Tuesday, February 17, 2015

So I Got to Thinking About This Album . . .

Bridge Over Troubled Water /
Simon and Garfunkel

Sometimes late at night this is the album I most want to hear.  Because when it first came out, in 1970, I was just getting old enough not to have a set bedtime; I could sit in my darkened bedroom next to my fold-up stereo listening intently to this record after midnight.  I'd been an S&G fan since Wednesday Morning 3 AM  and knew every note of edgy, arty Bookends by heart.  Bridge Over Troubled Water was pushing the envelope a bit -- what was with those panflutes on "El Condor Pasa"? -- but it seemed a no-brainer to me to study this record until I mastered its intricacies.

Turns out, the key to the whole thing was something I couldn't have known in 1970 -- that this was going to be their last record.

Only now do I realize that the whole thing was a break-up record.  No, not a romantic break-up record, but the break-up of a musical partnership/friendship that had begun when these guys were in sixth grade.  Sixth grade, fer chrissakes.  That's way longer than most marriages.

I started to reflect on this several months ago when I first wrote about "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" after the death of my brother, the original Simon & Garfunkel fan in our family.  Ever since then, I've brooded over other tracks on the LP on long solo car trips (nowadays my best listening time, since the fold-up stereo has been replaced by an iPod).  Now, I figure, it's time to do the track-by-track analysis this magnificent album deserves.


1. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" You start out with one of your greatest songs ever, not just because it's the album title track, but because . . . well, because you know the rest of the album is strong enough to follow it up.  Eventually it gets big, anthemic, with all sorts of strings and horns and crashing cymbals.  But it starts out gentle and tender AND THEN dials back down to that level a couple of times. (Ahem, Mr. Springsteen -- once you're at 11 you don't have to stay at 11.) 

Paul Simon had been listening to a lot of gospel music when he wrote this, and it shows. There's a hymnlike benevolence in that modest first verse -- "When you're weary / Feeling small / When tears are in your eyes / I will dry them all." But already the chords are modulating, and the bridge to the chorus begins to rove all over the scale, escalating the drama -- "I'm on your side / When times get tough / And friends just can't be found." That desperate-sounding last line was custom-tailored for Garfunkel's voice, seguing straight into a chorus that would deliver his greatest vocal opportunity ever.

Story is that Simon wrote the first two verses, and then in the studio Garfunkel insisted they needed a third verse. Simon grudging supplied one, which he never really liked. "Sail on, silver girl / Sail on by / Your time has come to shine / All your dreams are on their way." There's been endless speculation about who the silver girl was -- but just note how the stuff about shining and dreams is later echoed in "The Only Living Boy in New York."  I maintain that Paul Simon knew this majestic song was his parting gift to Art Garfunkel -- and a better gift he could never have given.

2. "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" A taste of Paul Simon's soon-to-come passion for world music, this one sounded so weird to us in 1970. In fact Simon just supplied English lyrics to an existing Peruvian song (okay, he didn't know it was under copyright and later had to pay the composer royalties) and it's got an almost naïve, folksong-like simplicity ("I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail" et cetera). Granted, S&G really hadn't been folksingers anymore for years. But what's it about? "Away, I'd rather sail away" -- a desire for escape, which Garfunkel sings in a yearning voice pure and clear as the mountain air of the Andes. It's effably wistful; it still sends a chill up my spine, panflutes and all.

3.  "Cecilia"  A simple chugging retro-rocker, you say?  "Cecilia / You're breaking my heart / You're shaking my confidence / Daily." (You know what a sucker I am for internal rhymes.) The girl's two-timing him, and he loves her, and he wants her back. Hmmm. And Art Garfunkel was off in Mexico, in the set of Catch-22, pursuing his acting career  ("when I come back to bed / Someone's taken my place.....")

4. "Keep the Customer Satisfied" I hardly ever think of this song, and now I'm listening to it and it is so good.  Though he disguises it as a traveling salesman's lament, being hassled by the local law ("Deputy Sheriff said to me / Tell me what you came here for, boy"), it's obviously about Simon's weariness with life on the road as a musician. "Gee but it's great to be back home," he starts out, in a descending line as if he's collapsing on the couch. And in the chorus, a rising line of semi-hysteria: "Everywhere I go / I get slandered / Libeled / I hear words I never heard in the Bible / And I'm one step ahead of the shoe shine / Two steps ahead of the county line / Just trying to keep my customers satisfied / Satisfied." These are lyrics that still run my head in the oddest situations.

