Monday, January 28, 2013

Everything About It Is a Love Song

This song moves backward and forward in time. It is about the inevitability of regret, which itself is an aspect of memory, of looking backward through time. Since we can't actually go back in time, all we can do is promise to try to not make that mistake again in the future.

But we will make some mistakes, either that one again or a brand new one. And so we know now that we will, in the future, regret some of what we do now. Regret is inevitable.

The song starts, however, with another of Simon's musings about the difficulties of songwriting. As early as "Kathy's Song," he spoke of "words that tear and strain to rhyme." Here, we see the problem complicated further by the additional dimension of music: "Locked in a struggle for the right combination/ Of words in a melody line."

But, once we have heard the song once through, this is not about songwriting at all, but living. The melody is time-- once defined, it proceeds along in its pattern. What changes, what the artist is more in control of, is the wording. The "melody line" is set; what he is looking for is the "right combination/ of words" for it.

The song is mostly set, if it has a place, in Simon's own head, "[his] imagination." Specifically, along the riverbank," a combination of land and water, like solid words and flowing melody. He also imagines combinations in the sky, with "golden clouds" intermingling with "sunshine." As he is "locked in a struggle" of words versus music, maybe he imagines the ease with which land and water, sun and cloud, simply get along, and wonders if he can do the same with word and music.

Then comes the first mention of (imagined) time travel, married with regret: "If I ever get back to the 20th Century... With its catalog of regrets." He knows there were things that should not have been done but were, and vice versa. His plan, should this occur?

Repentance. It is too late to ask forgiveness, evidently, from some of the people he wronged. So, he says, he will have to "think about God/ And wait for the hour of my rescue."

But what about the future? It will be much the same, inevitably: "We don't mean to mess things up, but mess them up we do."

And then there is an image of younger lovers at at birthday party. "Make a wish and close your eyes/ Surprise." This is, of course, the source of the title of the entire album.

But what is the "surprise"? Well, everything! The next second is, in fact, entirely unpredictable. There could be an earthquake or a phone call or a car crash or a new baby (like the one on the album cover) that was complete unexpected, but changes everything. So "make a wish," and plan, but don't expect it to come true in the way you though it might or should. Every next moment, there could be a "peek-a-boo."

If the opening of the song was about the struggle to assert control over one's life, by now that idea has been somewhat abandoned as, at least, impractical, and at most, foolhardy.

Nevertheless, life must be lived, and so Simon continues to write. Even though he knows he has lived most of his life already-- "Early December... Frost creeping over the pond"-- he continues to create: "I shoot a thought into the future... through my lifetime and beyond."

(But who or what is "brown as a sparrow"? Grammatically, it refers to the speaker: "Brown as a sparrow... I shoot..." I am not sure why he would be "brown," especially in the winter. It may refer to the other meaning of "brown," as in "in a brown study." Or it may refer to the "frost," which is usually thought of as white, but when still thin and clear, would be the color of the muddy water of the pond it covers. Overall, the verse recalls "Hazy Shade of Winter" in its imagery.)

Earlier, Simon imagines going back in time. Now, he imagines going further forward than his own death, to his reincarnation. "Resurrection" means "coming back alive as yourself," while here he means "reincarnation," coming back as, he shrugs, "a tree or a crow/ or.... dust."

In "That's Where I Belong," Simon says he belongs "on a dirt road." Here, he says if comes back, you can "find [him] on the ancient road." Where will he be? "In the song, when the wires are hushed." We assume he means the electrical and telephone wires along the road. Such wires hum, but Simon says that noise would block the sound of the song that would otherwise be audible-- the sound of nature, the sound of, well, lack of wires. Interesting that he feels that this is where his self-song lies, given that this album is is exploration of electronic sounds! But we know that Simon's true love is acoustic music; maybe he is reassuring us, and himself, of that fact.

"Hurry on and remember me," Simon urges. Don't wait for him, just move forward and claim your own future (Is this line to his children? His audience?). He will "remember you," too, as you leave him behind. But is it more important to go forward than to go together.

Now, Simon returns briefly to the "golden clouds" of the earlier verse... only to rush upward, "above" them to outer space. This place was once though empty but now, we know, it pulsates with dark energy and other radiation: "the darkness vibrates." And what does every astronaut see? "The Earth is blue."

