Monday, December 20, 2010

Peace Like a River

The opening line (and title) of this song seems mysterious. However, it comes from a late 1800s hymn called "It Is Well With My Soul," which begins: "When peace, like a river, attendeth my way/ When sorrows like sea billows roll/ Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say/ It is well, it is well, with my soul." (The reference to "sorrows" alongside "sea billows" is sadly personal to its author, Horatio Spafford, as the song was inspired upon his ship passing over the spot in the Atlantic where his daughters drowned.)

The original source of the simile "peace like a river," however, is Isaiah. Specifically, 66:12-- "I will extend to [Jerusalem] peace like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream." [The full verse is in the comments, after the request of a reader who asked that I cite the original citation.]

The rest of our song is somewhat concrete. People are staying up late, "misinformation" is being spread about a group, and a sermon is given about civil rights (more on that second verse in a moment).

But how does peace move "through a city"? Let us take the word "ran" to apply to the metaphor of a river moving, and not necessarily quickly. The verb for a river moving is "running," as in "A River Runs Through It," or the Carly Simon song "Let the River Run."

One can imagine the opposite of peace-- chaos-- running through a city in the form of a riot.

This is purely speculative, but the image of peace in the shape of a river calls to my mind a protest march. Like peace, there is an order and orderliness in the marching and chanting. Like a river winding its way through banks, a march winds its way down streets and past buildings, moving organically forward.

The subject of the march seems to be civil rights and, ultimately, peace between neighbors. As it was also itself peaceful in demeanor, it became the very image of peace.

Once we have a march, we can imagine the results. The participants sit up all night, amazed as the powerful experience, discussing it in awe and in detail, declaring it a success: "Long past the midnight curfew, we sat starry-eyed/ We were satisfied." Even their act of staying up was a protest, in this case against the government-enforced bedtime.

Meanwhile, their detractors were hard at work, spreading falsehoods about their intentions that were proving hard to shake. Perhaps they were being smeared as communists, agitators against the "social order" and basically wanting to disassemble America brick by brick.

Part of the problem with a peace movement is that it is by nature unorganized. Some responsible people need to see about parade permits and speak on behalf of the march to the media, for instance. However, once some sort of authority within the movement is established, that authority is immediately challenged as being overbearing, self-seeking, and illegitimate.

There is a great Saturday Night Live bit about this. A protester takes a bullhorn and ascends the ledge of a public fountain to address a rally. "OK, we are here to let America know... we want out of Iraq!" he says, pumping his fist. "Legalize it!" (meaning marijuana) responds a loud voice from the crowd. "Yes, that's important, but today we are here to talk about Iraq," corrects the bullhorn-holder. "Gay marriage!" shouts another protester. Throughout the sketch, the supposed rally leader is not able to get even two protesters to agree as to why they are there or what they are protesting.

This seems to have been true "back in the day" as well: "Nobody knew from time to time/If the plans were changed," Simon muses, let alone what those changes were for the plans.

The purpose of the protest, at least, seems clear in this case. The subject today is civil rights. "You can beat us with chains..." well, that was something that did, sadly, happen during slave days.

"You can beat us with wires" is an interesting turn of phrase, however. Whips, certainly, were used by slave drivers. Ropes? Not hard to imagine, if whips were not handy. But "wires"? Before someone takes the time to unbend a wire hanger to use as a lash, one would far more likely grab a broom, belt, hairbrush, pan... something else that could be readily used in its existing state as a weapon.

No, wires are generally not used as hand-weapons. They are used to transmit information. Ah, but cannot this, too, be used to inflict suffering? "Misinformation" spread by electronic media, such as radio and television (or, today, the Internet), is extremely damaging. Even Napoleon famously said he would rather face bayonets than newspapers.

Nevertheless, it won't matter what weapon is turned against us, said the protest-leading preacher. "You can run out your rules, but you know you can't outrun the history train." The image of a train is pervasive in protest songs, from the gospel "This Train" and "The Gospel Train" to Cat Steven's "Peace Train" and the O'Jays' "Love Train." Then there was Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," the second line of which was: "There's a train a-comin'."

But why a "history" train? Perhaps the preacher was recalling a line by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." The general trend of history is that (despite notable setbacks) more people become more free as time passes. Progress, even if slowed, is inexorably forward in motion. Like a train... like a river.

Just in case it was unclear that this was a sermon, the line "I've seen a glorious day" comes with its cry of messianic hope. (Interestingly, Simon's brand-new release, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," samples an actual sermon.)

