Every culture imagines the afterlife as much like its own existence is this world... but better. Then there are cynics like Simon, who imagines Heaven much the same way that Albert Brooks did in his movie Defending Your Life: Heaven as a bureaucracy. Just like here. Better, perhaps only in that your impatience is immaterial-- or are you in some sort of rush to start eternity?
The speaker here, like the one in John Prine's organ-donation promoting "Please Don't Bury Me," dies at the start of the song. Prine's speaker (or perhaps just his soul) goes right up "through the ceiling," but Simon's goes home from the funeral parlor first, and is "usher[ed] in" from there.
At first the "sugarcoated" voice says "Let us begin." But, since Heaven is just like Earth: "You got to fill out a form first/ And then you wait in a line." The speaker shrugs that when you're the "new kid in school," you have to "learn the routine."
In an interview, Simon says that one of the first songs that excited him about the potentialities of songwriting was the Penguins' "Earth Angel." Now, in Heaven, our speaker see the real angel he'd like to spend the rest of his life, well, afterlife with.
So he wings his way over and lays down one of the all-time great pick up lines: "How long you been dead?" Shockingly, he immediately proposes: "you... me... baby makes three."
Well, wouldn't you know? "You got to fill out a form first/ And then you wait in a line." Relationships, it seems, are subject to the same approvals process as entry.
At least, the speaker muses, there is an ultimate democracy here-- all souls are Created equal: "It's all His design/ No one cuts in the line." Yes, even "Buddha and Moses... had to stand in the line."
And once you are in the Gates, what are you waiting for now? "Just to glimpse the divine." But, as on Earth, "it seems like our fate/ to suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek." Well, all religious leaders and prophets have certainly been known to suffer.
Now that you have made it up "the ladder of time," you get your audience: "The Lord God is near." What's it like? "You feel like you're swimming in an ocean of love/ And the current is strong."
There's only one problem. Even though you have have ages and eons to rehearse what you are going to say or ask once you reach God, when you actually do, "Your words disappear." One would hope that such an experience would be awe-inspiring, but you also end up star-struck, in the extreme.
Not wanting to say nothing after all that, you frantically search your brain for anything to say: "But all that remains when you try to explain/ Is a fragment of song." So you ask: "Lord, is it 'Be Bop a Lula,' or 'Ooh Papa Doo'?"
Now, the first is a Gene Vincent song, the other an Little Esther tune. And only someone who equally loves all forms of music would put rockabilly and R&B artist side by side and ask God to choose. And maybe only God could; while Simon probably chose those tracks for their nonsense titles, they are somewhat similar thematically, both being raucous declarations of being in love.
The last line of our song is "Be Bop a Lula," so this is perhaps God's pick. Well, one more question for the ages cleared up...
Writers have been imagining what a trip to Heaven is like since Prometheus stole fire from Olympus, or Norse warriors belted out battle epics around a table in Valhalla... or at least since 1907, when Mark Twain wrote "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven."
Other songwriters have chimed in, too, of course. David Byrne sang that "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens," while Dar Williams imagines it is "like a big Hawaiian party that my mother had/ ...like the worst Elvis film I've ever seen."
For Simon, the place is a place that is first like the Department of Motor Vehicles, then an audience with the Queen of England. Makes as much sense as any of the others.
The guitarist on this track, the previous one, and the last one on the album is Vincent Nguini, who first recorded with Simon on Rhythm of the Saints. He was born in Cameroon.
Next song: Dazzling Blue