The poet Archibald MacLeish, seeing photographs of Earth from space, remarked that our home is "whole and round and beautiful and small." Simon sees things musically, and says, "Everything about it is a love song."

This song starts off about the "struggle" of words and music, then continues about the struggle between life and our attempts to shape it. Almost immediately, Simon realizes that Nature has no such struggle. Nature doesn't worry about the words fitting the music. It just... sings. And by the end, Simon knows that this is where the music is. It's in the hush of the man-made, binding wires. It's in everything that is there without us having put it there.

But what about regret? Well, how can there be any, when everything was always... a surprise?

Musical Note:
On electric guitar is experimental jazz-guitar master Bill Frisell. His music integrates everything from folk and country to classical and world sounds. He is a virtuoso at finding new sounds in his instrument, wielding technology with a craftsman's touch.

Next Song: Outrageous

Monday, January 21, 2013

How Can You Live in the Northeast?

Often, Simon seems to have two songs going at once, sewing them together at the end. Here, it seems there are three. One is about watching fireworks on July 4, the USA's Independence Day. Another is about making life choices. And the third is about Simon's musings on his own family history.

The discussion about those things in life which we choose-- or not-- takes up the bulk of the song. The chorus, from which the title comes, sounds accusatory: "How can you live in the northeast?" Usually, when asked a question of that nature, we hear "How could you...?" or more pointedly, "How dare you...?"

But then we hear the rest of the chorus, which asks the listener how he or she could live in "the South," or on the "banks of a river"? So the question is not accusatory at all. It's a genuine question of wonder. How can you live here... when you are forgoing a life there? How does one decide, when the options are limitless, and one such choice precludes all others? This query is then extended into the realm of religion-- how can one choose to believe any one thing, when there are so many things to believe? In one of the choruses, the question is further extended to specific practices; "How can you tattoo your body/ Why do you cover your head?"

And then something as basic as food: "How can you eat from your rice bowl?" Ah, but then comes a judgment: "How can you eat from your rice bowl? The holy man only breaks bread." This comes to show how silly these judgments are, especially coming from a Western perspective. Do we really think the only holy men are the ones who eat bread, not rice? Well, then, why do we act like it?

Simon backs off in one of the verses, admitting that in fact we do not make many such decisions. They are an accident of birth, and babies are totally dependent on those adults to care for him or her: "Weak as the winter sun, we enter life on Earth." A father myself several times over, I can tell you that the next line is also correct; before we even process the idea of being a parent, a bureaucrat comes in with a form for us, demanding the name of the newborn. And then there is the ceremony welcoming the infant into the religious community and instruction in a language: "Names and religion come just after birth... everyone gets a tongue to speak." None of these major factors in our development are our own choices!

Ah, but why the word "tongue?" Why not "language?" Because we are born with that part of our anatomy-- a tongue-- with which to make our own voice heard, and our own wishes known. Once we can assemble words into our own sentences, we do start to guide our own courses more and more. After all, "everyone hears an inner voice," of consciousness and conscience. Of self-awareness. It is up to us to listen to it and decide how much of it to share with the rest of the world, and in what manner, with our "tongues."

Then Simon poses a puzzler: "If the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?" This is not just a practical question, although even nocturnal animals find dark places to sleep during the day. But Simon has provided his own answer. The same as with sound, so with light-- if we have an inner voice, do we not also have an internal brightness? Further, is there not such a thing as "blinding light," a brightness that denies us the ability to see? We can only see this "infinite light," perhaps, with our eyes closed, and only with our subconscious mind. No matter-- it is internal in any case.

Now, what does any of this have to do with fireworks? The song starts with them, after all. The fireworks celebrate American independence from colonialism. This was one of the greatest strokes for self-determination in human history. "This is a free country," we Americans are fond of saying, but first the whole nation had to become free for the individuals in it to share in that self-determination, that liberty.

(Yes, I know... almost 300 years later and we're still working on getting everyone their fair share of that liberty! And while we are no longer a colony of the British Crown, there are still colonies aplenty on Earth, and some are American).

The holiday is a celebration of excess-- noise and explosions, fire and food, family and parades. It is "happy-go-lucky." We have created many chances in American to become lucky, and we are happy about that. And no one wants to see the party end, so we wait until the fireworks are mere "fireflies" in the sky before packing on home.

But we watch them across the "endless skies," because that's what we see when even the fireflies fade. The sky, and how endless it is. We see in its infinity the infinity of our own possibilities.

And so the question of the title might be phrased: "Now that you can do anything, what do you want to do?" And, since you can choose anything, how can you choose any one thing?

The song ends with a verse in which Simon assesses how all of this has impacted him. He is the son of immigrants, "only three generations off the boat," and has had all of the benefits of the American Dream: "I've been given all I wanted." Usually one plants, then harvests, but Simon knows that in his case, others planted for him first, so he correctly says "I have harvested and I have planted," meaning for his own children.

The song closes with the observation that "I am wearing my father's old coat." When he was born, he was given a name, a faith, a language and so forth. And like other Americans, he grew up to know that these were not the only options. That he could truly choose another name, faith, language and so forth.

But, like most people, he chose to keep the ones he had been given. How can you live in the Northeast, or anywhere else, forsaking all other places? Well, maybe you don't want to move too far from the place of your roots. Maybe, like an old coat, it just... fits.

Add to Simon's grand songs about America-- "America" and "American Tune"-- this one.

Surprise was, musically, a departure for Simon, as he made extensive use of electronic production (and electronic music guru Brian Eno) instead of his usual acoustic or electric instruments. Suzanne Vega had done the same with her 99.9oF album more than a decade before, but it was still a, um, surprise when Simon did it.

Surprise made it to #4 in the UK and cracked the Top 10 in Ireland, going gold there. In the US, it rose to "only" #14. It also made the Top 20 in much of Scandinavia and did well in other Northern European countries.

Next Song: Everything About It is a Love Song

Monday, January 14, 2013


The obvious reading of this song is that the "time of quiet" Simon refers to is death. But this album came out in 2000, and Simon was born in 1941. So Simon was not even at the usual retirement age when he wrote and released this song. Not very close to death, with the lifespan expectations of today.

Another reason is that Simon used the word "quiet"... and not "silence." We all know Simon's feelings on silence-- the complete absence of all sound-- and he knows that we know that this is a loaded word when it comes to his lyrics. So he avoids that word and chooses the less stringent synonym, "quiet."

I believe, therefore, he was not talking about dying. He was talking about easing up, going into retirement or semi-retirement. And he is looking forward to it.

His "restlessness" will be "past" (not "passed"). Evidently, he has been restless his whole life. Why? Well, now he will get to "release [his] fists at last." Are these the fists of fighting? Or of grasping? We shall see.

He is also looking forward to "solitude." After three marriages, several children, a duo partner and dozens of collaborators, plus legions of fans and who knows how many agents and managers, simple alone-ness might seem a blissful refuge. 

Also, he will find "peace without illusions." This can be read two ways. One is that, without illusions, he will find peace. The other is that this will be a real peace, not one dependent on self-delusion.

The next lines, "When the perfect circle marries/ All beginnings and conclusions," admittedly, does ring a bit like a death knell. The end meeting up with the start, forming a perfect circle akin to the one he quotes in "Sparrow"-- "Of dust were ye made/ And dust ye shall be"-- is a funereal image. And it's not about the start and end to a career (as if artists ever end their careers!) but "all" such starts and ends, including birth and death. 

Then come what sounds like the proffer of career advice, "And when they say/ That you're not good enough/ Well, the answer is..." Oh, we know what comes next! The answer is 'of course you are,' or 'I believe in you,' or something of that encouraging nature. 

"...the answer is/ You're not." Well! Thanks for nothing! But Simon is just being honest. It's not even clear if he has ever lived up to his own expectations, or the standards of his heroes. After all, he reads Wallace Stevens and Derek Wolcott! Never mind the opinions of the critics, the public...

Wait! Read the next line. Simon is going after such critics. He is saying: "Well, they say you're not good enough/ But who are they?" [emphasis mine]. Yes, who made them the arbiters of the "good enough," anyway?

Actually, the "but" starts us off on a whole new thought: "But who are they/ Or what is it/ That eats at what you've got?" Again, there are two possible readings. One is to say that, fine, this is the conclusion of that earlier thought. Who are they to "eat at," to gnaw away at, to erode, what you have made?  

Another reading is deeper. "They" only can call into doubt what you yourself doubt. If you were confident that you were good enough, you simply wouldn't care! Of course you are not good enough for them-- no one is. No one can please everyone. 

So "what you've got" is not what you have made. It's the talent you made it with! You can lose what you have made, but you have truly "got" your talent and skill. What is it that tells you that you are a failure, that eats away your confidence in your talent? Something internal. It's not "they"... it's it.

Let's back up. Why does it matter what the critics and public say? Well, if no one buys your album, you'll go broke! In that sense, it matters a great deal! 

Yes, but, Simon explains, using the same "eating" metaphor, "With the hunger of ambition/ For the change inside the purse/ They are handcuffs on your soul, my friend... and worse." If your work is meant only to please the buying public, you cannot produce work that truly expresses what is in your soul.

A brief historical aside captures this insight. Interviews were done with East German artists some months after the Berlin Wall fell. Rather than reveling in their liberty, they complained! Yes, they were no longer forced to conform to the dictates of the communist government censors... but now they were constrained by the tastes of the capitalist art-buying public, which were just as harsh, and even more fickle! 

These artists, who "hungered" for the "purse," found their "souls" in "handcuffs"... and "worse."

Simon began this album explaining that where he "belonged" was "walking down a dirt road/ To a river where the water meets the sky." He closes the record by saying that he is headed for "a place of quiet/ Where the sage and sweetgrass grow/ By a lake of sacred water/ From the mountain's melted snow."

These two images differ in their presence of greenery, and in their general climate; the "spiny little island man" in the first song may never have seen "snow," but "sage and sweetgrass" grow in Montana. 

But in both cases, Simon dreams of being at the water's edge. From the River Styx to the River Jordan to the Rubicon, the idea of the passage over water being a passage of no return is an ancient one. But in neither case does Simon actually mention crossing the water-- no bridge or boat is described. In neither case does he even mention another side of the water.

So again, I do not believe this is a song about death. It is a song about exactly what it says in the title: quiet. Of hushing the voices of "not good enough." He releases his fists, which have been grasping hungrily at success and wealth, and trying to sate an insatiable audience.

And simply by unclenching his fists, he allows these "handcuffs" to slide right off. So farewell to trying to restlessly please people so that they will buy his records. He is 60, and still productive, with nothing left to prove or pay back.

It's a relief, and a release, and he finally feels he has earned the right to chart his own course. Maybe we should not have been surprised that he called his next album... Surprise.

Next Song: How Can You Live in the Northeast?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hurricane Eye

This is actually a very "political" song. It is about, mostly, environmentalism and civil rights, and the people who ignore these issues... at their own peril.

The first four lines make fun of the whole idea of "history" as a definitive thing-- it is, at base, a story with an author, with all of the bias that implies: "Tell us all a story/ About how it used to be/ Make it up and then write it down/ Just like history."

Simon fixes on a particular story, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," which, he posits, is about "Nature in the crosshairs."After all, didn't a human invade and disrupt a perfectly happy animals' abode in that tale? In this reading, Goldilocks might as well have, in Joni Mitchell's image, "paved Paradise and put up a parking lot."

But how did humans come to be outsiders in Nature? After all, "we all ascended/ From the deep green sea," according to evolutionary theory. Citing Goldilocks' desire for a perfect balance in porridge temperature-- "not too hot/ Not too cold"-- as a guideline, "Where it’s just right and you have sunlight," then, Simon explains, "we’re home/ Finally home."  In other words, when the chemistry is optimal and a source of energy is available, life can blossom.

But what if we are "home" in the sense of "at the height of evolution" but are "home in the land of the homeless," and not everyone has a literal home? Then we have reached a physical peak, but fallen short of a moral one.

The song continues in this social justice vein, with one person voicing concern over the state of society-- "Oh, what are we going to do?"-- and the other not accepting this "we" at all: "I never did a thing to you." Why do I have to help fix this injustice-- I didn't cause it!

The next line is a cautionary one "Time peaceful as a hurricane eye." A hurricane's eye is peaceful, but it is only the calm before the rest of the storm arrives after the first edge. It is, as they say, a false sense of security. You have to help fix this injustice because, even if you did not cause it, you are still affected by it!

The next verse seems to be about the oppression of the Native Americans. "A history of whispers" is fair enough; most history lessons are about the Western expansion of the Whites, not about the Reds they swept aside. This "White cloud," came in, followed by the "black crow," the carrion eater. Again, the image of the Western "Crucifix" conflicts with that of the Native "arrow," only it was the Natives crucified this time. All that's left are "a shadow of a horse" and "faces painted black in sorrow and remorse." The Natives feel sorrow, and the Europeans the remorse. We know this is about the Natives, again, because it is "the oldest silence," before the other American slaveries and discriminations.

Then Simon offers this bit of passive-resistance advice: "When speech becomes a crime/ Silence leads the spirit/ Over the bridge of time." This applies to the silence of all martyrs, from before the Holocaust up through the age of AIDS. How do we know that a mass death happened? Well, where are all those people? Where are the children they would have birthed, the works they would have created? Silent. It is simply the absence of these people that creates the memory of their loss. It creates a vacuum that our very nature abhors.

"Over the bridge of time," Simon repeats, "I’m walking with my family/ And the road begins to climb." It is supposed to get easier, but instead the incline becomes steeper. This is a possible reference to advancing age; the road is the same, but it feels steeper.  

"And then it’s, oh, Lord, how we going to pray/ With crazy angel voices/ All night/ Until it’s a new day." It is unclear, from the word "with," whether these voices are their own resembling those of "angels," or those of angels praying alongside their own. But it hardly matters. After such a steep climb, how can one find the energy... to pray for the energy for the next day's hike? And what does this "new day" look like? Well, it's "peaceful as a hurricane." Not the eye, mind you!

OK, so we have all of these problems. Well then, let's do something! Oh, so  "you want to be leader?/ You want to change the game?" Counter-intuitively, Simon advises: "Turn your back on money/ Walk away from fame." This is certainly the approach followed by everyone from Buddha, Moses, and Jesus to Gandhi, King, and Schweitzer. 

"You want to be a missionary?/ You got that missionary zeal?" Don't start a church, Simon says, but join the Peace Corps: "Let a stranger change your life/ How’s that make you feel?" 

And "You want to be a writer/ But you don’t know how or when?" Well, Simon is one of the best writers we have, so yes, we'd like his advice! "Find a quiet place/ Use a humble pen." The advice in any case is the same-- be "humble." Seek to learn, not to teach... to be of service, not to be served.

With "you want to talk, talk, talk about it/ The ocean and the atmosphere," Simon returns to the environment. "Well, I’ve been away for a long time/ And it looks like a mess around here." This could refer to Simon's long hiatus between albums, or his long hiatus from political songwriting. In either case, its does not seem to him that things have substantially improved, environmentally, since the beginning of that movement.

"And I’ll be away for a long time," probably means "...once I'm dead." Knowing this, Simon feels obliged to sum up his life's learning and pass it on: "So here’s how the story goes." We lean forward to listen...

...and hear a nursery rhyme! "There was an old woman/ Who lived in a shoe." But his version is different: "She was baking a cinnamon pie." Well, pies figure in many nursery rhymes, from "Little Jack Horner" to "Sing a Song of Sixpence" to "Simple Simon."

The rhyme now ends: "She fell asleep in a washing machine/ Woke up in a hurricane eye." Few places are as agitated as the inside of a washing machine. In fact, the pole with angled fins inside the top-loading kind is called an "agitator." When our old woman woke, though, there was calm. Or, at least, calm where she was. 

The song as a whole is about the activists' mission: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Throughout, we have characters who think they live in a world of calm. Well, their world might be calm, but the whole world is not! We have "nature in the crosshairs." Homelessness. Genocide and forced expulsions. 

There is a hurricane of trouble out there! And we should know this, even if it we live in the eye. If for no other reason than that the hurricane moves... and we could at any moment find ourselves not in calm but in 75-mile-an-hour winds.

Next Song: Quiet