Sunday, June 26, 2016

Proof of Love

This is a deeply spiritual song, even a religious one.

Even though "love" is in the title, this is not romantic love that is being spoken of, asked for "proof" of, but... love itself, as a concept.

"Does love exist?" the speaker asks of God. "Well, then... prove it!"

The first part of a song describes a journey. The speaker has no "guide," but sets out anyway. Oh, and it is late in the day-- or perhaps late in life-- so he wants to set out "before the bells of twilight peal" (those would be the "vespers," for those unfamiliar with Catholic timekeeping; the ones in the morning are "matins," as explained in the nursery rhyme "Frere Jacques.").

We're going to guess the "twilight" reference means speaker is older, as the first line is "Begin again-- no easy trick." So he has begun before, and now has to start all over.

At least the road is easy, a "spiral" downhill path (this could be a reference to "Spiral Highway," an obscure Simon song from his One-Trick Pony film that did not end up on the soundtrack).

But is the road easy? It reminds him of a coiled "serpent." Not only does he not have a "walking stick," he doesn't have any food! Just a "teaspoon of desire for [his] meal." Also, "the road is steep/ The air is thin." It seems less like he's on a hill than a mountain.

So, this is not an easy downhill path. This is more of a "it's all downhill from here" path. In fact the whole "town" is downhill, which implies that others face this same fate.

At this point, our speaker needs a shot of faith. So he prays, crying: "I trade my tears to ask The Lord for proof of love." He's not even sure he believes in God, or if there are only "stars" above him (a far cry from the prayer offered at the end of the song "Duncan"-- which also mentions "stars" and "The Lord," which Simon has begun playing again in concert; in fact, a new recording of it is included on the deluxe version of this very album).

To his own prayer, he says, "Amen." Or it may be others in the town who testify to his prayer.

Then... he seems to receive an answer to his prayer! Only, it does not come from Heaven above but from "inside [his] skin." It is a response of consolation. "Your days won't end with night," it reassures, "Let your body heal its pain."

Another clue. This "road" is the road to recovery, perhaps from an illness or injury. That explains "begin again." In physical therapy, a person may have to re-learn skills mastered as a child, like speaking or walking.

What does the voice recommend as treatment? An injection of Nature, first: "Feel the sun/ Drink the rain." Next, a large dose of faith: "bathe beneath a waterfall of light."

This time, he tearfully prays for proof of love to know "what my dreams are made of" (The original line for Shakespeare's The Tempest is "we are such stuff as dreams are made on.") He wants to know that his dreams are made of something substantial and good, not flimsy and false. If there is love, he can dare to hope.

He has kept walking downward, meantime, and now he can see "the valley below." It is, he sees, "an ocean of debris." Not the answer he was banking on.

OK, time for another prayer. No tears this time. At long last-- does love exist? "Love is all I seek!" he says, and says again. Now, he is out of tears, and out of "words." So he turns to "music" to express himself.

He is exhausted with walking and worry. Spent, he lays down by a "white oak tree." He has had it. He asked for proof of love, and got a treacherous road that led him to a valley full of rubble. He was supposed to find nourishing sunshine and rain, and only has hunger and "pain" and not even enough "air"!

He as much as dares death to come-- "No deadly nightshade, belladonna, dare lay a leaf on me." Nightshade is a poisonous plant; its Latin name is "atropa belladonna."

But the night is "silent." It is "still as prayer." And it's not "dark," either. In fact, "Darkness fills with light/ Love on Earth is everywhere." Beautiful.

But let's unpack it anyway. If he wanted to get underway before "twilight," and that implies that he was old or, as we learn later, near death, if due to not age but ailment... what does "darkness" mean? It means, well, death.

One prayer was answered by a sense of calm, the promise that his days would not end with night, and that he would bathe in a waterfall of light. If this is his death, then that promise comes true. His days don't end with "night" but with "light," and if the light fills the world, it is certainly enough to bathe in.

