Monday, February 24, 2014

(Please) Forgive Me

[Note: A reader informed me, in 2019, that this song was not, in fact, written by Simon, or even performed by him. It was written by one Jeff Raphael, and performed by Garfunkel, as Artie Garr.
However, I am leaving the post up for merely selfish reasons-- I wrote it, and don't want to delete it.]

This is an extremely sad number. It's from the point of view of a desperate, depressed person, and his reasons for his woe are revealed somewhat... but never made perfectly clear.

The song starts with the same chord progression as "Earth Angel" and dozens of other songs from its era. The other thing we hear is a young, Pat Boone-rich, Johnny Mathis-creamy voice that I am very sad to say is not identified.

The lyrics open enigmatically: "Sitting here thinking what life's all about/... till I'm ready to shout./  I've lived a big lie and now I'm going to die."

Which is dramatic... but so far unspecific. The second verse has the speaker approached by someone he knows: "that man," about whom we only learn that he has a "smiling face."

This man has a task, namely escorting our speaker "to that place/ Where life's at an end and where there's not a friend to love."

At this point in the riddle, we are ready to guess an answer. The speaker is a convict. He has lied about something, and is now to be executed. The man's-- jailer's-- smile now seems much less benign, and much more sinister.

This seems extreme-- capital punishment is usually reserved for crimes of violence and murder. Most of the severest lies involve only, perhaps, embezzlement or fraud. But even the most big-time thieves only get life imprisonment. In this case, living a double life is costing his actual one. Were drugs involved? Murder by proxy? Treason?

We don't know. Perhaps the death penalty is being used here metaphorically; life imprisonment can seem like death, and a place "without a friend" might imply solitary confinement. Or perhaps the songwriter is ignorant of the legal code, or simply decided that jail wasn't dramatic enough for his poetic purposes.

In the bridge, we see that "die" might, in fact, have been an exaggeration all along: "I'm on my way to stay/ And when I'm gone I'll have pity and fear/ For those like me who never will be free." Oh, so it is life imprisonment?

Maybe... the line then is then completed: "...who never will be free/ Of a worthless life filled with sadness and strife." So, he will not be "free of [his] life." He will have to live with his misery...but not literally die.

It begins to dawn on the listener that the substance of the punishment is immaterial. The speaker is going to be punished for his lie of a life, either by dying for it or by a "living death" of lifetime incarceration.

The song ends twice. Once, with an Aesop-like device: "The moral of my song is easy to see/ Don't live a life like mine-- be happy and carefree/ Love and be loved, then life will be but a dream." This seems unnecessary. In a 30-second public service announcement, we might need to be told outright that only we can prevent forest fires. But here, this spelling-out of the theme is a bit egregious.

Then, this, tacked on to the very end: "O Lord, please forgive me." Well, now we have the title. But it's unclear as to whether he is asking the Lord for forgiveness, or if it's more of an "Oh Lord," an expression like "Oh dear," "Oh woe," or "Oh man."

Simon returned to this character, the repentant criminal, in "Wednesday Morning, 3AM" (and its remix, "Somewhere They Can't Find Me") but in a more specific, less bathetic and preachy way... making the song more effective. He gives the criminal a definite crime, full of detail. And he gives him a lady love to leave as he flies justice.

What hasn't changed is what the criminal most regrets. Not, say, having disappointed someone or having hurt someone or even having sinned. No, he regrets what might have been, had he not committed his crime.

Next Song: Wow Cha-Cha-Cha

Monday, February 17, 2014

Just a Boy

The idea of an inter-generational romance is not new. Sometimes accepted as "May-December romance," sometimes derided as "cradle robbing," it is a fraught subject. Terms like "MILF" and "twink" are just the latest in a long line of attempts to deal with this, shall we say, phenomenon... going back through the movies The Graduate and Harold and Maude, the song "Maggie Mae," the novel Lolita, and even, in a way, all the way to the tale of Oedipus.

This time, we get a touch of foreshadowing in the title itself. The first verse is still circumspect: "I am just a boy/ Not a... man/ But your love gives me strength/ To do the best I can." This speaks to the age of the male speaker, not his subject.

