Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Werewolf

Of all the classic movie monsters, the werewolf is obviously the most animalistic. A vampire can be fought with a whole arsenal of weapons, and a zombie like Frankenstein's monster or a mummy is ploddingly slow. But a werewolf is not undead-- he's very much alive, completely relentless, and full of teeth and claws.

We never really know what the werewolf in this song represents. (In an interview, Simon said it was planetary environmental disaster, but that's not even hinted at in the lyrics themselves.) If anything, the song implies it's an impending economic collapse-- the rich will either cause it by greed, or the poor by revolt.

But let's start where the song does. In Milwaukee.

A man who lives there with a "fairly decent" life, career, and wife is-- seeming out of nowhere-- stabbed and killed by that wife: "Now they are shopping for a fairly decent afterlife." Why does it say "they," which means she is dead, too? Was it a murder-suicide? Was she caught, convicted, and executed?

We don't know if the wife kills her husband because she is dominant and he won't submit, or because he is domineering and she kills him out of rebellion. The fact that he only feels she's "fairly decent" might anger a spouse, but to the point of murder? What about couples' counseling, or divorce, first?

Now we get into the economic point: "Life is a lottery a lot of people lose." And "the winners"? They "eat all the nuggets and order extra fries." OK, there is a class war: the rich declared war on the poor, and easily, handily won.

Next comes the first ominous mention of the Werewolf. All we know is that it's "coming," by the sounds of its "howling" and "prowling." "The Werewolf is coming," the speaker tells "Bill" and "Joe." These seem like easy rhymes, but they also personalize the threat (Springsteen, by comparison, often refers to the listener with the anonymous "hey there, mister."). It's not just coming, it's coming for you.

The problem--whatever it is-- is "national" The sides are staked: "Ignorance and Arrogance, a national debate." This could refer to certain political parties, and how they see each other. And these two sides will debate-- any issue-- agreeing on nothing.

But as Simon said in "The Coast," "that is worth some money." How? "Put the fight in Vegas-- that's a million-dollar gate." The take "could be healthy." But who wins? Well, the box office revenue "all goes to the wealthy" no matter the victor in the ring.

So, this is a problem! Not to the speaker: "I know it's raining, but we're coming to the end of the rainbow," presumably where the pot of gold awaits.

This point is never paid off. Instead, we shift to a quick jab at the pervasiveness of surveillance: "The lying and the spying through." This results in a retreat into privacy, isolation, and anonymous screen names: "Oh, you don't know me? OK, I don't know you."

But wait-- what about... what was it? Oh, right, the Werewolf. It's still coming! So we prepare for disaster: "You better stock up on water, canned goods." But be a dear about it, won't you, and "loot some for the old folks who can't loot for themselves."

And now, the wolf is at the door: "Doorbell's ringing... it's probably the werewolf." It's a "full moon," people, and it's already "a quarter to twelve." (We should also probably mention that this Werewolf is, right at the end of the song, revealed to be female, which ties it in with the murderess at the start of the song.)

So, what is the werewolf? It's any big issue that people refuse to deal with because of how big it is-- poverty, the deficit, environmental calamity, the wealth gap-- you name it. It could be a national issue, or some rage your spouse has toward you that you have no idea about until the "sushi knife" is making sashimi of your aorta.

"Life is what happens while you're making other plans," mused John Lennon. And the werewolf is what's coming when you refuse to deal with it before the moon is full, or even during daylight.

So let's not wait until "midnight... when the wolves bite."

Musical Note:
Flamenco music was a major inspiration for Simon on this album, especially the rhythmic stamping and clapping. One of his percussionists, Jamey Haddad, introduced him to a Boston flamenco troupe. They ended up recording the basic rhythm tracks for four of the songs: this one, "The Riverbank," the title track "Stranger to Stranger,"  and the first song to debut from the album, "Wristband."

The twangy sound that opens the song (and the whole album) is made by an Indian instrument called the "gopichand." That twang sounded, to Simon, like the word "werewolf."

As if Spanish and Indian music were not enough, an Italian EDM (electronic dance music) composer who goes by Clap! Clap! (his birth name is Digi G'Aleessio) also collaborated on this track (and also "Wristband" and "Street Angel") via the Internet from his studio on the island of Sardinia.

Next Song: (Street Angel.
Here's the thing. Werewolf is the third track Simon has released before the new album in its entirety drops. Which, as of this writing, is just over a week away. So probably no more freebies before then, is my guess. The whole album is only 11 tracks long.

This track is the first on the album and Wristband is the second; those have been released and I have written about them [Cool Papa Bell is Track 10]. The third is The Clock, but that's an instrumental. So the one after that is Street Angel.)


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Cool Papa Bell

[Warning: This song's lyrics include "swear words."]

This is the second song from Stranger to Stranger that Simon has released to the public prior to "dropping" the album in June of 2016.

The Cool Papa Bell in question was a baseball player. His first name was James, and he was an outfielder in the Negro Leagues for nearly 30 years, starting in 1922. He's in the Hall of Fame, and as the song indicates, his feats of speed became legendary.

However, this song is as much about him as "Mrs. Robinson" was about Joltin' Joe DiMaggio...

The speaker of this song is someone whose job-- if he has one-- is quite enviable: "It's not my job to worry or to think," he explains.

Instead, he says, he is simply "grateful" for being alive. He realizes that this may come across as "New-Agey," but he says he is sincere about it. His proof? A tattoo! He has literally labeled himself "Mr. Wall-to-Wall Fun."

When he encounters a group, he asks, "Does everyone know everyone (else here)?" And then he introduces himself as: Mr. Wall-to-Wall Fun.

At this point, he points out that there was once this baseball player who had several such nicknames! He was "The Fastest Man on Earth," for example, and also, he was known as "Cool Papa." So he was known for being calm, even in situations where one might not be. And he was known for being in charge, like his fellow ballplayer David "Big Papi" Ortiz... or musicians like "Big Daddy" Kane or Puff Daddy.

So that's three nicknames for one James Bell: Fastest Man, Cool, and Papa. (Kool Moe Dee is just cool, Earl "Fatha" Hines is just a father, but Cool Papa Bell is both.)

Now, the speaker talks about what might be the most common, um, nickname, and it's an "ugly" one: "Motherfucker." He says this is "often heard as a substitute for someone's Christian name." Which is an old fashioned expression for "first name."

He brings up the example of animals. Conservationists have long bemoaned the fact that "charismatic mega-fauna" get all the attention. This is their term for large animals that anti-extinction efforts focus on-- te tigers, giraffes, elephants, and the like. No one struggles, in other words, to save a slug, toad or warthog species, even if they may even be nearing extinction... and just as key a part of the ecosystem.

How the speaker puts this idea is: "Not every rodent gets a birthday cake/ Now, if you're a chipmunk, how cute is that? But you, motherfucker, are a filthy rat."

So he "asks" Cool Papa Bell (who died in 1991): "Is it true... That the beauties go to Heaven/ And the ugly go to Hell?" Bell might be equipped to answer. He was a great player (and, by his photo, a handsome gent) but because of his skin color, he was never able to pit his famous speed against all his fellow ballplayers. He could be fast, he could be Hall-of-Fame talented. He could even get a fantastic nickname. But, fast as he was, he could not outrun his blackness, or the bigotry that denied him true success. Do the ugly go to hell? Well, first, who gets to say who is "ugly"?

Our speaker is not done, though. Having brought up Heaven, he announces that this place is "finally found." Before you get in line for a ticket, however, you should know that "it's six trillion light-years away." But that's OK, because "We're all gonna get there someday."

All? Well, "not you."

Wait, what? Why not? What did I do?

"You stay and explain the suffering and the pain you caused," he orders. "The thrill you feel when evil dreams come true."

Oh. So that's what ugly is! It's ugly behavior. Ugly schadenfreude-- the joy at others' pain.

So here's an irony for you... What's "ugly"? It's standing around, pointing out who you think is ugly! It's bullying, name-calling. It's judgmentalism. That's what's ugly.

It's deciding that this Cool Papa Bell-- this handsome, talented man-- doesn't meet your aesthetic standards, and so can't play ball against his true peers, because they are white. Now, that's an ugly thought.

But now our speaker brings up his tattoo again, as if to say-- maybe the antidote to the poison of bigotry, of ugly nicknames, is to come up with nicknames for ourselves!

"You can't call me 'motherfucker'," implies the speaker, "because I already have a nickname! I'm 'Mr. Wall-to-Wall Fun.' Pleased to meet you. And you are?

"Cool Papa Bell, you say. I bet everyone thinks you're awesome, since they gave you that name..."

Well, maybe Bell never played outside the Negro Leagues. But he's considered one of the 100 best ballplayers in the sport's history, he's in the Hall of Fame... and now he's the only ballplayer to also be the title of a Paul Simon song.

Sounds like he made it to Heaven, after all.

Next Song: The Werewolf