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.