Archive for March, 2012

1 and 9

The Beatles’ retreat to India didn’t mean they were insulated from the happenings of the world. Early 1968 saw not only the march on the American Embassy in the U.K. because of the Vietnam War, but also other major acts of protest around the world. The Beatles were never a band to get into politics or activism; “Taxman” was the extent of their political commenting, and George only wrote that because of how the government affected him directly. But John thought it was time for them to cease their silence. As the biggest band in the world, people were looking to them for a voice, whether they wanted to be that voice or not.

Nowadays, rock musicians of every stripe are airing their unqualified opinions on wars and presidents to the point where it’s “unhip” to not do so. Anti-war stances are a matter of course, and the more vocal the better. For whatever reason, rock and roll has always been the music of the anti-establishment, the rebels. All too often, that means people are standing against authority not because they disagree with anything specific, but merely to have something, anything to stand against; authority just happens to have a target painted on it. As time went by and rock musicians became more distant and removed from everyday society, that activism didn’t decrease; it increased. So now we have rockers talking loudly about an issue and knowing very little about it. More than that, rock musicians are expected to take the anti-government, anti-establishment position. When they don’t, things get ugly.

When the Beatles released “Revolution” as a single slightly before The White Album came out, there was naturally some fervor. One would think by the title that it was a rallying call for the end of “the War,” but it was actually a stinging indictment of people who use anti-war activism as a different means for destruction. Many on the political left saw “Revolution” as a betrayal. What they miss is that despite some biting language, it has a very positive message. John’s rationale behind the chorus of “Y’know it’s gonna be alright” was that God is in control of all things, and it will all work out in the end.

John thought it was time the Beatles spoke up, but Paul wasn’t so sure, and was hesitant to spark controversy, which he knew “Revolution” would do. When John said he wanted it to be a single, Paul sided with George in saying it was too slow, to which John responded in kind by recording a version that was fast, aggressive and single-worthy. Paul and George couldn’t argue with that. The original, which was bluesy and soft-sung, was retitled “Revolution 1” and remained as an album track. It was also separated from its musique concrete second part, which was expanded and dubbed “Revolution 9.”

what's with the bunny?

Now, thanks to Wikipedia, I know that musique concrete is an established recording style (I can’t call it a “musical style;” though some may disagree with me, it’s not music), but I haven’t heard anything other than “Revolution 9” which is called musique concrete. There’s probably something to get, but I don’t get it. It eludes me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not losing anything by being eluded. Listen to the track and you’ll see what I mean.

On Sunday: George writes a song chiding Eric Clapton about his love for… chocolates?

Facebook has a feature that notifies you when today is the birthday of one of your friends. In the morning, if there’s anyone who’s celebrating the anniversary of their entering into the world, I post on their wall a link to a YouTube video that I have bookmarked. It’s a silly, ridiculous Flash music video to the Beatles song “Birthday.” I’ve become rather dissatisfied with just posting the words “happy birthday” on someone’s wall and leaving it at that; my reasoning is “everybody does that, and I wanna be different.” Here’s a place where my desire to be different merely for the sake of it has good results, because it will almost assuredly bring a smile to someone else’s face.

Right after the exuberant burst that is “Birthday,” the second half of The White Album goes into the second true blues John offering, aptly called “Yer Blues.” John wails that he’s lonely and that he wants to die like any blues singer should. It doesn’t end there, though. The song also has an extra beat during one measure of the chorus, setting it just slightly off-balance.

The Dirty Mac

It’s worth mentioning the Dirty Mac here. That’s a supergroup that formed for one night only to perform “Yer Blues” and a jam called “Whole Lotta Yoko.” It consisted of John Lennon on vocals and guitar, Eric Clapton on lead, Keith Richards on bass, and Mitch Mitchell on drums. John put them together for the celebrity-studded Rolling Stones TV special Rock and Roll Circus. The Dirty Mac is an example of a philosophy I try to live my life by: be aware of moments, enjoy them, and let them pass. Some moments are like wild birds that can’t be caged – they’re feather are just too bright. (shout-out to my boy Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption)

“Mother Nature’s Son” is about a lecture the Maharishi gave while the Beatles were in India. The whole song boils down to “Paul likes nature;” it is pretty, though.

