Thursday, February 26, 2009

“Love” / Paul Simon


Paul Simon keeps on surprising me. It’s been a long time since, as half of Simon & Garfunkel, he defined an era -- I’ll never forget being riveted by the trailer to The Graduate, with that delicately finger-picked opening of “Sounds of Silence” playing over Dustin Hoffman’s blank face. Simon’s chiseled portraits of alienation and despair (“I Am A Rock,” “The Boxer,” “Homeward Bound,” “A Hazy Shade of Winter”) were just what my disaffected teenage soul needed. I drank up every album thirstily; so did all of my disaffected friends.

Simon stayed in the game even after he went solo, but only just, and after Graceland he fell off my radar. I can’t even remember how this song filtered onto my iTunes -- it’s from his 2000 album You’re the One, which must have come after the spectacular failure of his musical Capeman, but despite the fact that it went gold and won a Grammy nomination, it never reached my ears. Yet this sneaky little track has been burrowing into my brain lately. The jazz-tinged guitar work, the supple Brazilian percussion, draw you in, tease you along – and then those devastating lyrics punch you in the gut.

If Joe Tex was playing a street preacher, Simon is our Professor Emeritus of Love, lecturing wisely on human need. He begins with a first-person example: “Cool my fever high / Hold me when I cry” – yes, love does have its purpose, his empirical research will support that. But then the melody plunges into monotone as he confesses, “I need it so much.” Oh, yes, he knows this feeling, and he doesn’t like it. He drops into a spoken-word rant as he describes love’s general effect: “Makes you want to get down and crawl like a beggar / For its touch / And all the while it's free as air / Like plants, the medicine is everywhere.” Free? Everywhere? Why is that not reassuring?

Then, out of it all, the chorus rises like a phoenix – just the clearly sustained word “love,” repeated three times, over a cresting scale of guitar work that’s suddenly shifted into major key. Yes, yes, love is the answer, you want to call out – until Simon knocks our legs out from under us, going back into minor key as he dourly reminds us, “We crave it so badly / Makes you want to laugh out loud when you receive it / And gobble it like candy.” That’s oddly pictorial; I see him laughing, I see him gobbling – and it’s weirdly arousing.

Simon’s not going to let us off the hook, is he? He switches back into major key and adopts a simpler pop rhythm in the bridge, but only to toy with us again: “We think it's easy / Sometimes it's easy / But it's not easy.” (Now there’s some shrewd, subtle songwriting for you, the less-is-more mark of a master). “You're going to break down and cry,” he wags a warning finger at us, and then throws in another smack upside the head for good measure: “We're not important / We should be grateful.” Talk about putting things in perspective.

In the last verse, he goes global on us, talking about evil walking the planet, about “the master races, the chosen peoples / The burning temples, the weeping cathedrals” – makes you feel like a schmuck for fretting over your own pitiful little love life, doesn’t it? And yet Professor Simon has already wearily signed our pass/fail slip – all right, there’s no grade, just show up for class so you can earn the credit, okay?

We can’t help craving love, that’s the way we’re built -- he knows that, and now we know it too. Yup, Paul Simon is still way ahead of me on the disillusionment spectrum. It's like coming home to find that out.

Love sample

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