Monday, January 23, 2012

Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes

Conspicuous consumption is not something one would expect to hear lauded by a graduate of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk-song scene. Yet, here we have a celebration of decadence-- a person  possessed of so much wealth and ostentation that she can even walk, not merely in Cinderella's comparatively shabby crystalline footwear, but with "diamonds" embedded in "the soles of her shoes."

(Even if you could afford this, I would recommend against it, or you would need all of your diamonds to pay your podiatry bills.)

This song sort of takes off on the idea of "You don't feel you could love me/ But I feel you could" discussed in "Gumboots." Here, the divide is economic. We have seen how wealthy this woman is, while her beau is "empty as a pocket." That last word evokes Duncan, who was "destituted as a kid could be... without a penny in [his] pocket." (Also, we hear echoes of The Boxer and other downtrodden characters from Simon's earlier work.)

At this point, the song's pronouns shift, indicating that now the "poor boy" will narrate. And how does he feel about her outrageous display of wealth? He's philosophical about it: "Well, that’s one way to lose these walking blues." If you have to walk, you might as well do it in style, right?

At least, that's what he says openly. As they are walking, they lose physical contact until she slips her hand into his empty pocket (with his "car keys"? Then why are they walking? Maybe they have parked and are now walking to the door.) She senses that he is upset, and she is too.

"She said, 'You’ve taken me for granted/ Because I please you/ Wearing these diamonds.'" Well, that makes no sense-- if she pleases him, then by definition he is pleased by her and does not take her for granted! Maybe he's taken her for granted because she has diamonds and can pay for things, but it's not clear that he is pleased that she wears her diamonds this way.

"And I could say, Oo oo oo/ As if everybody knows/What I’m talking about/ Talking about diamonds on the soles of her shoes." It seems to me that he feels stuck. It's not his money and he has no right to tell her what to do with hers. But it's got to be a constant thorn in his side to see her waste money like this when he's so broke and would use that money so much more prudently if he had it. If anything is being taken for granted here, it's her money! Anyway, he can't say anything openly, but even his interjections give him away-- everybody knows that his sighs and groans are about this issue. Well, except her, it seems.

"She makes the sign of a teaspoon/ He makes the sign of a wave." The sign language for "spoon" is two fingers on the right hand spooning up imaginary food from an imaginary bowl in the left hand. And a "wave" is shown by undulating both hands palms down on a mimed roller coaster, much like a hula dancer might. So those are not the "signs" meant here.

I think that the average person, untrained in sign language, would indicate a spoon with an upturned, cupped hand (as if asking for something)... while wave would be a cupped hand, too, but palm down (as if telling someone to calm down). The two hands would compliment each other, like a yin-yang symbol. But if she is asking for something with an upturned palm, he's replying, with a downward-facing palm-- "Please ask for something I can actually provide-- keep your expectations low and realistic."

In any event, they prepare for an evening out (and the narrator takes back over). The man tries to gussy himself up "to compensate for his ordinary shoes." She seems already ready to go.

She is still attracted to him despite her earlier comment, calling him "Honey," and asking him, in fact, for something realistic: "Take me dancing." This is a lovely gesture on her part-- even though she knows he's poor, she is giving him the honor of being the one doing the "taking." She does not say, "I can get us into this posh club," or even "Let's go dancing," but "(You) take me."

Somehow, instead of a dance club, "they ended up by sleeping in a doorway." Not even the doorway to either of their buildings, but merely "a" doorway. What happened? Did they get drunk and pass out?

First, we learn what town they are in: New York City. They "ended up... by the bodegas and the lights on Upper Broadway." "Bodega" is the Spanish word for a small grocery or convenience store. And "Upper Broadway" is not the famous downtown theater district, but farther north, at which point the street gives way to residential areas populated by people of varying backgrounds. So these are not the dazzling "lights" of marquees but the gaudy neon of bars, shops, and small hotels.

And then a pronoun changes the story altogether: "...wearing diamonds on the soles of their shoes." So that's what they did instead of going dancing. They went and made his "ordinary" shoes much less so. It must feel wonderful to have someone waste money on you, instead of making you watch them spend it only on themselves.

Now, the poor boy closes out the song, letting everyone know what he feels about this new development: "People say I’m crazy, I got diamonds on the soles of my shoes/ Well, that’s one way to lose these walking blues." Now he is playing it off like it's no big deal-- he's just trying to make walking more enjoyable. OK, sure.

I remember a story that came out of the Hurricane Katrina mess-- one family took the restitution money they received for losing their home to the floods and went grocery shopping... in a limousine. At first, this upset me-- how dare they waste money like that, in their situation! Then I remembered that limos are not necessarily that much more expensive than cabs. And that if you have a large family and a lot of groceries, you might need more than a sedan-size car.

And if you finally have enough money for once and had never been in a limo before, this might be a fun, memorable way to cheer everyone up for an afternoon. After all, going to the grocery store is hardly fun. But if you do it in a limousine... well, that could be one way to lose those shopping blues.

Musical Note:
While they get much more to sing later on "Homeless," this song is the first time most people got to hear the powerful-yet-tender vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. More about that amazing ensemble when we reach that song.

The track itself was remixed as a dubstep number, called "Diamonds Dub," by Todd Terje.

Next Song: You Can Call Me Al


  1. this made me cry. i am going to read every entry on this blog, if for no other reason than that i thought i'd never find another person who listened so closely to a song, or that it would be Paul Simon they chose to honor in this way. i agree with your first assessment: that he is the best of all time, and you can politely tell your Dylan-fan friend that though Bob is undeniably a genius, you now have anonymous internet confirmation of your opinion, and that it is time to lay the debate to rest.

    also: i play a simplified version of this song own my own guitar, which my oldest daughter asks me to play every time i see her, and in fact asked me to play at her wedding. if this blog entry is not the most perfect snapshot of the irony of how much she loves this song and how much she is this girl (not that we're rich, necessarily)... well, i'm crying again.

    also also: though i do not know you, i wish you had happened to walk by the children's play area in the mall in Vancouver, WA at the same time as i did about 9 months ago, when a random 5-year old girl stopped me to show me her shoes -- "these are my shoes! i can put diamonds on them!" she said. maybe i'm just a big blubbering mess, because i strolled to the bathroom and cried then, too.

  2. also: i always took the teaspoon/wave thing as "what a teaspoon holds for you is like a wave to me." but that's just me.

  3. Andrew-- Thank you so much for your very open-hearted comments! My congratulations to your daughter. As for the teaspoon/wave image, I have had one person tell me it's a cocaine spoon and the wave of the high they are going to get. So there's that.

    1. Sneakers or hiking boots could have a diamond tread pattern. She's not rich, just feisty. She tells the world, "Hey I've got the soles of my shoes." They're a loving couple of young homeless people.. That's why they've got walking blues and why they sleep in doorways. Or, maybe she gave up a wealthy lifestyle for love of this boy

  4. This is an interesting reading of the lyric, and yes, I have seen individual "nubbins" on boot treads shaped like diamonds, as well as patterns in treads that form this shape. But if these were the diamonds in question, why would "people say she's crazy" for having them there?

  5. She says, " I'm a rich girl. Look I've got diamonds on the soles of my shoes." People say, no she's a crazy street person. But they, the lovers, have diamonds, because love is valuable. I say "oooooooo" because their love is so noteworthy, and people with hearts know exactly what I'm talking about. He puts on aftershave and she says, "Honey take me dancing," because she lives in a romantic dream world which is in stark contrast to their reality of sleeping in doorways. Maybe it's crazy, or maybe she's just coping. Really, the only line I have trouble with is the car keys, although her reaching into his pocket is another sign of their easy intimacy.

  6. The phrase 'diamonds on the soles of her shoes' is actually referring to tiny bits of glass caught in her soles that sparkle, obviously not diamonds! (This kind of thing used to be done by kids, when I was a kid!) That's how they can both get them later. The girl is not rich, that's why they end up sleeping in a doorway. It is a love song of equals.

    1. Yes absolutely - the diamonds are the little cubes that tempered glass breaks into, that litter city streets everywhere.
      I think the reference to being physically forgotten' and slipped into my pocket with my car keys is a ref to the narrator thinking of a key-fob in the shape of a girl, decorated by (fake) diamonds. A love song of equals - the affectations of her being rich are an romantic pretense that they share.

    2. nowhereman-- I am familiar with the look of broken glass of that type-- I had my car window smashed more than once, living in the city.
      But if she was getting such glass stuck in her feet then:
      1) EVERYONE would have those bits of glass stuck in their shoe-soles, just from walking around.
      2) It would therefore be COMMON AND NORMAL, and no one would say she was "CRAZY" for having her shoes be like this, or for him to, at the end of the song.
      He's talking about DIAMONDS, and the proof is the lyric: "I'm talking about diamonds."

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  8. "Obviously?" I would say that the "obvious" reading of "diamonds" is... actual diamonds. Anything else is an interpretive reading. And if it's something that everyone did, why would they say it was a "crazy" thing to do? Diamonds are worn to be displayed; hiding them under the sole of a shoe is "crazy."

  9. I've always felt that the sizes of the teaspoon/wave is in reference to the attention one gives to the other. She gives him a tiny teaspoon of attention (being the aristocratic princess she is), and like receiving an inch and taking a mile, he responds with a monstrous wave of affection.

    Amazing article, as always! I love Andrew's comment.

  10. Emily-- Thanks for the compliment. I had not considered that both a teaspoon and a wave were, in a way, units of (liquid) measure. Great insight.

  11. Hi Paul, I LOVE the attention to detail you give to these songs and I love how clearly it shows the attention to detail Mr Simon also gave them (although of course his original idea could be very different from your interpretation). I am interested you have not referred to the subtle change on the last line to "diamonds on the soles of our shoes" - this could be a reflection of the happy ending of the narrative but has anyone else thought it might be a more collective "our" ?

  12. jbdjohnston-- Thanks for your compliment, even though you tempered it with "you know this is just your opinion, right?" Yes, yes I do know it's only my opinion.
    I posted this analysis in 2012 and am responding to your comment in 2017, so I admit I don't know why I didn't discuss the pronoun shift-- one person's shoes to both of theirs. Probably because the post is so long as it is.
    Thinking about it now, it's possible that the man decided, well, if she was rich and wanted to waste that money both herself AND him... who was he to complain? Walking on diamonds it is!

    1. Reading all of these interpretations, which are all quite literal, I am surprised no one has mentioned what I think the song is about which is cocaine and drug addiction. When shes high she is walking on sparkles. It fits so many lines in the song... poor boy with nothing to loose, wanting to party but sleeping in a doorway still high, physically forgotten and slipped into a pocket with car keys - as drugs tend to do they become normal and the user takes them for granted. Anyway thats how i read the song.

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  14. Unknown-- I have heard the idea that the teaspoon sign she makes represents cocaine or heroine use, so you are not alone in your reading of the song. (His making the sign of a cresting wave would indicate an acceptance of her invitation: "Yes, let's get high.")
    But I stand by my reading, which at least you will agree is not literal.