Then comes “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” This wins the award for the Beatles song with the longest title. I was recently at a New Year’s Eve party thrown by my wife’s parents. Franz, one of their friends, told me a story of a professor he had in college who was obsessed with the Beatles, and defied his students to ask a Beatles-related question that would stump him. If they succeeded, he would give them some reward, like changing their lowest quiz score to a 100% or something. Anyway, Franz did it with the longest Beatles song title. He was very impressed that I guessed right with “Monkey.” If I was that professor’s student, it would be really cool if he taught something I’m horrible at so I could coast through on my Beatles knowledge alone.

The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

In “Sexy Sadie,” originally titled “Maharishi,” John unleashes all his vitriol from the India experience, namely his disillusionment with the Maharishi himself. Sometimes I think their trip to Rishikesh was less of a spiritual awakening and more of a soap opera.  The main beef was that John believed (at the time) that Yogi had made sexual advances to more than one woman at the retreat. John even confronted the Maharashi about it, to which he responded simply, “I am only human.” Not exactly damning evidence, but not a denial either. “Maharishi” was written right when John got back to England. He demoed it for the other Beatles, apparently with different and much angrier lyrics. George insisted that if it was included on the album, it have a different title, to which John agreed.

The next song, “Helter Skelter,” is another pinnacle for the Beatles, being their hardest and most metal-like song. It stands out very starkly not only on The White Album, but in Paul’s songwriting altogether. Just think about other Paul songs on the White Album: “Martha My Dear,” “Honey Pie,” “I Will,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Rocky Raccoon.” They’re all cutesy and upbeat. Then, factor in some of Paul’s other work: “Hold Me Tight,” “All My Loving,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “P.S. I Love You,” “The Long and Winding Road.” Seeing a pattern? Paul wanted to prove (not sure to whom, but probably to himself, chiefly) that he could write a song outside the scope of a ballad, a song that was the utter opposite of a “silly love song.”

Helter skelter” means in British slang “confused” or “confusedly,” and is also a falling from a high place to a low. The fall of the Roman Empire is a good example. It’s also a popular British spiraling slide amusement park ride. I think Paul did a pretty good job; “Helter Skelter” adds a new dimension to an otherwise pretty tame band volume-wise.

We’re on the third side, so a George song is nearly perfunctory. Also perfunctory is the actual third George song, called “Long, Long, Long.” Too quiet in the beginning, too inconsistent throughout, and tuneless on the whole, it’s a wholly forgettable moment.

I imagine you’re spitting out your drinks that I haven’t mentioned Charles Manson yet. Don’t worry, I will.

Get it? I will? “I Will?” …Anybody? Is this thing on?

In our exploration of The White Album, we come again to George. His side two offering, “Piggies,” is a baroque-esque tune (kitchen sink, much?). It features a riff played on a harpsichord, and the song has cutting and satirical lyrics. The term “piggies” refers to the rich, not to the police. “Pig” as a pejorative term for a policeman has been around since the 19th century, though it rose in popularity during the 60s and 70s among the anti-establishment movement. For the most part, though, it’s an American term. Here, much is made of the ridiculous and harmful behavior of the corporate-minded. It’s even a little violent, though the line “what they need’s a damn good whacking” was added by George’s mother. The song uses a mocking tone both lyrically and musically, even having John make pig snort sounds at points. Frankly, it’s hard to take seriously.

Speaking of hard to take seriously, the next song is “Rocky Raccoon.” It’s even sillier than ”Piggies” and has much less serious subject matter. Here’s another instance of Paul talking out his ass. It’s about a cowboy (honestly) named Rocky Raccoon, who’s named that simply because Paul thought it sounded like a cowboy name. Once again, a lot of the things I don’t like about Paul’s songwriting coalesce into one incredibly infectious tune. Like with so many other Paul songs, it just wore me down. It’s the Oreos all over again.

