On February 6, 2016, on Prairie Home Companion, Paul Simon debuted this song.
When someone gives the ticket-taker their tickets at concerts these days, they receive a wristband, a paper strip with a bit of tape to seal it to itself, as a bracelet. It serves as a ticket stub, allowing those who leave to return.
In this song, the hapless narrator is the performer. He "stepped outside the backstage door" into the alley or parking lot behind the theater, to "breathe some nicotine" (which is to say, smoke a cigarette) and check his phone for messages...
...when he heard an ominous "click." Yes, he had locked himself out of his own theater. Now, he resigns himself to walking around to the front to get back in.
Only, once there, he is confronted by a bouncer who will not let him in without, you guessed it, a wristband: "A wristband, my man... If you don't have a wristband/ You don't get through the door."
Now, the speaker's dander is up: "My heart beats like a fist/ When I meet some dude with an attitude/ Sayin' 'Hey, you can't do that, or this."
There is no grappling with him, physically, either: "The man was large, a well-dressed 6-foot-8." And he takes his job very seriously, "Like St. Peter, standing guard at the Pearly [Gate]."
Brawn being out of the question, the speaker opts for brains, and tries reason: "I don't need a wristband/ My band is on the bandstand." This is my show, sir-- kindly let me inside where I can perform it.
We imagine the situation is eventually resolved-- the performer had his phone on him because he was checking his messages, remember? He probably called someone inside to come let him in.
But we don't get to hear that part of the story. Instead, the speaker realizes that he is in a situation that others know all too well-- that of being shut out from access to the better aspects of life, all for want of a "wristband."
And so the song takes a turn: "The riots started slowly/ With the homeless and the lowly." And after the economically disadvantaged, came the rural dwellers in small towns: "It spread into the heartland/ Towns that never got a wristband."
Then it spread still further, to the poor teens: "Kids that can't afford a wristband/ Whose anger is a shorthand/ For... 'If you don't get a wristband, my man/ Then you don't get through the door,'" and, by the way, "You'll never get a wristband."
This irksome incident, or not being able to enter his own concert for lack of a wristband, was just the basic disenfranchisement of whole swaths of society writ small. But it takes someone with the compassion of a Paul Simon to make that connection.
The rhythms here are flamenco ones. Simon had been listening to this music and incorporated an actual flamenco troupe, from Boston, for this and other tracks on the album. It was actually two years between the recording of these performers-- a dancers, rhythmic clappers, and a percussionist-- and the writing of this track.
One of the other tracks that used the flamenco troupe was "The Riverbank." That song and this one share the same clapping rhythm and the same bass line.
Speaking of clapping, an Italian musician who goes by Clap! Clap! also contributed to this track. His real name is Digi Alessio and his genre is electronic dance music. He also contributed to "Werewolf" and "Street Angel."
Next Song: Horace and Pete.