But no doubt can be had after the second verse. Here, he more pointedly contrasts the two of them. He is "unwise and full of fears." But she counters that with "the wisdom of many years."

Yes, we have just unquestionably entered-- as the TV show title would have it-- Cougar Town.

While there are many rites of passage in every culture that delineate the passage to adulthood, one can be deemed universal-- the one in the chorus: "Though I'm young/ I still can understand/ Your love, someday/ Will turn this boy into a man."

The "someday" gives us hope. Perhaps this is a crush on a teacher or a friend's older sister or (we hope) single mother. But it is clear that this, um, "relationship"-- and the older person in question might not even be aware of it-- has not yet been consummated. So no investigations or lawsuits are pending. Yet.

The last verse seems to throw a wrench into our theory: "Though I'm just a boy/ On this, you can rely/ You are just the girl/ I will love till I die." Still, it is doubtful that his calling her a "girl" means that we are wrong and that she in fact is one; he has already said he has "may years." Rather, it is probably a compliment: "I don't see you as 'old'! In my eyes, you are youthful like me, and so a totally appropriate choice for me (even if you are not, technically, 'young')."

The situation is common, and so the sentiments are. The idea that "I am in high school, but everyone else my age might as well be in grade school, as I am so much more mature" is often followed by "and therefore, I can only love someone as mature as I... someone already past high-school age." Finding such a target of one's aspirational affections is not hard, and such songs are the next logical step.

Let us hope that this is a schoolboy crush on a teacher or something, and that (despite his protests of love unending) he will soon find someone more appropriate before restraining orders are brought to bear. If he does confess his feelings, she is, we hope, able to use her "many-yeared wisdom" to break his heart gently.

Next Song: Forgive Me

Monday, February 10, 2014

I'd Like to Be

This slight cha-cha is a song of the sort I call simply a "list song." The songwriter comes up with an idea, and then just extends it for the length of a song, listing as many permutations as he can rhyme.

Examples abound. Take the song this one presages, "The Way You Do The Things You Do." In that Temptations classic, the speaker compares his lover to a list of various objects that are known for performing certain functions very well. Her smile is so she's so smart, she "could have been a schoolbook"; and she's so pretty, she "could have been a flower." The whole song is a list of such things she "could have" been.

Here, the speaker lists the things he would like to be. And all of them are in contact with the body of his beloved.

These include her clothes ("high-heeled shoes," "coat around your shoulder")... her accessories and jewelry ("ribbon in your hair," "belt around your tiny waist," "your bracelet and your glove").... even her cosmetics.

In fact, the first such items he mentions that he'd "like to be" are: "The lipstick on [her] your lovely lips... the polish on [her] fingertips."

The most intimate object he'd like to be is... well, no, this was still the 1950s! It's not a clothing item at all, but "the chocolate candy that [she] tastes."

And, in case you were in total suspense about what he rhymes with "glove," the last line is the payoff: "But most of all/ I'd like to be the one you love."

This implies she has not returned his affections yet. It remains to be seen if she is interested in returning the affections of one so very, very interested in touching her-- nay, enveloping her.

While most of these things encircle and embrace her, the way "tender" or "loving"-- to borrow terms from other such songs-- arms might, the "chocolate candy that you taste" is an unmistakeable metaphor.

One way of looking at this is that he wants things to be equal. He wants to envelope her, but is equally willing to be enveloped by her. But that, in today's lingo, is almost definitive co-dependency.

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with erotic images expressed by one who is already intimate with his listener. But there are two "red flags" here. One, the images are erotic too soon, before intimacy or even familiarity. The other is the smothering nature of the images.

While we can argue that the Temptations song has its faults-- it literally objectifies the woman by comparing her to objects, for one-- at least there is only one image of "holding you so tight." Here, almost every object the speaker conjures is one of surrounding her or buffering her from the outside world. Surely, irrational jealousy cannot be far behind.

Also, the Temptations song is upbeat and airy. Our song is smoky and  sultry. The emotion meant to be conveyed is seduction, but he knows she doesn't even love him yet.

So while, structurally, the song presages "The Way You Do the Things You Do," on an emotional level, it foreshadows a more shadowy one: The Police's "I'll Be Watching You."

