Monday, April 2, 2012

The Coast

Before we begin the analysis, we have to provide a glossary for some of the terms Simon uses.

I assumed "St. Cecilia" was a coastal town in Brazil, but when I went to look up exactly where it was, I discovered that St. Cecilia is the Catholic patron saint of musicians. (Now that I know this, of course, the song "Cecilia" now has an entirely new meaning or two... that music is a fickle muse, for one.) There is a Santa Cecilia neighborhood in Sao Paolo, Brazil, which is some distance from the coast itself. The Lyrics book does not capitalize the word "church," so it is not "The Church of St. Cecilia," such as the ones I found in San Francisco or LA. So let's just say this church, alongside its holy orders, has a poetic license.

A "batá" is a drum with an interesting shape, somewhat like an hourglass, but with one end larger than the other. It has a head on both ends, and it seems to originate with the Yoruba people of today's Nigeria.

The "Rose of Jericho" is a name given to several plants, but at least two share the distinction of being able to seemingly "resurrect," or revive after seeming to be dead and dried out. These are not pretty plants, an I cannot find an image in which it has blooms, let alone rose-like ones; the stems themselves form a somewhat roseate pattern. And "bougainvillea" is a beautifully flowering vine that seems to exist in most tropical climes.

The image in the opening verse is of a band-- which may or may not be related in blood as well as spirit-- being taken in by a church on a harbor, surrounded by lush growth. Even though they are too poor to rent a room, and the church is "little," there is a warmth to the image.

The speaker then comments on the poignancy of the scene, sighing: "This is a lonely life/ Sorrow’s everywhere you turn..."

And then a lower voice (but still Simon's) cynically adds: "And that’s worth something/ When you think about it/ That is worth some money." No matter how much misery there is, or how deep it is, someone is willing to capitalize on it rather than alleviate it.

The scene shifts to Washington, probably DC and not the US state, since one would not speak of something as specific as "sunlight" over such a large area. It seems that this "market" is less a supermarket (or stock market!) than an open-air farmers' market, as "we" are going "into" the sunlight. The merchandise is so varied, one feels that one has not simply been to one market but on "a trip around the world." The shoppers have made a day of it, it seems, for they started off in the "morning sunlight" and now consider "the evening meal." This meal is "negotiable," which again suggests a farmers' market, since haggling is permitted. "If there is one," might mean the shoppers have been sampling as they went and perhaps are in no mood for more food, let alone a full dinner.

Even after this jaunty spree, our two commentators chime in again with their sad assessments, the one finding "sorrow everywhere" and the other claiming that this misery "is worth some money."

So now we have two questions-- why the hand-wringing and fingertip-rubbing here... and what has this marketing trip to do with the musicians we left sleeping in the little harbor church?

Leaving the bridge aside for a moment, the next verse connects the two places and groups, by reusing the words "morning sunlight." The idea of a soul returning to Earth seems to imply the Resurrection of Jesus, as what other soul has left Earth to "return" to it? It cannot mean the idea that every soul ascends during sleep and returns, for in that case, why would "we" all gather to praise "a" soul's return, and not "our" souls' returns? If so, the "morning" in question might be Easter morning. That would also explain why a group of people happens to be at the church that a band happened to have slept at the night before.

The fact that there are "summer skies" might only refer to the summer-like nature of the skies... or to the fact of summer-- but then one can celebrate the Resurrection on any day, really.

Some, it seems, venture out into the sunrise to pray... and some, to shop. Sorrow is everywhere, and the money made off of it is in distracting people from it. Say, with an all-day, shopping trip for food, none of which is even taken home. And why travel to distant lands and spend your money there, when you can just buy your plantains, persimmons and pomegranates for more, at the local farmers' market?

The idea that only one soul in history returned in emphasized in the next line. Instead of again saying "This is a lonely life," the speaker now says "This is the only life." There is no resurrection for anyone else, and even the knowledge of one's own mortality needs to be distracted from; what could be more "lonely" or universally "sorrowful" than the finality of death?

OK, now to the bridge.

There is an error, both in the website's lyrics and, shockingly, in the Lyrics book's lyrics in the bridge of this song. Both of these sources have it:
"To prove that I love you
Because I believe in you
Summer skies, stars are falling
And if I have money
If I have children
Summer skies, stars are falling
All along the injured coast"

But the CD's liner notes have it correctly-- Simon clearly sings:
"To prove that I love you
Because I believe in you
Summer skies, stars are falling
All along the injured coast [emphasis mine]
And if I have money
If I have children
Summer skies, stars are falling
All along the injured coast"

The lines "Summer skies, stars are falling/ All along the injured coast" repeat in four different contexts. My contention is that these lines form their own chorus or refrain within the context of the bridge. Have someone else sing them, and it becomes clear. They do not necessarily fall, grammatically, as part of the phrases they follow. Taking them out, we have these unfinished phrases:

"To prove that I love you/ Because I believe in you" and "And if I have money/ If I have children" which seem to struggle to be heard against the insistent refrain, which focuses on externals: the weather, astrological events, and the somehow-- erosion? pollution? poverty?-- damaged coastline. It's as if someone were proposing to his beloved, but she was raptly watching the news.

And the news is saying that, if the coast-- the line between the land and sea, the firm and the vague, the physical and the metaphysical-- is "injured," well, Heaven is the lesser for it, too. Stars are falling over this, in commiseration. After all, the physical is not so bad a place-- we have pretty flowers here! At at least one (or One) who left it wanted to come back.

Also, taking out those lines reveals a hidden rhyme:
"If I have weaknesses/ Don’t let them blind me now...
Leaving the shadow of the valley behind me now"

The "shadow of the valley" is a reference (even if the words are reversed) to Psalm 23, which reads in part: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou Art with me" (KJV). In leaving this fearsome place "behind" him, the speaker joyously declares that, while he cannot deny death, he no longer fears it-- Simon inverts the words since a valley often lies in a mountain's shadow, and to leave a valley, one must ascend.

Lastly, the seemingly throwaway nonsense lyrics: "Ooh-wah Ooh-wah, Doo-Wop a Doo-Wah" are, in fact, some of Simon's most important! They summarize the entirety of his life's musical discoveries to this point. The first set of vocalizations are African; the second are from the pre-rock "doo-wop" harmonies. The lyrics should really come with a mathematical symbol in between: "Ooh-wah Ooh-wah => Doo-Wop a Doo-Wah." From there, to here.

The song starts with poor musicians seeking shelter, and ends with what these thin human connections weave-- a rope that spans time and space.

Next song: Proof

9 comments:

  1. Great insights. I always took the last verse to be referring to a death with promise of an afterlife. It smacks almost of a sort of native ritual. The "soul's returning to the Rose of Jericho and the bougainvillea" sounds like a burial to me. "And this is the only life" is then just a simple reflection on the brief moment that we call life and the inevitability of death. It seems strained to me to try to read in some eschatological/Second Coming meaning. Then leaving the shadow of the valley behind... that's referring to the fact that death may actually provide freedom, a doorway that leads "further up and further in."

    I confess the bridge makes little sense to me. It seems like just another one of Paul's intriguing but disjointed stream of consciousness passages. It sounds pretty though.

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  2. Oh, thanks. I has to cut myself off before I went on. There is just so much here.

    You know, the idea of a "soul" being a "person," and the "earth" being the simply the dirt and not Earth did not occur to me. It might very well be a burial scene, next to a church at that. "From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be," as Simon says in "Sparrow." And returning to the earth (not The Earth or The Mortal Plane) would literally return a person to the realm of plants and roots. I do like that reading.

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  3. Well of course that line from "Sparrow" is taken from Genesis: "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." Your reminding me of that biblical allusion makes me all the more convinced that it's describing a burial.

    I wanted to add that I'd never gotten the "That is worth some money" bit, and your reading made sense to me, so thanks for that. The thought that it's literally a different speaker cutting in is helpful. It explains Simon's sudden change of voice.

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  4. I think we need to employ Occam's razor here-- the simpler explanation is probably the correct one.

    As for what I called the "lower" voice-- It's still the speaker, just a more rational or capitalist/opportunist aspect of him. The voice is lowered, I think, for two reasons. One, to hint at its cold, emotionless, almost diabolical nature. The other, to indicate that this line is muttered under his breath, to himself, and you're not "supposed to" hear it; Shakespeare often used such "asides" to reveal a character's inner thoughts.

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  5. Yeah, if you see Paul do it live, he deliberately slurs "Money, money, money" together, exactly like an under-the-breath mumble.

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  6. One point re the juxtaposition of "rose of Jericho" with "Bougainvillea": both are resurrection symbols. Bougainvillea, come Winter, goes completely dormant. It looks dead. For all intents, the above-ground portion of the vine IS dead. However, if you cut the dead vine back to the soil, the root is still alive. The vine returns to full, lush growth.

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  7. That is an interesting point about the plant I did not know. That fact does re-enforce the image of resurrection, I agree.

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  8. As for misery "is worth some money."
    entertainers--musicians, do prosper from bringing pleasure to people who might be downcast or sorrowful and from that bringing comes cash.

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  9. Tom-- That is true, and also that sad songs and stories are often popular entertainments. Some religions ban music, even sad music, during mourning periods because even sad music can cheer you up somewhat, if only from commiseration.

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