Sunday, October 25, 2009

Leaves That Are Green

The first song on S&G's second album, Sounds of Silence, is its title track, "The Sound of Silence"... and the pluralized title of the album forever threw the exact title of the song itself into doubt. Further complicating the matter was the fact that, as a single, the song's title was "Sounds..."

(Why people think it's "...Waters" when every presentation of "Bridge" is consistently titled "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is just people relying on memory instead of bothering to check.)

But, as we already dealt with "The Sound of Silence" during its first appearance on the debut album, we will pause only to say it is this electrified version of the song that went to #1. The stoy behind the (as we would say today) "remix" is fascinating, but it has been already covered many times and in many places.

Now, we will proceed directly to the first new original song on the second album, "Leaves That Are Green." This is one of Simon's simplest songs to understand. While it does present a number of metaphors for its theme, it also states that theme outright: "Time hurries on." Further, it continues, all things must end.

Our age-- both the number we give to our years and our historical era-- passes. Leaves and other growing things wither. Love ends, either because it dies or one of the lovers do.

There is a term, now, for the feeling Simon relates. We have all heard of the "midlife crisis" faced by those in, well, midlife. But recently, the term "quarterlife crisis" has been used to describe the feeling twentysomethings get, often around college graduation. They realize that while they might have 70-some years of life they can expect, meaning fifty or so more years, how many of those are "quality" years in terms of health, attractiveness, and earning power?

Simon was way ahead of them, writing about mortality itself when he was only, as he says, 21 years old.

The saddest verse is probably the third. The love lost in the second verse at least existed before it was lost. There is a memory of shared time that two people have, albeit bittersweet. But the third verse speaks of a wholly ineffectual act. The "pebble" sinks, the "ripples" fade, and there was not even a satisfying "plunk" to mark that the action had ever taken place. It recalls Keats' epitaph, the low-self-esteem-classic: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

The song ends with a series of hellos and goodbyes: Hello.../ goodbye.../ That's all there is." There is a story that King Solomon asked his advisers to come up with a statement that was always true. They responded with the phrase: "This, too, will pass." Solomon reportedly liked this so much he had the statement engraved in gold and placed above the door to his throne room, so that he could always see it while sitting on his throne.

Structurally-- and musically, with its harpsichord accompaniment-- the hearkens to the olden-time British ballads. But watch how the deteriorating rhyme scheme marks this as a modern creation:
The first verse's lines end: "song/long/on," very close rhymes.
Then comes: "girl/night/write." Two out of three.
And lastly: "brook/away/sound."

The increasingly looser rhymes mirror the poem's theme of entropy. This term from physics is defined by Simon himself quite well on his first official solo album, with the title "Everything Put Together Falls Apart."

What's intriguing is Simon's simple acceptance of this fact. Simon-- for he seems to (for once) be the speaker, simply notes the facts that time flies and things pass. He agrees that this is sad, but does not seem to have much of a reaction to the fact ... or beyond that, to tell us that we should have one.

He does not cajole, like Robert Herrick, to "gather... rosebuds while [we] may," or like urge, like Dylan Thomas, to "rage/ against the dying of a light," or even sigh like Ecclesiastes that "all is vanity and pursuit of wind."

Simon simply notes that all things end. He laments this reality, but simultaneously accepts it. It is one thing to ponder mortality at age 21. It is quite another to be so... grown up about it.

This album came out in 1966, a year before the Beatles single "Hello, Goodbye." It also presaged the line "Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes" in Billy Joel's song "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" by a decade.

This pretty but slight song is not considered a major element in Simon's catalog, but it was nonetheless paid tribute by folk aficionado Billy Bragg, who opened his song "Looking for a New England" with the verse:

"I was 21 years when I wrote this song
I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long.
People ask me, 'When will you grow up to be a man?'
But all the girls I loved at school are already pushing prams."

"Pram" is short for "perambulator," the British (which Bragg is) term for baby buggy.

While Simon's song is about endings altogether, Bragg is specifically thinking of ending a particular relationship. The chorus is:
"I don't want to change the world,
I'm not looking for a new England--
I'm just looking for another girl."

Next song: Blessed

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Covers of Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

It might be a fair guess to say that there are more covers on this album than on the other four S&G albums combined. But of the 12 songs on the album, 7 are covers... more than half the tracks. They break down into two categories... plus one that does not fit either.

The first category is folk versions of Christian, even Gospel-style, songs: "You Can Tell the World," "Go Tell it on the Mountain," and "Benedictus." It may seem strange to hear two "nice Jewish boys" singing such things, but when they were in England, post-college-- just as they were transitioning from being "Tom and Jerry" to "Simon and Garfunkel"-- one of their first breaks was providing music for a Christian radio show. The incongruity of Jews singing Christian music still raises eyebrows today; even in 2009, both Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan were offering new Christmas-song albums, and there were articles aplenty wondering at the sight.

That said, the two gospel numbers are sung boisterously and heartily, full of good cheer and "good news." Both are evangelical in nature, with the word "tell" right there in their titles-- one says to "Tell the world," and the other, "tell it... everywhere." Clearly, Simon is fine working with Christian imagery, and continues to be, as noted in the essay on "Bleecker Street." There are also such references in his more recent work, such as "the cross is in the ballpark," in "The Obvious Child" and "We celebrate the birth of Jesus" in "Old." For Simon, such ideas seem to be simply others he can access, alongside imagery of nature, modern life, etc.

Then there is "Benedictus," an arrangement of a Latin hymn done Gregorian-chant style. It is simply beautiful, and a better illustration of the duo's legendary ability to harmonize can scarcely be found.

Covers of "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" (E. McCurdy), "The Sun is Burning" (I. Campbell), and "The Times, They are A-Changin'" (Dylan) show Simon and Garfunkel doing what good folksingers have always done-- perform each others' songs. But these songs are more apocalyptic. The first paints a lovely dream of a UN-type council vowing to "never fight again." The second, however, is the nightmare version-- what will happen if the first, peaceful scenario is not fulfilled, with a nuclear Armageddon: "Now the Sun has come to Earth/ Shrouded in a mushroom cloud of death/ Death comes in a blinding flash/ of Hellish heat, and leaves a smear of ash."

The oft-covered Dylan number rounds out this trilogy with is warning to, as they used to say, get with the program: "you'd better start swimming /or you'll sink like a stone." Perhaps, taken together, these selection imply that there is a choice. Those who vow to "never fight again" will go "...dancing round and round/[with] guns and swords and uniforms/scattered on the ground," while those who make war will "go groping on their knees/ And cry in vain." As the third song explains: "he who gets hurt/ Will be he who has stalled."

Which leaves "Peggy-O," a traditional ballad. It is a story of helplessness and heartbreak. A travelling captain falls in love with a local lady and pledges her his adoration and fortune if she will leave with him: "You're the prettiest little girl I've ever seen/ In a carriage you will ride.../ As fair as any lady in the area."

Her friends, however, are having none of it: "What will you mother say/ when she finds you've gone away/ To places far and strange...?" No mention is made of her mother actually having a problem with this, so the soldier comes to the same conclusion as the listener and blames her friends for her refusal of him, telling Peggy: "If ever I return/ All your cities I will burn/ Destroying all the ladies in the area." This brave man, who can order a regiment of men into gunfire, cannot overcome the peer pressure of Peggy's jealous lady-friends. Throughout the song, Peggy herself is silent, the same as the Sparrow and other of Simon's characters here.

All of Simon's songs on the album are sad in some way or other. They tell stories of bleak streets, "restless dreams," a racist murder, and a fleeing criminal. Even a tired bird with a pretty song is abandoned when in need. What causes the sadness is a lack of connection, driven by fear. Simon tries to be a leader in "Sound of Silence": "Hear my words that I might teach you." But "Sound of Silence" is ultimately about people ignoring each other to worship a "neon god." So while there is a need to connect, people-- disappointed with each other-- reach to the concept of deity, only to again fail in their choice of one. The contemporary folksongs seem to be chosen to show the global implications of these personal decisions.

The overtly religious songs, the only happy ones here, come to provide a solution: "He brought joy, joy, joy into my heart" and "God sent salvation/ That holy Christmas morn." Humans, even the best intentioned ones, will ultimately let one down. Better to place your money on the Sure Bet.

In later albums, Simon will write other happy songs of his own. For now, his happiness is borrowed.

Next Song: Leaves That Are Green

Friday, October 16, 2009

Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

This is another story of a "crime." Not a hate crime, as depicted in "He Was My Brother," but a common, poverty-motivated robbery. Only this time, the speaker is the criminal himself.

If Sgt. Friday of TV's Dragnet would ask for "just the facts," they are these: On a "winter" Tuesday evening, a man "held up and robbed a hard liquor store." As far as we know, no shots were fired, and no one was injured. The robber left with "$25" and change. He is now hiding in his girlfriend's apartment, with plans to continue to flee in daylight.

But the song is about more than the crime. It is about the criminal and what-- if anything-- he was thinking when he did his foul deed.

The song tells an entire story, starting at the middle, going back to the beginning, then forward to the future. It starts with a man in bed with "the girl that [he] loves[s]." She is asleep, and peacefully and "gently" so. It seems he has not told her of his crime, or-- we imagine-- she would be having some reaction to it.

In describing her, he reveals he is somewhat a poet: "And her hair, in a fine mist/ It floats on my pillow/ Reflecting the glow/ Of the winter moonlight." He clearly thinks she is beautiful, and refers to her with the word "love" twice.

Meanwhile, he is awake and agitated; his "heart remains heavy." He lets us know that he must "be leaving" with "the first light of dawn." And only now, halfway through the song's four-verse length, does he shift to the past... and let us know why.

He speaks as if quoting the news, saying that he has "committed a crime/ Broken the law," perhaps imagining how his act was seen and categorized by others, for he cannot understand it himself, in his own terms.

Then he takes his own voice again, referring poetically to the small change, the "pieces of silver" he stole (see also "Bleecker Street"). This is both to wonder aloud at the inexplicability of his act-- he now must become a fugitive and give up his lady-love... and for what, this measly amount?-- and to recall the "pieces of silver" for which Judas betrayed Jesus.

Yes, but who did our robber betray? The store's owner? His girlfriend? Society at as a whole? Or... himself? He has betrayed his image of himself as a law-abiding, moral person, one with a commitment to another person at that.

Again, for what? It seems his initial motivation was poverty, but is $25 going to help? We know from earlier that "$30 pays your rent on Bleecker Street," so this amount is not going to even cover a month's rent in the cheapest neighborhood.

The song leaves us with a man whose mind is torn in three directions. One is to enjoy the brief moment of peace he has now; one is to try to figure out why he did what he did; and one is to plan his next move, how to "leave."

But he is torn in another way-- in half. His image of himself is now completely broken. In court, character witnesses are called to say of the accused that such an upstanding person could never have done such a low-down thing. But, called into witness against himself, the robber is appalled at his own actions: "What have I done? Why have I done it?" Yes, he was poor... but now he is not only no less poor but also on the lam, lovelorn and homeless. So what was it all for?

The rational part of his mind is left with no recourse but disbelief: "My life seems unreal, my crime an illusion." He even imagines some clumsy outside entity forcing his actions, making his act an "act" in the dramatic sense: "a scene, badly written/ In which [he] must play."

Ultimately, Simon has sympathy for the criminal he has created. Society must take some blame for leaving such a creative mind with no employment, leaving his only choice desperate acts like thievery. He also tries to grasp the criminal's detatchment from his own actions, the "How does I have done such a thing?" and "I could never have done such a thing!" feelings.

