Monday, June 25, 2012

In Mayaguez/ Carmen/ Santero/ Chimes/ Christmas in the Mountains

The next five songs are not on the Capeman soundtrack album. They introduce some characters, and they fill in some information about young Sal's formative years and what life was like was in Puerto Rico for Esmerelda, our hero's mother. I will also highlight some of the particularly poetic passages.

"In Mayaguez" starts with a decent, from some Puerto Rican mountains to "the asylum for the poor." It is run by nuns who perhaps mean well but have never taken any parenting classes. On the way down, the wind rustles the sugarcane, which "whispered its prayers/ and laid them on the sea." No mention is made, so far, of a father.

Salvador, narrating, explains that his mother "worked in the [poorhouse] kitchen as a maid," while he "played games with the crazy ones." This may mean that the shelter was not only for the poor, but an "asylum" in the other sense as well. 

The nuns despair of young Sal. They tease him that his name means "Savior," yet "you cry, you wet your bed." Rather than soothe him, they beat and belittle him, and the children learn that its acceptable to tease him. When his mother discovers the situation, she is outraged, calling the nuns "animals." They protest that they did their best and after all, didn't they provide for them both? Esmerelda, unmoved, takes her turn to compare her son to Jesus, in that he was crucified by their vindictiveness. 

The song ends with the mother ans son taking their leave of the asylum. Salvador notes that he was seven at the time, and musing, "a dirt road leads to Heaven."

Next, we meet Carmen, in the song that bears her name. She has some nursing skill, and her first reaction is to notice that Sal has bruises. The mother dryly explains, "The Sisters of Charity punished him." Carmen acknowledges, "They call them mothers/ but they have no children."

Now, we also learn that Sal has a sister, Aurea. Carmen prepares an aloe for Sal's wounds, punning, "Salve for little Salvi." But for Esmerelda, no mere ointment will suffice. "I feel like everything that happened was my fault/ These [children] are my wealth/ Where is the money?" she moans.

Carmen urges her to visit the santero, a fortune-teller: "All he asks is that you trust him/ And the shells he will throw."

Esmerelda, with no other options, takes her advice in the next song, aptly titled "Santero." She introduces herself to the seer and admits: "I almost used a knife today/ I could have killed someone/ Will this cast a shadow on my son?" We assume the knife was wielded in the scene in which she discovered the nuns' abuse.

The santero casts his shells. He eerily foretells of a "hot night" in New York, a "playground filled with cries"; a "quarter moon like a dagger" lighting the scene. "Elegua, king of the crossroads/ His colors red and black/ Sees a blade leap in the moonlight/ But he does not hold it back./ So say the shells," he demures.

Esmerelda dismisses the prophecy. It is not characteristic for her son to be "wicked," she says, And as she does not even believe in the ability to foretell the future, she cannot imagine it cements her son's destiny. 

Nevertheless, there is one more throw of shells she has paid for... "I see him staggering through the desert/ But he must not break his chain/ Until St. Lazarus in his mercy/Turns his thirsty soul to rain." Then Lazarus joins the santero: "So this, then, is the future/ From which no one can escape/ The cape and the umbrella/ The umbrella and the cape."

Esmerelda leaves the santero even more upset. She sings the song "Chimes" to her son and herself. She cannot return to the poorhouse, even though now she has even less money. She scolds herself for wasting it on such nonsense: "How could I trust a man who... rolls the stars like dice/ And turns a simple woman's savings/ Into a gambler's pack of lies?" The prophecy wasn't even soothing, she mutters. And now she hears the dinnertime bells at the poorhouse, where she cannot any longer set foot, while he cannot feed her own children.

Still, she promises Sal that she will do anything to prevent the prophecy: "I'd wash all the laundry of the ocean... to stop the moon in motion." She is baffled that the santero could look into his eyes and see a "murderer." Esmerelda concludes, "He read the fate of someone else/ The prophecy is wrong."

Evidently, these events occur just before Christmas, because the next song has three wandering musicians telling us so. Also, the song is called "Christmas in the Mountains." They act as a Greek chorus for the moment, and tell that their hymn is called the "Aguinaldo."

Carmen, whom Esmerelda explained to the santero she had met in a garden (the poorhouse garden?), asks how it went. Esmerelda rolls her eyes and tells her. So Carmen changes the subject: "What now, Esmerelda?/ What's in store for you?". She cryptically replies, "I don't shop in any store/ That makes a crazy woman out of you," The implication seems to be that she is done planning for and peeking into the future for now.