There is an alternate interpretation I would like to offer, though. It is foreshadowed by the reference to "bells of twilight." It's possible that this song is not just religious-- it's possible to read it so that it is about religion itself.

Some clues: A man is coming down a mountain. He doesn't have his usual "stick" with him. He is talking to God on the way. There is a reference to a "serpent." When he gets to the bottom, the valley, he finds disaster.

Might this be about... Moses? Walking down the mountainside of Sinai? And then coming to the bottom to find a pit of idolatry. (Moses turns his stick, or staff, into a serpent more than once.)

The next clue: "Silent night." Or should we say, "Silent Night." Simon already recorded that carol, so he knows it well, and it's about the birth of Jesus. A "tree" is a common metaphor for the Cross, too. So Moses asks for proof of love, and gets it, in Jesus.

I'm not saying this is what Simon means to say. But it is possible to read this interpretation into the song.

More likely, the song is about someone dying peacefully after suffering from cancer or a stroke or something, after there had been some initial hope of recovery.

We get some information as to the symptoms. Likely there was some blindness involved, requiring a "guide" or "stick" to help him find his way; now, he is supposed to be able to walk without that. He can see again, but has been spending much time in bed, gazing upward at what he hoped was more than just "stars." Also, he has trouble breathing ("the air is thin"), and at the end had trouble speaking ("words desert me").

He decides to try natural remedies ("drink the rain"), like a sunlamp ("a waterfall of light") and to "let [his] body heal" itself. He doesn't want toxic chemotherapy, or some poison that will kill him quicker ("no deadly nightshade"). But all he gets is sicker ("an ocean of debris"). Then he dies, and in death finds peace, and light, and love.

What is our the proof, then, of love? Of all things, it may be death. Dying is terrible-- painful, frightening. It takes you apart, piece by piece. But then you get to die.

And rest. In peace.

(NOTE: It would be interesting to contrast this song with Simon's similarly named "Proof," which contained the repeated lines: "Faith is an island in the setting sun/ Proof is the bottom line for everyone.")

Next Song: The Riverbank

Sunday, June 19, 2016

In a Parade

What is going on and what we think is going on may be two different things. If the difference is vast enough, we consider that a mental illness.

The song is set in the emergency room, or "ER," of a hospital. Some nights, it is quiet. The speaker compares this almost-silence to a piece of medical equipment that makes some noise, but not much-- the EKG. This stands for "electrocardiogram" (why there is a K in the abbreviation but none in the word being abbreviated is another story). It's the heart-rate monitor that goes "beep" every time your heart beats, and "beeeeeeep" when your heart stops.

Anyway, tonight is not one of those quieter nights. Tonight, the place is flooded with "broken bones" and "wounded souls" (compare this to the imagery in the folk-doctor's room in "Spirit Voices" or even the first part of "American Tune"). The injured are doing paperwork or calling someone. The place is busy, even bustling, but not at all chaotic.

Into this scene comes someone, however, who does not see this commotion for what it is. To him, it's a "parade"... and he is smack in the middle of it. He can't even "talk to you now," because after all, a parade is no occasion for a conversation.

Clearly, this person cannot fill out his own paperwork. So someone else does, and we get to read it. He is diagnosed as "schizophrenic"; his outlook is judged as "guarded," meaning there is a smidgen of hope, but not a wide smidgen, as smidgens go. He is given an anti-psychotic medication meant to re-balance his brain's chemistry.

We don't see the lines on the form regarding name, age, address or the other usual information, possibly because these are blank, in turn because they are unknown and unknowable. The only person who could answer is otherwise... occupied. But that line on the form, his occupation, they are able to determine.

He's a "street angel."

Yes, the same one we met a couple of songs back. He was brought into the ER by someone who didn't know where else to bring him.

The clinicians do try to have a conversation with him, but it's not all that informative. He tells them that he drank some orange, then grape, soda. And he may have... perhaps along with some medicines that may have been added to these in order to make dosing him easier.

But this seems to focus him on sugary imagery, because next, he explains: "My head's a lollipop and everyone wants to lick it." That may seem odd, but he's not necessarily being inaccurate, just metaphoric. Examining a true schizophrenic is fascinating to medical science. He may have been in another institution or institute in which everyone around him wanted to use him as a guinea pig for their experiments or analysis. We often forget that such probing is noticed by its subject... even if we think they are, mentally, on another planet. As for the lollipop image, we use the expression "Everyone wants a piece of me" when we feel overwhelmed with requests.

He explains why he wears a hooded sweatshirt, twice. The first time, he says he wants to "cover his mistake," and the second time "so I won't get a ticket." Well, is someone were trying to get in your head, wouldn't your instinct be to cover it? Maybe his mistake, to him, was letting someone analyze him in the first place. And "getting a ticket" is sure to mean being punished, possibly for resisting treatment.

Lastly, he says, "I write my verse for the universe," which echoes what he'd said in the original song. "That's who I am," he concludes. He is a poet, and he generously shares that poetry, with everyone, for free.

Not insisting you get paid for your work? Now, that's just plain crazy.

The Street Angel is-- fundamentally and mentally-- a poet, and so he speaks in poetry. He needs a psychiatrist who was a minor in literature to interpret what he says. This is how he interfaces, to the degree that he does at all, with the world. So he needs a poetry-to-mundanity translator to communicate.

Now, where are angels? In some other-where called "Heaven." Yet, they interact with us, on our plane of existence. What must they think of us humans-- how must they perceive us, through that veil between the physical and meta-physical? And if they tried to explain that to us in ways they could manage, in ways they think we could perceive... would we think they were poets? Or mentally ill?

In any case, our Street Angel is off the street. Let's hope the doctors let him keep some of the angel part, too.

Musical Note:
Some of the drum tracks here were recycled from the song "Cool Papa Bell," also off of this album.

But the more interesting sample is slowed-down, played-backward tracks of gospel songs from the 1930s. These sounds sounded, to Simon, like the words "street angel" and some of the other lyrics.

Next Song: Proof of Love

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Stranger to Stranger

The title track to this album is a love song, and a lovely one, at that. Simon married singer-songwriter Edie Brickell in 1992, so this song comes nearly 25 years into their marriage.

He asks if they would fall in love again if they met now: "If we met for the first time/ Could you imagine us falling in love again?" The language echoes his song "Old Friends": "Can you imagine us, years from today/ Sharing a park bench?"

(Side note: in that song, he muses, "How terribly strange to be 70." The year this album was released, Simon was 74.)

This song continues: "Words and melody... fall from the summer trees," he says, "So the old story goes." I have never heard the story of songs falling from trees... if any of my readers have, I hope they share that story with me.

Why is this here? Perhaps he means to say that he and his wife pair as well as words and melody, and as naturally as leaves falling from trees.

In any case, how wonderful and amazing that, after two decades and more, he still awaits her very "walk[ing] across his doorway." He is "jittery" with "joy," even. She is like a drug to him: "I cannot be held accountable for the things I do or say," when she is near.

He finds their relationship an "easy harmony," and it must be something when two such great singers actually do harmonize. And when there is a problem, the "old-time remedies" still work.

And oh, problems do happen. Some can be compared to repetitive-stress injuries: "Most of the time/ It's just hard working/ The same piece of clay / Day after day." The "clay" represents the banality of life... or, seeing as how Adam was made of clay, the banality of people.

Other problems lie not within the relationship, but its individual members: "Certain melodies tear your heart apart/ Reconstruction is a lonesome art." Some losses, like the death of a parent or a career downturn, affect one of them more than the other.

What else? "All the carnage." Again, this could refer to death or illness, but also fighting and saying hurtful things, separations and silences-- psychological damage. But these things are discreet and definable.

Others are more effusive and evasive: "All the useless detours." A couple could spend five years in a house neither likes, because each thinks the other one likes it. A couple could take years to decide to get married, or divorced, and just be living in a limbo of inertia.

But despite all these thing, he still believes: "Love endures." The song ends with Simon repeating "I love you" over and over in waltz time, then: "Words and melody/ Easy harmony." When they are in tune, what a beautiful song.

"I love to watch you walk across my doorway," he tells her-- still crazy about her, after all these years.

Musical Note:
This is one of the four songs Simon spiced with flamenco on this album; the others are "The Riverbank," "The Werewolf" and "Wristband." In this, some of the rhythms are actually recordings of the dancer's steps.

Some of the guitar was done by Cameroons native Vincent Nguini, who has been with Simon since Rhythm of the Saints.

Next Song: In a Parade

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Street Angel

There has always been the impulse to-- ironic as it seems-- glamorize the poor, from the holy hermits of yore to movies like With Honors in which a self-proclaimed "bum" out-debates a Harvard law professor. Likewise, there has been an long-held impulse to sanctify the mentally ill.

It's true that some indigent or lower-class people are undiscovered geniuses--like "Good" Will Hunting-- and some-- like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind-- struggle with mental illness while still contributing genius-level work to society. But, in fact, the poor and/or mentally ill are just as mixed a bag as the rest of society, goodness-wise and intelligence-wise.

In this song, we get another sacred genius who has not been able to make his way in society and so has wound up homeless. The speaker calls him a "Street Angel," but doesn't give us his name.

He begins by saying that he sympathizes with those good, decent people who are, nevertheless mentally ill and/or homeless: "My heart goes out to the street angels." He "saves his change" for them, too, and is especially impressed with the ones "working their way back home" either geographically or psychologically.

He doesn't just give them his money, either-- he gives them something more rare: his attention. He talks to one Street Angel who confesses: "Nobody talks to me much." The speaker says he can relate: "Nobody talks to me much." [The italics are not in the lyrics but implied in the delivery and inflection when sung.]

The Street Angel also has something else in common with the speaker (assuming it's Simon himself); they are both writers. But the Angel does it for free. The Street Angel says he makes his verse "for the universe" and asks nothing in return-- he does it for the "hoot" of it. This is an old expression-- "Wasn't that a hoot?" once meant "Wasn't that so very funny?"

"The tree is bare," says the Angel, "but the root of it/ Goes deeper than logical reasoning." Maybe nothing he does bears any fruit, in other words, but there is a reason to do it beyond the expectation of return, or rather not a reason but an emotional compulsion.

Then the Angel switches topics to religion: "God goes fishing/ And we are the fishes." So religion is a trap, complete with a lure: "He baits his [sic] lines/ With prayers and wishes." Does it work? Yes: "We're hungry for the love, and so we bite." God uses our loneliness against us, he argues.

So he is not changing topics as such, but returning to the original one, about how nobody talks to him. He's in a bind-- he's lonely, but on the one hand, human-type people ignore him... and on the other, God while does seek his company, it's only for selfish reasons.

His response is two-fold: To retreat from the world ("We hide our hearts like holy hostages") and to assume all communication is a one-way street-- to/at the world, but not back from it ("I tell my tale for the toot of it.")

What becomes of the Street Angel? Even though he was "working his way back home," he is removed from the street by the same society that dumped him there: "They took him away in the ambulance... He waved goodbye from the ambulance." One last gesture of communication with the one person who ever acknowledged him.

There is one note of possible hope. Remember how he was "working his way back home"? Well, now, he "made a way with the ambulance." So even though it's only "a" way and not "his" way-- and even though that way is not "back home"-- at least he is not on the street anymore.

And he still gets to be an angel.

The song concludes with the line: "My heart goes out to the street angel." Does it matter if a homeless or mentally ill person is angelic in some intellectual or spiritual way? Can't you still feel bad for them, even if they are ordinary, just because they live on the street?

Next Song: Stranger to Stranger