Monday, May 20, 2013

Questions for the Angels

This song ranges across many spectra, from poverty to wealth, from human to animal, and then from human to divine. As the title indicates, it contains many "questions," and as they are meant for "angels," perhaps it is foolish for us to expect answers.

The central image is a "pilgrim," one on a spiritual quest. Not just a journey-- a pilgrim is headed toward a destination, usually a shrine. At this point, we do not know what this is, merely that it lies on  one side of the Brooklyn Bridge, presumably the New York side. We also know that he is poor, as we wears "torn" shoes.

It is dawn, "when the homeless move their cardboard blankets." This is how time is told in a city, not by, say, the crowing of a rooster. Image-wise, we are back on "Bleecker Street."

He has two questions on a piece of paper. The first one is philosophical: "Who am I in this lonely word?" As if his essence was defined by others-- if he was not lonely, he would know who he was. But he is lonely, and he does not. In the version in In the Blue Light, the word "lonely" becomes "frightened," so it is fear blocking his self-knowledge.

The other question is practical: "Where will I make my bed tonight/ When twilight turns to dark?" (The question mark is improperly placed, in the website and liner notes, at the end of the word "tonight." It is properly placed, in the Lyrics book, after "dark.") It is only dawn, and yet he worries about his sleeping place for the coming night. As well he should, being alone in the world.

The speaker shrugs, sighing that these questions are for the angels, and who believes in those? "Fools and pilgrims all over the world," he answers himself.

In his series of essays published as The Myth of Sissyphus, Camus posits that hope and despair are equally absurd, since the future is unknowable. Given two equally absurd choices, he chooses the one that leads to life and not, as he puts it, suicide. So he uses wisdom and logic to wind up in roughly the same place this speaker does, on the side of hope and angels, even if both know the viewpoint is not substantiated by fact and never could be.

The speaker's next question is about love-- if you lower your romantic expectations and "shop for love in a bargain store," do you have the right to be disappointed? "Can you get your money back?" The question is moot. Even if you shop for love at Tiffany's, and "you don't get what you bargained for," you not only can't get your money back, but you may have to pay an attorney additional money just to be rid of your relationship.

His next question is about the life choices: "If an empty train... calls you... can you choose another track?" This question might well be directed, instead of at the angels, toward the pilgrim, since he travels, "lonely" as he is, alone on an "empty train." Could he, instead, choose another track instead of his pilgrimage toward no shrine, even if he felt "called" to this life?  Just because we are called does not mean we have to accept, after all. (In the In the Blue Light version, the train calls its "final destination," and I think we'd all like to change trains instead of riding our last one ever to the, um, end of the line.)

The penultimate question is not rhetorical or sarcastic at all. In it, the speaker finally reveals something about himself: "Will l I wake up from these violent dreams/ With my hair as white as the morning Moon?"

Wait, what "dreams"? Or are all of these images taken from his nightmares? The lonely, poor "pilgrim," the "bargain store" for love, the vacant "train"? In what way are they "violent"-- do they have a fearsome quality that is not readily observable?

A lone, aimless quest... a relationship that lived down to its low expectations... a train void of passengers-- these may well be haunted dream images. They speak of stark isolation; no other people appear in them, at least none that are interacted with. They are as stark as Hopper paintings.

The question comes again, "Who believes in angels?" This time the answer returns, "I do." The speaker now counts himself among the "fools and pilgrims."

Speaking of which, where is our pilgrim now? He is noticing a billboard, on which Jay-Z, the rap mogul, is pictured "with a kid on each knee." He isn't selling music, however, but "clothes that he wants us to try."

The image might recall that of the Virgin Mary, with the babies Jesus and John the Baptist, one on each knee. Or it just may be an image that caught Simon off guard-- here is a man who made his money on lyrics about crime and punishment, pride and prejudice. And now he wants to position himself as a father figure and fashion arbiter.

If nothing else, this pilgrim with "torn shoes" is miles away, in many senses, from the image he sees. But this is not the shrine he seeks in any case, as he is only "passing" it.

The last "question for the angels" is this: If the human species became extinct instead of another, would a given zebra "care enough to shed one zebra tear?" Given that this meant his hide was safe from becoming a wall hanging, probably not. He might wonder where all the camera-slinging tourists and gun-toting poachers went; probably not. But you don't need an angel to tell you that.

Still, if we don't matter to zebras, and-- as the song indicates-- we don't matter much to our fellow humans either, then, well,... who do we matter to? We matter to someone, right? Must be angels, then. We need to believe in them, if only to feel that someone believes in us.

This subtle track sounds lovely, almost lullaby-like. But the images it presents and the questions it raises are haunting. Simon hasn't been this chilling since "Poem on the Underground Wall" or "Patterns," only this time instead of impending dread, the mood is eerie emptiness.

Musical Note:
One interesting instrument on this track is the celetse, a proto-piano with metal plates instead of wires. The other is a marimba, a xylophone with resonators, or tuned tubes, hung below the wooden bars, as on a vibraphone.

Next Song: Love & Blessings

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