Tuesday, May 29, 2012


This is a fairly obscure song. It is available on the 3-disc box set Paul Simon 1964-1993, and on the reissue of Rhythm of the Saints; it is named on the same Simon webpage as being a track on the album. But its lyrics are not listed on Simon's site, even if it is in the Lyrics book. This lack needs to be addressed, as an incorrect version of Thelma's lyrics are the most prevalent ones online (The third word of the song, people, is "baby," not "feeling." Really?)

It seems to be a love song of a particular sort; a man saying "I want to have a baby with you" to the woman he loves, namely, Thelma. The song begins with the assertion that, "If a baby is born and no one complains/ Well, that's good luck running through young veins." Further, "if life is a blessing"-- life being both life in general and, perhaps, this newborn life-- "Well it's a short walk in a sweet breeze."

Further, the chorus, as in many love songs, is full of promises: "I will need you, feed you... plead with you" but also, in this case, "seed you." (If you don't understand the reference, please ask your parents how babies are made.)

Why? "All for the taste of your sweet love, Thelma." He is offering to impregnate her in exchange for her love. Now that's commitment.

In the next verse, he "searches" the "open memory book" of his "heart" and, well, "The more I searched, the more I shook for Thelma." So he is pretty sure that, of all the women in his heart's memory, she is the one. 

Then comes a series of lines about an international phone call. The speaker is in a hotel ("Last night I slept on a rented pillow") and it is night ("A silver moon above my head"). He awakens: ("A thirsty dreamless sleep released me"). Here, we have shades of "How the Heart Approaches...," which also had imagery of hotel rooms, moons, and dreams.

He reaches for the phone and calls, while realizing that there are two impediments to their relationship. One is age. He recalls that when he met her, he thought: "She's too young to be caught." The other is his reputation (If the speaker is Simon, by this time, he is twice divorced). And, as his "history" is well-known, he fears that "people"-- even "the management" at her hotel-- won't relay his message or will "poison the well" when they do, with comments like: "Oh, but don't call him back! You can do so much better..." etc. 

Then a more practical realization dawns on him-- she is across the International Dateline! "I realize we are time zones and oceans apart/ The words I speak in the middle of my night/ They fall on your yesterday's heart." It's still his "yesterday" where she is! So the "time zones" (age) and "oceans" (life experience) between them are literal as well. (In this distance, we hear echoes of "Kathy's Song": "I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets/ To England, where my heart lies... My thoughts are many miles away/ They lie with you, and you're asleep.")

Then, more promises. Even if bad times come ("If the sun don't shine")... even if these bad times don't stop ("if the wind don't break" [i.e., stop, as when a fever "breaks")... and unless the impossible occurs ("If the clock don't jump off the wall")-- under all of these circumstances, he promises Thelma, "I will cushion your fall."

He has made his promises, he has overcome obstacles of societal pressure of technical logistics, and now, a final statement of resignation: "I am only a man who has skirted the edge of despair/ for a long time now, and I don't care."

Because he has faced depression and lost so much, he has realized which things matter. And what does Thelma respond to all of this?

Observe: "I watch you sleeping in the hospital bed/ The baby curled up in a ball." She accepted his offer, and now they share a child. He sees them all-- in the same "sunlight" now, not under the "moon" while she is in sun. "And everything else becomes nothing at all." Only the moment, and the people in it, matter.

(Now, Rhythm of the Saints came out in 1990. Meanwhile, Simon met Edie Brickell in 1988, and married her in 1992. Also, he's 25 years her senior. While I'm not saying this song is definitely about Edie Brickell, the thought did cross my mind.)

Next Song: Ten Years

NOTE: The comment below was written by a reader named Yasmin. She posted it to the page on "Dazzling Blue," but it also relates to "Thelma" so I am copying here:

Hi Paul,
Firstly, thanks for your insights and all the great work you have done in this blog. This is the first place I look when I get utterly confused by a Paul Simon song :)
But more specifically about this song, I have recently heard “Once In A Blue Moon” which was written back in 2003 by Edie Brickell and I think there might be some lyrical connections here. “Once In A Blue Moon” tells the story of how two lovers meet. Although it is done partly in third person it sounds like the story of Edie herself and Paul. For one thing it is in agreement with the story told in “Thelma” by Paul Simon. And also the song has descriptions of the man of the story which sounds very much like Paul Simon. Descriptions such as these: “But that sad look on your face…”; “Eyes like faded jeans, soft and blue and he had seen everything and he had been everywhere…”; “Til he turned his gaze her way, Longed to see her everyday”; “He was more than fun, She was more than young”. Now these two lovers that Edie talks about have met “Once in a blue moon”. Edie also explains that “He was fine before he met her”… “Til he turned his gaze her way, Longed to see her everyday, Heard a voice inside him say, He'll never never never be the same”. So I feel it might be that the “dazzling blue” that Paul is talking about is the light of the blue moon under which they have allegedly met and as Edie describes they are never going to be the same again and therefore in a sense they are (re)born.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Rhythm of the Saints

The last track gives us the title of the album The Rhythm of the Saints. The story I heard of the title's source comes from the days of the American slave trade. The slaves continued, in the New World, to pray on drums to their usual deities, as they had in Africa. When questioned about this practice, they lied to their "masters" that they were praying with their rhythms to the Christian saints.

The song begins with what was an afterthought-line of "The Coast": "If I have weaknesses/ Don’t let them blind me." It's a plea to be free of deception. Yes, I know I have faults, the speaker says, but I hope I do not therefore miss something important while I am distracted by them.

Here, the thought is continued, "...or camouflage all I am wary of." These weaknesses could also make him miss the warning of something dangerous. Say he knows he should be "wary of" financial come-ons. Yet, he has a weakness for sob stories. While he might not be taken in by someone grinning while selling the Brooklyn Bridge, he might try to help out a person posing as a wronged Third World prince who sends him an e-mail of woe.

The weakness he describes seems to be an over-involvement in whatever emotion he is experiencing at the moment. He doesn't just laugh and enjoy himself, he "could be sailing on seizures of laughter," which sounds both out-of-control and almost violent. He doesn't get over break-ups easily, either, but finds himself slowly, painfully "crawling out from under the heel of love." He hears no answer to his prayer for greater awareness of his surroundings.

It seems he prays to Olodumare, a gender-less, incorporeal Yoruba deity who is the ruler of heaven, the creator of energy, and the source of morality, who also allows for the interaction between creatures and forces we in the West call "The Butterfly Effect." Since the speaker believes that Olodumare is "smiling," he answers his own question. Do our speaker's prayers remain unanswered? No, they have been answered, and in the affirmative.

Then comes this repeated chant: "Reach in the darkness/ A reach in the dark." All faith is, after a fashion, an attempt to grasp something that we can't see in a space that is impenetrable to human senses. Also a reach in the darkness is life itself. If Heaven is "dark" to our senses, then so is tomorrow. Not every "enemy," "obstacle," or blade is visible. Somehow, we must sense their presence before we cut ourselves and "glide away" from danger before it attacks. The speaker realizes the enormity of the task. We must "dominate" even what it is "impossible" to.

Further, we may have thought that it was "impossible" to, for instance, lose our jobs, contract a fatal illness, or lose a limb in an accident-- and yet, here it is, shockingly possible after all. And yet, we must forge ahead. Another weakness our speaker feels he has is that he is not popular. He feels that he is "always a stranger," and worse, "when strange isn’t fashionable" (So not, say, at Studio 54, where it was).

And what is? "Fashion is rich people waving at the door." Whether they are waving at their own door or the speaker's is immaterial-- he can no more enter their rich home than they would enter his poor one. Also, fashion is "a dealer in drugs or in passion/ Lies of a nature we’ve heard before." What's popular? Being lied to. "Tell me sweet little lies," coax Fleetwood Mac; "Lie to me/ I promise I'll believe," pleads Sheryl Crow.

This time, the prayer is directed to "Babalu-aye." He is Olodumare's representative on Earth, and has the power over the Earth and physical things, including possessions but also the body, health and disease. Because of this association with illness, he is seen as a disciplinarian... but also a healer, even if he is depicted as disabled himself.

The image of this god of "spinning on his crutches" should not imply constant spinning, but more like "he spun on his heel." The god turns to leave, as if to say, "Oh, is that all this was about?" tossing the reply over his shoulder as he hobbles over to his next petitioner. So the prayer is: "I never feel like I fit in!" And the reply this time is not just a smile but a verbal answer: “Leave if you want." You don't like it here? Well, who's making you stay? You don't fit in anywhere you have been? OK, so try somewhere you haven't been!