5. "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright"  A song about an architect? Think again -- how about a farewell to a partner who had been studying to be an architect when their career took off? And yet (mirrors within mirrors) it's Art singing the farewell words, as if to Wright/Simon. That lagging syncopation -- "So / long / Frank Lloyd Wright / I can't believe your song is gone so soon" -- sounds dazed by the realization -- he's still scrambling to catch up. "I barely learned the tune / So soon / So soon..."  But the verse that really comes home for me is the next one: "So long / Frank Lloyd Wright / All of the nights we'd harmonize till dawn / I never laughed so long / So long / So long." (You know me and word play; that "so long / so long" never fails to delight.) I think of all the late night conversations I've had with people I truly loved -- my brother, my college friends, fellow writers, music buddies -- laughing, jumping from subject to subject with lightning flashes of irrelevant relevance. And I'm suddenly overwhelmed by nostalgia for it, and envisioning the late nights Paul and Art must have spent together, sharing their lives for so long. "When I run dry / I stop awhile and think of you" -- what a beautiful statement about how we need other people, the partners in our life work that feed our wellsprings. "Architects may come and / Architects may go and / Never change your point of view," Art gently remarks in the bridge. The implied message? People who change your point of view are the only people worth messing with. AMEN.

What a beautiful sentiment. And yet . . . . it's a valedictory sentiment, a magnificent farewell gesture. But a farewell all the same.


6. "The Boxer"  Okay, this one was written much earlier, in 1968, and was released as a single in 1969, so technically it doesn't have to fit the break-up theme.  But while it's ostensibly about a prize fighter, it's really a musician's road song.  He complains about leaving his home, about being in the company of strangers, about railway stations -- it's "Homeward Bound" redux. And that battle-scarred figure in the clearing, isn't that weary, self-pitying Paul Simon?

7. "Baby Driver"  Another earlier song, the B-side of the "The Boxer." But lo and behold, even though it's in many ways a throwaway retro rock-n-roller, what's that refrain about "hit the road and I'm gone"?  It's about a sheltered kid longing to break out, restless for adventure -- sounds like somebody's jonesing for a solo career.

8. "The Only Living Boy in New York" Perhaps the most poignant song on a album jam-packed with poignancy, which is why it crops up still in movie soundtracks (Garden State, The Normal Heart).  It's addressed to someone called Tom (Simon & Garfunkel were originally a duo called Tom and Jerry) who's flying down to Mexico, which is where Garfunkel was filming Catch-22. ("I know your part'll go fine . . ."). And there's Simon shuffling around his apartment, watching TV, feeling existential.  Wanting his friend to succeed ("I know that you've been eager to shine") and at the same time consumed by jealousy and loneliness and urban neurosis.  If this isn't the last straw in their relationship, it's pretty damn close.

9. "Why Don't You Write Me"  Another uptempo throw-away? Maybe. But it IS about broken communication and loneliness and an edge of despair. "Why don't you write me / A letter would brighten my loneliest evening / Mail it today / If it's only to say / That you're leaving me." Break-up Alert!!!

10.  "Bye Bye Love"  Not even an original song, but an old Everly Brothers chestnut. But hey, it's probably something they sang in their early Tom and Jerry gigs, and what's it about?  A break-up.  The singer has been betrayed by his girl ("There goes my baby with someone new / She sure looks happy / I sure am blue") and he's saying goodbye -- not to her (she's toast) but to the happiness of being in a relationship.

Which reminds me -- I recently read an interview with Simon in which he admitted that he's addicted to vocal harmonies, that he still hears harmonies whenever he writes a new song. Is this because he spent his formative years in a vocal duo, or is that why he stayed in that vocal duo for so long?  Because, let's be honest, even in 1970 we S&G fans were aware that Paul Simon was bringing most of the talent to the partnership. And yet, and yet . . . the one thing Garfunkel added was something so special, so ethereal, that Simon can be forgiven for not wanting to jettison it. I do not believe he stuck with Art Garfunkel out of habit or fear, but because he was hooked on the beauty of those harmonies. And really -- who wouldn't be?

11. "A Song for the Asking"  Listening to this song, I'm bowled over, all over again. What a beautiful valedictory coda, delicately sung by Simon.  We always think that the sweetness all came from Art, but no, Paul brought it too.  He's laying this tender little tune at his friend's feet, and with a touching humility:  "Thinking it over, I've been sad / Thinking it over I'd be more than glad / To change my ways / For the asking / Ask me and I will play / All the love that I hold inside."  Okay, yeah, sure, Paul may have written this for his first wife Peggy, whom he'd only recently met.  But this mood of vulnerability and anxiety must have also been due to his faltering partnership with Art.  Putting it at the end of the album, of course, makes it a bookend to the anthemic majesty of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," signaling a new direction. And hey, to end this Simon and Garfunkel album with what is, to all intents and purposes, a Paul Simon solo song?   Hasta la vista, brother.


Brady said...

I know all these songs, but I've never heard them as they were intended to be heard: in a complete album. I'm sure I'll be sitting down shortly, in the dark along listening to this album for the first time. Thanks Holly.

Richard Goldman said...

This is rather genius folk rock commentary - holly hughes you are amazing - you're breakdown of bridge over troubled water is eye opening re: sail on silver girl - i think you are right that silver girl in her hastily slapped together third verse way... is arthur too - i knew of tom re:jerry but did not know arthur was an architect - it is indeed a breakup album but... does it represent paul trying to get out in front of it publicly? sharing his angst publicly because his silent partner had become a useless appendage by 1970? how say you?

