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:
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.