Another "reach in the darkness," to travel somewhere unfamiliar, where even the razors and knives are new. This song forms an interesting companion with "Spirit Voices." In that song, the spirits were eager to interact; here, they are less so, yet still helpful.

The rhythm of the "saints" seems very much like the rhythm of a heartbeat. The same blood that pumps out of the heart is pumped back in, then out again. It helped to voice his concerns aloud, but he held the answers within all along. Perhaps the "darkness" is not a deep cave, or the night sky, or anywhere external. It's dark inside a person, too.

Musical Note:
This song was sampled on a song called "Reach Out" by an act calling itself Eligh. I can only assume that is an imaginative spelling of the name Eli.

Next song: Thelma

Monday, May 14, 2012

Spirit Voices

One of Simon's most purely lovely songs. Listening to it feels like watching a leaf float down a sparkling river. I would not be surprised to find it in compilations of music meant for meditation.

Simon's songs expand both our musical and lexical vocabularies. The terms we learn this time are "banyan"-- a type of fig tree that takes root, not in the ground, but in other trees-- and "brujo," a warlock (male witch), but of a healing magic; a more accurate translation would probably be "shaman." The word is Spanish.

The song begins by taking the listener up a "wide" river (the Amazon?) through a tropical jungle. After the ride, there is a nap on soft leaves. Falling asleep, the narrator hears night sounds and attributes them to the voices of spirits. Evidently, to pass the time on the voyage, the sailors told, or sang, ancient stories of mystery and magic, and these were of some suggestive influence.

The travelers were resting up for another leg of the journey, by moonlight, and this time by foot. The path is made of "river stones," so we assume that the path is near the river. 

The destination is the cabin of the brujo, the mystical healer. Not surprisingly, at least to those of us with children, nursing mothers are found there awake, feeding their babies. The other patients include victims of "fevers" and "broken bones," common sights in any emergency room in the world.

It seems unlikely that a tourist or visiting researcher would visit so late. We can only assume, at this point, that the speaker is in need of healing himself.

Our speaker begins to wait his turn, and he watches the healing rites as he does. First, it is so still that he can perceive the flicker of the candle that illuminates the proceedings, and hear the distant cry of a falcon, and notice a small lizard flick by. 

And these sounds, now that he is attuned to them, seem to sing. They, not the voice of the brujo, seem to be the ones singing about the unity of the world's waters: "rainwater, seawater/ River water, holy water." Not that this is water especially blessed to become holy-- but that all this water already is holy. 

"Wrap this child in mercy" seems a universal enough prayer of healing. As does "heal her," the fact that Moses prays this for its leprosy-stricken sister Miriam in Exodus notwithstanding ("Please, God, please-- heal her, please.") But then comes a decidedly Western line: "Heaven’s only daughter." This seems incongruous, given the setting, but it may be the speaker, moved by the plight of the sick child and the brujo's caring ministrations, injecting his own prayer, taken from his own understanding of the spiritual.

Whatever symptoms the speaker had that brought him to the "brujo's door" were mild enough to allow the trip. Now that he is there and he is relaxed enough for his adrenaline to subside, they manifest: "My hands were numb/ My feet were lead."

The brujo now waits on our speaker. He gives him a dose of "herbal brew." There is now a noticeable "sweetness in the air"-- possibly some sort of aromatherapy incense lit by the brujo. This "combine[s] with the lightness in my head"-- the potion is taking effect! 

The result is a sort of auditory hallucination: "I heard the jungle breathing in the bamboo." The voice of this breath is performed by Brazillian musician Milton Nascimento (more on him below), in a falsetto that recalls that of Rev. Claude Jeter from "Take Me to the Mardi Gras." 

The Portuguese is available at Simon's site, but it's short, so here it is:
"Greetings! Excuse me, one moment. 
I remind you that, tomorrow, it will be all or it will be nothing. It depends, Heart. 
It will be brief or it will be great. It depends on the passion. 
It will be dirty, it will be a dream. Be careful, Heart. 
It will be useful, it will be late. Do your best, Heart,
And have trust in the power of tomorrow."

