In an interview, Simon once explained how he discovered metaphor. He rushed in to tell his father about a song he had just heard, "See, she's an angel... but she lives on Earth!" The song, of course, was 1954's "Earth Angel" by The Penguins.
This 1958 song is like that one, but only in cadence and mood. In other words, it is a slow dance number, such as was heard at proms.
The song's title is somewhat misleading. The song does not follow a narrative or tell a story. Rather, it might be the response to a query like: "Why ya so glum, kid? What's yer story, eh?"
The "story" is one of the oldest, summed up in the song's line, "I can't tell you I love you." It's one thing to have a love that's unrequited, but this one is simply unspoken.
It all started, you see, "a month ago," or an eon in teen-time. It was a classic case of love at first sight: "That's when I saw you/ Your eyes were aglow/ And then I could see/ That you were for me." The crush is so innocent, it would not have ruffled a feather in the days of troubadors with their lutes.
The speaker dreams of her all night long, but then awakens to heartbreak, because he can't speak of his affections except in fantasy. He never says what's holding him back-- perhaps simple fear of rejection. There is no mention of a rival, for instance.
Metrically, the line quoted above is bravely asymmetrical. The verse goes:
"I go to sleep at night
And dream of you
I wish I could hold you tight
The whole night through
But when I'm awake
My heart could just break..."
And then we expect a line with maybe two or three metrical feet. Instead we get the jarring, almost stumbling "I can't tell you I love you," which throws off the rhythm entirely.
This effect mirrors his problem. He's fine right up until he thinks of actually expressing his feelings, and then he gets tongue-tied and trips over his own words.
As in the previous song, the next participants in the story are his "friends." They notice that he has become morose, "always moody and blue." But he can't tell them about his crush either. He wishes he could tell them, so they would know that he is "not to blame." But once again, he can't just spit it out.
The 1966 Beach Boys song "God Only Knows" supposed to be the first pop song with the name of The Deity in it. But here, the next verse starts: "O Lord above please hear my prayer/ Show me where she is and take me there."
In a way, Simon's invocation of the Almighty is more brave. Brian Wilson and company use the word in the sense of the cliched expression "God only knows," which one might say if asked what happened to his missing bike; it is the equivalent of "Who knows?" "I have no idea," or "Search me." Here, Simon speaker is actually offering, he says, "a prayer."
Part of the problem in this case, it seems, is that there is always someone else around, especially (we assume) at school. What the speaker prays for is "one moment alone" with the object of his affection. Then, he says, without the distractions of others, "we'll know we're in love."
How many of us can appreciate the pain the speaker is in, seeing her so closely, yet being kept apart by his own fears and the potential whispers of the schoolyard.
The speaker concludes-- in the same drawn-out speech pattern we later hear in the spoken bridge of "You Lost That Lovin' Feelin'"-- "That's my story." You and a lot of other people, pal.
Funny as it is to hear a poet like Simon admit to being at a loss for words, we all know it's easier to say on paper, and in dreams, what we simply can't bring ourselves to say aloud.
Next Song: Teenage Fool