Monday, November 5, 2012

That's Where I Belong

The title implies a question. It says, "that's where..." without saying where "that" is. The opening line answers: at the "big bang," if you will, of a song: "Somewhere in a burst of glory/[Where] sound becomes a song."

The next line contains the word "bound," which could imply three meanings. One is "obligated," as in "contractually bound," taking its meaning from the idea of "binding" something with, say, rope. Another is "inevitable," as in "bound to happen."

But since the overall metaphor is one of place, we can safely assume that, while these other meanings offer some shade of insight, the core meaning is "in the direction of," as in "eastbound train."

Then we shift to a speaking of time, not place, and yet we have: "When I see you smiling/ When I hear you singing... that's where I belong" [emphasis mine]. This time, the answer of "What place?" is, oddly, "This time." The lines in between, "Every ending, a beginning" might serve as the link; both places and times can start and stop. But then, "The way you turn and catch me with your eye," is not a time or place, but a way, a "how."

And we are left with the seemingly throw-away line in the repeat of the chorus-- "That's the way it is/ I don't know why"-- to explain that there is no explanation.

The song is meant to evoke a mood, a sense of being, irrespective of time and place, a situation that evokes the lush, enveloping aromas and smooth, fleshy softness of "lavender and roses." Any place in which the subject of the song is smiling, singing, or glancing at him-- that's where he belongs. Not in a specific place at all-- but with a person, where she (we assume) may be.

Then the music becomes more active and sprightly, and we shift focus altogether. Now, meet a character. He's a "spiny little island man." Like the "fine lady upon a white horse" in the nursery rhyme with "rings on her fingers and bells on her toes," this man also will "have music wherever he goes." He can play it on his "jingling banjo," or listen to it on his "radio" when he stops.

And now we have a place where this man is. On an "island," on a "dirt road," heading ("bound," if you will) for a "river where the water meets the sky." Some sort of delta, then, perhaps a tropical one. When he arrives-- not that arriving is the point-- he will be at a nexus of earth ("dirt"), "sky," and "water."

Right in the middle of the essential elements of creation, ready for the last one: energy (The ancients were not wrong that everything is made of earth, water, air, and fire. They just used the word "elements" and those common examples, instead of what we today would call "states of matter," respectively: solid, liquid, gas, and energy.).

So when the man gets there, it should not be long before his banjo and radio summon that fourth element, the energy that will explode in an "burst of glory," and organize raw "sound" into a "song" or "story." Since songs and stories are what he seeks, that is indeed where he belongs, and where he is bound.

Now, Simon does not play a banjo, although his guitars do "jingle" and chime more than they used to. And he is not "spiny," even if he is, well, not as tall as Garfunkel and so "little" in comparison to some. And he is not an "island man," in that he was not born on Manhattan, even though his office is there now. So he is not this character.

He just wants to hang out with him, by the river delta on an island, fishing in the sky for songs. There, and with whomever he is singing the song to. These are the places he feels he "belongs."

Again, this word has at least three meanings that could apply. Two are covered by Cole Porter in the lyrics from "Find Me a Primitive Man": "Not the kind of a man who belongs to a club/ But the kind with a club that belongs to him." So "belongs" could mean "joins as a member" or "is possessed by."

But there is a third meaning, that of "this jar belongs on that shelf." This is the meaning that relates to "where," to place. Simon (and it seems he is the speaker this time) has been around the world enough times to know that the place he is going is less important that the people he will meet there. Or the songs he will find there.

Where the people who can inspire songs are-- that's where he belongs.

Coming off the intense Capeman experience, Simon returned to the international musical thread of Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints on this, his 10th solo album. It went gold in the US and silver in the UK, cracking the Top 20 in both markets... and the Top 10 in Norway! It also did well in other European and English-speaking markets, and even made the Top 100 in Japan.

When You're the One was nominated for a Grammy, it made Simon the first musician to be nominated for Album of the Year five decades running. (It would take a different Paul-- McCartney-- another six years to match that mark.)

Next Song: Darling Lorraine


  1. Since it made a top 10 in Norway, we'd better contribute here:

    The last verse has a double meaning, as always when Simon expresses himself in a song.

    It can just as well be Simon paraphrasing over himself, reducing his contribution to being a "banjo player" - the poor man's instrument. Also, he sure is a listener to any kind of music - the radio.

    The "dirt road" and "the river" being the path of life to this listener.
    "Where the water meets the sky" is far away - into eternity.

    That's where we all belong.

    -Tom Hummel, Norway

  2. First of all, greetings from America. I know a woman of your extraction, which I why I inaugurated the Lefse Appreciation Society of America.
    To your comment, it is a pretty thought, but as I said I do not believe that Simon "is" the banjo player, but simply "belongs" in the same setting.

  3. First of all, I want to say thanks for this website, I love it! I'm sadly lacking when it comes to fellow Paul-ites in my immediate surroundings, so this site fills an important gap when I need to nerd out a little. Which I do now, as going to the show in Queens (lovely as it was) left me in serious withdrawal.

    I'm currently discovering You're the one, which had gone under my radar, but is REALLY growing on me. It's so melodic yet has a lot of quirky rhythms/time signatures that challenge the listener, and great lyrics at that.

    Anyway - this is a beautiful song, and I think you're right that Simon isn't supposed to be the banjo player. To me, the last verse serves a really comforting purpose - it breaks with the love theme, reminding us that finding our place in the world is not necessarily (or not only) about finding love. I think the banjo man is the one saying 'this is where I belong'. I'm aware that this interpretation probably emanates out of my own need/longing for such a message. But then, that's the beauty of art, isn't it.

  4. Ellinor-- You are never alone when you are among Paul Simon fans! We may be spread out, but that just means we are everywhere. I think a huge % of the ItBL tracks come from You're the One, so Simon must agree with you that it an overlooked album. Graceland is the sound of a kid playing with a new toy, and Rhythm of the Saints is a more somber approach to that new sonic palette, then You're the One finds a balance-- upbeat but not manic.