Holly A Hughes said...

Ah, that's the million dollar question, isn't it? I think a little of both. I think Simon was already feeling constrained by the relationship -- then got blindsided by Garfunkel being the one to find a new direction first. And just as he was scrambling to ensure he'd come out on top, he got hit by a last-minute wave of affection for Art and for the kind of music he could only make with a partner. Bittersweet, really.

Dave said...

This is one of your very, very best posts, Holly. You found a deeper thread in the album than I have ever seen -- thanks!


Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, guys!

Richard Goldman said...

i meant to comment sooner - i am a total fan boy - i love your taste and your understanding of it - now i see below a piece about i was made to love her which is just ridiculous it's as if you live inside my head - if you write about McGuinness Flint songs i will call the brain police - if they have phones

Marie said...

Holly, as usual, a thought-provoking post! Thanks.

On a personal note, I'm afraid that I've never felt the same about Paul Simon since I learned of his ostensible shafting of Martin Carthy (re: the copyrighting of the Scarborough Fair arrangement.)

Holly A Hughes said...

Marie, I've never felt the same about him since I realized that he lifted the melody of "American Tune" from Bach, without crediting it. He may have a couple of wires screwed into the wrong pick-ups -- that is, if you believe Carrie Fisher's side of the story (yeah, I know, she's a bit of a fabulist herself). But the music makes me forgive him, time and again.

Oh, and by the way, Richard, I don't even know who McGuinness Flint is, so I think we're safe. But I intend to go check them out right now!

NickS said...

I'm afraid that I've never felt the same about Paul Simon since I learned of his ostensible shafting of Martin Carthy (re: the copyrighting of the Scarborough Fair arrangement.)

I wasn't familiar with this dispute (thought perfectly willing to believe that Paul Simon behaved badly) and looked it up. The first search result was this article which claims that Martin Carthy was bitter about it for 35 years, but has recently made peace and decided that it was, in part, a misunderstanding:

With the benefit of his later exchanges with Simon, Carthy says now: "It turned out he had never claimed to have written the song, and had never received authorship royalties for it." Moreover, in at least one interview, Simon had paid due tribute to all the musicians he had known in Britain in the Sixties.

The article also contains this lovely quote

Once, [Martin Carthy] tried out a new arrangement of the old folk standby, Byker Hill. "Is this OK?" he found himself asking, prompting the splendid retort from his occasional musical partner, folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick: "You can do anything you like to music. It doesn't mind."

Out of curiosity I also checked to see if other people complained about Paul Simon stealing from Bach and found one great headline, "Paul Simon's 'American Tune' is Geman" and the claim (in comments here) that:

[A]s a singer of traditional, medieval, Renaissance & Baroque music the tune catches at me ironically in view of Simon's title. Not only did he crib it from J.S. Bach (I presume) but Bach cribbed it from Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). It's from his 1601 "Lustgarten, Deutsche Lieder zu vier, fuenf, sechs und acht Stimmen (Pleasure Garden, German Songs for 4,5,6 & 8 voices) & appears there as a rueful little lovesong of at least 3 verses called "Mein G'mueth ist mir verwirret" (My mind is confused). There the tune isn't solemn at all but one of the bouncy, syncopated dances popular then. Who knows? As our knowledge of truly old music deepens it wouldn't be surprising to find that Hassler borrowed an even older dance. So Simon also knows a good tune when he hears one.

NickS said...

Not, of course, that it exonerates Simon to say that he credited Carthy (as one of, "the musicians he had known in Britain") in, "at least one interview." Neither does the fact that he did nothing to respond to Carthy's irritation for thirty-five years.

But I thought it was interesting to know that there was a recent update to the story.

wwolfe said...

Thanks for this well-observed piece on one of my favorite albums. (I still remember removing the wrapping paper from it on Christmas morning in 1970.) This sentence about "Trying to Keep the Customer Satisfied" struck me: "These are lyrics that still run my head in the oddest situations." Me, too!

One point concerning "Why Don't You Write Me": That was the tile of a modest hit record from 1955 by a black doo-wop group called the Jacks. (The members also made up the Cadets of "Stranded on the Jungle" fame.) Since Paul and Artie started out loving doo-wop, I've always figured that Paul re-used that song title as a nod to the early musical days of his partner and him. In other words, another part of Paul's farewell to Art.

Marie said...

Re: Scarborough Fair (From “Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival” by Colin Harper, 2006, p. 172.):

“. . . Tom Paxon was invited to the Carthy’s for dinner and Simon arrived in tow. The song’s words and arrangement were noted down over dinner and swiftly copyrighted to Paul Simon. Some years later Carthy, more than mildly aggrieved, did receive a one-off payment. ‘The way I got it was comical, he [Carthy] says. ‘After splitting with my first wife, I rang Paul asking if the money had come through. I told him I wanted to buy a house for £1800. “That’s amazing,” he said. “The payment is exactly £1800.” ‘I thought it was great, but I left with big donkey ears.’