Monday, April 29, 2013


Jim Croce's song "Working at the Car Wash Blues" is about a guy working at just such a place, after just having gotten out of jail "doing 90 days for non-support," which means not paying child support. This deadbeat dad's concern, however, is not making things right with his progeny, but being an "undiscovered Howard Hughes," who really has the business acumen to be in "an air-conditoned office with a swivel chair," not "working at this end of Niagara Falls."

Simon's speaker here, a Vietnam vet, also has "been working at the car wash," and likewise has grander ambitions. Not on Wall Street, but in Hollywood: "I've been working on my rewrite... gonna turn it into cash."

What about the screenplay requires revision? "Gonna change the ending." You see, it was originally about this guy with kids, see, but: "...the father has a breakdown/ And he has to leave the family." Oh. Hmm.

Yes, but in the rewrite? "Gonna substitute a car chase/ And a race across the rooftops/ When the father saves his children/ And he holds them in his arms."

The satirical newspaper called The Onion mocks current events but also has reviews, and in one coined the term "Manic Pixie Dreamgirl." This is a fictional female who is winsome and cute; she exists to breathe life into the dull and cloistered lives of brilliantly creative but unappreciated and shy guys, like... oh, say, maybe some screenwriters.

Yes, but isn't that-- somewhat at least-- what art is for? To create a better world than the disappointing one we actually inhabit?

So, we can tease the car-wash guy for being twice deluded-- once that anyone would buy his cliche-soaked screenplay, and once that even if he gets rich selling it, that this will help him reunite with his kids. We can tease him...we can mourn his loss with him...

Or we can be glad at least his heart is in the right place. That, even in his frustration, he is able to find a creative (and not destructive) outlet for his emotions. If you can't have the real thing, at least you can know you want it. This is not unlike the conclusion Ibsen reached in his play The Wild Duck, about the necessity of illusion in the face of the true bleakness of life, such as that of the inventor who has been puttering on his never-finished creation for years.

There is an expression: "Fake it 'til you make it." In this case, sure, fake it all you want, car-wash guy, since we know you will never make it anyway. Who are you hurting? In fact, you are helping... helping yourself cope.

The chorus-- "Help me... Thank you for listening to my prayer"-- seems to be directed at the listener. But what is his prayer? Perhaps it is to know that, even if you won't come to see his movie, you will at least wish him luck on his rewrite.

Musical Notes:
This song features a number of perhaps unfamiliar instruments. The "glass harp" is an array of drinking or wine glasses with varying amounts of water in them, which affects the pitch produced when their edges are rubbed with the player's finger.

The "kora" is a cello-size African string instrument with a rounded body; it produces the music box-like plinking head in the song. The "djembe" is a goblet-shaped hand-drum; the smaller ones are held under the arm like a bagpipe, while the larger ones are supported between the knees of a seated player.

And an "angklung" is an Indonesian percussion instrument of ingenious design. A horizontal frame holds vertical bamboo poles of varying lengths. Sticks are placed within the hollow poles, and when the poles are shaken the sticks rattle inside, with tones differing depending on the lengths of the tubes they are in. Small versions can fit on a table, while larger variants are on larger racks resembling those for tubular bells. The overall effect is not unlike that of a vibraphone.

Next Song: Love and Hard Times


  1. I was listening to this song the other night while jogging, and I am almost certain that the subject of the song is a squeegee guy.

    The way Paul changes tonality and vocal cadence to express surprise each time he sings the chorus is startling and almost a bit unnerving:

    Help me, help me
    Help me, help me
    Thank you!
    I'd no idea
    That you were there

    When I said help me, help me
    Help me, help me
    Thank you
    For listening to my prayer

    I can almost hear the sound of a coin plunking into a panhandler's cup, and the odd admixture of both confusion and happiness for the small toke, when hearing the chorus.

    Irrespective, the song is flippin brilliant.

    Thanks for your site, by the way.

    Michael M

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  3. Michael M-- As to the brilliance of the song, many agree; the lyrics appeared in The New Yorker, presented as a poem.

    1. Hi, Another Paul: Yeah, I can understand the instinct to consider the subject of the song to be an employee of the actual car wash, but it is the opening stanza that provided me with the initial idea that it is a homeless individual:

      I’ve been working at the carwash
      I consider it my day job
      Cause it’s really not a pay job
      But that’s where I am
      Everybody says the old guy working at the carwash
      Hasn’t got a brain cell left since Vietnam

      The subject is working at a place that isn't paying him (it's not a pay job); add in the veteran, to whom everyone refers as the guy without a brain cell, and it seems to paint a pretty clear picture.

      The chorus reemphasizes this, with the speaker thanking folks that he had no idea that they were there.

      I suppose my question for you would be this: If he is working at a car wash, why isn't he getting paid? And, why does he thank folks randomly, having no idea that they were there?

    2. You don't see it in America as much, but in other countries it's very common in poor places to see people do things like wash your windows and then hope for tips. Could be that he's doing something like that... he doesn't get paid but is trying to offer a free service in hope for tips.

    3. Unknown- I have seen it done, and it may be that he is doing this, and considers this "working at the car wash" even if the car wash doesn't see it that way.

  4. Michael M-- Thanks for the comment and the compliment. However, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to disagree. While Simon is sometimes obscure, obtuse, or just vague (hence the entire purpose of this blog), here is very specific: The speaker is working at a car wash. I suppose a person could position himself outside a car wash, and consider himself an employee while offering to wipe the windshields-- but he would almost certainly be driven off by the actual staff of the car wash.

  5. Michael M-- I see your point. As to the idea of it being his "day job," in the sense stand-up comics who fail are told "Don't quit your day job," it's what he does to pay the bills, but he doesn't think of it as a career. In his mind, he's a screenwriter.
    As to status of job as far as everyone else is concerned? The public sees him as "working at the car wash." So he must be there a lot.
    And the car wash itself, as a business concern, do THEY consider him an employee? I have to admit the line "really not a pay job" is a strong case in your favor, so I will say that maybe you are right-- he just squeegees the windshields and headlights and hopes for tips, and the employees don't have the heart to shoo away a harmless, shell-shocked old vet who has become a fixture of the place.
    The other ways of looking at the line "really not a pay job" is that it pays, but not much... or that before the war he was a salaried employee somewhere and now he is hourly, so the pay is not regular or reliable.
    But those are stretches, I concede. It's entirely possible that his "job," like his screenplay and his fantasy of reuniting with his family, are all in his head.
    The idea that he is asking people for help also strengthens your point; a real car wash employee may get tips for a job well done, but doesn't usually ask for them.

  6. It's worth mentioning that Simon, during his current Homeward Bound farewell concerts, has remarked that "it occurred to [him]" that they guy in Rewrite is the same person as the kid who goes off to look for America. From the remark, it's not clear that he set out to write Rewrite with that in mind, or whether he's even entirely serious. Make of it what you will.

  7. wvc-- I don't recall Simon saying that on the night I saw him at the Farewell tour stop in Chicago, but I'll take your word. I don't see it though. That kid would not have gone off to Vietnam altogether, to have come home this way. He would have dodged the draft, been a conscientious objector-- something to stay with Kathy. I think, anyway.

    1. I saw him say it in Denver, and a local reporter wrote about it, too: I do agree with you that it really doesn't make sense; that's why I was wondering whether he was entirely serious.

  8. wvc-- Thanks for agreeing with me, It would be fun to play a game that tries to say which characters in different songs are the same ones, in a different time. Whatever becomes of Duncan, we wonder, or The Boxer? We'd have to list all of Simon's protagonists and their ages first, but it could be a fun game to play, say on a car trip. And you could play it with other songwriters, too, especially Springsteen.
    Overall, I think characters in novels and movies have it better-- they can get sequels and appear in spin-offs. Song characters only exist for a few verses.

  9. Hey, Another Paul, I have just discovered this blog and I'm really enjoying it. I do think that you have some great insights - Can't Run But as an example.

    But I have a bit of a different take on this song. I don't think that the protagonist is a wanna-be screenwriter at all, but rather a man in his later years looking back on his life and wishing he could have a "rewrite".

    A Vietnam veteran would be at least in his 60s - maybe even his 70s. He came back pretty messed up - doesn't have a brain cell - and ended up losing his wife and kids, having a breakdown. "If only I could have been a hero to my kids instead", he thinks to himself.

    Now he is unable to hold a steady job because of his condition (PTSD?) and has to settle for something as demeaning as working at the car wash.

    Who is it that listens to prayers? At the late stage of life he realizes that, in fact, God is there and has been listening to him. He prays for forgiveness for the failures of his life, wishes he could do it over if he could have a rewrite.

    1. Deacon-- Thank you for your compliments. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between our two takes. I believe very much that this character is actually, physically writing a screenplay. There are too many details that attest to this. But perhaps, as you suggest, he never intends to send it to a Hollywood studio, but is only doing it as an exercise in therapy and penitence. There is a highly regarded field called "art therapy," which included the visual and performing arts as well as writing, that is based on this concept.
      Simon is a very spiritual songwriter, and I do agree that it is never wrong to look at the lyrics through that lens to see if there is some new insight to be gained. Thank you for your insights.