Monday, April 29, 2013


Jim Croce's song "Working at the Car Wash Blues" is about a guy working at just such a place, after just having gotten out of jail "doing 90 days for non-support," which means not paying child support. This deadbeat dad's concern, however, is not making things right with his progeny, but being an "undiscovered Howard Hughes," who really has the business acumen to be in "an air-conditoned office with a swivel chair," not "working at this end of Niagara Falls."

Simon's speaker here, a Vietnam vet, also has "been working at the car wash," and likewise has grander ambitions. Not on Wall Street, but in Hollywood: "I've been working on my rewrite... gonna turn it into cash."

What about the screenplay requires revision? "Gonna change the ending." You see, it was originally about this guy with kids, see, but: "...the father has a breakdown/ And he has to leave the family." Oh. Hmm.

Yes, but in the rewrite? "Gonna substitute a car chase/ And a race across the rooftops/ When the father saves his children/ And he holds them in his arms."

The satirical newspaper called The Onion mocks current events but also has reviews, and in one coined the term "Manic Pixie Dreamgirl." This is a fictional female who is winsome and cute; she exists to breathe life into the dull and cloistered lives of brilliantly creative but unappreciated and shy guys, like... oh, say, maybe some screenwriters.

Yes, but isn't that-- somewhat at least-- what art is for? To create a better world than the disappointing one we actually inhabit?

So, we can tease the car-wash guy for being twice deluded-- once that anyone would buy his cliche-soaked screenplay, and once that even if he gets rich selling it, that this will help him reunite with his kids. We can tease him...we can mourn his loss with him...

Or we can be glad at least his heart is in the right place. That, even in his frustration, he is able to find a creative (and not destructive) outlet for his emotions. If you can't have the real thing, at least you can know you want it. This is not unlike the conclusion Ibsen reached in his play The Wild Duck, about the necessity of illusion in the face of the true bleakness of life, such as that of the inventor who has been puttering on his never-finished creation for years.

There is an expression: "Fake it 'til you make it." In this case, sure, fake it all you want, car-wash guy, since we know you will never make it anyway. Who are you hurting? In fact, you are helping... helping yourself cope.

The chorus-- "Help me... Thank you for listening to my prayer"-- seems to be directed at the listener. But what is his prayer? Perhaps it is to know that, even if you won't come to see his movie, you will at least wish him luck on his rewrite.

Musical Notes:
This song features a number of perhaps unfamiliar instruments. The "glass harp" is an array of drinking or wine glasses with varying amounts of water in them, which affects the pitch produced when their edges are rubbed with the player's finger.

The "kora" is a cello-size African string instrument with a rounded body; it produces the music box-like plinking head in the song. The "djembe" is a goblet-shaped hand-drum; the smaller ones are held under the arm like a bagpipe, while the larger ones are supported between the knees of a seated player.

And an "angklung" is an Indonesian percussion instrument of ingenious design. A horizontal frame holds vertical bamboo poles of varying lengths. Sticks are placed within the hollow poles, and when the poles are shaken the sticks rattle inside, with tones differing depending on the lengths of the tubes they are in. Small versions can fit on a table, while larger variants are on larger racks resembling those for tubular bells. The overall effect is not unlike that of a vibraphone.

Next Song: Love and Hard Times

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dazzling Blue

This is a jaunty song, as happy as "Feelin' Groovy" or "Born at the Right Time." It is also, if you just read the lyrics, one of Simon's finest promises of love.

The opening verse, however, is hesitant. "Silence is revealing," the speaker muses-- nothing is a secret anymore, not with the Internet and the "CAT scan's eye." There are shades, here of feeling that technology is a double-edged blade, a sense discussed earlier in "Boy in the Bubble" ("lasers in the jungle," etc.). "Now-a-days," (a word not used much, now-a-days!) the speaker continues, "everything is known." And that is somewhat good, and somewhat not, but a fact nevertheless; now we know we know what is "truth or lies" even if no one says anything.

Similarly, whether love is an "accident" or "destiny," the speaker says, "You and I were born beneath a star of dazzling blue." Are stars randomly accidental or divinely predestined? It matters not-- the star is dazzlingly beautiful, as is this love.

The next verse contains an echo of "Kathy's Song": "Worlds apart on a rainy afternoon." Back then Simon threw his hands up at creating music under such misery, saying his words "tear and strain to rhyme," so upset is he with being apart from Kathy. But now, music is the answer to loneliness: "Turn your amp up and play your lonesome tune" (a phrase that starts off like a line from "Late in the Evening.")

Another interpretation of this verse is that the couple is physically close, trapped in the living room under the same rain cloud, but "miles apart" emotionally. The line "miles can't measure distance" may imply that physical distance is not meant here.

However, the line about "the road" implies that one or the other (if this is Simon speaking, his wife is also a musician) is on tour. And, while music is the reason they are apart, it is also something they share, and that binds them, even across "miles."

The bridge is a twist on the old line "Roses are red, violets are blue." Here, the star is blue, but the "roses" are "red," and then there is the "fine white linen" of their "marriage bed." A bit more adult than "sugar is sweet and so are you"!

As important as the bed is "a wall that nothing can break through." The idea of a marriage needing a "wall" around it is not a new one. Real life assails it on all fronts, and a couple must be united in defending their fortress. (But how different a wall is this from the "walls, steep and mighty/ That none may penetrate" constructed by the speaker in "I Am a Rock," who defends himself from love!)

So many things bind this couple. The sense of being born under the same star, the love of music, the mutual devotion to protect their marriage from outside assault... and one more: memories. The last verse is about a drive on Montauk Highway, on Long Island. The couple leaves the car to walk "along the cliffs above the sea."

Together, they "imagined it was someday." Which sounds like a marriage proposal, and what a pretty spot for one. "And that is how the future came to be."

But first, "they wondered why." And no answer did they seem to find. But that, perhaps is the point. Now that we know everything... what do we know, really? We don't even know why things are to begin with-- "accident" or "destiny"?

Turns out, it doesn't matter. They found each other, and they are happy about that. Do you really need to know why the star is dazzling blue-- isn't it enough that it is?

Musical Note:
The background harmony vocals are performed by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, are a bluegrass/gospel group. As a pre-teen and soon after, Lawson taught himself to play mandolin, banjo and guitar. After playing in several other bands, he formed Quicksilver in 1979. And in 2012, he was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. (Also on the track are a dobro and fiddle, traditional country instruments.)

The rhythmic background vocals are performed by Indian singers and musicians, who also play a two-headed pitched drum called a tabla, and a clay pot.

And, for good measure, Simon himself chimes in, literally, on glockenspiel.

Next Song: Rewrite

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Afterlife

Every culture imagines the afterlife as much like its own existence is this world... but better. Then there are cynics like Simon, who imagines Heaven much the same way that Albert Brooks did in his movie Defending Your Life: Heaven as a bureaucracy. Just like here. Better, perhaps only in that your impatience is immaterial-- or are you in some sort of rush to start eternity?

The speaker here, like the one in John Prine's organ-donation promoting "Please Don't Bury Me," dies at the start of the song. Prine's speaker (or perhaps just his soul) goes right up "through the ceiling," but Simon's goes home from the funeral parlor first, and is "usher[ed] in" from there.

At first the "sugarcoated" voice says "Let us begin." But, since Heaven is just like Earth: "You got to fill out a form first/ And then you wait in a line." The speaker shrugs that when you're the "new kid in school," you have to "learn the routine."

In an interview, Simon says that one of the first songs that excited him about the potentialities of songwriting was the Penguins' "Earth Angel." Now, in Heaven, our speaker see the real angel he'd like to spend the rest of his life, well, afterlife with.

So he wings his way over and lays down one of the all-time great pick up lines: "How long you been dead?" Shockingly, he immediately proposes: "you... me... baby makes three."

Well, wouldn't you know? "You got to fill out a form first/ And then you wait in a line." Relationships, it seems, are subject to the same approvals process as entry.

At least, the speaker muses, there is an ultimate democracy here-- all souls are Created equal: "It's all His design/ No one cuts in the line." Yes, even "Buddha and Moses... had to stand in the line."

And once you are in the Gates, what are you waiting for now? "Just to glimpse the divine." But, as on Earth, "it seems like our fate/ to suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek." Well, all religious leaders and prophets have certainly been known to suffer.

Now that you have made it up "the ladder of time," you get your audience: "The Lord God is near." What's it like? "You feel like you're swimming in an ocean of love/ And the current is strong."

There's only one problem. Even though you have have ages and eons to rehearse what you are going to say or ask once you reach God, when you actually do, "Your words disappear." One would hope that such an experience would be awe-inspiring, but you also end up star-struck, in the extreme.

Not wanting to say nothing after all that, you frantically search your brain for anything to say: "But all that remains when you try to explain/ Is a fragment of song." So you ask: "Lord, is it 'Be Bop a Lula,' or 'Ooh Papa Doo'?"

Now, the first is a Gene Vincent song, the other an Little Esther tune. And only someone who equally loves all forms of music would put rockabilly and R&B artist side by side and ask God to choose. And maybe only God could; while Simon probably chose those tracks for their nonsense titles, they are somewhat similar thematically, both being raucous declarations of being in love.

The last line of our song is "Be Bop a Lula," so this is perhaps God's pick. Well, one more question for the ages cleared up...

Writers have been imagining what a trip to Heaven is like since Prometheus stole fire from Olympus, or Norse warriors belted out battle epics around a table in Valhalla... or at least since 1907, when Mark Twain wrote "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven."