Eventually, even the most starry-eyed must sleep. But then, "Four in the morning, I woke up from out of my dreams." (This hour is mentioned again, in Simon's song "Still Crazy After All These Years," so it must have some significance for him. Either that, or he simply likes the internal rhyme of "Four in the morning.")

Our speaker could-- perhaps even should-- go "back to sleep," but he can't. Why not? These last four lines are confusing in their explanation. The protest went off without incident; the speaker was powerful and moving. Yes, a smear campaign has been launched, but that was to be expected-- in today's parlance, "Haters gonna hate."

So what woke him up? What were his "dreams"? When he says he is "reconciled"... well, with what? Lastly, if he is reconciled, why would he be "up for a while"; shouldn't that peace of mind let him drift back to sleep?

Perhaps he means not that he will be "up for a while" in the sense of someone who can't sleep from worry... but from excitement (as a child, perhaps, getting ready for Christmas day). Maybe what they did today won't change anything-- not immediately, not ever. But it was still a thrill to be in the charged atmosphere of the march. And even if nothing changes, he can be reconciled in the knowledge that he did what he could. He moved through the city in peace, for peace, for justice. Something happened and he was part of it; he helped it happen.

Maybe he will be "up" for weeks to come in the sense of having a positive attitude and outlook. And maybe if more people did, we wouldn't need protest marches anymore.

In his "I Have a Dream" speech at another protest, Dr. King paraphrased the prophet Amos: "...we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Or peace, like a river.

Next Song: Papa Hobo

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard

One way to ensure an enduring hit is to leave a bit of mystery. People are still trying to figure out who Carly Simon thought was "so vain." And they are still wondering "what the mama saw," here, as well.

What ever it was, it inspired both an arrest and a sense of disgust. Not only was it "against the law," but it caused the mama to freak out, as they used to say. She didn't just call the cops on the phone, she "ran to the police station"... still in her "pajamas"! And after the arrest, she would still "spit" at the "mention" of the teen's mere "name."

The father, meanwhile, was both dismayed and incensed. He "started the investigation," wanting our speaker locked up in a hall for juvenile delinquents. But not before emitting a disappointed "Oy!"

So the crime was also something that evoked, as the saying goes, both "fear and loathing." Was it alcohol? Drugs? Sex? Burning a draft card? What could elicit such intense emotions?

Not simply someone stealing a bicycle; while a crime, that would hardly provoke such a visceral reaction. Not smoking a cigarette, which would seem insolent-- as it was something only adults should do-- but might not be a "crime." Nor could it be something truly indefensible by even a "radical" priest, such as throwing rocks at a stray dog or harassing a child in a wheelchair. Not even a progressive man of God would condone such cruel acts.

Simon has been asked repeatedly in interviews "what the mama saw," and staunchly refuses to say.

Whatever it was, it was something that marked a generational split. While the older generation recoils, the speaker still easily enlists his friends to hang out at the "schoolyard."

The crime must have been some sort of cultural touchstone, and have been seen as a crime by his parents' generation but not his own. Otherwise, the priest who intervened would not have needed to be dubbed "radical." Nor would the story have merited coverage by a national news magazine, and on the cover at that.

The crime, ultimately, is immaterial. What Simon seems to be remarking on is the widening ripple of interest and controversy the act inspired... among adults.

Through it all, the "criminal" himself is bemused-- perhaps even amused-- by all the fuss. He blithely whistles and makes plans for a game of stick ball or 3-on-3 basketball "down by the schoolyard"... while the adult world gnashes its teeth and wrings its hands. (In this, the song shares a certain sense of bewilderment at adult priorities with Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant.")

Our "hero" was no hippie who staged a protest or organized a sit-in. He did not throw water balloons in the stock exchange or streak through a campus quad. He doesn't even know where he is going to wind up later today: "Don't know where I'm going, but I'm on my way."

The simple act of wandering aimlessly caused no consternation toward the speakers of "Feelin' Groovy" or "Cloudy." But now, the simple act of this young man "doing his thing" has caused a national uproar. He did not plan his subversion; maybe his most subversive act was having no plan at all.

On a musical level, this song is yet another example of Simon's fascination with breezy Caribbean music, the kind this Julio's family might make on a warm spring evening, just strumming on the patio.

(Personal/political note: This song came out in 1972. Now, at the end of 2010, staunchly conservative leaders are running women for vice president, shrugging at the decriminalization of marijuana, and supporting open homosexuality in the military. Not bad-- it only took them 40 years to catch up.)

