Monday, November 21, 2011

Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog After the War

The title comes from a caption Simon liked to a photo of exactly that: the Belgian surrealist painter, his wife, and their dog, after WWII. The photo, I think, was in an intro of a book about Magritte and his work.

But the song, while somewhat evocative of Magritte's magical-realist art (everything normal, but with a dream-like twist), the song focuses more on the idea that even great artists have somewhat normal lives. They shop, they dine... they dance to popular music in their underthings in their hotel room.

In this case, they dance to the doo-wop groups that prefigured 1950s harmony groups like Dion and the Belmonts and The Crew Cuts, and may have even been smoother and more sophisticated than such street-corner hoodlums: "The Penguins/ The Moonglows/ The Orioles/ And The Five Satins."

Why was this music "fobidden"? Under the Nazis, all music made by African-Americans (and African-Europeans) was considered overly sexual and rhythmic and therefore "degenerate" (their word). Completely unlike Beethoven or Wagner, of course, whose works were restrained and refined. Magritte's work was also less than approved-of by the Nazis.

The next verse has the couple shopping on Manhattan's "Christopher Street," although I saw nothing of a trip to the States in the brief bio I just read, let alone their becoming American "immigrants." As far as I know, they (and their dog) remained Belgian citizens their entire lives, although there were exhibits of Magritte's work, I see, in New York in both 1936 and "after the war" in 1965. Magritte lived until 1967, so I suppose the couple could have come in for that.

And seeing suits in the American "style" might have driven home the pain that they were between worlds. They lived in Europe, with its stodgy ways, and Europe lived in them as well. But Magritte also was struggling in Europe, especially under the Nazis. Why could he not have been American? And free to have his strange artistic visions, and have them accepted? And be free to dance to this pretty music that never should have been "forbidden" to anyone?

The music that they loved but could never fully embrace also "brought tears to their eyes," but it also seems to have cheered them back up, as it is mentioned before-- their "easy stream of laughter."

It is the bridge of the song in which things become slightly surreal. We have the image of time slipping past like hunters stalking prey (or, possibly, evading becoming prey).

And then we have, again, the image of things "intertwined." In "Hearts and Bones," Simon wrote "You take two bodies and you twirl them into one... and they won't come undone." In "When Numbers Get Serious," he wrote: "Four rolls into three/ Three turns into two/ Two becomes a one." Here, it is the couple's "belongings" that have become enmeshed. (Possibly, also, their sense of "belonging," in that one member's social circle is now the other's as well.)

Simon, to my knowledge, does not perform this song in public, possibly due to the political incorrectness of the word "Indians." While it may make his listeners more comfortable sociologically, Simon is not about to sing: "decades gliding by like Native Americans." The absence of this song from his repertoire is lamentable, as it is truly a very pretty and evocative effort, along the lines of "Slip Slidin'" and "Something So Right."

The final verse of the song sees Magritte in his later years, vindicated as a great artist and "dining with the power elite" with some regularity. Then the couple finds some old recordings in their "bedroom drawer." (Evidently, they had done more than "dance" to these records.)

But why were these things "hidden away"? And why were their hearts a lifeless "cabinet" that was "cold"? Did the weariness of want wear away their passion... or was it the drive to success that sidelined it? Was it the strain of being caught between being European in body and American in spirit? Was it simply the passing of years and the onset of age?

It matters not, now. The recordings have been recovered, and with them, the fresh bloom of youth. And "now," their relationship can be as wonderful "as it was before."

It is always popular to see which musicians influenced a given musician, or what painters a given painter. But it is less common-- and perhaps even more revealing-- to discover which musicians influenced what painter... and vice versa. We can only imagine that Simon, knowing that he was influenced by both Magritte and The Moonglows, wanted Magritte to love them, too.

Lyrical Note:
When remaking this song for his In the Blue Light album, Simon made two changes to the lyrics.
Now, the "laughter" is "flowing" through the air (instead of "floating") and they "peeked" in their bedroom drawer (instead of "looked"). I agree that these words are stronger, better, and more evocative word choices.

(Note: The video is worth seeing, too.)

Next Song: Cars are Cars


  1. Love this song. Had not realised he didn't perform it in public. That's sad...

  2. Rosalie-- Well, not to my knowledge, and not on any recording or video I have seen or heard, and not the two times I saw him perform live, in any event. And yes, it is a pretty song that probably would find an audience; many more people are familiar with Magritte's name and work that one might guess.

  3. He performed it during his solo acoustic tour in August 1984 (there's a bootleg you can download), but not in a long while. It's one of my favorites. Love this blog, by the way!

  4. Mariana--
    Thanks for the info... and compliment! I was really hoping he would perform it on his current tour, but I think while he was reviving some of lesser-known material, Simon was also focused on upbeat songs, which is why he chose Crazy Love II instead of Rene and Georgette this time. Just a guess, but I'm happy to know a live version is available.

  5. You've got the "Indian" reference wrong - the line is "Decades, gliding by like Indians, time is cheap". The Indians in this case are in reference to the song " Ten Little Indians".... get it? 10 Indians- 10 years in a decade.

  6. CommentGuy-- I am familiar with the nursery rhyme you mean. However, I think the line "gliding by like Indians" refers to the stealthy way they are said to stalk prey-- swiftly, silently, and unnoticed-- not to their number.

  7. Hi Paul, Love your blog. It's a great source of inspiration and information!

    As for the Indian reference in this song, I always thought it to be about the bikes. Indian were the single biggest motorcycle manufacturing company in the years between the two world wars, and both the Scout and the Chief models were considered to be the pinnacle among roadsters. To me, and given Paul Simon's overall moral compass, that makes more sense. Obviously, it's just my thoughts!

  8. Anon-- Thanks for the compliments! I was first made aware of the Indian motorcycle brand when the movie "The World's Fastest Indian" came out in 2005. But Indians, the human kind, do "glide by" stealthily and silently while hunting, while there is nothing about a motorcycle that is silent.
    Also, which one would a Frenchman be more likely to know about-- Native Americans or a specific motorcycle brand?

    1. Hi Paul - I thought I had replied ages ago but I must've done something wrong while posting...

      I appreciate your point of view and I can certainly see where you're coming from!

      My train of thought is along the line of the Indian bikes being the top brand in the years after the war - they were literally the best known brand in the whole world. My thoughts are further fuelled by Simon's use of 'Gliding' in an earlier song, where he states:
      'Believe we're gliding down the highway/when in fact we're slip slidin' away'

      Not trying to right or wrong anybody here - just throwing in my two pennies' worth!

    2. Anon-- I still think the reference is to the Native American kind of Indians. To know what Simon thought motorcycles sounded like, listen to his song "Motocycle" with Tico and the Triumphs.