Monday, June 24, 2013

The Shine

Paul Simon is listed as the third writer on this track. The first, naturally (this is on his album), is Harper, is son with his first wife, Peggy Harper. The second? His second wife, Carrie Fisher. With three writers' ideas involved, this is the longest track on the album (it's also in 3/4 time, appropriately enough).

It's incredible that these three people are able to write a song together, given their tangled histories. But perhaps not so surprising that the song is a break-up song full of regret, a number of the "how did we let it fall apart?" variety.

It begins with the idea of twilit space, "between waking and sleeping/... where the land meets the sea" (shades of "Scarborough Fair": "...find me an acre of land/ between the saltwater and the sea strand.") There, speaker says, "the shadows are keeping/ the shine that you once kept for me."

It's an interesting idea, taking the idiom "she's taken a shine to you" and imagining that "shine" as an entity of its own. The time between wakefulness and sleep is also the time of stars and moons, which also shine, and which appear in the next verse. Their shine is outside, however, while his former lover's, from her "sun" has "abandoned [his] room."

There's a line in the film The Philadelphia Story in which a man tells his would-be lover: "You're lit from within," and that idea mirrors the next set of images: "Your luminous smile.../ glows from your bones deep within/ Auroras were born on your skin." Women have been described a "radiant" before, but this woman is almost radioactive in her intensity.

Next, we have some technological imagery, relating to the speaker's regret. He wishes to "rewind our lives" as if it were a videotape and "erase the danger with a magnetic pen." This verse loses the light-based metaphor of the previous verses, but perhaps there is no way to convey a return in time with such imagery. Light is light, yesterday as today.

The next verse has a very simple, but very poignant couplet: "Maybe I didn't love you the way that you wanted/ But I've never loved anyone more." Well, we found the "danger," then, didn't we. This relationship was doomed from the outset; while the amount of love was never in question, the way the love was conveyed was not what its recipient required.

"It dazzled from your sun to mine," is how that love was transferred. Perhaps that was the problem. A sun does not need to receive light, and so both participants in this relationship were so busy "shining" love forth from themselves, they did not stop to receive any of it from the other. "I've never loved anyone more" sounds wonderful, until you realize that too much light is not necessarily illuminating but, after a point, a blinding light (compare to a "deafening noise").

The speaker concludes that he needs some, as we say today, "alone time," now that he realizes that "nothing I say seems to change your mind." Again, perhaps what he should be doing, instead of saying anything, is listening.

Unfortunately for a song that has been fairly lovely to this point, it ends on an unsavory joke. The dismissive expression "(stick it) where the sun don't shine" tells the listener to please deposit his opinion in a part of the human anatomy that is, shall we say, rarely in need of sunscreen.

Had the song ended, "Everywhere I look is just a canyon/ Where the sun will never shine," well, fine then. It would have been sad-- and fitting, since the bulk of the song was about being in his lover's "shine," and now he is relegated to the shadows.

Instead, the last line is about a canyon "where the sun don't ever shine." This "don't," I'm sure, is meant to merely sound casual, which was a wrong choice on its own, given the lovely poetic language we have had thus far: "The stars are all laughing and twinkling/ In a language they share with the moon." Sadly, instead of simply being colloquial, the word conjures up the above colloquialism.

Up to this point, the song is as pretty a break-up song as they come, a lullaby a heartbroken soul sings to himself as he fitfully drifts off to sleep, alone in the dark, after the shine has worn off.

Next Song: The Girl For Me

[Note to readers: This concludes Simon's current output to date. As was discussed, when this point was reached, this blog will circle back around to Simon's first, 1950's-early 1960's work... and progress forward again until his first official Simon and Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., until the promise in the blog's title-- Every Single Paul Simon Song-- is fulfilled.]

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ha Ha

This is a country waltz that examines three ideas on the nature of, as the title indicates, comedy. But it is a waltz, a dance for two, and we see how well a jesting joker (to mix my metaphors) dances with a queen of hearts.

One of the ideas of comedy is that of "schadenfreude," laughter at another's misfortune. As Mel Brooks put it: "Tragedy is when I cut my thumb. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer." The other is the truism: "Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone." The third ties them together, the idea of laughing at oneself-- of getting amusement out of one's own misfortune, which means the others are "not laughing at you, but with you."

