Monday, October 27, 2014

Carlos Dominguez

The song is not about Carlos Dominguez, the current CEO of Cisco systems, who is 55, and the same-named Spanish footballer, a.k.a. Carlitos, is only 38. We can know this because this track was written in 1962 or '63, under Simon's alias Paul Kane; it was the flipside of the 45 of "He was My Brother."

[Yes, last week's song was written later, and my intention has been to post these songs chronologically when I know the dates. I also knew that this was to be my last post, and I just didn't want to end the blog, after eight-and-a-half years, writing about Nixon's relationship with Cuba, of all things.]

This song is about a modern-day Diogenes, on a perpetual psychological search. Unlike the ancient Greek, Carlos seeks not for an honest man but for... many things.

We are introduced to him by someone who is concerned enough about this obviously "unhappy man" to ask him two questions: "[You are] always running away/ What are you searching for?/ Why do you cry every day?"

Carlos explains that he searches every day because he "cannot find" the objects of his search. Overall, he seeks "a way I might find piece of mind. Why does he run? "I'm lost." Why does he cry? "I'm afraid."

In the chorus, the questioner repeats himself. This time, Carlos is more forthcoming. "I search for a truth, all I found was a lie/ I look for eternity, but I find all men die/ I'm looking for answers, but I find only fate/ I'm searching for love, I find in this world is hate."

Carlos is having a major crisis. He feels, with Yeats, that entropy is the only rule: "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." There is nothing reliably good, not even anything reliably... reliable.

Those in his mindset have a few options. Some find solace in religion. Some turn to science or some political ideology. Some try therapy or some forms of... self-medication. Some even turn to crime and other forms of selfish stuff-gathering.

And some follow the path suggested by the original version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "muddle through, somehow." They stop looking for the One Big Thing that ties up reality in a nice big bow and instead decide what matters to them, and then work on that.

Viktor Frankl-- a psychiatrist who continued to counsel his fellow Jews even though they were all in the same Nazi concentration camp-- suggested that there is no universal "Meaning of Life," but that each of us must find meaning in life. It's not about asking the Universe "Why are we here?" but asking oneself "Why am I here?"

Poor Carlos is not there yet. He is searching for the Grand Unified Theory and... not finding it in anything created by humans or found in nature. He has yet to stand still and look inside himself.

Perhaps there is no "truth"... but he can be true. There is no "eternity," but he can live a full life, and contribute to eternity through his works and children. There may be no "answers," but there is more than "fate"-- there is self-determination. There is free will. And even if there is no abstract "love" out there, he can still love. He can find love, or make it.

Musically, the song is Simon on a solo acoustic guitar, playing Spanish style, very well. As we have seen, Simon was fascinated with the wide world of music since his youth, ages before Graceland.

As for the lyrics... Simon, well Kane anyway, was at most in his early 20s when he wrote this, and it sounds like it. It sounds like a college-age person who has read the news and decided all humanity is lost. The song ends with the same questions with which it began, and its hero no closer to fulfilling his quest.

It is not inappropriate to, in this case, confuse the writer with his character, an earnest idealist and seeker after truth.

It is 1963, at the latest, when this song is published. The following year, 1964, will see Simon continuing to explore these same themes of yearning in another poetic, acoustic-guitar song. That song, and the themes of despair and hope that it explores, will not only launch Simon on his still-continuing career...

...but will be treasured by billions as one of the best, truest, most important songs ever written:

"The Sounds of Silence."

Next Song: The Mission

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cuba Si, Nixon No

The only version of this song available in full is on an S&G concert album titled Back to College, a recording of a performance in November of 1969. The college in question was Miami University of Ohio. As I learned when visiting that school, it was named for the Miami tribe of Native Americans, whose territory ranged from that area, in what is now Cincinnati, to the current city in Florida.

The song itself, as the title indicates, is one of Simon's most overtly political, and therefore one of his most dated, tracks. Only his songs "He Was My Brother," which mentions the Freedom Riders, and "Desultory Phillipic,"  which name-checks then-current newsmakers, come close in that regard.

The song seems to be about a US airplane hijacked and flown to Havana, Cuba, instead of its intended destination, New Orleans. There was a huge string of US planes hijacked to, or from, Cuba, starting in the 1950s and running through to 2007. They peaked between 1968-1970... with more than 30 such hijackings in 1969 alone! Many of the planes originated in the Southern US, naturally, but some from as far away as New York.

Still, I did not see any specifically bound for New Orleans but forcibly rerouted to Cuba. The nearest approximation was a Boeing 727 flight from New Orleans to Cuba hijacked in November 1968 by one Raymond Johnson. (One from Dallas was landed in New Orleans, and another from New Orleans was bound for Atlanta... but that one did not occur until 1980.)

The passengers numbering "120," as the song indicates, does match the idea of a smaller plane; the 727 generally carries 150-190 people (a 747 can carry more than 400).

But even the Johnson case is not a decent match. That particular case came a full year before the song was performed, for one. Also, the song describes the following scenario: "You know he's sitting in the cockpit, feels like he's in a dream/ Because he's heading to Havana, he should be goin' to New Orleans/ Pistol-cockin' senor, talking very slow and mean."

So it's seemingly not a "Raymond Johnson" doing the dirty deed. To drive the point home, the narrator points out: "The Spanish-speaking people have a different way of running the show."

Also, the idea that the person in the cockpit is the armed, Spanish-speaking one does not follow, as the second verse makes it clear that these are two different people: "He's got 120 passengers he'd like to get them back alive/ [unclear but sounds like] Pistol man is talkin'; he don't believe the man is jive."

Lastly, this hijacking took place in late 1968, while Nixon did not assume the presidency until January 1969. Now, he might have been president-elect at the time; elections are held in mid-November, and the Johnson hijacking was also that month. Unfortunately, I don't have the exact date of the crime. But it may not matter; "Nixon no" might be in protest of a potential Nixon presidency.

The only logical conclusion is that this was not intended to refer to a specific incident, but was a scenario cobbled from pieces of the many such incidents that had occurred.

Even though a planeload of US citizens is being hijacked, Simon seems to side with the desperado doing the hijacking: "Cuba si, Nixon no." (This may sound like language-switching, but the Spanish word for "no" is also "no.") It may seem odd that an American would side against an American president and in favor of a Communist regime run by Fidel Castro, and one that had aimed nukes at the US (back in 1962, in the Cuban Missile Crisis) at that.

But by then, people had a good idea of who Nixon was, too. If more people had said "no" at that point-- even without also saying "si" to Cuba-- US history would be very different indeed.

It's only 90 miles from a US coast to Cuba. The hijacker has "dysentery," says the song, "but there's not need to worry/ there's Havana on the radio." By plane, it's a very short journey indeed.

Musically, the song is raucous. It's a gut-bucket blues heavily influenced by Chuck Berry, along the lines of "Johnny B. Goode," but lyrically it is snidely political, like a Dylan or even a Phil Ochs number.

Musical Note:
It seems Garfunkel was against performing it. Given that there is only one recording of it altogether, it also seems that Simon agreed to retire it almost immediately. It is also reported that the song was written for the Bridge album but left off of the final version. It remains a curious... curiosity in Simon's catalog.

Next Song: Carlos Dominguez

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Pied Piper

You may have heard, on an oldies station, a song by one Crispian St. Peters that goes "I'm the Pied Piper/ Follow me," with a lot of piccolo in it. This is not that song.

It is another song, performed by a girl group called The Cupcakes, that also refers to the Grimm fairy-tale about the motley-dressed (or "pied") flute player whom, when he was not paid for removing the rats from Hamlin with his hypnotic flute-playing, came back and removed the children. This is why you have to "pay the piper" (yes, this is where the expression comes from).

In any case, our song here-- co-written by Richie Cordell (who sang "Dori Anne")-- credits Paul Simon on the 45 label. Not Jerry Landis or True Taylor, but Paul himself, under his own name. The year? 1965.

There is something wish-fulfilling about a musician writing a song about a guy who, just with his music, attracts all the girls. From Orpheus and his rabid groupies, the Bacchae, through Franz Liszt, to the girls a-swoon with Beatlemaina, music has attracted romantic attention. And for just as long, musicians have been hoping for some of that magical, musical aphrodisiac to work for them.

Here, the girls sing about it from their viewpoint. "He's up and down my block whistling his song/ I've got to follow him as he goes along." She is not alone: "There he goes, and right behind/ The girls all follow him in line... I'm only Number 5 and I fall right in line/ Pied Piper."

So, there's the effect. "I get this feeling that I just can't explain... Funny, how he's got a hold over me."

It's a pretty serious case. Even when he's not around, his impact is felt. "I get my homework and it's gotta get done/ It's almost 10:00 and I ain't begun." And when he actually shows up? "He's underneath my windowsill!/ Will I love him? Yes, I will!"

What's the cause, though? "He's the cutest boy I ever did see." Which never seems to hurt.

But mostly, "Here he comes again he's whistlin' that tune/ I get excited and I run out of my room." Yes, mostly it's the music.

The speaker admits, "I guess it's silly cause he'll never be mine," but still, "I don't feel bad." At some level, she knows it's a schoolgirl crush and is simply reveling in the glee of it all, like any good fan.

For once, the songwriter assays a woman's point of view-- what does he see through her eyes? Why, doting affection for an adorable musician, of course! A cute face and a pretty tune, that's what women want! How lucky for him that that's exactly what he's got.

But the tune is harmless. Adorable, in fact... and it should have been a hit. Shame that it was never rediscovered by, say, Berry Gordy or Phil Spector. How many girls could have identified with having a crush on the cute neighborhood musician? Probably more than a few.

For the guys, what an appropriate role model. Some off-beat clothes and a funky tune? Not to hard to come by. And hey, it worked for the Pied Piper.

Musical Note:
The Cupcakes were, in fact, The Cookies. But they also recorded as The Cinderellas, The Palisades, The Honey Bees, The Stepping Stones... and sometimes weren't credited at all.

Next Song: Cuba Si, Nixon No

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Please Don't Tell Her

This is the flipside of "Tick Tock," on a 45 by Ritchie Cordell (see below).

It's a bitter song, sung by a man who has every right to be bitter.

"Please don't tell her that I love her," the man begins, upper lip set stiffly. "If she should ask me I'll just say/ 'I hope you're happy with your new love/ On this...

Wait for it... here it comes...

"...your wedding day.'" Aw, no!

Not only does he have to attend the wedding between his love and another, he has to pretend to be pleased on her behalf. We might find him, after enduring the ceremony with a forced smile, not on the dance floor but at the bar.

While his pride is wounded, he still has some: "I don't want her sympathy." And anyway, it would only matter to him, as her pity would be insincere: "I know that now she has forgotten/ The dream she used to share with me." Poor guy.

In short, "I must be brave, though she's untrue."

But that's the Smokey-Robinsonesque facade. Inside, of course, he's a mess. "She'll kiss his lips and say I do/ I'll shed a tear by she won't know it."

The backup singers (which sound like they include Simon), sing-- to the traditional processional melody-- "Here comes the bride/ I wanna cry." They, like a Greek chorus, let slip what's really going on.

As Inigo says in The Princess Bride: "His true love is marrying another tonight, so who else has the cause for ultimate suffering?" If he makes it through the whole deal without breaking down, he deserves to catch the bouquet.

Like "Dori Anne," this is a tale of young angst, a popular topic for the slower doo-wop numbers, of which this is one. It has a melodramatic spoken, interlude, a "ba-b-b-ba," a lot of "oooh" in the background... the works.

Simon has often said that doo-wop was one of his major influences, and here we get to hear him assaying the form himself. It's not a classic like "Silhouettes" or "Sea of Love," but it's not half bad, either.

Musical Note:
Ritchie Cordell wrote some of his own songs, which you might have heard, for Tommy James and the Shondells: "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Mony Mony." A cover of the former (by Tiffany) was succeed at the top of the charts by a cover of the latter (by Billy Idol). The only other songwriters to replace one #1 hit with another? Lennon and McCartney.

Cordell also produced "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" for Joan Jett and an album for The Ramones.

Next Song: The Pied Piper