Monday, July 29, 2013

Dancin' Wild

There are some dance songs which introduce a new dance, from "The Twist" to... um, "The Harlem Shake," if you can call such convulsions a "dance."

Then there are some dance tracks that simply encourage dancing in general, like the Drifter's "Dance With Me" or David Bowie's "Let's Dance." This is one of the latter kind.

"Dancin' Wild" may have fewer ideas in one 2-minute-20-second span than any other song Simon wrote. This is not a judgement-- many of the best songs are mindless. It is simply a fact. Simon would sometimes revisit this free-wheeling, bop-'til-you-drop style of songwriting, mostly notably in "We've Got a Groovy Thing Goin'."

The first verse, I kid you not, goes:
"Oo-la-la, you my baby
Well, oo-la-la, don't mean maybe
Oo-la-la, drive me crazy
When you're dancin' wild with me-ee."

This is repeated several times, and then the verse's melody is la-la-la'd at least twice to boot, plus there's a guitar solo. Yet, there is still room for some lyrics in the verses: "Dancin' wild, we'll do the apple jack/ Drop your shoes on the floor till we get back."

Before it was a kid's cereal, and after it was a form of hard cider, the term "apple jack" referred to a dance. It is a line dance, not unlike the electric slide. It involves a series of shuffling, cross-over, and hopping steps done facing one direction, then a 90-degree turn, then the same steps again, until the song ends (there is an instructional video on YouTube).

The next verse is: "At night, we crash the party down the block/ We learned this crazy step the kids all rock." The verb tenses make it hard to know if the apple jack is the "step" in question, since they seem to have known it since the previous verse. Probably, it's a different dance. The apple jack isn't much "crazier" than the average country two-step.

The last verse is perhaps the most 1950's element of the song, starting: "The clock says now it's time that you gotta go." When was the last time a dance song obeyed a curfew? Even Bill Haley could "rock" all the way "around the clock" a few years prior, in 1955, or at least "'Til broad daylight."

The song ends: "There's only one thing more that you must know/ I love you so." This confession of love is sung solo, without the music, in a very low register, and almost seems... shy. This is very endearing, since until now, the speaker was interested in "wild" dancing, party crashing, and being with a girl who drove him "crazy."

She's a lot of fun, but still a good girl who goes home when it's time to. After many a "wild" night, he realizes what a gem he has on his hands... and works up the guts to tell her she has won his heart. Good for him.

Musical Note: This was the B-side, when "Hey Schoolgirl" was released as a single.

Next Song: Don't Say Goodbye

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Teenage Fool

Simon's influences, even his early ones, are many, ranging from The Everly Brothers to doo-wop and gospel. But one that looms large is Elvis Presley. In interviews, Simon has said that he wanted to be Elvis when he was young (he wasn't alone).  And in the movie One Trick Pony, when the band-mates play a game naming dead rock starts, it's Simon who ends the game with the line, "Yeah, Elvis is dead."

Here, young Mr. Simon does his best Elvis impression. You can almost see his upper lip snarl around the "Well"s (or rather "We-hell"s) that start every other line. The opening line, "They call me a fool" comes out: "They-hey call-hall me a foooo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hool." It's pretty adorable.

This song was released in 1958 or so. "Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?" was released by Dion and the Belmonts in 1959 (and covered by S&G at their last concert before their 1970 breakup.) But "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" came out first, in 1956. It was sung by Frankie Lymon and the (wait for it) Teenagers.

So who's to say who influenced whom? There was enough teenage foolishness to go around.

That's just as far as the title. The theme presages another Dion hit, "Runaround Sue" (1961). In that song, Sue's promiscuity is the reason to "keep away from" her. (The "Wanderer" of Dion's next release that same year boasts of his own promiscuity. But that's a dissertation for another time.)

Simon's speaker's response to his girl playing the field? The chorus is: "They say that you play round with other boys/ Well, I guess that's just the way you are/ You know... that I'll never go/ And I'll always love you so."

So he is either more sophisticated or more desperate than "others." Which is it? It starts by saying "They call me a fool," as if he might agree, that yes, she's so wonderful he doesn't care if he has to share her time. "Just a crazy fool/ Who doesn't care what others say." 

After the chorus, however, muddies the waters somewhat: "They see us going steady." Wait, wasn't she just running around a minute ago?

Ah, but the next line is: "Well, they know we play it cool." Oh, so "steady" is a relative term. The sex-advice columnist Dan Savage recently coined a word that may apply: "monogamish."

Yet, regardless of the "steadiness" of their relationship, he is secure in her ultimate affection: "If they still think that you don't love me/ Well, they're just some teenage fool."

Their understanding seems to be that, to use the imagery of the playground, she's not as much a tetherball as a boomerang. She can do whatever she wants, as long as she comes back when she's done... which she will, as long as he accepts that that's just the "way" she is. So call him a "fool," if you like... but he thinks he has it pretty good; she is physically unfaithful, but emotionally true to him.

Keep in mind, it wasn't even the 1960s yet! Plus, Simon was, at the oldest, 17 when he wrote "Teenage Fool." Goodness gracious. Kids these days.

Next Song: Dancin' Wild

Monday, July 15, 2013

That's My Story

In an interview, Simon once explained how he discovered metaphor. He rushed in to tell his father about a song he had just heard, "See, she's an angel... but she lives on Earth!" The song, of course, was 1954's "Earth Angel" by The Penguins.

This 1958 song is like that one, but only in cadence and mood. In other words, it is a slow dance number, such as was heard at proms.

The song's title is somewhat misleading. The song does not follow a narrative or tell a story. Rather, it might be the response to a query like: "Why ya so glum, kid? What's yer story, eh?"

The "story" is one of the oldest, summed up in the song's line, "I can't tell you I love you." It's one thing to have a love that's unrequited, but this one is simply unspoken.

It all started, you see, "a month ago," or an eon in teen-time. It was a classic case of love at first sight: "That's when I saw you/ Your eyes were aglow/ And then I could see/ That you were for me." The crush is so innocent, it would not have ruffled a feather in the days of troubadors with their lutes.

The speaker dreams of her all night long, but then awakens to heartbreak, because he can't speak of his affections except in fantasy. He never says what's holding him back-- perhaps simple fear of rejection. There is no mention of a rival, for instance.

Metrically, the line quoted above is bravely asymmetrical. The verse goes:
"I go to sleep at night
And dream of you
I wish I could hold you tight
The whole night through
But when I'm awake
My heart could just break..."

And then we expect a line with maybe two or three metrical feet. Instead we get the jarring, almost stumbling "I can't tell you I love you," which throws off the rhythm entirely.

This effect mirrors his problem. He's fine right up until he thinks of actually expressing his feelings, and then he gets tongue-tied and trips over his own words.

As in the previous song, the next participants in the story are his "friends." They notice that he has become morose, "always moody and blue." But he can't tell them about his crush either. He wishes he could tell them, so they would know that he is "not to blame." But once again, he can't just spit it out.

The 1966 Beach Boys song "God Only Knows" supposed to be the first pop song with the name of The Deity in it. But here, the next verse starts: "O Lord above please hear my prayer/ Show me where she is and take me there."

In a way, Simon's invocation of the Almighty is more brave. Brian Wilson and company use the word in the sense of the cliched expression "God only knows," which one might say if asked what happened to his missing bike; it is the equivalent of "Who knows?" "I have no idea," or "Search me." Here, Simon speaker is actually offering, he says, "a prayer."

Part of the problem in this case, it seems, is that there is always someone else around, especially (we assume) at school. What the speaker prays for is "one moment alone" with the object of his affection. Then, he says, without the distractions of others, "we'll know we're in love."

How many of us can appreciate the pain the speaker is in, seeing her so closely, yet being kept apart by his own fears and the potential whispers of the schoolyard.

The speaker concludes-- in the same drawn-out speech pattern we later hear in the spoken bridge of "You Lost That Lovin' Feelin'"-- "That's my story." You and a lot of other people, pal.

Funny as it is to hear a poet like Simon admit to being at a loss for words, we all know it's easier to say on paper, and in dreams, what we simply can't bring ourselves to say aloud.

Next Song: Teenage Fool

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Our Song

In 1957 and 1958, Simon and Garfunkel were still known as "Tom & Jerry." They released some singles under that moniker in those years, collecting them in an album called simply Tom & Jerry (10 tracks, two of which are instrumentals). I cannot find the release date of this album definitively, only one site that estimates: "1958?"

Since we have, in this blog, been dealing with whole albums as much as possible, we will discuss these songs in the order in which they appear on this album, not in the order in which they were released prior to that as singles.