Ordinarily, I would say that the "Heart" is one's beloved. But this is a medical situation! I think that the brujo is speaking to his patient's actual heart, which he believes can hear and understand him, after a fashion. In Western terms, this is a role play of sorts, or a visualization. A Western therapist might say to a patient: "Imagine your heart healing" or "Talk to your heart and tell it you want it to heal." Studies show that this can help!

In any case, the herbal medicine and talk therapy are powerful. There is a strong reaction in the patient. He imagines himself in an earthquake, he is shaking so much! Then he realizes that only his bed is "trembling," and no others. This realization seems to indicate that consciousness has been regained... and a corner turned in his illness. 

This is symbolized by a spider, evidently disturbed by his spasm to the point at which is was simply hanging on to the bedstead and trying not to be shaken loose, now feeling confident enough to "resume" spinning the web it began earlier. The use of the word "rhythm" can also indicate his own heart, now pumping evenly. 

The worst over, the speaker drifts off to sleep, lulled by the night sounds-- the spirit voices-- of the jungle.

Singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento had national acclaim in his native Brazil before he broke internationally on a 1974 album by Wayne Shorter. He has worked with everyone from other jazz cats like Quincy Jones and George Duke to folkies like Simon and Cat Stevens. 

In 1993, Nascimento worked with Duran Duran. On his own 1994 release, everyone from jazz's Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock to folk-pop's James Taylor and Peter Gabriel sat in. 

Next Song: The Rhythm of the Saints

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Cool, Cool River

For my money, this song is one of Simon's strongest, if not his overall best. It boasts an almost total lack of cliche. It covers many subjects, it moves between poetic and conversational modes smoothly, and it's tantalizingly enigmatic.

What "Moves like a fist through traffic?" Anger, it seems-- symbolized by road rage, and so impatient the song starts with the verb before the noun is even properly introduced.

The urgency of the anger is reflected in the short-u assonance in "shoves/ bump/ momentum/ lump."

"It's just a little lump/ But you feel it" could be a frustrated lump in one's throat, the terrifying lump in a possibly cancerous breast, or the avoided lump in the rug caused by something being "swept under the carpet." It's frightening because it is unidentified.

The anger hides "In the creases and the shadows/ With a rattling, deep emotion." Compare this to the graffiti scrawler in "Poem on the Underground Wall" who "withdraws/ Deeper in the shadows." [emphasis mine]. This anger seethes beneath the surface, trying to claw or gnaw its way out.

But there is a "cooling"  force that ranges over this turbulent sea (or, perhaps, troubled water?), this "wild" ocean that is so agitated that it froths "white" waves like a rabid dog. The force is a river that "sweeps" the ocean with its coolness, keeping it in check.

Where is this anger located-- in what person or people? In the ones who have to say "Yes, Boss" to the duplicitous "government handshake." "The crusher of language" is any imperial force that steamrolls the local language with its own; Indians even speak English with a British accent, some 70 years after becoming independent of England.

And who is "Mr. Stillwater," aside from "the face at the edge of the banquet," who keeps his distance and is more interested in surveying the guests than partaking of the fun? He is the Boss, the one who threw the banquet and sits enthroned at its "edge." "Stillwater" may be a reference to the expression "still waters run deep," which usually means "those who speak least think most."

But here, it would mean that the passive face of power is a mask for deep, conspiratorial machinations. Mr. Stillwater controls "the cool, the cool river," which while not technically still (it is "sweeping" the ocean, after all) is yet far stiller than the "wild... ocean" it subjugates.

At this point, the speaker changes tone. The "anger" at the present abates long enough for him to speculate on a more hopeful future: "I believe in the future/ I may live in my car/ My radio tuned to/ The voice of a star." (This was years before cars had satellite radios!)

This verse refers back to two other Simon songs. One is "Cars are Cars" (the verse that starts "I once had a car/ That was more like a home/ Lived in it, loved in it...") The other is "Boy in the Bubble" (the line "The way we look to a distant constellation/ That's dying in the corner of the sky.").

Why is living in his car such a positive idea for the speaker? Because then he is in charge of his own destiny, or at least destination, at all times. And while the speaker in "Boy in the Bubble" doubts the wisdom of seeking solace in the heavens or outer space, the speaker here seems willing to try. It couldn't be worse!

