "destination," only to realize that the distance between himself and his son is not measured in miles (or kilometers); he is right there, yet as far away as ever.
The last verse is the "...and God laughs" part. The key word here is "gliding." Not "driving"; we are at least self-aware enough to know we are not in control. But we do believe we are savvy enough to ride the road like an albatross does the air currents or a surfer does the waves-- able to change with the curves and even use them to increase our forward momentum... to "glide."
Even this level of control, Simon explains, is an illusion: "God makes his plan/ The information’s unavailable/ To the mortal man" (think of God's response to Job: "Were you there when I made the universe?"). We think we are headed toward our "destination," say, in our career or financial plan. But no, even as we reach our retirement or monetary goals, overcoming the curves in the road, we are missing the point.
We spend our time planning when we have no control over God's plan for us. We have no control over natural disasters or elections or wars or Wall Street or diseases or accidents or most other things. We can be "gliding down the highway" in entirely the wrong direction, but it matters not, as we will ended up where we were Intended to be regardless.
This song is about providence and predetermination. It is about fortune and fate... even fatalism. It's beautiful, yet a very sad and resigned shrug about mortality and the futility of human action. Everyone in the song tries for a goal and not only misses it but loses him- or herself in the process of aiming for it altogether. People lose themselves in the pursuit of love, stability, or money; even the father who went off to find himself now only sees what he lost in doing so.
This post began with a suggestion of which songs this one influenced, but writers as early as King Solomon concluded: "...all is vanity, and striving after wind."
Amazingly, for such a somber number-- and one without a proper album to support it at that-- the song went to #5 in the US. It remains a radio mainstay, even if it is still only available on compilations (and, of course, online).
Along with "Fifty ways to leave your lover," "Mrs. Robinson," "Bridge over troubled water," and "Still crazy after all these years," the phrase "Slip slidin' away" has become part of the American linguistic landscape.
Next Song: Slow Man