Monday, May 26, 2014

Only One You

Sometimes, the formula works.

This is another "list" song. The speaker lists things that there are many of, then contrasts that with the fact that there is "only one" of his beloved.

The imagery is entirely taken from nature. The first verse lists water-related things-- "waves" and "shells." The second verse moves to the forest and mentions "birds," "leaves," and "hills." The third names objects given as tokens of affection-- "pearls" and "roses." The chorus gives us "mile after mile of prairie/ Drop after drop of rain."

Each verse ends with "But only one you." This message is emphasized by the last lines in the chorus: "But if I searched for another you/ I'd go searching in vain" (which is what rhymes with "rain").

Musically, the song is another Everly-esque melody, but given a flamenco-lite strumming accompaniment.

For all the formulaic elements, however, the song is quite effective. Given the other songs that were popular at the time, there is no real reason this should not have been a hit.

Perhaps because of its predictable structure and natural imagery, the song has a timeless feel. If it had been covered by, say, Peter Paul & Mary or by Joan Baez, the listener would have to be entirely forgiven for thinking the author had been some Robin Hood-era bard from York, and not a modern teenager from New York.

And wouldn't it be a great hoodwink for some Renaissance-Faire performer to play this piece on a lute... and then tell everyone it was written by Paul Simon in the late 1950s.

This song presages works like "Sparrow" and "Scarborough Fair," which made up a decent percentage of Simon & Garfunkel's recordings. Perhaps Simon thought this number too simplistic for his duo work.

But with a slower tempo and a vocal by Garfunkel, this could have been a hit... or at least a concert favorite at the level of "April Come She Will," or "El Condor Pasa."

I'd be curious to hear a report from a coffee-house singer who presented this song as a traditional folk number as to the audience's reaction, both before and after the revelation of its actual source.

It's discoveries like this and "Forever and After" that make exploring Simon's early work so rewarding.

Next Song: Haven't You Hurt Me Enough?

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The title of this song is an appellation usually reserved for the story of Jesus. Although the movie of that title, about that story, did not come out until 1965.

As you might guess, Simon a.k.a. Landis does not tell that story here. Instead he tells a more personal one. And a much more frequently told one, especially in the realms of pop music and movies.

Yes, our story here is about a young man who was not just "so blue," but "lonely, too." Why? He "had a broken heart." So sad. How sad? "All day I sat and cried/ Teardrops I couldn't hide." Poor thing!

But wait! "That was just the start/ Of the greatest story ever told." Oh, we are so relieved! Go on...

"I saw her there/ A thrill beyond compare," he continues, "She was my dream come true." Well, this is wonderful. Sometimes, the whole song goes by and no love object is found. But we don't know the rest-- does she return this affection? Because in some songs, we know, she does not.

"When I asked her for/ Her love forevermore..." How brave, and sudden! After all, he just saw her a moment ago, and hasn't even introduced himself. And...? "She added, 'I love you'/ To the greatest story ever told."

My word. This story does, in fact, keep getting better. Yet, there is cause for concern. She loves him now, but will it last?

Before we find out, the speaker interrupts and-- without singing-- intones: "Every day, we hear stories/ Some new, some old/ But the story of love/ Is the greatest story ever told." Too true. How could we ever have thought otherwise?

At this point, our suspense is broken. "And now, we're happy now," (yes, "now" twice). Why? "We made that sacred vow." A wedding! Now, there's a capper to a ripping tale.

"For now we're more than friends." Well, we would certainly hope so, by this point. What about going forward? Any worries?

We thought not. "Our love will grow and grow/ 'Cause with each kiss I know/ There'll never be an end/ To the greatest story ever told."

If the tone of this review is somewhat withering, is it only because this is one of the sappiest things Simon has ever written. It's almost as if he knew it was going to be cloying, opening the song with the words "Tell me a story," like a child.

If the point was that there are quite a few love songs that are almost perfect replicas of this one, that point did not have to be made by writing yet another version of this most by-the-numbers narrative. For example, take McCartney's "Silly Love Songs."

And that's also true if the point was "events, told in sequence, are a story-- and sometimes true stories are better than fictional ones." There was certainly a more interesting way to say that, as well, if it even needed to be said.

"Aeroplane of Silver Steel" is overwrought and "Back Seat Driver" mean-spirited, but at least those songs were a stretch in some direction. But even a snooze-inducing bedtime story like this shouldn't have to sound like it was written by someone who was already asleep.

Next Song: Only One You

Monday, May 12, 2014

Beach Blanket Baby

Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket BingoBikini Beach, and even How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. In just two years (1963-5) former Mickey Mouse Club member (aka Mouseketeer) Annette Funicello starred in all these movies. There were also the Gidget surfer movies (starting in 1959) and TV show ('65)... not to mention the music of the Beach Boys (first album, '62), and the whole surf-rock sound, grounded in Dick Dale's ringing surf guitar (first album, also '62).

But this song was on the first breaker of that, um, cultural tsunami.

First, we meet our resident object of desire: "She was sittin' underneath her beach umbrella/ in a teeny tight bikini, red and yella." The song "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" came out in 1960.

Not surprisingly, "she was gettin' lots of whistles from the fellas," we are told, when one fella in particular (also not surprisingly, a musician) "began to play on his guitar."

He begins the mating call of the surfer: "Beach blanket baby, all alone on the sand/ Let me hold your hand," but then immediately decides that euphemisms are pointless. "We can love the night away beside the sea/ ...share your blanket with me."

At this quite forward move, "She was giving everyone the coldest shoulder." Interesting, how she somehow manifested her disinterest in general, when we have to presume that by this point the other bathing-suited suitors (not equipped with music-making equipment) backed off.

The musician was not, however, deterred by this reticence. If anything, "her teasin' only made the boy get bolder."

Her blanket, umbrella, and bikini were no match for his ardor. "It wasn't long before he got to hold her/ She cuddled up," accepting his advances as he continues to pitch his rhyming woo: "You're a beautiful sight/ Let me hold you tight."

This lasts for quite some time, because by "now the moon above is shining on the ocean."

Then, things take a turn, perhaps. Perhaps he is just continuing with his lines. But perhaps he actually falls in love with her. Because he stops simply hinting at sex and now "tells her of his love and his devotion."

She seems to have turned this corner with him: "for their hearts are beating wild with new emotion." (yes, the rhyme is "ocean/devotion/emotion." I was semi-expecting "suntan lotion," but then recalled that the Sun had already descended by this point...)

His words become less lustful and more romantic: "You're an angel to kiss/ I'm in heaven like this/ I will always love you till the end of time/ Beach blanket baby, be mine!"

What began as purely physical attraction seems to have, in the space of a day, evolved into something deeper. While the listener may or may not be surprised by this (it was still the 1950s, after all), it seems that both occupants of this beach blanket certainly were.

After all of the first-person songs about loneliness and fighting couples, it is nice to have a simple, silly-sweet romantic narrative. Even if it happens in the third person.

Next Song: The Greatest Story Ever Told

Monday, May 5, 2014

Back Seat Driver

[Readers-- Two milestones have been reached, thanks to you! April, 2014 marked the first month in which this blog received 5,000 pageviews in one month. And it was also the month which saw the blog's 100,000th pageview since its launch in May, 2006. Thanks for all your support, comments, and readership over the years.]

"Backseat driving" is generally done by someone in the backseat, and it involves unasked-for suggestions made (often in a constant stream) by the passenger to the driver. In this case, we assume that she is in the front passenger seat, but the terminology remains.

This is a comedy number along the lines of "Yakety-Yak," about the frustrations of adolescence, but closer to the "Wake Up, Little Susie" format in that it is about getting into trouble while on a date, and in that the conversation is between a couple.

The song begins with a boyfriend telling his girlfriend that, while they are going for a spin, he wants "No backseat drivin', y'hear?" Even at the beginning of the song, we hear the anger in the young man's voice: "Talk, talk, talk/ I can't take no more/ If you don't like my driving/ Just open the door/ Get out... Start walking."

The song's structure varies between dialogue-- both cajoling ("Don't you know how to relax?") and yelled ("Why don't you stop buggin' me?")-- and rhymed lines.

Then this slice of sexism; "When you drive with a woman/ You got to take it slow." Like any such remark, it is unnecessary. Perhaps Simon meant to show that the driver is not entirely the hen-pecked victim here.

Out of frustration, our driver says to his date: "You take the wheel/ I'll give all the orders/ And see how you feel/ Turn left, turn right/ Watch out!/ Didn't you see that red light?!"

His psychological experiment worked out too well. Either she is a lousy driver, or he succeeded in distracting her, or the other car was to blame. It could be all three. In any case, we see that some accident or moving violation has happened, because the last thing we hear the boyfriend say is: "See what you've done/ If you're such a good talker/ Talk us out of this one!"

You almost feel sorry for the guy-- no one likes to be corrected while he or she is doing something, particularly as delicate as piloting a two-ton, gas-powered machine that can punch a hole in a brick wall. But then he has to go all Archie Bunker on us with that sexist crack.

Maybe they just deserve each other.

Next Song: Beach Blanket Baby