The listener is left with as much remorse for the criminal as he has for his own acts. Before, he had no money, but he did have love in his life. Now, he has barely enough to get on a bus out of town, and he must leave behind all that he holds dear.

The message is not that "crime doesn't pay." While the song does show the negative consequences of criminal behavior, it never takes on the moralizing tone of a parental warning: "See what happens when you rob a store? Let this be a lesson to you not to try something so stupid yourself!" The song does not end with the robber turning himself in, returning the money, and doing his jail time.

Rather, the song is simply, and hopelessly, sad. If it has a message, it's that some people, no matter how hard they try to improve their lot in life, cannot. Society does not value their potential contributions, and they have no knack for anti-society, crimimal success. They are left homeless, hopeless, and alone.

Next: The Cover Songs of Wednesday Morning, 3AM

Thursday, October 8, 2009

He Was My Brother

This is one of Simon's few protest songs, in the commonly understood sense of a political statement in verse. It discusses a particular incident-- in this a case, a racist crime. Given the specificity of the information mentioned in the song, I thought I could find an article on the incident itself. The Freedom Rides were a recent, well-documented event, I reasoned, so if there was a death associated with them, I should be able to find something about it.

I was wrong. After a half-hour's research online, not only could I not find an article on or mention of a "23"-year-old "Freedom Rider" who was "shot... dead," I could find no mention of a death of any Freedom Rider whatsoever. This is not to minimize the brave sacrifices of the Freedom Riders or their pain, let alone their indelible contributions to the history of civil rights. It is simply to say that I could find no record of one of them having been killed. Again, I am glad that none of them died, if that is the case. But the fact of a Freedom Rider having being killed not being the case, the song takes on a different tinge.

I did find many mentions of a Corporal Roman Ducksworth, an African-American MP officer who, while on leave to visit his sick wife, was killed by a police officer. Yes, he was shot, but fully half of the articles I found on him indicated that he may have been "mistaken" by the officer for a Freedom Rider. Had he certainly been one, it is more likely that the cause's organizers would have claimed him, rightly, as a martyr in some definitive way. Further, he was not accosted by a "mob," but seems to have been killed by this particular officer, whose name is also known.

Another possibility is that Simon conflated the Freedom Rider idea with the martyrdom of another activist in some other aspect of the cause. This could be one of the three young men -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner-- who were registering voters in Mississippi when they were killed by anti-rights racists. However, they were lynched, not "shot," and while they all were in their early 20s, none was "23."

It is the case that Goodman was a friend of Simon and Garfunkel's, and a classmate of Simon's at Queens College. There is even a record of the song being dedicated to him, even if the details of the case were changed for the sake of song itself.

The fact of Goodman and Schwerner being Jewish, like Simon, is immaterial, as he only speaks of one victim in the song... aside from the fact that Simon's consideration of this man as a "brother" must transcend all such designations, or the song itself must lose some moral power and import.

I would not focus so much on the issue of the source of the song's story were it not for three things: One, most other such songs-- from Dylan's "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," to Neil Young's "Ohio," to Springsteen's "41 Shots"-- are based in actual, historic incidents. Two, the number and specific nature of the details of our song seems to indicate an actual incident being discussed. Three, why would Simon discuss the death of a Freedom Rider if none had actually been killed, while so many other civil-rights workers-- both leaders and followers-- in other areas of the movement, had? Once the fictional nature of the incident was known to its contemporary listeners, surely it would let some of air out of the song's proverbial tires.

[A 2016 biography of Simon indicates that the song was written in 1963, a year before the Chaney/Goodman/Schwerner killing. If anyone reading this knows of the specific incident Simon did mean, please share what you know. Thank you. ]

All of that said, let us now treat the song as a work unto itself, and discuss the references of other elements of its story.

The song begins with the assertion of brotherhood on the part of the speaker with the subject. The song then explains that the reason we are talking about this person is that he died, and very young. This-- and the dramatic way the duo sings "... day he died"-- is to effectively "hook" the listener into wanting to find out what could have caused his early demise.