Other songwriters have chimed in, too, of course. David Byrne sang that "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens," while Dar Williams imagines it is "like a big Hawaiian party that my mother had/ the worst Elvis film I've ever seen."

For Simon, the place is a place that is first like the Department of Motor Vehicles, then an audience with the Queen of England. Makes as much sense as any of the others.

Musical Note:
The guitarist on this track, the previous one, and the last one on the album is Vincent Nguini, who first recorded with Simon on Rhythm of the Saints. He was born in Cameroon.

Next song: Dazzling Blue

Monday, April 8, 2013

Getting Ready for Christmas Day

When a musician tries on a new style or sound, an excited album often results. By the time of the follow-up, the boil has died down to a simmer. But that just means more focus, not less energy, once the new techniques have been mastered and controlled. For instance, after the ebullient Graceland, Simon returned with the relatively subdued Rhythm of the Saints. Similarly, after the kid-in-a-candy-store sound of Surprise, he came back with the more contemplative So Beautiful or So What. Now, the electronics have been stirred into Simon's alchemy, along with the folk, gospel, world, and other sounds he had already added.

While this song is ostensibly about Christmas, we can expect that it will not find its way onto any Yuletide compilation or caroling songbook. That is because, as Christmas songs go, it is not only somber but frustrated and even cynical in tone. The rewrite of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" contains the line "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough," but the original line was "We'll have to muddle through somehow." Which is more the tone here.

It starts with a man bemoaning how "money matters" are "weighing" on him. The timing of this financial crisis is in line with Christmas-gift buying season. Even before he mentions the holiday, he speaks of "merry" music, then explains that "Santa Claus is coming to town," and of course someone has to buy that bagful of presents: "It all comes down to working man's pay."

Then the song takes an unexpected twist. We shift to the voice of a preacher, one Rev. J.M. Gates, in a sermon he recorded back in 1941. Based in Atlanta, Gates released some 200 recordings-- both sermons and songs-- over nearly two decades. This homily comes from late in his recording career.

For Gates, Christmas Day sounds more like Judgement Day. He says that, while you are "getting ready for Christmas Day," so are the "undertaker... jailer, lawyer, [and] police."

The workingman now returns, this time telling about his nephew, a soldier fighting the War in Iraq. In fact, he has returned to battle no fewer than three times! His uncle wryly opines that the fighter will be defending our freedom of religion while "eating [his] turkey dinner/ On some mountaintop on Pakistan." As for the war, for all of the carnage and expense, it's "ending up the way it began."

Now it's Gates' turn again. This time, he says you might be planning a trip for the holiday. However, you just as easily "be laying in some lonesome grave" by then. You never know, he shrugs, "where you'll be." You could be saying "I'm going and see [sic] my relatives in a distant land," thinking you mean that literally, when in fact that "distant land" might be Heaven... where we all have relatives.

Then the workingman has the final word: "If I could tell my Mom and Dad"-- "if" implying that he can't, as they have passed on-- "the things we never had/ Never mattered." Yes, he and his siblings never had much... but, he says, "we were always OK." But here he is, knocking himself out with two jobs to buy presents. So what is he doing?

Christmas is a time of expectation that almost never matches, in reality, the fantasy it engenders. Undertakers, police officers and soldiers work on Christmas, and at grim jobs at that. The presents received are almost immediately forgotten (or broken) no matter how long it took to earn the money for them.

Further, the "merry" music piped into the stores and our of our televisions drowns out the sacred meaning of the day. Forget the gift-wrapping, the cake-baking, and the tree-trimming-- Jesus is about to be born! How are you getting ready for that?

Musical Note:
Simon has been married to Edie Brickell since 1992, and he co-produced her first solo album, 1994's Picture Perfect Morning. However, her backing vocals here may be the first time they have been recorded singing together.

Brickell, of course, is a singer-songwriter in her own right, having scored hits with her band New Bohemians; their best-known track is "What I Am," with its famous line: "What I am is what I am-- are you what you are, or what?" She is now the lead singer of The Gaddabouts, named after its founder (and longtime Simon session player), master drummer Steve Gadd.

And in 2013, she released a song with another longstanding friend of Simon's, comedian and bluegrass banjo player Steve Martin.

In addition to the Gates sermon, the song also samples "Me Deixa Em Paz (Leave Me Alone)" by Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, with whom Simon has collaborated before, notably on "Spirit Voices." Literally, the title of the sampled song means "leave me in peace."

Simon is still on tour for this album, as of this writing. It was very successful, reaching #4 in the US (and Sweden) and #6 in the UK (and also Croatia, Denmark, and the Netherlands), going all the way to #2 in Norway. It also hit the Top Ten in Canada, The Czech Republic, and Ireland... the Top 50 in other EU nations and Australia, and even #75 in Japan.

Critically, it was Rolling Stone's #3 best album of 2011, and received high praise all around.

Next Song: The Afterlife