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


  1. Beautiful analysis of a very beautiful song. Paul Simon is at his best in this one.

  2. Luiz-- Thanks. I agree that this is one of the standout tracks of the album, and a song only Simon could have written.

  3. Luiz-- Thanks. I agree that this is one of the standout tracks of the album, and a song only Simon could have written.

  4. Great Blog! This is one of the best of the album and that says a lot. :)

  5. Michelle-- Thanks for the compliment! And I agree; Simon keeps reaching for new sounds, and finding them.

  6. How do you know the song is not about Cool Papa Bell (from Wilmington, DE), a percussionist who played for War, a musical contemporary of Paul Simon?

  7. Anon- The baseball one was known for stealing bases, and was therefore called "the fastest man on Earth," which is one of the lyrics.