We learn the "brother" is a Freedom Rider. The Freedom Riders were righteous souls who braved violence to test the Supreme Court's then-new laws desegregating interstate transportation in the mid-1960s. Yes, readers, at one point in our great nation's recent past, simply riding a Greyhound bus was a provocative, political act that could-- and did-- get one beaten with sticks and pipes by one's fellow Americans, then jailed by the local police for having given these citizens the trouble of doing the beating.

Next, we learn that, as a Freedom Rider, he was not warmly received. The brother is cursed, then told two contradictory things: he can leave "this town," or he can remain... permanently. "Go home, outsider/This town's gonna be your buryin' place." The "gonna" and dropped "g" of "burying'" may to be an attempt to capture the dialect of the South, or perhaps imply the ignorance of the racists involved.

So far, the song is an accurate depiction of the events the Freedom Riders encountered. Next are two more factual elements. There is the image of the brother "singing on his knees." Certainly, the Freedom Riders prayed, both for the fulfillment of their cause and for their personal safety. But although that is the metaphor presented, that is not only what is likely meant. The Freedom Riders used Gandhi's methods of passive resistance, singing protest songs while sitting, forcing their opponents to be the sole violent participants in their altercations. In one incident I just read about, some Riders were tossed out of jail because the guards could not stand their constant singing!

"An angry mob trailed along" does not logically follow... how does one "trail" someone "on his knees," who is not moving? Rather, this must refer to the racist mobs who followed the Freedom Rider's buses wherever they went, meeting them at each bus depot with fresh rounds of violence. In at least one case, a bus's tires were slashed, then the entire bus burned.

The next line-- "They shot my brother dead"-- is, as discussed above, the place where the song may break down, with regard to recording a factual incident. [Again, if anyone knows of any Freedom Rider having been killed for his activism, I would appreciate knowing and will certainly revise this essay based on that information.]

But it is the next line where Simon, for all his sometime lyrical floridity, shows how excellent a writer he is. This thought calls for economy of phrase and word choice, and Simon adapts his style and delivers a line of gunshot directness: "...he hated what was wrong." Racial hatred is wrong, and whether it is important enough to kill over, it is certainly important enough to die over.

The song closes with two more thoughts. One is that "tears won't bring [his brother] back." The implication is that mourning is not useful-- what is needed now is action, something that will assure that such tragedies don't happen again. The undercurrent urges the listener into activism. (Decades later, Simon will reconsider somewhat, opining, in "Cool Cool River": "Sometime, even music/Is no substitute for tears.")

This song, an elegy (poetic eulogy), ends with an epitaph, again delivered with forceful clarity: "He died so his brothers could be free." He was a martyr for civil and human rights.

Yes, he died for your freedom, too, listener! If it hasn't been obvious thus far, Simon now makes it plain. Whether or not this fallen man was the speaker's-- or audience's-- biological brother is irrelevant. The point is that all men are brothers in spirit. The victim's "brothers" are not the speaker and his other siblings, but all Americans and indeed all humans, all of whom deserve freedom.

Were any Freedom Riders killed in the cause of civil rights? Perhaps not. But from civil rights generals from Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Medgar Evers, to footsoldiers like Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, many did indeed "die... so their brothers could be free." And that is a truth, everyone laments, which did certainly occur.

Note: In the 1980s, Simon would travel to South Africa to use music to combat more racism, the oppressive system known as "apartheid." One of his collaborators there on the resulting 1986 album, the landmark Graceland, was Joseph Shabalala. In 1960, Mr. Shabalala founded the vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which the album would help bring to international acclaim. One of the ensemble's original founding members was Joseph's brother, Headman Shabalala, who gave the group some of its famous particular vocalizations. In 1991, Headman was returning from a family event when his car was pulled over by an off-duty security guard, who shot him in the head and killed him.

He, too, was our brother.

Next song: Wednesday Morning 3 AM