I don’t usually use my website to proselytize, but anyone who knows me well also knows that I’ve had a very long-standing love and admiration for the music of Paul Simon. I don’t come from a musical family, and the only music that was played around the house when I was young was radio (a small clock radio at that), and when we were old enough to begin procuring our own, my brother’s and my 45’s and LP’s. My very first 45, for example, bought when I was 8 years old, was the Bay City Rollers: S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night! My mother didn’t contribute much to that conversation, but at some point in the early 1980’s she got rid of her hulking battleship of a Chevy Bel Air (awesome car) and replaced it with a compact Pontiac Sunbird (garbage car) that came with a cassette player, and she would pop in Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel cassettes on long road trips. At some point I joined that Columbia House scheme (apparently still alive and well as a DVD scheme: who knew?) and included The Best of Simon & Garfunkel in my first round of choices. I spent enough time with that album to know every word to every song. I also remember my mom, a divorced working mother of two boys, avid reader, crossword puzzler and solitaire player, at some point telling me how she related to the lyrics of the song “I Am a Rock.”
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
Paul Simon’s Graceland Album came out in 1986, the year I graduated from high school, but my introduction to the album came from my brother a couple of years later. He had graduated from Fordham University and was going on to law school at Notre Dame and I was in the music program at Queens College. I had gone to visit him in South Bend, and had the great good fortune of attending Notre Dame’s 31-30 upset of Miami, considered one of the most memorable games in college football history. I didn’t then and don’t now give a fig about football, but I couldn’t help but get swept up in the excitement and bound down onto the field with hundreds of others and jump around and raise another glass of beer to Touchdown Jesus. My brother and future sister-in-law drove me around quite a bit on that trip, and Graceland was the soundtrack for it. I later bought the cassette and played it so often it eventually wore out and had to be replaced by a CD.
A few years later, my mother died, and Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints” album was a constant companion and aid through my grieving process. It was this album that accompanied me and my dog, a wonderful aging stray Terrier mutt I’d named Pepper we’d taken in when I was twelve years old, as we drove from New York to Minneapolis in my mother’s Pontiac after her funeral so I could start my doctoral program. I can’t imagine that first year without the soothing voice of Paul Simon and the complex web of Brazilian Rhythm that seemed a metaphor for the complex web of lyrical associations, rich meditations on faith, time, love, life, death, rebirth and personal struggle. Particularly resonant to me were the lyrics for “The Cool, Cool River.” A sample:
And I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours I feel sure
Song dogs barking at the break of dawn
Lightning pushes the edges of a thunderstorm
And these streets
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven, to heaven
For the mother’s restless son
Who is a witness to, who is a warrior
Who denies his urge to break and run
Who says: hard times?
I’m used to them
The speeding planet burns
I’m used to that
My life’s so common it disappears
And sometimes even music
Cannot substitute for tears
Fast forward to the present. Now I’ve got two little boys of my own, and somehow, the music of Paul Simon feels like a thread that connects my mother to my boys through me. I can’t help but experience a complicated mix of joy and sadness when my oldest sings “Lai la lai! BOOM!” from “The Boxer,” and I can’t seem to croak out more than one verse at a time of “St. Judy’s Comet” with my boy in my arms without choking up.
As Bill Cosby would say, “Now I told you THAT story so I could tell you THIS one:” Peter Gabriel has released a new album called “Scratch My Back,” where he has recorded selected remakes of some of his favorite artists, who will in turn release their own covers of Peter Gabriel songs. Gabriel and his producers gave themselves the additional challenge of refusing the possibility of guitars or drums in their arrangements, instead relying heavily on orchestral arrangements. Peter Gabriel’s voice is as powerful as it ever was, and the arrangements are creative and effective. Peter Gabriel’s remake of “Boy in the Bubble” is nothing short of a revelation. The past couple of mornings, I’ve woken up with the song in my head, something that seems to happen with some regularity, especially when I’m working on a new piece of my own, as though my brain wants to spend time processing the piece.
It was never hard to recognize the violence in the lyrics, but Paul Simon’s treatment, ironically upbeat, masks precisely what Gabriel chooses to magnify, turning it into heart-breaking, wistful, deliberately unconvinced lullaby, where the kinds of violence we reap with technology connects us all by collectively disconnecting us from our humanity.
There was a bright light,
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio