Category: Bookends

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.

Bookends – Simon & Garfunkel – 4/3/1968

When I was about 13, I was very enamored with our brand spankin’ new CD player. Because we had so few CDs at that point, I spent some time in our living room, cross-legged in front or our stereo cabinet, attentively listening to every CD we owned. This included Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel, which was of course included in my mom’s gift of S&G CDs. At first it was a matter of necessity, but I quickly came to like S&G very much. For mom, they were one of the only bands to have ever existed. Her favorite album is Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., but Bookends is mine because it has a definition and vision unlike any of their other albums.

The unifying concept behind most of the songs is the tension between the young and the old, and the awareness that the times (late ‘60s) were a period of hard change-over from one generation to the next. S&G glimpsed this in their cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in 1964, but it would be fully explored with Bookends.

The first side (or the first 7 tracks) is where this concept is the strongest. It begins and ends with the same musical theme. The record starts with a softly picked acoustic guitar, but only for half a minute. It then takes a sudden and startling turn with the hard and slightly creepy “Save the Life of My Child.” As this is Simon & Garfunkel’s fourth album, they’ve created a reputation of soft folk and folk-rock songs, melodic and poetic. Given that, the distorted synthesizer and “SNAP!” sound effect at the beginning make “Child” pretty alarming. The lyrics tell in an observational tone of the chaos and division between the generations. The song’s main inflection seems to be that the older generation needs to step aside, but it also subtly indicates the lost and prodigal nature of the young.

After that comes “America,” a haunting requiem for the American Dream. Paul Simon proves his worth as a lyricist here, as these are some of the most achingly poignant words composed in the entire decade. Simon’s fey, delicate voice brings form to music that overflows with undirected beauty. They tell the story of two young vagabonds traveling across America in search of themselves and the essence of this country. The story taps into something eternal, the earnest search for meaning in a world where it’s so hard to find.

When I was a kid, I didn’t really get it. The message went so over my head that I thought “to look for America” meant literally. But the song also mentions Pittsburgh, Michigan, Saginaw, and New Jersey. So I was like, “how can they be looking for a place they’re already in?” When I asked my mother, she said the “America” in the song wasn’t a place, or at least not a place with political boundaries. She very wisely didn’t explain further. After a year or two of life experience, here’s what I came up with. The America they were looking for wasn’t an actual place, but a philosophical ideal. They were looking for the concept of America, and what made their land more than just soil under their feet.

Zooey Deschanel, Michael Angarano and Frances McDormand in Almost Famous

There’s a scene in the first act of the movie Almost Famous which perfectly captures the spirit and mindset of this song. 18-year-old Anita sits her mother Elaine down and says, “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess.” The mother says, “We can’t talk anymore? We have to listen to rock and roll music?” The daughter then plays “America” on the home stereo and looks at her mother while it’s playing with a look that says so many different things. There is no better song to accompany a moment of needed understanding between the generations than “America.” Director Cameron Crowe has an amazing gift for picking the perfect song to accompany a moment in his movies, a song that matches up precisely with his characters and their motivations.

On Wednesday: Hey, Paul Simon, what ever happened to middle age?