But Carmen has a surprise-- a package from New York. It contains a scarf-- red and black-- and a ticket from a Reverend Gonzales there: "He wants me for his wife," Esmerelda reads in the enclosed note. She recalls that she confided in him after her husband, Gumersindo, left. The reverend "was going back to America/ Said he'd send for us, soon." (This is the man Salvador mentioned earlier, his "stepfather in black" who "preached the fire of the Pentacostal Church.")

Carmen is torn. She says, "you cannot live your life in fear," yet admits she dreads the santero's prediction, which is to take place in New York. Esmerelda replies: "I am not a woman of stone/ A hawk in the sky is crying/ You were not meant to live alone." She is resolved to go, and we end this cycle expecting an ascent-- an airplane's take-off. And so ends the chapter of the musical that takes place in Puerto Rico, as Esmerelda and her children head north. 

Will the prophecy materialize? If so, is it due to the nun's abuse of young Sal, the violent reaction (or long-time inaction) of his mother, his own hidden nature, a simple matter of fate... or something that has yet to happen in New York? And is there any one answer... or any way to know?

Next Song: Satin Summer Nights

Monday, June 18, 2012

El Coquito/Born in Puerto Rico

[Readers: We have come to Simon's musical, The Capeman. There are, by my count, 40 songs in this musical, and I write on one song each week. Ordinarily. I do not wish to write about this one musical for the better part of a year, and I am fairly certain you do not want to read about it for that long, either, wonderful as it may be. So I have broken the musical down into 16 sections, most with more than one song, and will write about one of those sections each week; it is not uncommon to find an album with that many tracks. So we will visit with this musical for four months instead of ten.

As for the album Songs from The Capeman, since I will be discussing all of the songs in the musical altogether, I will of course cover those in the process. However, the songs on that album do not follow the order of their presentation in the musical itself. As the musical tells a story in a particular order, including  flashbacks, I will preserve the song order of the musical. If you have listened to the album, perhaps listening to the songs in the "right" order will help you appreciate the musical in another way. In 11 of the 16 weeks, I will be writing about a song from the album; as there are so many more songs in the play than on the album, there cannot be an album song covered each week. However, as Simon highlighted these songs by including them on the album, I will only cover one album song in any given entry, to give it its proper due.]

The first song in the musical is an innocent one called "El Coquito." The Lyrics book explains that it is a Puerto Rican folksong by one Olcutt Sanders. It is about a "Little Tree Toad," named for its cry, and in the song the children imitate it. My limited Spanish indicates that the toad sings at night, and the children imagine it sings them a lovely lullaby. The notes also indicate that the song is sung by children who are offstage. 

Then Salvador, our protagonist, sings a brief verse about being free-- we soon learn, from jail. But then he adds, ominously: "But there's the truth that still needs to be spoken."

The first full-length song, "Born in Puerto Rico," is the second track on the soundtrack album. The first verse is pure biography. Sal relates where he was born, that he moved to New York City as child, and that "before I reached the age of sixteen/ I was running with a gang, and we were wild."

The book and the soundtrack differ on the next line, which changes the meaning of the lines that follow. The book has Salvador remembering his own youth and the sights and smells of the barrio evening. The album has the more eyebrow-raising: "He keeps looking but he don't recognize me," as if "he" should. 

Then the chorus, which addresses "you," a party we are yet to meet, unless he or she is onstage; I only have the lyrics, not the "book" of the musical with stage directions. "No one knows you like I do/ No one knows your heart the way I do/ No one will testify to all you've been through, but I will." Again, it would help if we knew whom was being addressed.

The refrain is sung by Salvador and his gang, The Vampires. They repeat the title, then add "And my blood is Taino" (say: tah-EE-no) which the liner notes correctly capitalize (the book does not). This is a proper noun; the Taino people are the natives of Puerto Rico. 

Salvador then picks up the biographical thread, noting how unprepared they were as immigrants (yes, Puerto Rico is part of the US politically, but culturally, significantly distinct)-- "We came here wearing summer clothes in winter"-- and yet, equipped with "hearts of sunshine in the cold." The thrust of the musical, we will see, is how the "cold" won and conquered Sal's spirit, and how he tries mightily to get his "sunshine" back.

The "you" is now revealed to live on the upper floors of a certain apartment building, and to be the stepchild of a Pentacostal preacher. And then again the chorus of "No one..." this time ending "...but this will."

