Saturday, March 30, 2013

Father and Daughter

Properly, this song should be labeled a "bonus track." It was not conceived or written for the Surprise album, but for an animated movie spun off the Wild Thornberrys cartoon TV show (the family in the show has the surname "Thornberry.") As the movie is set in Africa, it is understandable that Simon was approached to provide the theme song. Not surprisingly, it is closer in sound to Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints than any of the electronic-based tracks on Surprise.

The straightforward theme of the song is contained in its chorus: "There could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you." This "love" is presented in the song is several ways.

One is in the form of protection. The song begins with the image of a child awakening "in the mirror of a bad dream," the implication perhaps being that the subconscious mind acts as a "mirror" to what is going on in the conscious world.

The father admits that he "can't guarantee there's nothing scary hiding under [her] bed." Yet, he vows to protect her from such terrors: "I'm gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever." This is an odd locution. One can image a father comparing himself to a faithful watchdog. But why a "postcard" of one? Postcards usually depict landmarks... while family pets are depicted in photographs, and such images are not sold at souvenir stands. Further, an actual animal would provide some actual protection, even if only to soothe the child's fear of the dark.

Perhaps Simon means that, since the object of the fear is itself a dream-- a "mirror" image of reality-- only the image of a protector is necessary to defeat it. The implication, then, is that even when the child does not have her father close by, the knowledge of his desire for her safety should be soothing, and perhaps even give her the courage to face her fear alone.

The song's last verse closes with this promise as well: "You don't need to waste your time/ Worrying about the marketplace/ Trying to help the human race/ Struggling to survive its harshest night." The father vows that his daughter will not have to "worry" about business or money. She will not have to develop a "savior complex" and dedicate her life to fixing others' problems, but be able to focus on her own development. And she will not have to be frightened of having to "survive" some natural catastrophe, man-made genocide, or crushing oppression. Her father will protect her from all of that.

Following through on this protection is the promise to be protective even after the danger has passed. The father says that he will not only comfort his daughter when she is shocked awake by a nightmare, but will stay until she returns to sleep peacefully.

Another way the father shows love is through the connection of shared memories. She should know she loves her because he always has. All she needs to do is "follow [her] memory upstream"-- that is, back toward its source, its earliest point. There, she will find the recollection of watching a meteor shower with her father one night. The image of a father sharing the sight of an nighttime astrological wonder with his child was also presented in Simon's earlier lullaby, "St. Judy's Comet."

Still, for all of this involvement and shielding, the father does want his daughter to be able to care for herself. He has faith in his daughter's own good judgement: "Trust your intuition," he tells her. She should not be afraid to take chances or be ambitious; "Cast your line and hope you get a bite," he encourages.

And he knows how to hold her loosely enough to allow her room to develop on her own. "I'm gonna watch you shine/ Gonna watch you grow." He is going to invest his time and care in her... and then step back and watch her succeed and become better on her own.

"I believe the light that shines on you will shine on your forever," the father says, "I'm going to paint a sign/ So you'll always know." It is the words "forever" and "always" that give the child what she truly needs: Security. Confidence. Once she has absolute trust in her father's faith in her, she can have faith in herself.

And so we see why she only needs a postcard of a dog to protect her. That's enough to call to mind the memory and knowledge of her father's belief that he has given her what she needs. He is always there, because she can think of him whenever she needs to.

Musical Notes:
While the song is about a father and daughter, it is Simon's son, Adrian, singing backup.

Vincent Nguni, with Simon since Graceland, plays rhythm guitar here (and not elsewhere on the album).

Also, it should be noted that longtime Simon accompanist Steve Gadd was the principal drummer on the album.

This pretty lullaby was nominated for the 2002 Oscar for Best Song (it lost to Eminem's "Lose Yourself").

It broke the Top 50 in Ireland and reached #31 in the UK, but did not chart in the US.

Next Song: Getting Ready for Christmas Day

Monday, March 25, 2013

That's Me

In some cases, it's clear that the speaker in a Paul Simon song is not, in fact, Simon himself. One example might be "Duncan," in which he states "Lincoln Duncan is my name." In other cases, it could go either way.

Here, Simon is very clear that this is an autobiographical effort. He announces that he is going to fast forward past "the boring parts," where he is a baby and even up through his college "graduation." The "bogus degree" is one in English. Considering he made his career as a writer, that may be unfair-- he might be one of the few to ever parlay that degree into a career at all!

He explains that he was a dreamer, not career driven: "I was more like a landlocked sailor/ Searching for the emerald sea."

The first thing of import that happens to him, that even invokes an interjection-- "Oh, my God"-- is his "first love," which "opens like a flower," then is suddenly much more intimidating: "A black bear" that "holds me in her sight and her power."

Then the metaphor shifts again. "But tricky skies, your eyes are true," could refer to the sky's metaphorical eyes, but the "you" could also to be listener, his first love. In this case, he thought the future was to be sunny with her, but the skies tricked him and instead brought forth foul weather. She did not trick him-- her eyes were "true"-- so fortune was what changed. This being autobiographical, I am going to go out on a limb and say this "first love" was Kathy, and the fortune that changed was his success.

"The future," it turned out brough both "beauty and sorrow," perhaps being both new loves, children, and recognition for his artistic efforts on the one hand, and the breakup with Garfunkel, his divorces, and other sorrows on the other.

So... does he regret his choice to leave Kathy in England and return to New York to pursue music? "Still, I wish that we could run away and live the life we used to/ If just for tonight and tomorrow." So he does wonder about it, but knows that his life now is what he would prefer. He is wise enough to know that, even if he had stayed, life would still have brought both "beauty and sorrow."

And then... we are at the present! But Simon is not resting on his many, many laurels. He still considers himself striving for better, newer heights: "I am walking up the face of the mountain/ Counting every step I climb."

As he climbs, he looks higher still: "Remembering the names of the constellations/ Forgotten is a long, long time." Perhaps this refers to his heroes, the "stars" he idolizes and idealizes, and feels that, even standing on his mountain, he will never ascend to those heights.

Plus, he may be out of time, or nearly so. He is aware of his age: "I’m in the valley of twilight." The next line, "Now I’m on the continental shelf," refers to the edge of a landmass that is usually underwater, before the land falls away and you are entirely in the ocean. Again, this is an image of near mortality.

In the last line, he perhaps summarizes his entire artistic career: "That’s me—/ I’m answering a question/ I am asking of myself." All of his songs are potential answers to the questions he has been pondering. Since he keep writing songs, perhaps he is trying to adjust to the fact that he may never know. At least he let us listen in.

Next Song: Father and Daughter

Monday, March 18, 2013

Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean

Donovan, seeming to quote the I Ching or some such mystical source, wrote: "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." 

Simon opens this song with "Once upon a time there was an ocean/ But now it's a mountain range." But Simon seems to be inspired more by the history of geological processes. The fossils of giant sea creatures have been found in what are now deserts, and layers of silt of varying thickness are exposed in the striations of cliff-sides that were clearly once river beds. This evidence proves that geothermal bursts, tectonic shifts and glacial plowing have reshaped our planet dozens of times over... and continue to. Even Hawaii is really a mountain range, if you ignore the ocean covering most of the slopes.

But all of that is a prelude to Simon's theme: "Nothing is different, but everything's changed."

The speaker this time is clearly not Simon, but someone with a "dead-end job" that he "think[s] about quitting every day of the week." The "view from [his] window" is "brown and... bleak," just like his outlook in general. "When am I gonna get outta here?" he wonders aloud.

He longs for something to shock him out of his doldrums, perhaps a winning "lottery ticket," which will allow him to live life to the fullest, to "shake every limb in the Garden of Eden."

And here, he ties in his geological metaphor: "Once upon a time, I was an ocean"--  a limitless, wild person-- "But now I'm a mountain range"-- solid and stolid. "Something unstoppable," as irrefutable as a glacier or volcano, put him here, and here he is.

He prides himself on his ability to accept anything, even a simple life, with apartment so small he calls it a "room," and no stove, just a "hot plate." "But I'm easy," he boasts, "I can drift with the drift." This sounds like snow, not a rigid mountain. Still, he has cast himself to fate. It's brown and bleak, but oh well. He's not stuck in a rut, he consoles himself, he's down in the groove!

It's not like "home" was better, anyway: "Never going home again... I never think about home."

So he is both miserable and blase. Since he can't change anything, he takes pride is being able to accept his lot and not rail uselessly about it, even if he does grumble.

"But then comes a letter from home." Well, it's not a lottery ticket, but it does have an affect. "The handwriting's fragile and strange." Once again, "something unstoppable" has been set into motion.

From the evidence, that something is death. And, once again, "nothing is different, but everything's changed." His parent, or whomever, was dead to him anyway ("I never think about home") so his life has not been affected in any outward, visible way. But yet...

How do we know that he goes back home to attend a funeral? We see "stained glass" (the website has a typo-- "stain glass"-- but the liner notes have the correct term, as does the Lyrics book), so it's probably a church. "The frayed cuffs and collars" would be on a worn suit, such as one worn by the deceased. These were "mended by halos of golden thread," calling to mind angels. Oh, and there is a "choir," singing "hymns."

And then this pretty line: "All the... family names/ Came fluttering down leaves of emotion," giving the image of a tree (a family tree?) losing its leaves in autumn. We imagine our speaker, sitting in church at this funeral, hearing the songs and eulogies drifting down upon him from the pulpit. "Leaves" also means "pages" of a book, and at funerals, "family" members in attendance sign their "names" in a guestbook.

The choir is singing a hymn we have never heard of, titled "Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean." It is highly unlikely that a church where Creationism is preached is going to present a sacred song about plate tectonics and the Pangea Theory. So we must assume that our speaker hears something in this music that speaks to him, and this is how it lands on his ears.

Also, instead of the imposing, overwhelming line "something unstoppable set into motion," we have the lyrical, gentle "fluttering down as leaves of emotion" (another website typo; it omits the word "as"). Even so, the almost imperceptible touch of a falling "leaf" seems to have turned him back from a "mountain" to an "ocean," or at least nudged him in that direction.

He still has the same job now, when he leaves the church after the funeral. He is still going back to his "room" and his "hot plate" after the burial. Even his clothes are the same as when he arrived. So "nothing is different," right?

Yes, except for the fact that "everything's changed."

We don't know what happens next. We don't know if he goes home, looks up the classifieds, and finds a new job that gets him a better apartment. We don't know if he stops "drift[ing] with the drift" and becomes more of a purposeful "ocean"  with forceful tides. For all we know, he stays back in his "home" town and reconnects with his family.

But we do know that the experience was a moving one, and that he was moved.

This song is sort of a companion to the previous track. In "Another Galaxy," an impending wedding spurs a sudden movement. The bride was moving too fast in a direction she didn't like, and jerked the wheel, only to speed in another direction. Here, a funeral shakes a man out of his rut. He was not driving at all, but now he is.

There is a term in communications theory: "speech act." A "speech act" is something that happens only because we say it has. Such instances are actually quite common: a business transaction, a speeding ticket, a graduation, a wedding, the naming of a baby, the inauguration of a president. Nothing is different afterward-- we are biologically the same as a minute before-- but since we all say and accept that everything has changed, it has. We behave differently. There are even legal consequences.

This is a great part of what it means to be human. That we can change completely, yet show no change outwardly. Donovan sings, in the same song as above, "Caterpillar sheds its skin to find the butterfly within." Well, we humans don't need such obvious shows of change. We can turn from mountains to oceans while sitting still, listening to a song.

Next Song: That's Me.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Another Galaxy

This song is much like The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home." As in that song, we get both the woman's story and her parents' reaction. However, there are only two verses here, and one chorus. Also in that song, she is going toward her lover, and in this she is running from him.

But still, both songs are about women leaving stability for the promise of something more, even if it means instability.

While there are scant clues here, we can guess that the wedding was supposed to take place in Texas, since the color of the roses on her wedding cake recalls the song "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Also, there is a "border" so close she can drive across it in less than a day's time.

The song tells us that she feels that leaving before the wedding was the best option, the "lesser crime." Better than leaving the groom at the altar, far better than going through with the ceremony and then getting a divorce.

The word "gone" is repeated, both to imply the finality and irrevocability of her flight, and to imply the idea that she may have left not just her wedding but her senses. In short, she was stretched too tightly, and she snapped.

This is not to say that she is crazy. Having a sane reaction to an insane situation may seem crazy to all those for whom the insanity seems rational. But from her perspective, the situation was untenable, and she did what she had to do to stay sane.

Naturally, even though she feels that was she has done is for the best and will not undo it, there is still the wrenching feeling that comes with abandoning all one has known. Her dreams that night are stormy, reflecting the pain she feels, the pain she knows she has caused, and the uncertainty of tomorrow's life when she wakes.

Perhaps she associates the Mexican shoreline with "hurricane" weather, because she imagines the eye of one passing over her bed, her "pillow" an "island" targeted by the storm. Remember from the song "Hurricane Eye"-- the eye is only a temporary calm. While she is calming down from the turmoil of her leaving, the tumult of what happens tomorrow has yet to strike with its gale in turn.

The chorus explains that changes are hard, almost impossible, but so very necessary. The pain of losing everything, even if that everything is not much or even bad, keeps many people from making such changes. They stay in bad jobs or bad relationships for years or more, afraid to give up stability for potential gain. Most could give up a "no" for a "yes"... but then most such choices ask us to give up a "yes" for nothing more than a wisp of a "maybe."

And then sometimes, the present is so miserable, and the potential future that stems from it so undesirable, that this other potential future-- this thin "maybe"-- is just too alluring.

Tomorrow will bring its half of the storm, yes. But right now, in the hurricane's eye, she can see a calm sky filled with another entire "galaxy" of possibility. And if she can get through the other half of the storm, it should be clear skies after that-- containing a whole galaxy to explore as her reward.

Next Song: Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean.

Monday, March 4, 2013

I Don't Believe

The "fairy-tale" referred to in this song-- "breadcrumbs in a... forest"-- is the Grimm Brothers' "Hansel and Gretl."

The speaker (probably Simon, given whom he quotes later) begins this song by saying that another fairy-tale we hear is that  "acts of kindness... lead us past dangers." But "I don't believe," he says, that this is the case. Continuing the image of a tale told around a campfire or hearth-fire,  he says "I lean closer to the fire, but I'm cold." He wants to believe, that is, but his skepticism prevents it.

Then he tells another tale, about the creation of the world: "The earth was born in a storm" could refer to either The Big Bang or Genesis 1:6-7. The next words seem to be taken from Genesis 1:9-- "The waters receded, the mountains were formed"-- and scientists might agree that at some point, this happened through plate tectonics (adding that such movement is still happening), and that maybe the "waters" were in the form of icy glaciers. Simon's point is that in either case, there is a narrative, and you can choose to accept it or not.

The next line comes from a more recent source-- his wife! The "E.B." the quote is attributed to is Edie Brickell, who was remarking on the 2004 Bush vs. Kerry election that "the universe loves a drama." It's not enough that there be a narrative. It must be... dramatic! Even if it's just a bunch of exit-poll statistics.

What spurred all of this deep rumination on the subjective nature of reality? "I got a call from my broker/ The broker informed me I'm broke." Well. That could certainly shake up one's day. The breadcrumbs in the story were eaten by birds, you may recall, which is why the children could not find their way back home and ended up confronting the witch.

The speaker feels lost and betrayed. He feels that his "guardian angel" is, instead of guarding him, "taunt[ing]" him. Meanwhile, his children and wife, ignorant of their sudden impoverishment, are enjoying the "warm summer evening" by "laughing" and "brushing her... hair," with "not a whisper of care."

So here he was, being a responsible adult with investments and such, and then, poof! It is not surprising he is questioning the ephemeral nature of his narrative.

Yet, if he lacks faith in "acts of kindness," he has faith in something else. "I don't believe a heart can be filled to the brim/ Then vanish like mist." Kindness is one thing-- it's a sheet of ice over a lake that may or may not be thick enough to walk on. But the heart is a boat, a bridge. If you have a firm relationship, you don't need to "depend," as Blanche DuBois does, on the "kindness of strangers."

Unless... "Maybe the heart is part of the mist/ and that's all that... could ever exist." What if his wife leaves because of this? He's been divorced twice already! How silly to trust love-- hasn't he learned?

"Maybe and maybe and maybe some more"-- This cry of despair echoes Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." And like the weary King, he curses himself for having faith in anything:  "Maybe's the exit that I'm looking for." Macbeth is looking for an exit, too: "Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a... tale told by an idiot... signifying nothing." A tale, or a "fairy-tale," perhaps?

But then, another call... "My broker said he was mistaken." So he is not "broke" at all, and he luckily did not worry his wife for nothing. The broker adds that he hopes that his "faith isn't shaken." He's a bit late for that...

Well, most people would be overjoyed at such news, and our speaker is. "Acts of kindness," he says, "release the spirit with a whoop and a shout."

But even in this state of relief, he feels changed. What if the second call had not come? What if something like this were to actually happen? Just because it wasn't real this time does not mean it could not someday be so.

So he closes by saying that, while he has not necessarily written off prayer altogether (which is good, considering "Wartime Prayers" was just two songs ago), that the idea of an organized religion is no longer appealing. If anything, life obviously rests daintily on chaos-- on plate tectonics and other shifting realities-- to simply accept and trust, to impose a structure on a faith.

He says, "I don't believe we were born to be sheep... To pantomime prayers with the hands of a clock." This last line can be read two ways. One is "[along] with the hands of a clock," at set times. The other is "with hands like clock hands," with rigidity and a mechanical attitude. If life is fluid, then prayer must be as well. You should be able to pray when you need to!

And maybe you should not believe in fairy tales or rely on kindness or even have perfect faith in love.  Maybe faith has to be be as fluid as life itself is, with swells and ebbs and tides.

Galileo responded to accusations that his science was a form of heresy by saying that he did not believe that God gave us brains and then wanted us to not use them. Questioning is not the opposite of faith-- it is a form of faith. It is the belief that, even when we question, there is an answer.

So no, the speaker says, "I don't believe... I do something better: I trust."

Next Song: Another Galaxy