Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I Am a Rock

"No man is an island," says John Donne. "I am an island," replies Paul Simon, several hundred years later and an ocean away.

But two years earlier than our album came out, Peter and Gordon sang "Please lock me away/ And don't allow the day/ Here inside/ Where I hide/ With my loneliness" in their song "A World Without Love." The attraction of retreating to a solitary hideaway once one is burned by love is neither new nor exclusive to Simon.

Taking Simon's song in the context of his others, however, we might see this as a sequel to "Kathy's Song." There, Simon sings of "gazing" through a "window" at "drops of rain," thinking of a faraway love. Here, scorned by (and therefore, scorning) love altogether, he looks not outward but downward, and sees only his immediate surroundings: "Gazing from my window, to the streets below." And instead of "weary" raindrops, he sees "a silent shroud of snow."

In "Bleeker Street," the "shroud," remember, was a "fog" that hid God from His people. Here, the shroud of snow is simply "silent." It serves to dampen and hush the world (like a layer of music-studio soundproofing foam?). Listen to the the f, s, and sh alliterations of the line, like footfalls (the four ds of the opening line?) muffled in powdery snow.

The song may also be an attempt to understand the syndrome of the Most Peculiar Man, who "lived all alone, within a house... within himself." That Man could well have written this song. Why did he remove himself from the world? Well... "friendship causes pain," and having "loved" means having "cried." So to Hell with all of it. (And what if the speaker in "Kathy's Song," and "I Am a Rock" are both the Most Peculiar Man, before and after a break-up. We do know that one person wrote all three songs!)

There is an interesting use, or non-use, of rhyme. Each verse starts with three unrhymed lines, followed by two rhymed lines, and then the two unrhymed lines that form the chorus: "day/December/alone," then "below/snow," and then "rock/island." The next verses rhyme "pain/disdain," "died/cried," and (more of an internal rhyme) "room/womb." The lines before and after these rhymes do not rhyme, forming a jagged barrier-- like barbed wire or a point-tipped fence-- around the sad, angry rhymes.

The major imagery of "I Am a Rock" is that of Medieval castles: In "a fortress deep and mighty... I am shielded in my armor." Perhaps the "books" the speaker is using as a "wall" against the world are of this era? (If so, they would be a poor choice; most of the famous ones are romances. The disenchanted works of the Beats or the existential novels of mid-20th Century Europe would have been wiser selections to inculcate a sullen solitude. For instance, "No Exit," Sartre's play that famously ends: "Hell is other people.")

"She is soft, she is warm" is the line in "Wednesday Morning." "Soft and warm" also is the rain in "Kathy's Song." In "I Am a Rock," there is no softness, only "walls... fortress[es]... armor." There is no warmth, only "winter... December... snow."

The images are of inertia, a lack of movement: "snow... sleeping/slumber... womb," and the title image. The other images are of barriers, especially the castle/armor images (as well as a moat of snow, and the water around an "island."). Paradoxically, both the isolating barriers of no-longer-alive ("shroud") and not-yet-alive ("womb") are brought to use. The result is complete alone-ness: "None may penetrate... I touch no one and no one touches me."

The word "deep" comes up twice in the first two verses. This December is "deep" (as in "the depths of winter"), and his metaphorical fortress is "deep." The word has many meanings. Another is "profound," and many have taken reclusion as an indication of "deep study" or "deep thoughts." And certainly, the speaker would like to think of himself as a Michel de Montaigne-like figure, holed up in solitary scholarship amid towers of books.

But more likely, he is bound up in deep sadness. By pushing away the world, the speaker hopes to stave off sorrow: "friendship causes pain... [but] a rock feels no pain."

It is odd indeed to end this album with a song about a person who retreats inward and rejects the world as only a source of suffering. A person who has never heard the warning prophet of "Sound of Silence"... who has not read the cautionary tale of Richard Corey in the volumes of "poetry" in his room.

The love songs on this album, however, are break-up songs. In "Leaves That Are Green": "I held her close, but she faded in the night." In "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," a robber tears himself away from his lover to flee the law. And in "April Come She Will," a woman arrives, then leaves, then dies. Even "Blessed" is, in a way, about breaking up with God.

In interviews, Simon has said that this is one of his two least favorite of his own songs (the other will be revealed when we arrive at it). Perhaps the severity of the isolation imagery is too harsh. Perhaps it simply makes no sense to create a character who so purposefully isolates himself after all the warnings, all album long, about the effects-- from societal breakdown to suicide-- of such a self-imposed hermit-state.