Salvador ruminates: "Small change and sunlight, then I left these streets for good." So he was poor, yet hopeful, and then left. For where? And why?

First, the other Vampires introduce themselves. Salvador says all that is left of them is "blurred... grainy photos" in the newspaper. Then we get a partial answer. Salvador lists the places he was incarcerated; in the book, we get the length of each stay in each place, but in the soundtrack just a list of places, starting with a "school for criminal children" and including infamous prisons like Sing Sing and Attica.

"Twenty years inside, today we're free." The "you" is his partner in crime, then? Salvador says that there was so much written about the case that he did not have a chance to read it all before lights-out in jail... "The night you took The Capeman for your name."

Well, Salvador is The Capeman. So who is he speaking to? To "Sal"... his younger self. In the musical, two different actors play this character at different ages. They are differentiated on the page as 'Sal,' the young punk, and 'Salvador,' the middle-aged ex-con he matures into. 

The older self promises his younger self he will remember him, testify for him. The book's version hinted at this structure with the line "I see myself, those summer evenings..." And so he alternately sings in the first person, and to his younger self as "you." So his own stepfather was a preacher, and so forth.

The newspaper stories "pile up in shame," but there is a note of hope: "...the words release you." But which words? Are these the words of the judge commuting his sentence? Some words Salvador writes? We shall see.

The song ends, in the liner notes with a coda, sung in Spanish: "I was born in Puerto Rico/ My heart... My dear is Puerto Rico." This is attributed to a character named Lazarus, and this is the first time we meet him.

Simon artfully introduces us to his main character(s), Salvador/Sal. In Salvador promising Sal he will "testify" on his behalf, we begin the musical with curiosity and some compassion.

Note: While the CD of Simon's versions of some songs was distributed as the CD Songs from The Capeman, a full original-cast soundtrack, I am told, is available on iTunes.

IMPACT: This is one of Simon's most ambitious projects, and sadly, possibly his biggest professional disappointment; the movie One Trick Pony at least spawned the hit "Late in the Evening." Despite a tremendous cast and production team, whom I will introduce in subsequent posts, the musical was met with protests (which usually fuel ticket sales!) and poor reviews, and closed shortly after it opened. 

My understanding is that it was a major financial loss, more than $10 million. Afterward, Simon did many things I would never have expected. He reunited and toured with Garfunkel, releasing a CD and DVD of that tour. He re-released all of his solo material, with bonus tracks. And more. 

While this material is welcome to all his fans and probably won him many new ones, I cannot wonder if these maneuvers were meant to cover some of his losses. It is simply unlike Simon to look backward like this for so long. It makes me think of Willie Nelson's efforts to pay back the IRS, including the album Who Will Buy My Memories? While Simon never used such an obvious title, these efforts feel to this writer like his asking that question. I say this only as an observation, not a criticism; if Simon did do these things for this reason, thank goodness he had tremendous quantity of outstanding material to do it with!

Next songs: In Mayaguez/ Carmen/ Santero/ Chimes/ Christmas in the Mountains

Monday, June 11, 2012

Rockabilly Music

With the possible exception of Elvis Costello, it is hard to think of anyone who has co-written songs with a wider variety of artists that Paul Simon. He has collaborated on songs with everyone from Peter Yarrow to Philip Glass, and co-authored songs with writers South Africa, South America... and, here, "The South" of the United States of America.

The co-author this time is under-appreciated rock'n'roll Founding Father Carl Perkins. The occasion is Perkins' album Go Cat Go!, itself a reference to his song "Blue Suede Shoes" (Yes, it is his song; he wrote it and performed it. Elvis Presley just covered it). I will list the other guests on the album below.

The song is episodic in nature. The opening line is the intriguing: "It was murder, but we got there." "There" turns out to be a bar that a band arrives at, "minutes after midnight." In the second verse, the drummer seems "nervous," but the speaker urges him to solve that by doing his job: "Just get that rhythm goin’, boy/ Gotta get them people on the floor.”

The next verses are about seeing "a shadow [that] crossed my bedpost/ Early in the morning." The speaker's reaction is shock: "It took me like a prisoner/ Fighting in the war." His next reaction is to both seek reassurance from, then reassure, his wife, whose name is Val: “My angel/ Heaven’s in your arms, girl,/ We’re in the hands of The Lord.”

The chorus, as the title indicates, is about the type of music that is being played: "Rockabilly music/ Ain’t nothin’ to it/ It’s just a hopped-up country song." This is somewhat true; as the word itself indicates, the genre is a hybrid of "rock" and "hillbilly" music, or bluegrass. This is illustrated with the image of "Casey Jones rollin’ into Jackson, Tennesee/ Where I call home." Perkins is from Tiptonville, TN; its closest major city is Jackson.

Casey Jones was a real person; he was a train engineer who died trying, but failing, to prevent a crash in Jackson. He has emerged as a hero, enshrined in folk, country and rock songs, including one by the Grateful Dead (my understanding, however, is that he was not "high on cocaine" at the time of the accident, otherwise he surely would not have been the only fatality of the wreck). That said, his legend does neatly tie those forms of music together as well as Perkins' guitar does.

The chorus relates well to the first verses; it is about music, and they are about a band. The
relationship to the second set of verses is more thematic. Rockabilly music may seem all about good times and partying, but there is a "shadowy" edge to it, as well as romance and religion.

Speaking of which, the next verse starts with a religious observation: "A rich man’s a pauper/ In The First Bank of Heaven." Is the speaker a rich man? Hardly: "I knock on wood for five years/ Under the sword."

This might be The Sword of Damocles, which Greek myth has hanging by a thread over poor Damocles while he tries and fails to enjoy a feast; the lesson teaches him that kings are not as happy with luxury as he thought, given the constant threat of assassination that comes with the crown. Here, the image indicates that the life of a musician is not as glamorous as it looks, given the constant threat of bankruptcy. Still, if this is one's calling, one persists: "But you keep on pickin’/ Rockin’ for a livin’." "Pickin'" as in picking a guitar, of course.

Then again, this thought, but with a modification: "Heaven’s in your arms/ I’m in the hands of The Lord." Whose arms, this time? The audience's, perhaps. But even with their embrace of adulation, he is still reliant of Providence for his livelihood.

This idea is quite biographical of Perkins, actually. He was one one the artists on the seminal Sun label, along with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and later Roy Orbison. Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes," and it was carrying him up the charts. Then he had a crash (shades of Casey Jones?) which laid him up for a while. Long enough, anyway, for his other Sun label-mate, one young Elvis Presley, to pick up the song and run off to superstardom with it (To be fair, Elvis was very nice looking, and could sing and dance, too.). Whether this was malicious or merely Sun's attempt to keep the song in the spotlight until Perkins recovered, I do not know. Nevertheless, when the recovered Perkins began to play his own song again, he was accused of copying Elvis! History records who became The King of Rock and Roll, and who did not.

The next chorus begins the same, but this time shifts the location: "Rhythm from the Delta/ Of the muddy Mississippi/ In my bones." While the Delta is part of the history of blues (as in "The Delta Blues," an acoustic form), jazz (as in "Dixieland jazz," with the clarinets and straw hats), and of course zydeco, I don't know of any specific connection to rockabilly. In fact, the "hillbillies" live in the Appalachian Mountains (the "hill" part of their nickname) and ultimately originate in Ireland... while the Delta folk are of French descent and live in the marshes called "the bayou." Then again, Simon himself references "The Mississippi Delta" in "Graceland," drawing a line from there to Elvis.

The last verse has the singer finding both financial success and spiritual peace. Instead of having a "sword" over his head, he has shiny shoes on his feet: "I got a new pair of wingtips/ Cost me $200." Also, he has sharpened his axe, investing in the tool of his trade: "A fresh set of strings on/ My Fender guitar."

And his outlook could not be more hopeful: "I’m lookin’ at a sunrise/ In a cloudless sky." Nature is even harmonizing with his art: "A songbird’s singing/ Searching for the Morning Star."

This last line, which is repeated, can be read two ways. One is that, now that he is financially set, he can afford the luxury of really seeking true inner peace. The other is that, while he is financially set, he is still the restless, ambitious road warrior he has always been; the "sunrise" is not enough, now that he has it, and he next seeks a "star."

Perkins, if he was pre-emptively dethroned as King of Rock and Roll, will have to "settle" for being King of Rockabilly. This album is a tribute to him comprised of both his classic material (some in earlier covers) and new material written for the project. Also appearing on the album are (deep breath): John Fogerty, Tom Petty, Bono, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Joe Walsh, Jimi Hendrix, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Dr. John, Clarence Clemons, "David" (not "Dave") Grissom, Charlie Daniels, Nils Lofgren, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston... and solo appearances by every Beatle. (Note: some of these performers only play on their tracks, and do not sing).

On "Rockabilly Music," Simon is joined by his son, Harper, and by Baghiti Kumalo, who has backed him since Graceland. Musically, "Rockabilly Music" has as much in common with Rhythm of the Saints as it does Perkins' work. Paul also plays percussion on the track "Don't Stop the Music" and he and Harper back Perkins on guitar on "A Mile Out of Memphis," neither of which credits Simon as a lyricist.

Next Song: El Coquito/Born in Puerto Rico

Monday, June 4, 2012

Ten Years

Another relatively obscure song, unless you watch daytime television. In that case, you may recall Oprah Winfrey's talk show opening with this song a while back, written as it was in honor of the show's 10th anniversary.

The song begins in the second person, but with the same image that began "Call me Al": "You are moving on a crowded street." The next line recalls one from "What a Wonderful World," which spoke of how "The colors of the rainbow.../ are also on the faces of the people going by." Simon summarizes this as "Through various shades of people."

Despite the crowds and the sweltering temperatures, you are preoccupied with other matters; there is a "A story in your eye." What can you do about this?

Talking about it (on TV, maybe?) might help: "Well, speak until your mind is at ease."

"Ten years come and gone so fast/ I might as well have been dreaming," Anyone who has been married, or in a job, or having raised a child for that long can attest to this... as can other songs ("Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof comes to mind.)

But the time has not always been pleasant: "Sunny days have burned a path/ Across another season." The image of the sun "burning" seems more in place with the early S&G cover "The Sun in Burning" than Simon's solo song "Was a Sunny Day," with its imagery of happy people and "birdies" twittering.

The line "A fortune rises to the sky" seems somewhat cruel, as if Oprah had become a billionaire just for the heck of it. I'm not saying she didn't, just that if you are writing a song in someone's honor you could phrase that observation more politely... or just ignore it. Then again, it may not be piles of money, but the other sense of "fortune": luck.

The next verse is more grim. There is a "an empty road," and "a shady river," images that could be either positive or negative..."When the sky turns dark as stone/ And the trees begin to shiver." 

But, luckily, "The grace of God is nigh... And that flash has never been forgotten." God's grace, rather than being, well, graceful, is seen as a "flash," as of lightning. Even if it is not harsh, it is certainly fleeting.

This surprisingly cynical song then grows more serious, and asks a question that is central to much of Winfrey's work: "How do the powerless survive?" Yes, she occasionally interviewed a celebrity, or gave away high-end gifts. But much of her show was concerned with asking guests how they had survived seemingly impossible situations.

He answers his own question: "A familiar light/ burning in the distance/ The love that never dies." While this love is eternal, it is not seen as divine; that sort of love was dismissed as a "flash" in the pan-- enduring in memory alone. This other, human "light," like is seen as "burning" like the sun-- it is "distant" yet constant, and therefore more reliable, in terms of helping "powerless" people themselves survive their ordeals.

The song is full of the imagery of heat and light. The heat in the first verse is oppressive, so much so that the "shade" in the second verse seems a welcome respite. Throughout, we have the imagery of the Sun "burning a path"-- we get the image of a ray of fire actually "blazing" a trail with its heat. Then the same word, "burning," is used to indicate the love that never dies, which inspires similar indomitablity in those who see its flame.

This is a bit... off. I see Dr. Phil as the one who seeks to cure by the cauterizing fire of intense honesty, while his mentor, Oprah, sought to heal by light, not heat. Perhaps our focus, in the phrase "A familiar light/ burning," we should be on the word "light," not "burning"... and maybe the word should have been "glowing" this time?

Then again, Simon could be making a point. Sure, we see Oprah's smile beaming from our TVs. But let's not forget, even if it is "distant," the fiery passion of her drive. Yes, to amass wealth, but also to simply help people. She could have stayed at the Jerry Springer level of talk-show discourse. She chose not to, and forced the industry to change to her vision.

Personally, I am not a huge Oprah fan, but we should give her her due. On the balance, her show did much more good than harm. If nothing else, she got people to read again with that book club of hers.

One last note-- Simon often goes for the perfect rhyme, and here there is abundant slant rhyme: fast/path, road/stone, life/light, season/dreaming/forgotten, ease/sky/nigh/survive/dies. It could be that this was a rush job, or that rhyme was less important this time, given the variety of topics Oprah covered over a decade. 

Next song: Rockabilly Music