Another irritating/endearing quality of Paul’s songs is at work in “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” Going to India must have been a singularly huge experience for all four Beatles. They must have seen and experienced things they wouldn’t get in any other time or place. Such occasions are simply bursting with potential art for the right mind. John wrote many songs based on his time in India, and so did Paul. But while John wrote about a plea for a friend to rejoin the living and the destruction of nature, Paul wrote about monkeys screwing.

The lyrics of “In the Road” don’t actually take us by surprise considering its dunderheaded title and near-complete lack of lyrics that aren’t in the title. But as is commonly the case with Paul, it’s not about the song but the song-craft. The music and the vocals more than make up for the lack of other elements. I really don’t know why; it’s nothing more than a 12 bar blues repeated 3 times. Against all odds, it gets under my skin with alarming speed, and I can’t help but sing along at the top of my lungs (provided no one is listening, of course).

The sole Ringo moment comes between “Rocky” and “In the Road” with “Don’t Pass Me By.” It’s a pleasant surprise. Most other songs with Ringo on lead vocal are cute and harmless at best, groan-inducing at worst. But here, Ringo puts on a pretty good show. Even more impressive is that it’s the first completely Ringo-penned song the Beatles released. Maybe that was all he needed, to take the reins and have total control.

John with his mum Julia

“I Will” and “Julia” close out the first side, two tender love songs from Paul and John respectively. Paul writes a heart-warming yet exciting pop tune with “I Will” that features some great guitar work. “Julia” is the only Beatles song that John recorded completely on his own with no involvement from the other Beatles. It’s a tribute to his mother who died when John was 17. In a naked and unguarded moment, which was rare from John until Plastic Ono Band, I think he’s trying to explain his relationship with Yoko to the spirit of his mother. John was always very close to his mother, and I think her death changed him into the person we’re all familiar with. Had she not died at that crucial time in his life, we would indeed have seen a very different John, the Beatles, and music history in general.

On Wednesday: can you imagine Paul as a heavy metal rocker?



“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is the first of four George offerings on The White Album, and it’s centered on the Eastern idea that everything is connected. George decided he would let fate lead him by the nose on this one. He took a random book from his parents’ bookshelf, turned to a random page, and randomly picked two words from that page. The words he found were “gently weeps.” A song was born.

My skepticism wonders if it really went down like that, if “gently weeps” really came on George’s first try. He might have had to plow through about 50 books before he got to a combination of words he liked and could actually write a song about.

Just as an experiment, I took three random books from my bookcase and did the same thing. I came up with “and tell,” “you would,” and “man’s outstretched.” I can’t even force that to make grammatical sense, much less write a song about it. It reminds me of something I did as a naïve teenager (and probably something every Christian teenager does at some point). My mother’s “life verse” (the nugget of the Bible someone chooses to live their life by) is Psalm 1, verses 2 and 3. As a teen, I heard about my mother’s and other people’s life verses, and was frustrated that I didn’t have one myself. So I picked up my Bible, turned to a random page and said, “wherever my finger lands is gonna be my life verse” – just so you know, it didn’t stick.

Out of curiosity, I tried it again just now. My finger landed on 2 Kings 11, verse 5.

“This is what you must do. A third of you who are on duty on the Sabbath are to guard the royal palace itself.”

I guess when my pastor asks why I wasn’t in church on Sunday, I can just tell him “sorry, but the Bible told me to guard a royal palace on the Sabbath. You’re not gonna argue with the Bible, are you?” The takeaway: George’s method usually doesn’t work.

