Monday, March 25, 2013

That's Me

In some cases, it's clear that the speaker in a Paul Simon song is not, in fact, Simon himself. One example might be "Duncan," in which he states "Lincoln Duncan is my name." In other cases, it could go either way.

Here, Simon is very clear that this is an autobiographical effort. He announces that he is going to fast forward past "the boring parts," where he is a baby and even up through his college "graduation." The "bogus degree" is one in English. Considering he made his career as a writer, that may be unfair-- he might be one of the few to ever parlay that degree into a career at all!

He explains that he was a dreamer, not career driven: "I was more like a landlocked sailor/ Searching for the emerald sea."

The first thing of import that happens to him, that even invokes an interjection-- "Oh, my God"-- is his "first love," which "opens like a flower," then is suddenly much more intimidating: "A black bear" that "holds me in her sight and her power."

Then the metaphor shifts again. "But tricky skies, your eyes are true," could refer to the sky's metaphorical eyes, but the "you" could also to be listener, his first love. In this case, he thought the future was to be sunny with her, but the skies tricked him and instead brought forth foul weather. She did not trick him-- her eyes were "true"-- so fortune was what changed. This being autobiographical, I am going to go out on a limb and say this "first love" was Kathy, and the fortune that changed was his success.

"The future," it turned out brough both "beauty and sorrow," perhaps being both new loves, children, and recognition for his artistic efforts on the one hand, and the breakup with Garfunkel, his divorces, and other sorrows on the other.

So... does he regret his choice to leave Kathy in England and return to New York to pursue music? "Still, I wish that we could run away and live the life we used to/ If just for tonight and tomorrow." So he does wonder about it, but knows that his life now is what he would prefer. He is wise enough to know that, even if he had stayed, life would still have brought both "beauty and sorrow."

And then... we are at the present! But Simon is not resting on his many, many laurels. He still considers himself striving for better, newer heights: "I am walking up the face of the mountain/ Counting every step I climb."

As he climbs, he looks higher still: "Remembering the names of the constellations/ Forgotten is a long, long time." Perhaps this refers to his heroes, the "stars" he idolizes and idealizes, and feels that, even standing on his mountain, he will never ascend to those heights.

Plus, he may be out of time, or nearly so. He is aware of his age: "I’m in the valley of twilight." The next line, "Now I’m on the continental shelf," refers to the edge of a landmass that is usually underwater, before the land falls away and you are entirely in the ocean. Again, this is an image of near mortality.

In the last line, he perhaps summarizes his entire artistic career: "That’s me—/ I’m answering a question/ I am asking of myself." All of his songs are potential answers to the questions he has been pondering. Since he keep writing songs, perhaps he is trying to adjust to the fact that he may never know. At least he let us listen in.

Next Song: Father and Daughter


  1. Hi Another Paul,

    As always, I love your incisive writing, and I believe that your take on this one is especially intriguing.

    I have a different take, and I hope you don’t mind me posting. I see the lyrics as a relatively clear trajectory of the singer (not necessarily Simon) taking the listener from cradle to beyond-the-veil.

    Some pretext.

    Randall Jarrell, in his essay “Some Lines from Whitman,” in commenting on the below passage from Song of Myself, wrote:

    “It is like magic: that is, something has been done to us without our knowing how it was done; but if we look at the lines again we see the GAUZE, SILENTLY, YOUNGSTER, RED-FACED, BUSHY, PEERINGLY, DABBLED - not that this is all we see…these are presented, put down side by side to form a little 'view of life' from the cradle to the last bloody floor of the bedroom.”


    The little one sleeps in its cradle,
    I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.

    The youngster and the red-faced girl turn aside up the bushy hill,
    I peeringly view them from the top.

    The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom,
    I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the pistol has fallen.


    In “That’s Me,” I see Simon doing a nearly identical bit of wizardry, and he has the richly textured music to bring these elements to the forefront and directly into the listener’s consciousness.

    The song’s music and lyrics have a slightly recursive movement of perspective, capacity for growth and reflection in life’s unfolding, which also is present in the melody, rhythm, and percussive elements.

    I interpret the skipped boring parts, “chapters one, two, three,” as describing the first three trimesters in the womb. The swift life story begins when the womb was breached, where you “can read my face and my biography.”

    The trajectory of life—from infancy, to young man, to midlife—is sparse from beginning to end in this song. Because of this, I do not think the song is biographical to the specific sense you’ve taken it, and more importantly, I do not see the references to struggles in love and life as signs of a past Simon breakup.

    Simon provides a third-party observer’s view of his youth (baby’s don’t speak or have cognition). Then, a personal vantage-point is introduced when he injects an opinion of the direction of his life, that of an idealistic explorer (doesn’t care much for money, more of a dreamer searching for the emerald sea).

    This personal vantage-point then moves to a declaration of in-the-moment intensity, that of first-love—“Oh My God”—and then shifts immediately to a description of both the intoxicating and sobering power that is love.

    As couple’s age and grow older, they may have moments of wanting to go back to that initial intensity, or even innocence (like that described in the Emerald Sea), even if they cannot. More importantly, everyone’s future, especially for Simon, who sees life as both melancholy and hopeful, is riddled with beauty and sorrow. Life is an uphill climb, and the singer is counting every step as he ages.

    The explorer reference takes a most potent turn, giving us both lapse of memory brought on by old age, and that of finding oneself, when he is “remembering the names of the constellations.”

    The final lines take one to a picture of the other side of life, perhaps where questions can be answered, and the explorer can finally reflect instead of observe from afar, in-the-moment, or memory fades.

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  3. Michael-- Thank you, both for the compliment and for the insightful interpretation. I'm a Whitman fan, myself... and I think his poetry influenced Guthrie and Dylan.
    I have a similar "stages of man" interpretation of the bridge of the James Taylor song "Copperline." It could just be rural imagery, but I think it's a capsule life story: "Day breaks/ And the boy wakes up/ And the dog barks/ And the birds sing/ And the sap rises/ And the angels sigh." Or, metaphorically: "A baby is born/ A toddler, he learns to walk/ A youngster, he makes a racket/ An adult, he communicates fluently/ His life sweetens into old age/ Death comes peacefully."
    Again, thanks. A big part of why I did this was to see what other people thought!