Then we have two images of light in the distance. One is "the break of dawn" (I did say an almost total lack of cliche... although "bark" and "break" echo each other), when one imagines a thin filament of sunlight on the margin of the horizon. The other is the phenomenon of the distant storm, when one can see the lighting trimming the clouds' edges, but neither hear the thunder nor feel the rain.

"These old hopes and fears/ Still at my side" recalls the song "Graceland," with its image of his "travelling companions," in the passenger seat at his side, being "ghosts and empty sockets." The light, while visible, is still too distant, flickering, and thin to bring the hope of having his hopes realized.

OK, back to the "anger." It is still unhealed. But now it is so buried that it cannot be detected (the image seems to be of one trying to pass a weapon through a security system, or too dejected to even try)... isolated and blind as a "a mole in a motel".... and so willing to subjugate itself to the will of the powers that be that light passes right through it as if it had no substance, "a slide in a slide projector."

This is anger deeply internalized. It is so profound, it has altered its host's DNA and made him almost a ghost of himself. One thinks of Kafka's Joseph K, Orwell's Winston Smith, Bradbury's Guy Montag, and mostly Ellison's Invisible Man.

Now we learn something more about the anger. It was not simply a feeling of having been wronged or denied. It was "the rage of love." It was rage on behalf of a purer emotion. It wasn't baseless, but based in  the sense that what was should be again, and that if it wasn't for the Mr. Stillwaters of the world, could yet be. The symbol of that hope is-- must be-- God.

And so instead of shoving its way through traffic like a "fist" that clenches only itself, the hand now clasps its partner, the other hand... in prayer. "These prayers are/ The constant road across the wilderness," just as they were for the Hebrews after the Exodus. Just as they were for the African Americans in the US South, whose songs of protest were prayers like "Go Down, Moses."

"These prayers are the memory of God." This last phrase is repeated, perhaps so that both of its meanings are considered. One is the human remembrance of God as an idea, once thought and now called back to mind. The other is God's own memory; before the Exodus, the Bible says that God "remembered" the Jewish people (Ex. 2:24) and arrived to redeem them. The prayers are things in God's own memory.

Now the note of hope is much more... hopeful. Rather than settling for the physical freedom of living on the road, the speaker dares to image a freedom such as FDR did-- freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear.

The light appears again, dancing on the edges of horizons and thunderheads. But now the "streets... Send their battered dreams to heaven." Simon spoke of such before, in "American Tune": "I don't know a soul who's not been battered... a dream that's not been shattered" [emphasis mine]. The dreams, battered as they are, now have somewhere to go.

And who is "the mother’s restless son"? Possibly the one from "Mother and Child Reunion" or "Save the Life of My Child." Possibly Jesus, a "son" who dwells in "heaven" (and who is "restless" in that he is no longer dead, also urged to action by injustice); this is less likely in that none of the printed sources capitalize the words "mother," "son," or even "heaven."

More likely, this is every mother's son. Mostly likely, the one who has been angry this whole time and now realizes that his anger is wasted. It made him destructive, then it made him disappear. Now, he has turned to prayer and started focusing "inward."

He is now a "witness," in that he has seen that no matter how hard the ocean rages, it cannot overcome the chilling effect of the river. Yet, he is a "warrior," who will not retreat.

He has moved through the various aspects (probably a better word than "stages," which implies a sequence) of grief. He has experienced Anger (moving like a fist), Depression (living like a mole in a motel), Denial (living like a slide in a slide projector), and even Bargaining ("Yes, Boss").

Now, he has arrived at Acceptance: “Hard times? I’m used to them./ The speeding planet burns? I’m used to that." He realizes that this is the way it has always been for most people: "My life’s so common it disappears.”

And then, the grieving begins: "Sometimes even music/ Cannot substitute for tears." He must mourn the loss that certain hope will likely never come to pass. His people will never be totally free.

But maybe the way to deal with the idea that things will never be perfect, that the powerful will always subjugate the weak, is not to seek to overthrow this regime, only to see it replaced with the next.

Maybe the way to be free from fear and want is just to fear nothing and want nothing. To know that no one can ever chain your thoughts, steal your prayers, silence your music, or own your tears. And so, are you not already free?

Let them have their river, since it pleases them to. You can have the rest of the ocean.

Next song: Spirit Voices