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