The song begins with the first idea: "You'd think it's funny/ if I got a pie in the face/ One's man's disaster is another man's laughter."

In the chorus, the speaker explains, "laughing is all I do." However, the listener might think this is a reaction to his being single: "You've only known me since I've been lonely/ So you don't believe it's true." When attached, we assume, the speaker might be more serious; he assures us that no, he laughs even while in a relationship. Hmm.

The next line tweaks a saying by adding the word "an." The saying is "I don't know you from Adam," the Biblical primogenitor standing in for any random human.

He speaks to the listener, whom we now know is a woman, as he says he doesn't know her from "Eve." His pick-up line is: "We've only got boredom in common/ Why don't we... leave/ And go... laughing all over the town." A cheap date, to be sure.

But then he makes a counter-assertion to the one above. He repeats the idea that she might assume he is different when in a relationship... but this time confirms it: "I'm different when I'm fooling around." Well, not that different, if that is the expression he prefers for intimacy, and the level of intimacy (simply physical) that his is capable of achieving.

The next line is worthy of Shel Silverstein: "One time I laughed all the way/ From Flagstaff, Arizona to Baton Rouge," which not only rhymes on the beat instead of at the end of the line... but finds the two American cities named after, of all things, poles ("Baton Rouge" is French for "red stick"). He continues this shaggy-dog story by saying this trip wearied him so greatly that, on arrival, he slept, Rip van Winkle-like, "for nearly a year." This laughing-all-the-way story may have a double meaning-- it may represent a series of performances on tour, a series of dalliances during a journey... or both (not all groupie stories are untrue).

Now that he has made this confession, he also confesses his affection for the woman he is addressing: "I could have been dead," he says, at least emotionally, "But I met you instead/ Now everything's perfectly clear."

Uncharacteristically, we wind up with "the moral of the story," which is: "Laugh, or the joke's on you." (Would that Fat Charlie the Archangel, from "Crazy Love Vol II," would have learned this lesson so young!)

Then the song ends with that same assertion: "You've only known me since I've been lonely/ So you don't believe it's true." The antecedent of "it's" is unclear; she doesn't believe what's true? Is he saying that she doesn't believe in not taking oneself seriously? But what would that have to do with when she met him?

Or is he saying that she doesn't believe that he has absorbed this lesson, and that he feels that knowing her has been valuable? This must be what is meant. On the one hand, if one doesn't take anything seriously, how could one learn anything? On the other, if one doesn't take anything seriously, one doesn't take oneself seriously, either-- and so he did not need her to learn this insight at all; he already behaved that way.

He does try to assure her that he is different in relationships, but he falls short, by admitting he only sees them as a chance to "fool around." While she may feel glad that she has had somewhat of an impact on this speaker, and she is probably attracted by someone who can be self-deprecating, she should still be wary of a relationship with him.

After all, he has said outright and repeatedly that he takes nothing seriously: "Laughing is all that I do." If so, how could he take her, or their love, seriously? If it's true, it's nice for him that he has learned from her to laugh at himself. But that isn't the basis for anything... serious.

Musical note:
Sean Lennon, son of Paul Simon's contemporary John Lennon-- and so Harper's musical cousin of sorts-- plays celeste on this track.

Next Song: The Shine

Monday, June 10, 2013


Simon's first wife was Peggy Harper, and they had a son in 1972 whom they named after her maiden name. In 2009, Harper Simon cut an eponymous album, and he invited his father to participate. Together, they wrote three songs, and the first one on the album is this one.

It's autobiographical, from the speaker's standpoint, although in the third line, he adds the caveat: "Most of it is true."

The first line, however, is "Howdy," and in the country-flavored song, the speaker describes how he identifies more with his mother-- he's "proud [his] mama comes from Tennessee"-- instead of New York City, where he was born and raised. (Harper himself was born and raised in New York, but I was unable to determine if Peggy was from Tennessee.)

He says she is, specifically, from Newport, "a place of moderation, common sense, and decency." While he has moved to her home state, he hasn't achieved that style of behavior, just as yet: "It's nothing like the way I am/ But it's how I'm gonna be."

So, how has he been, then, thus far? Well, he was "kicked out of" several schools, received many "incompletes" and finally "bought a C," by which he means bribed his teacher to give him a passing grade, or perhaps paid a student to take a test for him. (At this point, we know the song is not autobiographical to Harper, at least as far as he left out the part where he attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music.)