Yoko & John

The most bizarre moment on the first half of the record (we’ll get to the second half and “Revolution 9” later) is definitely “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” John made three song fragments he had written into a pastiche, all of them in some way about his desire and sexual preoccupation with Yoko Ono. It’s here on The White Album – and a little on the singles after Sgt. Pepper – that we start to see John moving into deeply personal material, yet still keeping it clouded in the obtuse and obscure. With the release of his breakout solo record, Plastic Ono Band, the cloud is lifted and we’re forced to stare John right in the face. But in 1968, he’s couching his horniness in thinly veiled metaphors. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what “I feel my finger on your trigger” really means.

“Martha My Dear” is about Paul McCartney’s dog. I don’t think anything further need be said. Sweet though it may be, it’s still about a dog.

“I’m So Tired” is a down and out blues song, the first of two blues numbers John wrote for The White Album. After an intense meditation regiment for several days in Rishikesh, John had developed insomnia and longed for his new love. This song is among the most literal that John ever wrote, and the “what’s troublin’ ya?” aesthetic of the blues fits the theme quite well.

“Blackbird” is a seemingly simple song hiding a very complicated finger-picking style. The lyrics deal with the racial tensions in Scotland during the late 60s in beautiful poetic language. In terms of interpretation and art inviting the spectator in, this is the flipside of what was going on in “Glass Onion.” It may be about blacks and whites in Scotland to Paul, but it’s poetic enough that it could mean other things to other people.

Sherry Stringfield as Dr. Susan Lewis

To me, this song is forever tied to a scene from the first season of ER, when Dr. Susan Lewis delivers her sister Chloe’s baby in a frantic and mad rush. Chloe, who brought her boom box and a plethora of tapes, demands that “Blackbird” be played, and Carter struggles to find The White Album with no success, all the while with Susan yelling at him.  Chloe and Susan sing “Blackbird” a cappella as the baby is born. Even though it’s impossible to find in the lyrics, “Blackbird” is about new life to me.

On Monday: Cowboys, rich people and monkey sex; this could only happen on The White Album!

At its most basic level, art is a narcissistic thing. Musicians and poets in particular make art about themselves. This is how it should be, really; saying something about yourself can often get people to ask themselves if they share that quality. But taken too far, it really stinks. Self-reference can invite the listener in, but when it’s direct and specific, it keeps the listener out. When you talk about yourself in specific terms like naming yourself or the people around you, or talk about things that apply to only you, the listener is unable to relate.

In short, that’s why “Glass Onion” always bothered me and made me roll my eyes. Before you draw and quarter me for speaking ill of St. John Lennon, let me unpack this a little more. The lyrics make reference to a cadre of previous Beatles songs, as well as actually mentioning Paul by name. John makes mention of songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus” and “Fixing a Hole,” and that eliminates the possibility of further interpretation. I like interpretation. It means a piece of art has life beyond that injected by the artist.

John wrote this song as a response to fans who read too much into his songs. They had let their interpretations run away with them and started finding things that weren’t there. So instead of telling them directly to shut up and just enjoy the music, John wrote “Glass Onion” to confuse them. I don’t know how that helps matters in the slightest, but it is what it is.

Like “With a Little Help From My Friends,” I first heard “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” as the theme song to a TV show, this time Life Goes On. I didn’t even know it was a Beatles song because it had some faceless woman singing it. It also didn’t have that splendid tack-piano track that really makes the song hold together. The lyrics are sorta silly and very Paul, and threaten to undo it. If the music weren’t so darn infectious, they might.

“Wild Honey Pie,” a short but super-weird interlude, runs straight into another kind of goofy song with a goofy name, “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” When John was in Rishikesh, he met a well-to-do American kid named Rik Cooke and his better-to-do mother, Nancy Cooke de Herrera. Nancy was the publicist for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when the Beatles et al went to study under him. They ingratiated themselves with the rest of the Beatles, but John thought they were real pricks. One day they set out on a hunting trip, native guides and jungle hats and all, with elephant mounts to complete the cliché. A tiger attacked their elephants and Rik, in a lightning reflex moment, shot the tiger with his rifle. Though he immediately snapped a picture with his kill, he had mixed feelings about the incident.

John didn’t, though. Nancy, who retold the story of the incident to anybody who would listen, said it was “kill or be killed,” but John saw it more as “kill or lose our ride.” He was repulsed by the conflict between these rich American snobs finding spiritual enlightenment in the morning, and then thoughtlessly killing wild animals and trampling nature in the afternoon. His reaction was the song “Bungalow Bill.” It’s bouncy and kind of silly, offsetting the disgust John felt when he was writing it. This was one of John’s great skills; couching a pretty serious subject in more harmless surroundings. It’s like crushing aspirin tablets and mixing the powder in chocolate pudding.

On Sunday: while Eric Clapton‘s guitar gently weeps, George Harrison gets lead by the nose.

The Beatles – The Beatles – 11/27/1968

The White Album begins with the sound of a plane flying overhead, and then goes right into a rollicking, funky rhythm featuring hand-claps, Lewis-style piano, and fat, crunchy guitars.”Back In the U.S.S.R.” sounds like 50s rockabilly in its excitable groove. The quick and punctuating notes and “woo-hoo-hoos” in the chorus remind me of the Beach Boys. Mike Love of the Beach Boys was at a transcendental meditation retreat in Rishikesh at the same time as the Beatles, where this song was written.

As well-written both musically and lyrically as this song is, I can’t get around that Paul is really just talking out his ass here. He’d never actually been to the U.S.S.R. His choice of Russia for the song’s setting doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, other than it’s a place that you wouldn’t expect a party song about chicks to be about. In a seemingly erudite but ultimately immature way, he sings about balalaikas and calls himself comrade. Chagrin as I am to compare the two, this isn’t a whole lot better than that god-awful song about liking girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch.

“Back in the U.S.S.R.” segues right into “Dear Prudence,” a lovely song about Prudence Farrow, the sister of Mia Farrow, both of whom were with the Beatles when they went to India. Prudence had taken to the teachings of the Maharishi more obsessively than the others; she spent long hours in meditation and would barely socialize with the rest of the group. John wrote this song as “a simple plea to a friend to snap out of it.”

To me, this song is a caution to not have your head so high in the clouds that your feet leave the ground. From my own perspective, this is what a lot of Christians do.

Our parents told us over and over again that we as Christians are “not of this world.” They were teaching something Jesus himself said, but he was saying it to his own disciples, who were wondering why everybody hated them so much. Unfortunately, our take-away from the not-of-this-world thing seemed to be that we need not be concerned about what goes on in this world. After all, it’s not ours and we didn’t choose to be in it, so why worry ourselves unnecessarily? Our focus should be on heavenly things, not worldly things, or so we thought.

There have been several instances for me where this line of thinking simply didn’t work. The earliest is when the people who ran a homeless shelter in Springfield did a presentation at my elementary school. A more recent example is the destitute pregnant woman begging in Union Square that I couldn’t ignore.

The not-of-this-world teaching I learned from my parents still has value, though. I think it really means that as a Christian, I’m different. The world will look at me a little cock-eyed from time to time because my actions, attitudes and entire mindset are going to be different than theirs. And that’s okay; it might make them wonder about mindsets other than their own.

Friday: the real Bungalow Bill

Four Storms

When multiple elements come together to create something more than the sum of its parts, it’s sometimes called a “perfect storm.” The best albums are little perfect storms; moments where different parts converge and collide, and what comes out on the other side is one. The Latin term for this sentiment is e pluribus unum: out of many, one. This is an idea that is one of the foundations for my life (and indeed the basis for this project). But I simply cannot stand the term “perfect storm.” For one thing, it’s been greatly overused in the media. Any time a news story comes up for an event that there’s more than one reason for, newscasters call it a perfect storm. Even more irritating, they’ll make that term self-referential by emphasizing that such a thing could be called a perfect storm, subtly indicating that the use of that term is very clever. You’re supposed to be impressed.