Next Song: Just a Boy

Monday, February 3, 2014

Aeroplane of Silver Steel

There is nothing wrong with experimentation, with trying something new. Edison is said to have told a reporter that, no, he did not fail more than 5,000 times when trying to find the best light-bulb filament. In fact, he did not fail even once! Rather, he said, he successfully proved that those 5,000 filaments did not work.

This song, "Aeroplane of Silver Steel," does not work. If it were an "aeroplane," it would not fly. It is at once too childish and too over-reaching in its attempts to be mature, like a toddler shuffling about in his father's loafers. Even the spelling "aeroplane" hints at the European, archaic ambitions-- no mere "airplane," this!

The structure is pop-operatic, like "Memory" from Cats. The guitar work is hyper-dramatic and Latinate, a flamenco or tango. So the whole effect is that this was a song left out of Man of La Mancha.

"Aeroplane of silver steel high in the night/ Someday, I shall soar with you in your flight," the speaker begins. "Never has another flown as high as you and I." This is high-flown poetry, indeed.

"I shall fly my own plane high above." Now, what will that rhyme with? "The earth which holds me while I'm dreaming of/ Roaring through the clouds, and speeding fast, to my love."

Now, the song makes a sudden break from its soaring rhetoric and strummings, and finds a cha-cha rhythm. All of that... stuff was introduction. Now we are onto the subject itself. Which is-- what happens when the plane lands? Well, our dashing Red Baron is not coming empty handed!

"To bring her chocolates/ To bring her candies." Well, that's thoughtfully, if predictably, romantic. Anything else in the cargo bay? "To bring her herbs and tasty spices that she can cook." Ah. Well, all the early explorers sought the Spice Islands. But... cook for whom, exactly? Some hungry pilot, hmm?

"To bring her ribbons/ To bring her laces." Our Flying Ace have been to both the Spice Islands and the Silk Road, it seems. This is one domestic little lady he has. I mean, I'm not seeing any diamonds or furs on the manifest. "To bring her tingling silver to fill her pocketbook." Close. But why "tingling?" Did he mean "jingling?" Or is this money that is begging to be spent?

This list is repeated. Then, not leaving the faster rhythm, the first verse about the aeroplane is repeated. And the song ends.

In general, three kinds of people fly their own planes. One flies for business, whether spraying crops with chemicals or entertaining festival crowds with stunts. One is the rich playboy who flies for both business and vacations; the plane is fun, but mostly just a convenient, luxurious method of getting where the fun really is.

The third is the weekend pilot for whom his plane fills the same function as another man's speedboat, motorcycle, or off-roader-- simple thrills.

Then there is the speaker. His airplane-- excuse me, "aeroplane"-- is just a long-range shopping cart. He seems to enjoy the sensation of soaring, but mostly the vehicle is his method for procuring expensive items with wish to lavish his (rather domestic) lady love. No, the internet has not been invented when this song was written. But mail-order catalogs had been.

Perhaps he wishes to travel, like George Bailey of It's a Wonderful Life. And he wishes his wife had more adventurous tastes in goods and travel, but is too much of a homebody to actually spirit off to Gay Paree or The Mysterious Orient or the sultry bazaars of The Levant.

So this is his compromise. He will fly to Far-Off Lands... and bring their bounty back to her! But nothing too exotic. He hasn't brought back any furs, but also no tiger-skin rugs. No diamonds, but no anklets or nose-rings, either. No artifacts or handicrafts. Just "chocolates" and "spices." (It could also be that the speaker was not a reader or movie-goer, and had no real knowledge of the huge variety of exotic items Far-Off Lands offered, even to 1950s tourist.)

In any case, even if she still isn't inspired to follow him, at least he isn't tied down to Levittown.

So why doesn't this aeroplane reach the clouds? Our speaker has an imagination big enough to imagine limitless possibilities of travel... but not enough imagination to know what to do with so much opportunity. He's a would-be swashbuckler, but as a New Yorker cartoon of a middle-aged pirate had it, he's "too much buckle and not enough swash."

And so the song's lofty ambitions are also unfulfilled. With a soaring melody and a fantastical metaphor, all it can come up with is... dinner and dessert. And a sewing project for the weekend.

Next Song: I'd Like to Be