Next, the speaker says he"rambled around/ from Slumberville to Lonesome Town," which might be the locale of the Heartbreak Hotel.

At some point, he got bitten by the musical bug. He "joined a band" which proved unsuccessful but, undeterred, "booked some time on Nashville's Music Row." He tried to use music to connect to his Southern roots: "Don't want no electric guitars in the background."

Now, this plan is a work in progress. "I got issues/ I got pain," ("issues" being typically New York word) he admits, "There's a lot I can't remember/ Even more I can't explain" (this couplet is pure country, however).

See, he's "trying to concentrate on how you find serenity/ When you're born in New York City/ But your mom's from Tennessee." He feels that the bustle and shallowness of New York might be what has made him feel aimless, so his theory is that if he can-- through music-- reconnect with his traditional past, perhaps he can find both physical and emotional stability.

Perhaps by connecting with his roots through roots music, he can finally feel, well, rooted.

Musical note:
Paul sings harmony on this track, and played guitar on others on this album.

Many "ringers" were brought in as backups. A very good list is available at Harper's Wikipedia page; ones from the rock world include drummer Steve Gadd, and Steve Nieve, one of Elvis Costello's Attractions. It can be assumed that Paul was responsible for the presence of some of them, but Harper had been playing professionally for some time and it would be unfair to assume he had made no musical friendships of his own. In fact, there seem to be at least three generations of musicians here.

Next Song: Ha Ha

Monday, June 3, 2013

So Beautiful or So What

“There are only two ways to live your life," Einstein once opined. "One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Simon more succinctly puts this: "So beautiful, or so what."

This driving song starts off with the speaker describing the "chicken gumbo" he is making, then shrugging "life is what you make of it." You have certain ingredients, but the choice of how to combine them is yours.

His next example is a "bedtime story" he tells his children, which may or may not have a happy ending. In either case, the moral remains the same-- the story is the work of the storyteller.

He continues with a gush of humility-- he is "just a raindrop in a bucket," one nameless, indistinct entity among many. He is but "a coin dropped in a slot," a means to an end. "An empty house on Weed Street," even.

Next, we have a musing on "the way we're ignorant," going so far as to "seek out bad advice." Why? We will "jigger it and figure it," rationalizing our (mis)behavior anyway. Even better if we can blame our misdeeds on the urging of others. 

Worse, even though "life is what you make of it" and you can, therefore, actually make something of it, we "play a game with time and love/ Like a pair of rolling dice"... and leave major life decisions up to chance!

The last verse is a major shift-- to a famous photograph of the men who pointed to the direction from which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s fatal bullet originated. The speaker adds the idea of the responding police siren singing the spiritual "Savior, Pass Me Not." 

Why this historical reference here? Dr. King taught that justice was up to us, as individuals, in the ways we chose to treat each other. His own life story embodied the idea that a person could make his life be the way he wanted it to be. So we choose to make of his death what we will-- a warning to not get involved, or a call to get involved and carry the torch he passed us, spreading the light.

The theme of this song is stated outright several times. But the placing of this song as the last on the album serves to somewhat dismiss the spiritual, divine musings that permeated the rest of the album. We're never going to know, ultimately, what goes on in Heaven. And, since we couldn't affect it even if we did know, our best bet is to focus on the world we do have and can shape.

This echoes a teaching from the Talmud. The giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, at the Revelation, was not just a spiritual event. It had practical, even legal, ramifications. God gave the Bible to the humans... and it is ours now. "It is not in Heaven" anymore, say the rabbis. It is here, and it belongs to humanity.

Hopefully, this is only Simon's latest song, not his last. But it marks a culmination of a lifetime of theological pondering. In  the very first song we covered, "Bleecker Street," Simon noticed that seems to be a "fog" hiding God from humanity. All these years and songs later, he has stopped trying to pierce the fog with his eyes. 

He is resigned that "life is what you make of it," and that your own attitude, while it is all you can control, is all that matters anyway.

Musical note: 
The unusual instruments this time are...
the bansuri, a wooden flute from India, 
the croatles, a set of tiny tuned cymbals arranged on a rack and struck with mallets
the saz, a Middle Eastern string instrument with a round back, resembling a long-necked lute
the resonator, a guitar with a steel plate over the sound hole, sometimes called a dobro.

Next Song: Tennessee