Secondly, the movie by which the term was made famous, The Perfect Storm, is a lot better than the just the name. It features good performances, a seasoned director, and some pretty stunning cinematography for the time. The plot touches on human connection and family, as well as a strong man vs. nature element. But the only thing anyone mentions is the overused term to which it gave birth.

So, against my will, I will have to say that The White Album was one big massive (grumble grumble…) perfect storm. Take the four separate storm systems of the four Beatles themselves. I say “separate” because that’s what they truly had become. There are two arguments for what is actually the beginning of the end. After Sgt. Pepper, George convinced the other three to study transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. After the sudden death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein (often called “the fifth Beatle” by the other four),the Maharishi called his death “unimportant.” They went again to Rishikesh, India to study at Yogi’s feet. It was there that they started their work on much of what would become The White Album, but John and Ringo eventually got fed up. John indicated that the Maharishi wasn’t what he seemed and was much more publicity-minded than expected. According to reports, Yogi even made sexual advances at Mia Farrow, one of the Beatles’ companions in India.

Yoko Ono

Another argument could be made for the death knell being sounded much earlier, with the fateful meeting at an art gallery of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Indeed, this relationship changed John forever. This woman penetrated all reaches of his psyche, and everything he did after this point could be traced back to her. The explanation wasn’t that Yoko was a witch casting a spell on John, or a manipulative harpy with a master plan. It was nothing more complicated or less beautiful that this: John and Yoko were in love.

As sweet as that is, it means some pretty devastating things for the people around John. Cynthia Lennon bears deep scars for the severing of her marriage. Every time I hear the story of her coming back to the apartment she and John shared one morning and finding John there with Yoko, and Yoko wearing Cynthia’s bathrobe, my heart breaks for her.

But perhaps the most tragic and undeserving victim in this story is John and Cynthia’s son Julian. Here is a young boy who is truly an innocent bystander. Before Yoko, his father was unhappy and angry, and there was turmoil in his house that he didn’t understand. John kept him at arms’ length and he didn’t know why. After Yoko, he had to deal with this extra person in his father’s life – and consequentially his own life. Julian didn’t ask for her, and she wasn’t welcome. Finally, John and Yoko’s son Sean was born, and Julian was dealt another blow. John was simply over the moon for Sean, experiencing the joys of fatherhood anew as if Sean were his first son. John took pleasure in Sean in a way he never did in Julian. Intended or not, Julian must have felt a deeply painful slight.

Paul with a young Julian

Watching all this go down was Paul McCartney. All the research I’ve done on Paul leads me to the conclusion that he’s an incredibly compassionate, empathetic, stand-up kind of guy, with a particular soft spot for the disenfranchised. When the love triangle of John/Cynthia/Yoko exploded, Paul was there as a good friend to Cynthia. As pathetic of a father as John was to Julian, Paul was there as a kind of surrogate. I really admire him for both of those things.

Wednesday: the start of a long process of unpacking The White Album song by song.

Our Parents’ Vinyl

Ruthanne and I lived in New York for 2 years. We often joke that our potential kids won’t believe that we actually existed in that fast-paced, un-Mom-and-Dad-like environment. There’s probably a moment in every kid’s life when they have to look at their parents in a new light.

In that scant 2 years, we found a fantastic church and made some incredible friends. It seemed there were a strange number of late 20s, childless married couples at that church, and we found our place rather quickly. It was like putting on clothes you’ve never worn before that fit eerily perfectly. It was in New York that I found a different kind of intimacy with peers that I haven’t been able to duplicate. I always felt like a bit of a misfit among Massachusetts Christians. Most MA denizens are pretty liberal in their politics, so a lot of Christians feel they need to dig in their heels in response to what’s around them. But for Christians like me who don’t feel there’s a 1-to-1 connection between Christian faith and the Republican Party, Massachusetts can be a sometimes uncomfortable place. What I really liked about New York City was there was so much diversity that Christians of any stripe could have room to breathe. I felt comfortable enough to just be myself.