We can only hope for this depressed, disheartened character's sake that he takes his own "womb" imagery to heart-- that his solitary confinement is temporary, and that he emerges from it with a sense of birth and life and a connection with the world. To remain in exile within society would be, to borrow a phrase, most peculiar.

IMPACT: This is the only song the duo sang during their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, January 30, 1966.

Concluding thoughts on this album:
Many albums take their titles from the titles of one of the hits on the album itself. This is Simon's major practice, in fact. But here, the album title is a variation on the song title, and so gets its own meaning. Each of the songs presented reflects one of the many kinds of silence there are (just as a painter will explain that there are many shades of black).

Each song is about one of the sounds of silence... the silences of: unheard words, an unresponsive deity, a distant or fleeing lover, isolation due to privilege or poverty (there is even "Anji," an instrumental, or wordless song).

On this album, Simon explores the various tones of quietness, and may conclude: Yes, either noise or nothingness, taken to extremes, leads to chaos. But also, there is-- as the author of Ecclesiastes might put it-- a time for sound, and a time for silence.

Next song: "Scarborough Fair"

Sunday, December 20, 2009

We've Got a Groovey Thing Goin'

With all the seriousness, even somberness, of their work so far, it's nice to see the guys just letting their hair down, letting off some steam, and having fun on this track.

The song is reminiscent of the duo's teen-pop Tom and Jerry days, while also showing that Simon was aware of the "British Invasion" of hardscrabble blues-rock coming out of blue-collar England. It would be easy to point to his introverted, isolation-ridden lyrics and conclude that Simon was unaware of the world outside, but that would deny the equal amount of his material concerned with the suffering of others and references to current events of the Civil Rights era. Here, he shows he listens to the radio for the music as well as the news.

Now, is this song significant in the way the tracks that made it onto "Greatest Hits" are? No. But is it important in the understanding of-- to borrow a phrase-- another side of Paul Simon? Yes. For all his sobriety, Simon is capable writing and performing a purely fun, funny song.

Yet, even with all its flaring horns and funky keyboard work, this is still a Simon song. For instance, he does throw around colloquialisms like "a'runnin' right over," "what you're kickin' away" and the word "groovey" itself. But the title still starts with the grammatically correct "We've" instead of the contextually consistent "We Got a..." This, the duo fix in the performace, in which they clearly sing "We."

Within a the space of a few words, Simon shows again that he is a New York college graduate and not a Liverpuddlian coal miner: "There's somethin' you ought to know/ if you're fixin' to go." The context calls for "oughta," (compare to the phrase "you oughta know," either from "Words of Love," by the Mamas and Papas or Alanis Morissette's song title) but Simon both writes and sings distinct hard "t" both at the end of "ought" and the start of "to." You can take the boy out of the suburbs...

Also, we know that it is a Simon song because-- even as upbeat as the music is-- the song is still a downer, a break-up song. Well, a trying-to-prevent-a-breakup song. The speaker pleads to his departing girlfriend that the relationship is good, that he is good to her and faithful... and that "I can't make it without [her]." Ultimately, his plea for her to stay rests on his fearing (here's that theme again) isolation.

On another level, the song parodies such "I'm beggin' you to stay" songs, tossing out one cliche after another. On this level, Simon is saying, "Oh, sure, I can write one of those songs, like everyone else is. But why should I, if everyone else is." In fact, the very next track is one of the key songs in his catalog of isolation works-- "I Am a Rock."

When I discussed "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," I suggested Simon would have been better served, while writing a rock song, not retro-fitting an existing song but simply building one from the ground up. Here, he has done so, and the results are much more satisfying. This is still a B+ effort, with its nose-thumbing attitude and list of hackneyed expressions, but it is a solid improvement. (Simon's first real success in this endeavor, from a songwriting standpoint, comes on the next album with "...Pleasure Machine.")

Every songwriter, no matter how serious, has a just-for-fun song or two like this. Sting has "We'll Be Together." Springsteen has "I'm Goin' Down." Peter Gabriel has "Sledgehammer." These songs don't mean anything, but since when has music needed to? If anything, they mean that even a life of contemplation and activism is pretty hard to lead all the time. All work and no play makes for a dull songwriter, too.

Next song: I Am a Rock

Friday, December 11, 2009

April Come She Will

I head once that this song was based on an 18th Century nursery rhyme. I could not find any corroboration for this suggestion, and Simon takes credit for it in the album's liner notes. But it does seem to have many of those elements-- a simple structure and rhyme scheme, a bit of education in that it names the months, and a general innocence in the tone. [Note: The origin of the poem and how it became a song was filled in by astute readers in the comments below.]

And there is nothing wrong with lamenting a love that, or a lover who, has died. But how much of a love is this? The girl in the song arrives in April, and starts having doubts in June. Only for the month of May does she "stay."

Then, for another month, she wanders around, unsure of what she wants. But it's not like she just avoids the speaker. She "prowls the night," as if she were skulking or even hunting. She then decides she at least doesn't want our man, here, and so runs away, with no farewell. We have to start doubting her mental stability at this point.

By August, only four months after she appeared on the scene, she is dead. The song indicates that she "must" die. Why? Because such troubled women always die in such stories. They give the speaker a brief glimpse of deep love, only to drift inexplicably away... away... like an escaping sigh... leaving doubts, bewilderment, heartbreak, and grief in their wake.

And we idolize them for it.

But the speaker takes until September to realize his love has "grown old." Really? She starting having second thoughts back in June, wandering around the city all night. Then by July she was gone. By August, she has died. So the idea that the love has "grown old" in September is a bit disingenuous. It didn't live long enough to get "old," and it was over months ago as it was.

The song has a lovely melody, and is sung very prettily by Garfunkel. So many probably take it as a love song.

But upon reading Simon's lyrics, we see that it works best as a warning to those young poets who get caught up with winsome, but ultimately worrisome, women. For another take on this, read the classic Onion article headlined "Totally Hot Chick Also Way Psycho." (

Too often, we see troubled people-- especially girls and women-- turned into objects of adoration in literature and film. The idea of an actually unwell person being psychically gifted or granted "other sight" is ancient. People with deep psychological problems or neurochemical imbalances used to be seen as prophets, their incoherent babbling taken for communication channelled from another plane.

These days, they are put on pedestals as "the only ones who truly see the world the way it is," etc. in films like The Hours, Mad Love and Benny and Joon. When what they need is medication and therapy. (The Brad Pitt character in the film 12 Monkeys is an excellent case study in this "raving madman/ prophetic genius" dichotomy.)

When an askew personality resides in the form of a lithe woman, the combination can be almost overwhelmingly attractive, especially to misfit young men. I once saw a T-shirt that put it more bluntly, stating: "Let's face it, crazy chicks are hot."

Which may be true, but it's much too easy a way to get burned.

(Compare this ephemeral relationship to "Kathy's Song," also about missing a lover, to see the difference between an immature and mature love. And for another of Simon's hurt, angry songs clothed-- make that disguised-- in beauty, we will soon discuss "Scarborough Fair."

Next Song: We Got a Groovey Thing Goin'

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Most Peculiar Man

A second suicidal song on the same album. This one differs from the last, "Richard Cory," in that the subject here was neither rich nor renowned. We learn that the deceased had a "tiny room" and that his chief trait was his hermit-like nature: "He lived all alone--Within a house, within a room, within himself." In fact, he is the polar opposite of Cory on both the fame and fortune spectrums; we never even learn his name.

The recluse's isolation was complete: "He had no friends... he has a brother somewhere." What was the cause of this isolation? "He seldom spoke." The assessment of this behavior by the community was brutal: "He wasn't friendly, and he didn't care, and he wasn't like them."

His isolation thus became self-reinforcing. The man offered little of himself, which led people to think of himself as aloof. Therefore, he was deemed uncaring, and therefore strange and unapproachable.

Normal people, it seems, participate in the community. We know Mrs. Riordon's name, probably because she introduced herself to us-- she was "friendly." She cared enough about the man to know that he was her neighbor and to find out who his next of kin was. And she knew enough about him to give him the title that substitutes for his unknown name: "She said he was a most peculiar man."

She also had the good fortune, being his upstairs neighbor and all, not to light a fire over the man's gas-filled apartment. No doubt, the fumes leaked up into her room, and she luckily smelled them before making tea or lighting a cigarette. In fact, we can presume that without these fumes, the man's body might have gone unnoticed for days, even weeks.

Such cases exist, and all too frequently, now that electronic systems can automatically collect Social Security or disability checks and pay out rent and utility bills. Without some indicator, such as weeks' worth of newspapers at the door or foul odors coming into the apartment hallway, isolated people are routinely found long after they have passed on.

When I entered college, I was informed that someone in my dormitory had died there the year before. He had a heart murmur and died in bed. It was three days before he was found. Now, Will had been an enormously popular fellow-- a talented musician, a witty raconteur, and clever with the cables and wires of communications technology. He was a leader in the dorm and well-loved. After his death, the dorm held a memorial fundraiser that endured at least until I graduated, five years after he had died, even after all who had known him had themselves graduated.

But on a college campus, one can go a day or two without seeing someone. And so, for three days, everyone passed by his room, not knowing he lay dead inside. Until people started asking, "Have you seen Will? Did he go out of town or something? I haven't seen him in days." His popularity ensured that he had only been missed for three days... and not more.

In the case of the Peculiar Man, however, the death was recent, only "last Saturday." So we are hearing about it less than a week after it happened, which means the body was found that day, or at the latest, a few days after.

Like all unnatural deaths, there had to be opportunity, method, and motive. The first two were readily available; the man had nothing else to do, and he had a gas stove or radiator. As for his motive, since he "seldom spoke," we can only guess. But we are certainly willing to: "He went to sleep... so he'd never wake up to his silent world and his tiny room."

Musically, the song has been lovely to this point. In fact, the simple, nonchalant, back-and-forth melody, punctuated by occasional filigrees, is one of Simon's prettiest.

But now, the voices become loud, perhaps angry. The lacy fingerwork crescendos to a strident strumming. A man has died-- why is there no anguish? Someone should be upset, at least! How could this have happened? Whose fault is it?

This pique subsides suddenly with the news that the brother "should be notified soon." Oh, fine. It's his problem now. Very well, then.

And then, the community's eulogy: "What a shame that he's dead. But, wasn't he a most peculiar man." Tsk, tsk. Well, what can be expected? He kept to himself, after all.

Up to now, Simon has continued to explore the theme of isolation in "Bleecker Street," "The Sound of Silence," "Wednesday Morning, 3AM," "Blessed," and even "Kathy's Song." And Simon acknowledges that isolation can even lead to death, as in "Sparrow" and "He Was My Brother."

But in "Richard Cory" and "Most Peculiar Man," we see another consequence of isolation: suicide. Death, yes, but at one's own hand. These were people who did not necessarily want to feel lonely. Richard Cory was known, but trapped in his status, unable to make connections because there was no one else in his situation. He owned "one half of this old town," and since the other half was not owned by one other person, he had no peers. (Compared this to, say, Tiger Woods befriending Michael Jordan years ago, who, while not in his sport, shares his ethnicity and superstar-athlete status. I write this while Mr. Woods' first scandal is still unravelling, and a column appeared suggesting that he consult with Mr. Jordan on how to handle such a situation. Obviously, we do not expect Mr. Woods to end his own life at this point.).

And the Peculiar Man? Who knows why he enclosed himself in a shell of silence? Well, we might ask the speaker of "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," who is on the lam, or the speaker of "I Am a Rock," who is heartbroken.  It may even be the effect of a mental illness like agoraphobia, as explored in the movie Columbus Circle, about a woman who has not left her apartment in 20 years.There are many reasons a person might shut him- or herself off from the world.

Perhaps he was simply sick or disabled and unable to move easily. My late grandfather died at 100 and hadn't left his house in five or more years, but he was tended by my grandmother and visited often by his children, grandchildren, community-appointed social workers and clergy.

Ultimately, why is the man seen as "peculiar"? Because he does not extend himself to the community. He wasn't "like" his neighbors, in that they did do so. But we do not know if anyone, Mrs. Riordan included, ever tried to draw the man from his isolation-- engage him in conversation, invite him to a community event, offer to run errands for him. At some point, the neighbors simply labelled him "peculiar," and went on their way.

Simon's implication is not that the man imposed his own isolation and refused entreaties, however. It seems that he was simply shy and unforthcoming-- perhaps he was new to the building, perhaps all of his neighbors were-- leading to his neighbors' shrugs and sighs, leading in turn to the man's eventual total alone-ness, which the neighbors reflexively blamed on the man himself.

And they should not have. They should have tried harder. Now that the man is dead, we see (too late) that he did not in fact want to be alone. They should have noticed the signs earlier, and taken his introversion not as a sign of rejection of them (as they self-centeredly no doubt did) or haughtiness, but as a sign of self-doubt and lack of confidence.

Simon indicts their indifference, but then wonders if he is expecting too much. Perhaps he is.

Sharon Begely writes in "Newsweek," December 2009: "How much babies gesture, smile, make eye contact, and babble affects how adults respond to them, including responses that shape how verbal a child will be, how emotionally secure she will feel, and thus what kind of adult relationships she will have."

Or, as the Beatles would say: "The love you take is equal to the love you make." Perhaps it was not the man's fault that he was peculiarly introverted. But it may be just as unavoidable, or at least as much "human nature," that society dubbed his introversion "peculiar."

Next song: April Come She Will