PERMANENT RECORDS: THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF YOU GO I
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
And the inherent question for my use is not where "There" is, but who is the "I"?
37. SIMON & GARFUNKEL - SOUNDS OF SILENCE (1966)
Personnel: Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel
Producer: Bob Johnson - Simon, Garfunkel, & Roy Halee - Tom Wilson/ Label: Columbia
I didn't write I Was Someone Dead with a soundtrack. Unlike most of my recent work, I didn't create a playlist on iTunes full of songs that were expected to get me in the mood for writing. And since the story itself doesn't have a musical element to it, there are no references in the book that I can draw from. Thus, it makes writing an entry similar to the one I did on Cut My Hair a little tricky.
Except, I did realize somewhere on the way to publication that there was a record that existed as a musical equivalent to I Was Someone Dead, and it had just been waiting for me to discover it. It occurred to me one day as I was walking, listening to the album on headphones, my best time for experiencing music. It was Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence. This is the story of inspiration stuck in reverse.
I wonder where along the way Simon and Garfunkel got their namby-pamby image. Is it just a by-product of having the "folk" term attached to their music? It's such a dirty word anymore, having lost any connotations of fiery protest or macabre maundering. No one wants to be considered a folk artist, no one does folk music. It conjures images of acoustic guitars and sandals, hippie flower children and the summer of love. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel have somehow been lumped into this. They are sensitive school boys with turtleneck sweaters. One of them has poofy hair and the other one is married to Edie Brickell, meaning he must accept her notions about smiles on dogs.
Except this is a myth. Or, if it has a basis of truth, it's from other albums than Sounds of Silence. These are no gutless troubadours. Sounds of Silence is a heavy record, looking at the depths of human sadness, expressing feelings of alienation and a desire to leave. The album cover is of the duo walking away, taking one last look at what they are leaving behind, only wilderness ahead. Like Hieronymus Zoo in my novella, the modern world has failed them, and they are looking for something beyond it. The title track opens the disc, after all, and it has one of the most famous opening lines of all time: "Hello, darkness my old friend/ I've come to talk with you again." They can't warn you any more plainly than that. (Interesting note: the version of the record I have is from the mid-'90s Columbia box set, and they reproduce the original record cover on the back of the sleeve. On there, the title of the song maintains the plural "sounds," while the reissue material and the hits package I have amend it to be merely "The Sound of Silence." Is this a Freudian indicator that the solitary existence we are thematically seeking has been found?)
"The Sound of Silence" is a song about losing faith: in man, in God, in life. The narrator walks alone among "ten thousand people, maybe more." He is restless, he is anxious, he feels apart from everyone. They reach out for things he has no stock in, claiming that some unknown force speaks to them, but for him there is nothing, only emptiness...the sound of silence. A persistent sound that, like the tempo of the song and the delivery of the singers, subtly becomes more insistent the larger it, "like a cancer," grows. "O Lord, why have you forsaken me?" our man asks later in "Blessed," as he ironically combines a list of people who God accepts and he will never be and the list of people God would likely never accept, but who exist everywhere he looks, probably with a greater chance of entering Heaven than he does. "I have no place to go...Ah, but it doesn't matter, no/ ...My words trickle down, like a wound/ That I have no intention to heal."
Amidst a generation where the main message was to "come together," where people were believing in their own power, Simon and Garfunkel only believed in their own powerlessness. It's hard to imagine now that Sounds of Silence wasn't considered some kind of blight, a dark stain on the tie-dyed canvas. Again, people have this picture in their heads of this duo smiling in Central Park, playing a free concert for everyone, but through those grinning teeth come words of despondence. Even happy sounding songs like "Leaves That Are Green" have black undercurrents: the persistence of time, the inevitable passing of life, unrequited love. "That's all there is," they say, these mutable objects that "crumble in your hand," our hearts that stop beating, that can love without being loved in return. This approach will be used again later on the album in the seasonal ruminations of "April Come She Will," but the next love song to come in the sequence is "Kathy's Song," and as a writer, it's hard to miss that both it and "Leaves That Are Green" equate frustrated romance with an inability to write ("...but she faded in the night/ Like a poem I meant to write," "And a song I was writing is left undone...With words that tear and strain to rhyme"). There's nothing as frustrating as pounding your brain against a piece of writing that just won't come off the way you want, except maybe trying to make someone who doesn't love you return your affections. If my fondest desire fails me, what are words worth anymore? Paul Simon has already equated them to wounds. Certainly someone like myself who writes romances can understand this. It's hard to craft fictions about the triumph of love with real conviction when your own relationships "wither with the wind."
At times, I definitely felt the writing of I Was Someone Dead was something like this. I could poke and prod it, but it was never right. Only later was the riddle solved, when I realized that the female lead, Nadya, was not as she should be. The way I had sculpted her, she was not the right love interest for Hieronymus Zoo, and thus the story could not hum the way it was intended. I had to get the proper girl for my boy, his one true love, before the story could ever be set right. Until then, it was unstoppable will smashing into immovable object.
But that's not the real parallel I was seeing between Sounds of Silence and I Was Someone Dead; rather, these first four tracks were setting the kind of mood a Hieronymus Zoo-type character would find himself in: unloved, cut off from society, seemingly living outside regular experience. At some point, an acknowledgement that he was different, that he had to make a change, would come--and that would be track 5--but I'd rather linger on "Kathy's Song" a paragraph longer.
Though ostensibly written for someone else, presumably the Kathy of the title, a girl whom Paul Simon loves but who lives in England, far beyond his grasp, and despite its use of exterior sights--namely, the rain falling outside his home--the song is largely interior. It moves from real "roof and walls" to the metaphorical ...shelter of my mind/ Through the window of my eyes." It's a painful poem about longing, about the ache of a love that cannot be touched and the self-doubt it engenders. While there are specific references to the existence of this Kathy, there is no real reference to connect the two. For all we know, they may have never met, and even if the have, she might not return his affection. Any contact between them is in his brain. He is obsessed with her, and it disrupts his ability to express himself. Kathy invades every moment. For me, the whole song turns on the final stanza, and particularly the final line:
"And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die
I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I."
It seems to me that one's whole interpretation of this song rests on where the listener decides "there" is. Usually the phrase "there but for the grace of God go I" (here, God is replaced with a human) is meant to indicate something escaped. As in, "I could be homeless like that man. There but for the grace of God go I." Only your luck and good fortune, and perhaps divine providence depending on your belief (though in this song we "stand alone without beliefs"), have kept you off that path. Yet, Paul Simon doesn't say he's not like the rain, he says he is. So, is Kathy keeping him from a weary death, or sending him to it?
I love "Kathy's Song." My blathering about it up there has nothing to do with I Was Someone Dead. I just wanted to note it. It affects me every time I hear it, and the central mystery is what drives me back to it again and again. I once even quoted it on Lance Scott's journal, posting the bits about being unable to write all by themselves. (In The Everlasting, Lance listens to Bookends, which is something to perhaps be explored at a later date--perhaps hinging on my favorite song, the tellingly titled outtake "You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies.")
Yet, thinking again, maybe that central mystery is also connected to I Was Someone Dead. So much hinges on what you choose to believe is real vs. what you decide is metaphor. What's the Thing? Where is There?
Similar verbal games are played in "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," which easily could have been an alternate title for my book. At one point, Simon suggests his "crime" is "an illusion," and for as deep into the soul as the songs on Sounds of Silence go, there is an element of playacting surrounding this particular number. I can't quite buy that either Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel have robbed a liquor store and are on the run from the law. Yet, it's a significant track as it's the first time where the theme of escape is finally addressed. The man in the song needs to get out, to find the place where he can't be found. He is leaving behind his lover, and the fact that he committed his crimes while she slept, leaving their bed to complete a heinous deed, destroying it all--it almost seems like a blatant attempt at self-sabotage. He is creating his own catalyst to escape a life he knows he doesn't belong in.
Poofy hair and turtlenecks.
Escape and isolation take a stronger thematic hold on side 2 of the record. Both of the opening songs on the flipside are about the suicides of two men who no one really knew. Richard Cory is such a bigshot that he gets a song named after him, but not so big he can find happiness in the material world. Eventually, his empty riches push him to take his own life, an action the man who has nothing cannot understand. The narrator--one of Cory's employees--would rather escape his life of labor and poverty in exchange for suffering from his boss' rich man's problems; Cory would rather escape this earthly plane entirely.
The same for the subject of "A Most Peculiar Man." This is the song that reminds me the most of Hieronymus Zoo.
"He was a Most Peculiar Man
He lived all alone within a house,
Within his room, within himself,
A Most Peculiar Man.
"He had no friends, he seldom spoke
And no one in turn ever spoke to him,
'Cause he wasn't friendly and he didn't care
And he wasn't like them.
Oh, no! he was A Most Peculiar Man."
Once again, Simon's protagonist kills himself. (Coincidentally, he dies in the same manner of Hieronymus Zoo's parents.) He could have just as easily transplanted his solitary lifestyle to an even more isolated spot, the way my protagonist does. Both of them tire of the pretense of fitting in and decide to just stop.
Where these two peculiar men intersect, I suppose you also find the peculiar man who writes this for you. Recently, someone e-mailed me to inquire about my apartment building. They were friends of a friend of mine, and they were moving to Portland from another state and had read a little about my building online. I instantly had a fear of anyone I knew living in the same complex as me. I keep to myself most of the time. People leave me alone, and I like it that way. Instantly, I was thinking of ways to defend my fortress, to remain an island. I wrote back, kind of jokingly, that if they saw me in the halls, I'd be the guy with the headphones in his ears who never says anything to anyone, implying that they should not be surprised when I freeze them out.
I fancy myself as my apartment building's Most Peculiar Man. I try to live as just myself, away from the community of the complex, a miniature escape occurring every time I walk through my door. But when do I cross the line to wanting to beat a full-time retreat? Where is my island? And how long before anyone notices I'm gone? (Here I could suggest that maybe someone could come running over to stop me, a la "We've Got a Groovy Thing Goin'," and suggest the disc's penultimate song is the antithesis of everything else on the record, leading us into the stronger stance of the final song...but instead, why don't we skip it? It doesn't fit, and as the original liner notes tell us, it's "Just for fun." Toss it and move on.)
Sounds of Silence closes with the hit "I Am A Rock." Again, we have a happy melody, a sing-a-long tune that may or may not hide a darker meaning. If "I Am A Rock" is meant to be ironic, I'm not sure where Simon and Garfunkel let us in on the ruse. It sounds fairly confident. It's I Was Someone Dead without Hieronymus Zoo's dream ever crumbling.
"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."
The capitals alone suggest a firm belief: "I Am A Rock." Or is it less a real belief in practice, and more a crystallization of the escape, an acceptance of the illusion--of the crime from "Somewhere They Can't Find Me," of the Kathy who doesn't return our pone calls--and like the rock we feel no pain, like the island we never cry, ignoring the fact that the admissions made elsewhere in the song say otherwise. "I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain" suggests one has been stung before, and to remember that pain means you actually know of it.
Still, how oddly fitting. Is it Jungian that Hieronymus Zoo had a rock (The Thing) and lived on an island? That he traded people for books, and insisted that his system worked? "I Am A Rock" sounds very I Was Someone Dead to me. Again, I can't claim direct inspiration from Sounds of Silence; when I first conceived of Dead, I don't think I had even heard the album. (Point of fact, the first inspiration for the tale was as the end of a cycle of short stories about pain that I was going to call The Ballad of Strangelove, and I drew a lot of the feeling, including rising out of the water triumphant, from a Frankie Goes to Hollywood track with the rather unmysterious title of "Kill the Pain." It was in high school. What can you do) Yet, by the time I was finishing the novella off, I had come to love both the album and Simon and Garfunkel in general. When I heard Sounds of Silence within the context of writing about Nadya and Hieronymus Zoo, the music changed completely for me. All the elements of it I had absorbed through osmosis were suddenly released, and I understood the songs in new ways. It's impossible for me to figure out if Sounds of Silence informed I Was Someone Dead, but now I Was Someone Dead informs Sounds of Silence, and both are better for it.
* Compare Morrissey's "I entered nothing, and nothing entered me" from "You Have Killed Me" on Ringleader of the Tormentors.
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Current Soundtrack: Simon & Garfunkel, Bookends
Current Mood: thoughful
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich