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


  1. I'm surprised to hear that you don't mention terrorism at all in your interpretation. It seems to be the theme of the song, to me.

  2. YEAH, I've been waiting impatiently for this one. I love the live performance from Central Park (you have to look it up if you haven't already, the way it ends is amazing and Simon is SO into it).

    Okay, so the lyrics... really vague, as usual, but I think you've done a pretty good job picking apart the symbolism. It provides a broad outline of somebody struggling against oppression, into which you can insert your own specifics from history. I think of the Cold War myself, particularly this image:

  3. Craig-- I agree, the metal detector image in particular does symbolize increased, anti-terror security. Sadly, it has even become common in our schools... But yes, the kind of rage depicted here, from road rage to rage at the "Boss" or "The Man" or "Big Brother," etc. could lead to revolutionary violence against military, or terrorist violence against civilian, targets.

    Anon-- I am just kicking myself for not connecting this to "Peace Like a River," Simon's other song in which he links the idea of protest and the image of inexorable rivers; if this blog ever becomes a book, I'll fix that. I just made the connection when you mentioned protest. Except this time, the river is calm because it has power to wear down others, not because it is working patiently to wear down power. It would be good to do a side-by-side of those two.

  4. I could never figure out if the river in this song is supposed to be bad or good. I think in the end I would have to agree that it's icy and oppressive, and the "wild, white ocean" represents the freedom of the human spirit.

  5. Well, that's the trade-off, isn't it-- control, which can be useful but also repressive... or chaos, which can be freeing but also terrifying.

  6. Hello, my name is Lia and I think this is one of the most powerful among Paul Simon's songs, it can be approached at so many levels. I would like to thank you: I had given a quite different interpretation and I am very intrigued by yours, and by the debate. I am from Italy and English is not my mothertongue; if you have some time I would like to ask you about a couple of words and the meaning you see in them.
    As I was saying I am very challenged by your 'psychanalitic' (may I say so?) interpretation: the song caught me in a more historical and political point of view. Those were the years of the energetic crisis, leading to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (1992): to me the river is the Amazon river, standing for the permanence of the Wild (the 'Wild' of nature) through/along western civilization in progress (the 'Wild' of humans: the ocean in the song is white, after all). Think of the South American percussions all through the song, fading out at the end: it's a continuity. The fist moving through the traffic would then be the river itself - and what it symbolizes: the oppressed from the so called third world, and of the entire world, turning their rage inward - but this anger can not be healed. With the end of the Cold War, globalization (the crusher of language) gives a universal meaning to the suburbs of that huge equatorial city, where a thunderstorm is coming. Those people are the streets of that city, they are quiet as a sleeping army, they are cool as the Amazon. They are the memory of that god, whom civilization has forgotten, and they sweep the white ocean as they are still able to pervade it - and to elude every Mr. Stillwater (energy companies, governements?), taking part in the banquet where the world is divided to be eaten. They are the memory of what the white man was and has forgotten: he studies them in universities (anthropology is a discipline in which slide-projectors are very well known) but they slip out of any scientific or security control.
    These 'objective' situations, described in the verses, alternate with the more personal reflections of the refrain: both points of view melt up together in the march at the the end of the song, when the sleeping army sends its batterd dreams to heaven. The subject is then a witness and a warrior ad denies his individual urge to break and run, to (quietly and powerfully) march together along those streets, along that river, because - maybe not in his lifetime, but...

  7. I would not know that you are not a native speaker-- so no apologies in any case! Simon does not usually comment on current events, but in this case I agree this song is political in nature. And it seems we agree as well on the idea that there is some oppression here that will no longer be tolerated. Thank you so much for your insights!

  8. I would not know that you are not a native speaker-- so no apologies in any case! Simon does not usually comment on current events, but in this case I agree this song is political in nature. And it seems we agree as well on the idea that there is some oppression here that will no longer be tolerated. Thank you so much for your insights!

  9. Hey! I'm the first anonymous who commented. I'm planning to do a music video with this song to the film On the Waterfront. What do you think of the choice to put these two things together?

    Also, I was wondering based on your analysis and your mention of the Exodus whether you have a Judeo-Christian background.

  10. Anon 1: Interesting concept. The movie is about the rage of the dispossessed, but I think you're better research the relationship of the movie to Kazan's testimony before the HUAC before proceeding, as the movie's backstory is now well-known, and colors how we see this (black and white!) film.
    I am not sure what you hope to learn by your other question. Many millions, perhaps more than a billion, have this background, and the ability to read and quote the Bible is not limited to even such people. Further, they may be atheists, fundamentalists, or anything in between. My answering yes or no would tell you nothing about me.

    1. Yes, I'm aware of the HUAC background, although my perspective on it may differ somewhat from yours.

      I was curious because I thought the ease with which you made the parallel was refreshing. Nowadays, when I read mainstream writing, journalism, commentary, etc., I don't see much familiarity with the Bible even as a literary work. I have academic connections, and I knew of a tenured professor who'd never even heard of the four gospels. However, I think the older generation tends to have that knowledge more naturally ingrained in them, whether they retained faith or not. So I suppose it might tell me something about your age, at any rate. :-)

  11. There's one thing that confuses me a bit about the lyric. Images like "moving through traffic," "sliding through the metal detector," all these metaphors for constant motion seem as though they should be metaphors for the river, not the ocean. And yet to make the rest of your interpretation work, we have to see the river as the evil force subduing the ocean, which represents the "anger" no one can heal.

    Someone else tried further to make this alternate interpretation work by saying the "anger" is actually bad and destructive (instead of being the righteous anger of oppressed people), thus going together with the bad subduing influence of the river.

    While the fact that all Simon's metaphors for the good sound more like the river than the ocean is a bit of a misstep, I think I still ultimately lean towards your interpretation, because he later elaborates that the "rage of LOVE" turns inward.

  12. Anon-- I changed my mind as I considered the lyrics. At first, it seemed that the ocean's chaos was bad and that the calming influence of the river was good (as in "You got the cool water when the fever runs high," from "Something so Right") . Then I realized that the river was having not a cooling effect but in fact had a chilling effect.

  13. I've read elsewhere that this is actually a very personal song by Paul Simon about his ex-Carrie Fisher.

  14. gd-- Yeah, well, to a degree you can say that about a lot of Simon's songs, probably anything from Hearts and Bones on, maybe even before. But there doesn't seem to be anything overt here about relationships.

  15. > 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."

    I think this is key to understanding the song. It is important to remember that Paul Simon is very much a humanist, and that bosses like Mr. Stillwater are always human despite the fact that they oppress and crush language. If Mr. Stillwater is one of those people who thinks deep but speaks least, he probably holds his tongue about the injustices he propagates because he is unsure what to do about them. When a cool river mixes with a warm ocean, there is turbulence... The white ocean is wild with guilt and anxiety, and the cool river exacerbates this... It is cool like a sleeping army... And yet here's the rub! The river is cool, and it can be refreshing... it sends battered dreams to heaven for the mother's restless son... here, I think that Mother Earth is being referenced, and the restless son is humanity, witness to it's own destructive forces, yet refusing to run, deciding to fight for peace, most likely in ignorance of the irony this decision implies... but really, what good are battered dreams to a restless son who is now in heaven?

    But here's the kicker - Who says: "Hard times? I'm used to them, the speeding planet burns, I'm used to that..." It sounds like it might be said out of weariness, but it is also said to give an appearance of coolness, of strength in the face of adversity. The boss always has people looking up to him (or her) for assurance that the work we put in on the road to peace will be worth it, and so the boss has to maintain a cool appearance. And so the life (and soul) of the boss disappears (like a slide in a projector) due to the intricate complexities of the common struggle. S/He is torn between the need to keep a cool appearance and the knowledge that this causes turbulence when the river meets the ocean.

    Finally, I see a profound message in the last two lines. I think that Paul sees himself, or at least his music, as one of these cool rivers; he is but one incarnation of Mr. Stillwater, and he crushes his own language by implying a denial of the power of music to deliver us from sorrow. The music is both his river and his ocean... but tears also make rivers and oceans, and so he is confessing that he realizes that we need much more than music to get to this future he believes in, where we shall suffer no more. It is ironic that this shows strength in the face of adversity, but it follows the counterintuitive nature of the song: anger as righteousness, 'coolness' as a source of rage, barking song dogs, and a constant road across the wilderness.

  16. Mr. Weinstein-- Thank you for your thoughts.
    I agree with you on some points, but disagree with you on others. Your essay is too long for me to react to on a point-by-point basis, and in any case I do not wish to engage in a lengthy debate about the song (which I would have to re-familiarize myself with, as I wrote this post years ago).
    I expressed my opinions about this song, and I have allowed you space on my blog to express yours, but that is all I can do at this point.

  17. No worries! Something weird happened when I submitted that, so honestly I'm just glad I get to read it again :)

  18. To me, the river is time. 'Cool' in the sense of being indifferent to the rage and frustration of poor and powerless peoples who must suffer through the numerous indignities and injusticies of their lives. The song is brimming with imagery that evokes the barely contained violence of the oppressed. When i say 'the oppressed', i don't just mean people suffering under dictatorships or oppressive governments. I mean all those who feel powerless to change the circumstances of their lives. Those who have just about no say in the direction and course of their lives, trapped by the need to work for the 'boss', to know about 'government handshakes' (corruption) but be powerless to do anything about it, to know that it's the people not on centre stage but at 'the edge of the banquet' who observe and remain essentially untouchable because they are almost covert in their dealings (they don't need attention because they have power... they remain aloof and almost god-like).
    I think Simon uses almost every line here to bring to mind the unfocussed anger of the individual. There is suppressed rage and violence in the images too numerous to list. Anger that is internal and therefore undetected, waiting to be revealed like a 'slide in a slide projector', waiting for its time.
    The frustration builds and turns inwards. It becomes convoluted, perhaps. Becomes a kind of belief. A religion, even? A way of life because it cannot be changed. Cannot be reasoned with. Cannot be 'healed'.
    And always there is the cool river, carrying him forward. Patient and inexorable. Not malicious but utterly indifferent.
    At times, he lets the river carry him along. Moments where his voice gentles (with the music) and is hopeful and dares to imagine a future where things are better. And then he is back to reality and the jarring and choppy chords of his real life.
    And again the anger builds and builds, but this time to a kind of hopeless and impotent despair (for himself). He accepts that things will never change for him while stating that life MUST be better for the next generation. And yet in the next line seems to rail at the futility of his life. He is still angry but is now 'used to it' all. The 'sleeping army' is to me a kind of metaphor for the sleeping rage of people. It's sleeping, but not gone. It's tired and momentarily quiet through exhaustion, but it's still there. Dreaming battered dreams. Sending them to heaven because there is no other outlet for them in this world. Not in his lifetime.
    This comment is way longer than i intended and very rambly because i am writing it on my phone and i can't actually see what i've written beyond a few lines. Probably filled with typos too. I hope it makes some kind of sense. There is so much more i could say, analysing this masterpiece line by line, but i think i have outlined my main points.
    Let me finish by saying that i absolutely love this song. I think Paul Simon is a genius at music AND lyrics and for me, this is one of (if not THE) best.

  19. Anonymous-- That's certainly a lot to think about (and more impressive in that it was written with only thumbs!). I re-read what I wrote and we seem, to me, at least, to agree that the song is about repressed rage. I see that there is ultimate acceptance of the injustice, however.