Monday, November 14, 2011

Train in the Distance

Is it necessary to analyze this song? It's one of the most straightforward of all of Simon's songs, telling the story of a marriage, from its prelude through to its epilogue. The "moral of the story" is even spelled out in the final chorus.

Now, there is a mistake in the lyrics at Simon's website. It says "He was old/she was young." This is wrong. In the song itself, Simon seems to sing: "He was old/ he was young." This, while it seems self-contradictory, is corroborated by two sources. One is the liner notes of the album.

The other is the new book Lyrics: 1964-2011, which I purchased at Paul Simon's concert here in the Chicago area last night. (Now that the book is out, someone at the website should really spend a couple of days doing line-by-line proofreading.)

The difference is enormous. The incorrect version seems a simple statement of fact as to their relative ages. The correct version provides one of the only enigmatic lines of the whole song. "He was old," in years, perhaps-- but in every other way, he was "young." Romantic, impulsive, ambitious...

The story starts with a older man attracted to a younger, married woman (her husband is immaterial to all concerned, dismissed as a mere "someone"). Our hero would "tip his heart" instead of his hand (the term comes from playing cards), meaning that he made his amorous intentions known. But even though she initially "withdrew," she hears the sound of the distant train as much as he does ("everybody" hears, it, after all).

The next steps seem automatic and inevitable: "Eventually" they marry, "sure enough" they have a boy. But even while she was pregnant, "disagreements had begun."

It is not clear when the child is born, relative to their divorce. But divorce they do, although they "they remain in contact." The line "Let us say it’s for the child," implies that this is not the true reason, but one that seems reasonable and acceptable to both and to the families and community involved (is the real reason that they are still somewhat attracted to each other?).

The word "disagreements" comes up again, this time with regard to the "marriage contract," but again more is going on. Certainly lawyers can (although expensively) debate that, professionally and coolly. Their "conversations," meanwhile are "hard and wild" and obviously about things more personal and intimate than just legalities.

Was there something,,, there? Well, "from time to time, he just makes her laugh/ She cooks a meal or two." Here, we have a disagreement, to borrow a word, about lyrics again. The website and album notes say "he makes her laugh," while the song itself and the Lyrics book have it "he just makes her laugh." This is not as crucial an issue as the disputed pronoun above, but it does go to a central theme of the song.

Which is that it had to happen this way, going back to when he "doggedly" hounded and wooed her. This goes through the "eventual" and "sure enough" phases discussed above to how they "just fell apart." And now, he "just makes her laugh." He doesn't seem to mean to, but something he says "just" strikes her as terribly amusing.

The narrative breaks, during the divorce chapter, for the speaker to insert an observation about the characters: "Two disappointed believers/ Two people playing the game." They do believe in love, but are disappointed by marriage. Instead of loving each other and working toward compromises for the advancement of the union, they are "playing" against each other, each trying to win and advance his or her own interests.

The phrase "negotiations and love songs" would become the title of one of Simon's compilations of hits, but here it means that love songs, through which one hopes to win the heart of the other, are often little more then sales pitches, in which the singer hopes to win, period. But while dogs chase cars, what would a dog do with a car if it caught one? What good is winning if, now that you have sealed the deal and gotten married, the game is over? Then the power struggle moves into the marriage itself, with everyone losing.

Why? Why does all of this have to happen, with the forgone nature of one "train" car following the next down a predetermined track?

It is not outside fate exactly, Simon theorizes, but how our brains are wired (or "woven") for ambition and improvement of our situations: "The thought that life could be better/ Is woven indelibly/ Into our hearts/ And our brains."

It's not the song that needs to be explained, after all. It's the people in the story, a tale so lacking in detail that the characters never even get names. We have all heard of some couple that this story, in some form, has happened to. So it is important to ask why such a story is so sadly common.

Still, there is some growth. "The boy and the girl get married," but after they divorce, "the man and the woman remain in contact." They haven't simply grown older, they have grown up.

And, if either one does marry again, it might actually go "better." For her, she left her first marriage for this man. But this time, she leaves her second husband for herself. Certainly, she will have to be mature enough to think of the impact this would have for her child. But if she does marry again, it should be for the right reasons.

Meanwhile, he was old when he started this adventure, and now he is a father. Still, he is "dogged" and "young" in a way, so maybe he will have another shot as well.

Did ambition and competition destroy this marriage, even before it had begun? Yes. Will the same thing happen in the next go-round? Well, as Samuel Johnson explained, "Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience."

Next Song: Rene And George Magritte with Their Dog After The War


  1. I have just discovered this blog and it's amazing. Thanks so much for doing this. And so glad to see someone else who recognises Paul Simon's supremacy as a songwriter.

  2. Rosalie-- Thanks! And thanks also for "recognising" that an American songwriter is as good as any Brit.

  3. Well, yes. Not that I tend to think of Paul Simon as particularly American (sorry) or of John Lennon as particularly British, come to that. They're all world citizens where I'm concerned :)

    Mind you, I think most US modern literature is way better than the UK equiv, if that's any comfort...

  4. Esteemed Another Paul! I'm a freelancer translator from Russia. Simon's poetry is one of my favorite thing of interest. Your blog's very helpful for me. You write:It's not the song that needs to be explained... Please, think about the foreign listeners and readers. Then do your excellent work. Great thankfulness for you. How about next Simon's albums?

  5. Esteemed Another Paul! My name’s Valeriy. I'm a freelancer translator from Russia. Simon's poetry is one of my favorite things of interest. Your blog's very helpful for me. You write:It's not the song that needs to be explained... Please, think about the foreign listeners and readers. Then do your excellent work. Great thankfulness for you. How about the next Simon's albums?

  6. Response to Rosalie: One of my favorite photos of Lennon shows him wearing a New York City shirt and standing in front of the Statue of Liberty; he certainly loved New York. And Simon, even more so, has worked with songwriters and musicians from Brazil to England to South America; he even wrote a song called "Citizen of the Planet."

  7. Response to Valeriy: Privyet... and Spasibo. I am glad that my blog is useful to you. I am working on Simon's songs in the order they are presented on the albums. So after "Hearts and Bones" there are a few more songs that are not on any album, and then I will start in on the "Graceland" album either before the end of 2011 or at the start of 2012. While it is true that the majority of my readers are from English-speaking countries, as another reader just wrote, Simon's audience was truly worldwide, and so is my readership. In fact, one of his songs begins: "I am a citizen of the planet." I certainly hope people from other countries are helped to understand the meaning behind Simon's poetry, which like much poetry does not always translate well. And then there are American and other cultural and historical ideas that need to be defined and explained. Your English is excellent, by the way!

  8. Just a nice, small discovery for you to make. That one line in 'Train in the distance' is not "She cooks a meal OF two" but "She cooks a meal OR two". Look it up in the PS Lyrics book, or on the record sleeve.

    I noticed this because the expression is literally the same in Dutch (my native language)."She cooks a meal or two" meaning literally that she may cook one or two meals. And figuratively that she might not just leave it at one meal, but may be offering another one if she likes to.

    So what have we got here? He makes an attempt to (re)connect by not just talking to her, but by trying to make her laugh - in spite of the dire circumstances. While she makes an attempt to (re)connect by not just offering that one casual, obligatory meal, but to grant him some more of her hospitality... in spite of the circumstances.

    Two meals = two days of hospitality. And a whole night in between.

    It's really not that unusual among ex-lovers. If someone has gotten so deeply into your heart & bones & brains, it's pretty hard to wipe them out of your emotional system.

    One little word... and a world of meaning opening up. That's why I like Simon's songs.

  9. Hannes-- Thank you. Yes, it is a meal "or" two. That was a typo. I am now re-editing all of the pages, 25 per week, to catch just such errors.

  10. Hi there,

    Just want to throw out my own interpretation on the "he was old/he was young" line. In falling in line with this being a song with more literal than ambiguous lyrics, I always assumed that "he was old" referred to 'her' first husband, with the 'he' being so doggedly determined partly on account of being younger than his rival. Just my spin on it!

    1. Came to this site to offer the same conclusion. Kudos for getting there first.

  11. He was old/ he was young. Been listening to that for years. Think I got it.
    There are two males here. The someone she was married to and the one determined to get her. The former is old, the latter young.
    What a wonderful gem. Hidden in plain sight until you consider the story told.

  12. Fred and Rasmus-- I think we can take a cue from Dylan here, when he sings, "I was so much older then/ I'm younger than that now." He was more confident of his knowledge, now he is aware of his own ignorance.
    Age is a number; youth is a state of mind. Here, Simon means, I think, that while he was technically old, he was still young at heart, or naive, or hopeful, or inexperienced, or all of the above.