After we left New York, the friendships remained. Every time we come back into the city, we’re welcomed with open arms and a warm spare bed by a pair of friends. One such couple had us over for a weekend, and it was the first time we stayed with them. Sitting in their living room shortly after we arrived, my wife and Sonja were happily catching up when my eye was drawn to their stereo cabinet. Among the various electronics that were there, I saw a turntable and a one-shelf collection of vinyl. I couldn’t resist taking a look.

Sonja told me that her and Blake’s LP collection was a combined effort; they were too young to have any vinyl of their own, but they each pillaged their parents’ collections and then culled their findings together. What they came up with was downright impressive. Among the most notable were several Johnny Cash records, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road and The White Album, as well as Led Zeppelin’s entire studio discography.

the first vinyl copies of The White Album had serial numbers on the cover to make each copy unique.

I had never seen an actual vinyl copy of The White Album. Blake and Sonja’s was incredibly faded and well-loved, and it had its original serial number in the bottom right corner, something the CD copies didn’t have. It may seem like a small thing, but it was a kind of mythological experience for me.; there I was, seeing with my own eyes what I had only read about. It’s like an amateur painter going to the Louvre for the first time, or a Poli-Sci student taking a tour of the White House.

I don’t think we really appreciate things about our parents lives when we’re younger; in a larger sense, we don’t appreciate our parents themselves. It’s only when we’re older that we sometimes feel a melancholy fondness for them. We had access to them anytime we wanted, but we didn’t want it until the access was no longer there. The good thing is that engenders a desire to create access whenever possible. Like it or not, we need our parents… and parents like to be needed.

While the first side of Bookends was a treatise of sorts on the journey from youth to age, the second is the receptacle of Simon’s false start attempt at a movie soundtrack. Director Mike Nichols had come to Simon asking him to score his film The Graduate by writing new songs, but Simon’s attention was on other things. Even so, his half-hearted attempts are documented on the second half of Bookends.

The soundtrack to The Graduate features many previously released S&G songs, and a new song called “Mrs. Robinson.” It was a toss-off for Simon, and started out being called “Mrs. Roosevelt.” When Simon played it for him, Nichols liked it so much that he begged Simon to change the name to Robinson so that it would be more appropriate for his movie. Even so, S&G rerecorded it later for Bookends, and that’s the version everybody knows. The movie version is just the chorus with different lyrics.

The reference to Joe DiMaggio in the last verse initially had the real DiMaggio a little miffed. He insisted that he hadn’t gone anywhere. Paul Simon explained to him what he actually meant in the song, which was a mournful celebration of DiMaggio’s character, and of the type of hero he represented that has unfortunately gone by the wayside. Simon said we mourn the loss of DiMaggio’s “grace and dignity” and the “power of his silence” in this age of “Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters.” He said all this in 1999, and things have only gotten worse.

One of my mother’s favorite things is nonsense poetry. So naturally, one of her favorite songs from her favorite band is “Punky’s Dilemma,” a delicious slice of laughable whimsy that would make Edward Lear proud. There’s been internet-based speculation on the possible meaning of the song, but I really think it’s just about breakfast. Corn Flakes, raisins, and an English muffin; it doesn’t get much more complicated than that. It’s possible that he was on pot when he wrote this (he mentions a girl named Mary Jane), and that’s why his mind was on food, but that’s truly inconsequential. The song means something quite different to me.

When I hear “Punky’s Dilemma,” I get an image of my mom in the driver’s seat, singing badly, laughing after the line “casually glancing at his toupee,” and looking at me with her glowing, childlike smile. I can’t help but smile back, and I can’t help but love her enormously.

Likewise, my mother also loved “At the Zoo,” for similar reasons. It appeals to her childlike sense of fun and whimsy. Unlike “Punky’s Dilemma,” however, the fun of this song disguises a rather biting observation on the human condition.

