Monday, January 27, 2014

Forever and After

This tender break-up song represents a leap forward in Simon's writing capability. It presages the folk-guitar songwriting that defines, for many, the Simon and Garfunkel sound.

The opening verse is in the traditional a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. It also contains what is called a "concrete" image. Rather than some vague musing about missing a sweetheart and some poetry about dove or rainbow, it gives the listener a real-life, daily-life "metal picture" to symbolize the passage of lonely time: "How long am I going to miss you?/ How many cigarettes will I have to burn?"

(Think of later concrete images of Simon's: "She crept to my tent with her flashlight" from "Duncan,"  "Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike," from "America" " and "Laying out my winter clothes" from "The Boxer.")

The first half of this song, in fact, is a series of questions, a technique used in every song from "Close to You" by The Carpenters to Dylan's signature "Blowin' in the Wind." The speaker here continues, "When can I make my lonely heart realize/ That you will never return?"

Then we have a couplet that seems to imply that it will be the refrain: "How long will I hear your warm laughter?/ I'm afraid-- forever and after." This is a nice gloss on the overused "forever and ever" or "forever and a day."

Since the title of the song is "Forever and After," we presume that we will next have another quatrain, again followed by this couplet.

We're wrong. We have another two lines; still, we think these might be the second half of the chorus, especially since they continue the question motif:  "How many times do I hurry home to you/ To find you gone, to find you gone?"

This repetition of a phrase is very reminiscent of the folk songwriting style. Think of "We Shall Overcome," "Kumbaya" or "This Little Light of Mine" ("Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine").

Then, we have two more verses, but each has six lines, with the third and sixth rhyming. The first of these is "Each time I held you near me/ I hear you say you love me/ More than the day before/ You'd smile when you would see me/ Take your kisses to me / And go on wanting more." [The emphasis on the rhyme is mine.]

In this verse, we hear the speaker rehashing the relationship, as in many break-up songs, missing both his sweetheart and the feeling of being in love. We hear him think on the good times, as we expect.

Next, we assume he will wonder "what went wrong." Did he make a mistake? Did she? Was there someone else? Did they simply outgrow each other... or get pulled apart by fate?

But all we get is: "Though things sometimes went wrong/ It never, never lasted for long/ It wasn't worth the care." In this case, that expression means means "it wasn't worth the bother, the trouble." When there were fights, they were brief and unimportant. So as far as he is concerned, the reason for the break-up remains elusive.

There seems to be a grammatical disagreement between the plural "things" and the singular "it." But consider the "correct" alternative: "Though things sometimes went wrong/ They never lasted for long." That's just not how people talk. "It," we know, refers to the particular disagreement, whatever it was about, not the "things" that went wrong.

The song ends with the reason the fights were short: "For then we had each other's love/ We had so much, so much to share, so much to share." There's that internal repetition again.

There is only sadness here. No anger, no finger-pointing or name-calling. Just a wonderful, tender love that... ended. Perhaps if the speaker knew why she left, he could get what we today call "closure," and find a lesson to carry forward into his next relationship: "Well, I won't do that again" or "I won't fall for someone who does that again."

But we all know that, sometimes, there is no answer, no closure. And when that happens, we can find ourselves wondering, "If it was so great, why did it have to end?" We reminisce, question, smoke another cigarette, and wonder... forever and after.

By altering his verses' shape in mid-song, and presenting a potential chorus and then not actually repeating it, Simon does two things. One is to symbolize the song's theme-- expectations going unmet-- in its very structure.

The other is to begin to delineate his signature style. He begins, here, to explore the idea of altering a song's structure midstream, of fusing two songs into one. He also sings solo, to an acoustic guitar-- not a "pop music" move.

This is a Tom and Jerry song, to be sure. But it's one of the few that, had it appeared on a Simon and Garfunkel album, would have been completely at home there. Yes, it has elements of The Everly Brothers wistfulness, and the melodic folk tradition, and the new grittier folk style.

But it fuses these elements, then adds a confident intelligence and a willingness to not find answers to the questions it raises. With "Forever and After," we really stop hearing the pop star-wannabe that was Jerry Landis... and we start recognizing the mature Paul Simon we know today.

When this song was written, he could have been no more than 18. As if we weren't impressed enough already. No, Simon was not finished trying to be Elvis or Dion... or an Ink Spot, an Everly Brother or Brill Building teen idol, as we shall see (and it's possible that, in his 70s, he's still trying!).

