The speaker begins by trying to explain, perhaps to himself, where he is in life, now that he is getting on. He says he used to an easy life... or maybe he's just not assertive anymore and takes it easy. He doesn't want to be babied... but he doesn't expect an anxiety-free life, which he sees as the trade-off. He's got a lot to work though yet.
Now, the easier way to read the next passage would be to have it: "Some people say a lie’s a lie’s a lie/ But I say why/ Why deny the obvious, Child?" meaning, "Some people say all lies are equal, but I say, 'Come on, Dude, it's obvious that some are far worse than others.'"
But that's not what it says. The liner notes, Simon's website, and the Lyrics book all agree: The line is "Why deny the obvious child?"-- i.e., the child who is obvious.
So we have one side of the argument being: "All lies are equal," and the speaker taking up the contrary position, which is that we should not... deny the existence of a certain child. And just who is this "child" who is, or should be, seen by all? The Baby Jesus? I can't think of a more famous child...
Or perhaps it is not a "child" at all. Perhaps the word "child" is a metaphor for "result." If you think that all lies are equal, then the result of that logic means that, say, the lie of a president is morally equivalent to the lie "I've had a great time!" tossed backward while exiting a dull party.
Next, Simon has some fun with us: "And in remembering a road sign/ I am remembering a girl when I was young." Oh dear, what sign could that be? A disappointing one, like "STOP"? A welcome one, like "YIELD"? Perhaps an eyebrow-raising one, like "ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK" or even "DANGEROUS CURVES AHEAD." (Feel free to join in, in the comments!)
They did agree on the hopefulness and heightened emotion of youth: "We said, “These songs are true/ These days are ours/ These tears are free.” (Shades of Springsteen's line: "We learned more from a three-minute record/ Than we ever learned in school.")
The next enigmatic line was actually interpreted by Simon, in an interview. My mother guessed that it referred to a papal visit to a sports stadium. I thought it meant that the lines between first base and third, and then second base and home plate, resembled a cross in the ballpark.
But Simon said-- and he was clear that all listeners are entitled to their own interpretations-- that "the cross is in the ballpark" came from fusing two idioms; "The crosses that we bear, they're in the ballpark, they're doable." I have also heard this phrased: "God never gives us more than we can handle."
The speaker then explains why he brought up that "girl"-- he had a child with her: "We had a little son and we thought we’d call him Sonny." Then we hear Sonny's story, how he "gets married," "has a baby" and still feels as "sunny" as his parents did when they were young. Not like his father, the speaker (see the first verse).
The next chorus has the speaker talking about the actual Sun, and how he follows it across the entire day. "Some people say the sky is just the sky," he muses, "But...why deny the obvious child?" Again, the result of that thought is despair. The sky is more than just the atmosphere the sunlight passes through. It is a source of life-giving oxygen, the protective shield against the coldness of space, possibly the abode of angels.
Back to Sonny. Sonny is feeling uncharacteristically pensive and stifled, and is perhaps having a midlife crisis (his hair is "thinning"). So he finds his high school yearbook and sees how he is doing, compared to others his age.
Simon's site has a major error here; it has the line "roots are like cages." The book and liner notes, as well as the sound in the song, are clear. The line is "rooms" are like cages. This is key, as the word "room" appears three times in two stanzas "The light across my room"; "the room of my day"; and this line. While his father can feel connected to the whole "sky" from his "room," Sonny feels that his is a "cage." Then the site screws up again; the word is "idly," not "idle."
So... how are Sonny's classsmates doing? Not well. Some have "fled from themselves"-- Had breakdowns? Made compromises that denied their desires?-- and some have simply passed on. So Sonny "wanders beyond his interior walls"--either by simply going outside, or by realizing that his life now consists of others as well as himself (his wife, his baby) to whom he is connected.
The song closes with the first verse repeating, with alterations. The speaker, for all of the thoughts he has just worked through, seems unchanged. But then...
Simon folds two ideas into one. The lines "a lie's a lie's a lie" combined with "the sky is just the sky" to form "a lie is just a lie."
In other words, some people think that a a lie is just that, an isolated untruth. But no, it is more than that. A lie can be a roadblock, or a burden you carry your whole life. But that burden, that cross, is actually "in the ballpark."
How does he come to realize this? Well, "why deny the obvious child?"
OK, already, who is that? Why, his own child, Sonny. Obviously.
The child who was there all along. The child who still carried the joy of his father's youth, the joy he was raised with. The youthful joy that said "These songs are true... and hey, the cross is in the ballpark."
And Sonny realizes this in his own "baby," his own "obvious child."
So maybe Kafka was wrong when he said "The meaning of life is that it ends." Kafka, who did not have children, did not have an obvious child to show him-- the meaning of life is that it begins all over again.
The percussion part is performed by a Brazillian drum ensemble called Olodum. They were founded in 1979 and have brought many youths into music, while pioneering a blend of samba, reggae, and African rhythms. Simon brought them to New York for his Concert in Central Park.
To record this track, the ensemble performed outside, as no studio was large enough to hold their 20-plus drummers. (I am not clear if their name, "Olodum," is connected to that of the Yoruba deity "Olodumare," mentioned in a song later on the album.) They later appeared on the Michael Jackson track "They Don't Care About Us."
Another Brazillian act, a vocalist named Briz, sang backup. And two noted American musicians appear as well-- Fabulous Thunderbirds vocalist Kim Wilson on harmonica, and Michael Brecker on his Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI).
Simon brought several of his Graceland session musicians to Brazil with him for this album, his next major project.
The Rhythm of the Saints peaked at #4 on the US album chart, and while this track did chart, it did not crack the Top 40. The album did better in the UK, topping the charts; there, the song reached #15. Worldwide sales overall sent the album over the multi-platinum mark.
In 2014, a movie about "an unplanned pregnancy" titled Obvious Child was released; the song is on the soundtrack.
Next Song: Can't Run But