It starts off as a harmless homage to S&G’s native New York City and the Central Park Zoo, but by the second verse, it starts to unpack stereotypes. Simon talks about all the animals displaying a characteristic, falling into groups with short and simple names. Marginalizing people saves us the trouble of having to get to know the individual; if we can just put them in a group with a simple name, it makes it so much easier because everything we need to know about them is right there in the name. He’s a Jew so he must be money-grubbing. She’s a woman so she must be a bad driver. He goes to Harvard so he must have rich parents. It’s not unlike saying all monkeys stand for honesty and all elephants are kindly but dumb.

However, no one seems to mention that most of the animals named in “At the Zoo” are not actually at the Central Park Zoo. In fact, only monkeys, zookeepers and pigeons can see seen there, and the pigeons are just spectators like you and me.

By no means is Simon & Garfunkel’s greatness limited to Bookends. All their albums are fantastic in their own way. “The Sound of Silence” is a seminal moment in rock and roll history, and “The 59th Street Bridge Song” is a wonderful picture of NYC bliss. But my favorite S&G song is actually from Bridge Over Troubled Water. There’s a pivotal scene in the movie Garden State (another one of my faves) to which “The Only Living Boy In New York” is the soundtrack. It’s the scene where the hero has the breakthrough awakening that the entire movie has been building towards – and where he finally kisses Natalie Portman, something I would very much like to do one day. However, the complete package of Bookends has a much greater impact than any one song, which is why it has weathered the passage of time better than any of Simon & Garfunkel’s other achievements.

Time It Was

The over-riding message of Bookends (or at least the first half) seems to be this: “at the end of your life, remember the good and the bad, because it is both that define who you are.”

After the naïve quest for self-discovery in “America,” we have a sudden moment of maturity with “Overs.” It starts with the lyrics “Why don’t we stop fooling ourselves? The game is over, over, over.” It’s as if the search for “America” was futile, and it’s time to act like a grown-up. This transitions into “Voices of Old People.” Not really a song but a collection of candid recordings of people in a nursing home, “Voices” is a little harrowing. You hear these residents as they really are. Only two minutes of footage are used, but there’s quite a bit packed in here. One woman tells of how even though her husband’s dead, she still only sleeps on half of the bed. One man states how being an “old man” is his destiny. There’s a vehement discussion between two women of a mother’s devotion to her child. And of course, there is one old person (I can’t decide on gender) who talks about mucus and coughing up blood. It seems when you hit a certain age, you become more vocal about bodily functions.

This objective example of the elderly changes to a more emotional study with “Old Friends.” With this, Simon is speculating aloud what old age will be like for him and Garfunkel. When Art sings the bridge, he asks, “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench, quietly?” In all likelihood, he’s directly addressing Simon. By this time, they’re already “old friends.” They’ve known each other since elementary school, and been performing as a duo since their teens. By 1968, that’s probably just shy of 20 years. As their friendship gets even older, how will it change?

Despite the release of Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970 – arguably their most successful album – the two parted on unfriendly terms that year. Like any good and true friends, however, they put their differences aside shortly thereafter for a brief reunion in 1972, and then again for the famous Central Park concert in 1981. The 1975 single “My Little Town” that appeared on both men’s current solo albums was proof they had buried the hatchet.

hey, they really are “old friends!”

“Old Friends” segues right into the title track, a reprise and full treatment of the 30 second intro track. It’s still a rather short song, but it puts forth its emotional impact so succinctly it need not be longer. The first side of Bookends finishes where it began; perhaps S&G are saying the progression of youth to old age is a circle that acts the same way.

I can’t help but notice that in S&G’s story of that progression, they completely skip the middle part. We go from the youthful rebellion of “Save the Life of My Child” and quarter-life crisis of “Overs” directly to nursing homes and park-bench inactivity. What about the rest? You don’t just magically wake up one day and POOF you’re old. The change comes slowly and sometimes unnoticed. It takes time. But the thing is you never think of yourself as young or old; the people around you are always younger or older than you, but you remain the age you are, whatever that happens to be at the time.