But he was starting to come into his own, find his voice, and define himself as a songwriter. It's still the 1950s when this song is recorded. But "Forever and After," in style and substance, is a 1960s song. More importantly, it's a Paul Simon song.

Next Song: Aeroplane of Silver Steel

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Charmed Life

This is an interesting song, because it seems as it it may go one way, but in fact goes the opposite.

The chorus is just two lines: "Some people, some people never have no storm or strife/ Some people, some people, they lead a charmed life."

This implies that it's other people who do, not the speaker. So we settle in for a rehash of Hank Williams' "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," another shrugging litany of "I've had a lot of luck, and it's all been bad."

This expectation is nurtured by the music, which is as sad as a sigh in a fog.

The first verse is about these "some people," using the third person, again fostering the notion that, as Rod Stewart sang, "Some guys have all the luck,"... and it's not us: "When Trouble knocks upon their door, they always show such cheerfulness/[Trouble] scratches his head and away he goes, saying, "Guess I have the wrong address."

The rest of the song is about how, in fact, it is the speaker and people like himself who do in fact lead a charmed life. For instance: "A wealthy fisherman can hold all the equipment in the book/ Then people like us, we just come along-- catch 'em with a pole, a string, a hook." The next example is of a farmer who "nearly kills himself with toil," but when "people like us" start to scratch the same dirt, "What do they discover? Oil!"

The next verse is unclear. The story it tells seems like bad luck. "A man like me, he picks out a girl and she buys her wedding gown/ Their wedding day comes but his luck holds out-- just as he arrives, the church burns down." The implication is that he is lucky that the wedding could not take place. It seems he didn't want the wedding to happen, perhaps because she was rushing the relationship so much.

[Later, in the song "A Church is Burning," Simon would treat the subject of a burned-down church with an entirely different attitude.]

Then a female singer comes in and says that it's "kids like us" who are saved from the final exam-- the one they didn't study for-- by the arrest of the teacher by the police.

The last verse summarizes, in politically incorrect fashion: "A raggle-taggle gypsy band who never stays where they are put/ That's us-- and we're glad that we're us, because we're as lucky as a rabbit's foot."

It's hard to know what to make of this song. The happy, even comical, scenarios it relates are at odds with the doleful melody and harmonies. It is clever, but it would have been better served by a more upbeat presentation, like The Everly Brothers' "Wake Up, Little Suzie." Someone as charmed as the speaker claims to be should be more, well, charming.

Also, why talk about "some people" having a charmed life, implying others do... when it's the speaker and his own band of merry gypsies who are in fact charmed?

This track shows a humorous side of Simon that one wishes was packaged more humorously.

Next Song: Forever and After

Monday, January 6, 2014

Up and Down the Stairs

There is no metaphor here. (Also, no chorus or bridge.) The whole song is a kvetch about schelpping "up and down the stairs at school."

There is no romance-- he doesn't pass someone on the stairs all day long and flirt with and/or get ignored by her while never getting the chance to actually converse because he is always rushing to class.

There is no bullying by being pushed down the stairs as he's climbing up, or class warfare (as in the British TV show Upstairs Downstairs)... or anything else.

Just a student weary of all the stair-climbing he is doing every school day. The repeated line is: "Up and down the stairs is driving me crazy!"

"Who thought education could be cruel?" he moans. "In the morning you'll find out that you'll/
Start out on the highest floor/ Then it's French in 104," presumably all the way down on the first floor.

"I would like to know who made the rule," he further bewails, "That each classroom, [from] door to door/ Is ten miles from the one before."

Like in the song "Wonderful World" (the Sam Cooke one, not the Louis Armstrong one), we also learn about the speaker's classes. Aside from French, he says, "I don't mind geometry/ English or biology" (one of Simon's weaker rhymes) and "I can wade through history/ Though it's just a mystery." So that's five classes' worth of stairs, plus lunch... and most likely, gym class.

As if he hasn't exercised enough for one day, poor dear.

That's really all there is to this cute little novelty number, with its nursery-rhyme score. You might expect it in the soundtrack of some movie set in a 1950's high school, like Grease. Although on-screen, there might be more happening-- on the staircases between classes-- than there is here.

Next Song: Charmed Life