The first song on this album, "Hey Schoolgirl," has already been discussed, since it appeared on a box set. So we move directly to the second song, titled "Our Song."

Musically, it starts with a howl of sadness, stretching out the vowel in "She's go-o-o-one." Then it jolts into a speedy clip, about as fast as "Wake Up, Little Susie," which it sustains until the end. The song is certainly a rock song, but there is a touch of country twang in some of the guitar solos.

The song itself is about that special kind of torture that happens when a song that was "our song" is caught coming out of the radio, long after the "our" has ceased to be. The speaker is trying to move on, but the radio will not let him, so he is upset with "every DJ on the radio."

He mentions a practice which I am not sure still exists, that of "playing dedications." A listener could call in to a radio station and request that a certain song be played, "dedicated" to a certain other party the listener was sure was also listening. In this way, people could flirt, strengthen a relationship, tell a third party to back off, or even break up, depending on the message the given song contained. Someone might dedicate a song to an entire group, such as one's fellow graduates, as well. The DJ would say something along the lines of: "And here's "Earth Angel," dedicated from George to his angel, Martha."

In our speaker's case, the song he shared with his girlfriend is one popular enough to be dedicated with regularity. So he not only keep hearing the song, but mentions of couples who still share the song, while he no longer does... adding to his torment: "He (the DJ) doesn't know/ That once upon a time/ Our song made two hearts chime/ When you loved me so/ Won't they ever let me forget/ The day that we met."

Then comes a two-line bridge that seems out of place: "What will our friends say/ When they know that you've gone, gone away?" How would they know, relative to the content of this song? By the lack of his dedicating the song for her? By his reaction when the song comes on once again?

Functionally, the line only serves to remind the listener again of "Wake Up Little Susie," which it resembles strongly, and which contains the line "What're we gonna tell our friends/ When they say 'oo-la-la'?"

Our song, "Our Song," ends with this sliver of ironic hope: "...somehow I know/ She's bought the radio/ That's playing our song." He's fairly certain that she is not coming back, but at least she has to listen incessantly to this now-painful song, too. He doesn't want to actively make her feel bad, but if she does...

Next Song: That's My Story

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Girl for Me

As promised, once all of Simon's current work has been discussed, this blog returns to the very beginning of Simon's songwriting career.

His very first work, "The Girl for Me" is consists of one unassuming verse, repeated once. In its entirety, the verse is:
"The girl for me
Is standing there.
That's the one
Flowers in her hair.
I always loved her
And I know she'll be true."

He copyrighted it under the name "Jerry Landis," as for a while he and Garfunkel went under the name of "Tom and Jerry." Garfunkel was "Tom Graph." The year: 1955.

From this simple, even simplistic song, one of the great songwriting voyages of all time set sail.

The song does not seem to require much explanation, but it is interesting to note what is not there. Missing is any indication of what it is that makes the girl the one for him-- there is no discussion of her beauty, her wiles, her laugh, or any other attribute.

Perhaps the "flowers in her hair" mark her as demure. Twelve years later, in 1967, the song "San Francisco" contained the lines "If you're going to San Francisco/ Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair." Why? To mark oneself as a member of the with-it counterculture, not as a demure wallflower.

No, this girl is passive, just "standing there." What she offers is fidelity, the assumption (not an expressly made promise-- she says nothing at all) that "she'll be true."

The girl is desirable for her passivity, it seems. The flowers, like all plants, cannot move of their own volition. And she would never be motivated to make the ultimate move, to transplant herself to pastures she felt greener.

Simon was 16 when he published this song, which is impressive on its own. Perhaps the song reflected his personal teenage insecurity about having a girlfriend capable of independent action. Or perhaps, he was mimicking the songs he heard on the radio and elsewhere in the Brill Building and felt that a song aimed at a "good girl" would find a likely audience.

It could be about both, in a way. Perhaps the "girl" can be seen as the music industry itself. He wanted to be part of it, as he "always loved" it (what teenager doesn't want to be a pop star?). But he wanted it to hold still while he approached it. He needed it to "be true" and not leave him for another songwriter, should he not be a hit right away.

Luckily (for us as well), Simon's talent (and ambition) were evident to the adult professionals in the office, and they let him stay.

As it turned out, Simon's relationship with his music would prove to be one of his most enduring. He "always loved" it, and it always loved him back.

(This song is on YouTube. Simon plays it for an interviewer, well into his adult career.)

Next Song: Our Song