Monday, 12 October 2009

SIMON and GARFUNKEL: Bookends


(#59: 17 August 1968, 5 weeks; 28 September 1968, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Bookends Theme/Save The Life Of My Child/America/Overs/Voices Of Old People/Old Friends/Bookends Theme/Fakin’ It/Punky’s Dilemma/Mrs Robinson (From The Motion Picture “The Graduate”)/A Hazy Shade Of Winter/At The Zoo

“I got little in this world. I give honesty without regret.”
(First man’s voice to be heard on “Voices Of Old People”)

I don’t know whether Richard Avedon had David Bailey’s famous photograph of the Kray twins in mind when he shot the cover, but there is a jarring similarity, even though these two New Yorkers are more inquisitive and perhaps more fearful. In each of their own ways, they are looking through the camera; Paul Simon’s eyes have darted to his right, distracted or attracted by something bigger or more important, whereas Art Garfunkel is peering diffidently, like a trainee microbiologist faced with his first flush of streptococcus aureus. A black and white shot, but minds unprepared to address anything in black and white, especially the scene of their times through which they are glaring fully.

If Pepper brought childhood to the fore, Bookends addresses the other end of the telescope – and apart from the Beatles, few players in this tale thus far have addressed the question of age and impermanence. Age in 1968 was something to be dashed off, or laughed or howled at as reactionary; look, after all, at where the actions of a previous generation had moved America by April 1968, the time of Bookends’ release.

The film of The Graduate, too, attempted to address the question of age, and not simply how wrongly the old were regarding the young from either perspective (prospective employer or mistress); the couple may elope at the end, but are they also ready to turn into reactionaries, think by 1980 that Reagan has a point? And it was the success of The Graduate which really propelled Simon and Garfunkel into the forefront of Britain’s attention; their original “Sound Of Silence” had not even been deemed worthy of a UK single release two years previously, with a resultant top three cover smash by, of all prematurely elderly people, the Bachelors.

But on Bookends the duo, and Paul Simon in particular, were keen to wrongfoot any doe-eyed newcomers, expecting some calming, soothing wisdom of folk. Paddle in the opening thirty-two seconds of winsome acoustic guitar, settle down – and be readily blast apart by the abrupt debut appearance in this tale by that newest of instruments, the Moog synthesiser, followed by smashed glass, church bells, bleeding knuckles, screams, sirens. Out of this ruination of a civilisation rolls the gait of “Save The Life Of My Child,” the album’s key song in that the “child,” far from being father to the man, is already earmarked for doom; choirs converge into the picture from impossible angles, sound as though wrenched out of their Atlantis chains; one scarcely notices the “Sound Of Silence” reference whispered after the first chorus. The New York Times and Officer MacDougal merely offer different forms of “blah blah blah”; do we want to save the child or simply preserve a good story? Finally, the sky darkens, the crowd gets excited, a spotlight is lit and the child escapes to nowhere. “He flew away,” the duo harmonise, weightlessly, like an Everly Brothers awestruck by the gates of hell, and a whimpering bass faints down 97 floors to the car park.

How did “we” – if “America” is to stand for “us” – get here? Some answers are proferred. “America” the song is the moral and sonic antithesis to Bernstein and Sondheim, even though the album is essentially West Side Story refracted through a prophecy of Escalator Over The Hill – the cross-cutting voices, the multiple lives detailed in the same, enclosed space, the children of Jud Fry demanding to know what happened to their promised alliance – with its calm and patient ascent to bleeding widescreen defeat; the hopeful young couple get on board the Greyhound, set out to discover what is supposedly waiting for them and their incipient dread mounts up incrementally until they are faced with the promised land of rush hour at the New Jersey Turnpike; is this what we abandoned our memories for, and are we still attracted to it, despite ourselves (as the soprano sax echoing through the middle eight, before being rapidly faded out after “a camera,” appears to imply)? The bowties of spies as residual preservers of memory; Simon’s hapless “Kathy, I’m lost,” trying to recall when he actually had a homeward to be bound, hanging onto his dream, his life, as roughly as Hoffman in the final stretches of Midnight Cowboy, or as sadly and bloodily as the protagonist of “My Elusive Dreams.”

“Overs” concludes the (same?) affair, in its whispering, free-tempo jazzy acoustic guitar setting, surveying the couple’s effective collapse with a strange dispassion; but note the whimpering lead guitar which responds to Simon’s “windowsill” (as though he could reach it) and the sublime, seamless transition from Simon’s earthly “time” to Garfunkel’s ethereal “time,” a move as profound and infinitesimal as the transition from Dave Holland’s acoustic bass to Harvey Brooks’ electric Fender in the title track of Bitches’ Brew. There’s a shocking “STOP!” with an accompanying snap of string before the song reluctantly starts up again to reach its conclusion. What is there to think over?

“Voices Of Old People” defines the emotional template; a collage of interviews with residents of various old people’s homes assembled on location in New York and Los Angeles by Garfunkel and edited in the studio by Simon and engineer Roy Halee; the recollections are in turn hilarious (the first man’s bark of “One hundred DOLLARS for that PICTURE!”) and moving – the increasing dependence upon photographs, images, and the overriding need for direct communication between generations; there’s an astonishing moment where one of the old ladies thumps the table (or desk?) before her and states, impassioned, “That is a mother’s LIFE! To live for your CHILD!” And what happens when the children are taken away before the mothers, for a supposed Greater Good? Finally, we yet again return to this one, enclosed room, but not necessarily unhappily: “Like, just a room. Your own room, in your own home” (see also, from the following year, Scott Walker’s Scott 3, with its emphasis on age, decay, photographs and a group of people living in the same enclosed space. And, almost needless to say, Vietnam runs through both records like a word etched through the bloodiest of rocks).

The talk segues into “Old Friends” with its stop-start waltz dialogues between Jimmie Haskell’s strings and Simon’s acoustic; they are on the park bench, afraid of gradually encroaching oldness (“How terribly strange to be seventy”). Then Haskell’s arrangement edges into Ivesian dissonance, with bitonal string and French horn exchanges, as though the protagonists’ minds are already going to rags, before settling, unexpectedly but perfectly, on a yearning Vaughan Williams high string unison note, bending down to meet a plaintive acoustic guitar. This leads directly into side one’s concluding reprise of the main theme, featuring one of Simon’s shortest but most profound sets of lyrics, and his chilliest of warnings: “Preserve your memories. They’re all that’s left you.”

Side two isn’t necessarily a case of other songs they had lying around at the time – even though the last two tracks date from 1966 and 1967 respectively – but do meditate over a slightly longer distance on the issues which Bookends has raised. “Fakin’ It” is pretty startling even by 1968 Simon and Garfunkel standards, with its, ahem, bookending synth drones and hand percussion whiplashes looking back to “Tomorrow Never Knows” and forward to “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” The verses – and the song is concerned about self-perception of failure, perhaps wilfully – are structured with Beatle-esque first lines before receding into contemplation in the second lines and then rebuilding in intensity. The foot stomps and handclaps in the choruses predict, of all prematurely young people, Slade. And there is a blissful shiver of a moment when a reedy pipe organ ushers in the hallucinatory “I surely was a tailor” section (with a possible nod to Donovan – “Good morning, Mr Leitch!”).

“Punky’s Dilemma” is simultaneously the record’s most fun song and its most subtly disturbing track; Simon careers through his “If I Was” comparisons with a deceptively carefree air and much hilarity is to be had with the Corn Flakes and muffins analogies, until the listener realises that he’s trying to argue himself out of going to war; hence the heavy artillery boots of “Roger the draft dodger” skulking around in the basement (with an emphatic slam of the door following “Leavin’ by the basement door”) which then devolves into a passage of cheerful whistling.

Then comes the hit, “Mrs Robinson,” a clear follow-on from the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (“Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon”) perhaps diverted via Portmeirion (its first verse could be the Villagers addressing the “unmutual” Number 6) before veering forward to its surprisingly aggressive and mutable choruses (with violent acoustic guitar slashes and claustrophobic tambourine), moving from the personal to the political to the cry for the past: “Where have you gone, Joe de Maggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” rapidly deflated by an offhand “Boo hoo hoo.” One of its year’s most savage songs – it retreats steadily backwards at the end rather than ending, as such - and who noticed?

Finally, two snappy shots of a recent past: “Hazy Shade” borrows some of its rhythm and arrangement from “Get Off Of My Cloud” and markedly more of both from Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” and comes on like a cold rationalist “California Dreamin’”; unlike the latter, there is little hope of escape – catch that hug of a remorseful sigh of “Ah, South California” midway through “Punky’s Dilemma” – despite its smartly cut off trumpet fanfares and the Tony Williams-esque semi-abandonment of cymbal time just before the surge to each chorus; it may well be a grumble of a document of Simon trying to write a song without success (“While looking over manuscripts of unpublished rhyme/Drinking my vodka and lime”) but its march promises something of an apocalypse yet to come; witness the solitary, muffled snow tramp of boot which follows the final “There’s a patch of snow on the ground!”

So we have progressed from doomed youth to hopeful youth, taking in old age and darting back to the preoccupations of the middle-aged (which is where “Mrs Robinson” in particular comes in) – and finally we go to the zoo, are reduced to the status of animals. Once again, the duo have great fun with their deadly earnest analogies underneath the song’s jangly bubblegum jaunt – Simon audibly grins at the phrase “I do believe” – but here we are, the commune we have all been promised, and it’s a bit of a mess, and more likely than not we – that is, listener, you – are going to end up making exactly the same mistakes as our parents did. America loses itself at the zoo, indeed becomes the zoo, and somehow finds the setting more comfortable than any other. “Don’t rebel against your parents,” says Bookends, “but put yourself in their place.” For better or worse (and for those wondering how much of a “Paul Simon” album Bookends really is, consider how it would sound without Garfunkel’s climactic harmonies, or indeed his field recordings). Is it going to be up to us, they ask, to build the bridge?

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