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?

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