A major smash and still popular worldwide, this single proved that Simon did not need Garfunkel to get a substantive hit. In other words, it meant that there was a "Simon" beyond the one in "Simon and Garfunkel."

The song peaked at 22 in the US charts, rising to 15 in the UK, which was probably more comfortable with its reggae influences.

Simon's performance of this song on Sesame Street is on YouTube, and on the box set of songs from that iconic children's show. During that episode, Simon also performed "El Condor Pasa" and some children's numbers as well as The Beatles' "Get Back."

The song was covered by a band with a great name: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.

Next song: Peace Like a River

Monday, December 6, 2010

Armistice Day

"Armistice Day" is the name given to the holiday that commemorates the end of World War I. After World War II, rather than create another holiday, Armistice Day was recast as Veteran's Day to honor those who fought in all American wars.

While the "new" name reflects a desire to honor those who served, the original name recalls the signing of a document calling for, in military parlance, a cessation of hostilities. In lay terms, a cease-fire. The actual peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, came six months later.

"Armistice Day... that's all I really wanted to say." While we are not yet ready to make peace, the speaker seems to say, let's at least agree to end the war.

What happens in this limbo period? "The Philharmonic will play/ But the songs that we sing will be sad" [emphasis mine]. While a celebration is to be had in public, the individuals will be thinking somber thoughts in private. They will be mourning the dead, tending the wounded, repairing the damage done by the bombing. The soldiers will be "hanging around," waiting to see what will happen next-- will the peace hold, or will they be called back to the battle lines?

"Brown" in the sense used here is not a color, but an adjective meaning "unhappy, gloomy," as in the expression, "He was in a brown study." (A "study" in this case is not a personal library, but a contemplation, as in "a study of the issues.")

What caused the war to begin with? It may have been an actual affair, but perhaps merely too much time spent, and emotions shared, with a female acquaintance: "When I needed a friend, she was there/ Just like an easy chair."

It might make sense for a person in a relationship to get advice on the opposite sex from a member of that gender who is not themselves one's own significant other, and so is impartial and has an outsider's perspective. In other words, a man might ask a female friend for advice about his wife, or vice versa. But that logic may not impress the significant other him- or herself, who might see such emotional sharing by their spouse as a form of infidelity.

Still, our speaker is saying that's all that happened, that while he won't do it again, he won't apologize, either-- he feels he did nothing wrong: "No long-drawn, blown-out excuses were made."

In any case, the speaker is declaring an armistice-- "Let's stop fighting and put this behind us."

Until this point, the song has featured only Simon on vocals and acoustic guitar. The guitar part is very impressive, full of bent notes and flared strumming. But now, a maraca-like rattle is heard, then an electric guitar and horns, which cover over the acoustic.

The lyric changes drastically as well. The situation depicted is simply that someone is waiting in a Congressman's office, "but he's avoiding [him]." The constituent finally asks a passing congresswoman to intercede on his behalf and let the representative know that his patience is wearing thin: "I've about waited all I can."

The acoustic then picks back up, perhaps signaling that this "song within a song" has some meaning to the other verses.

The speaker may be saying, "My going to this other person was all I could do, since the person I wanted to speak with (you) was being actively unavailable. The fact that this other person was a woman was immaterial, as she was merely a means to an end (not unlike the female doctor in the previous song). If anything, the 'congressman' (again, you) is at least partly to blame, since he is my chosen 'representative' and I am supposed to have a relationship with 'him.' What else was I supposed to do, if not get someone else to help me?"

The imagery of the song is telling. The struggle within the relationship is put in political and diplomatic terms.

The order of the song's verses is interesting as well. First, it says that even if we declare an end to the fighting, things will be superficially better, but there will still be a lot of down-looking, foot-"shuffling," "around-hanging," and passive-aggressive moping.

Then, "I didn't do anything wrong and I'm not sorry."

Then "Let's declare a truce anyway."

Lastly, "Oh, and this was really your fault because I wanted to talk to you, but you didn't want to talk to me... so I had to talk to someone, didn't I?"

Why declare an 'armistice,' then trot out your reasons for your side in the hostilities? This sounds more like grinding an axe than burying a hatchet. Perhaps his point was, "Well, maybe this was a lousy way to get your attention, but it's all I had to work with. Now that I do have your attention, let's agree to stop fighting so we can just talk out the issue... which is that I never seem to have your attention."

The song ends there, with no response from the other party, and no "closure," as we say today, in either reconciliation (peace treaty) or a break-up (declaration of independence?).

But then, this is not the day they sign the peace treaty... just the armistice.

Next Song: Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard