Paul Simon Teaches Me About Death, Fear, and Honesty

6 Dec

“We come and we go. That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head.”

I don’t talk a lot about music, at least not on this blog, save for an old post where I basically talked about resenting people who play guitar, but that’s not because I don’t like music. I think it’s mostly because I have a hard time finding music that both resonates with my particular emotional spectrum and hasn’t been talked about to death. There has been one album, however, I’ve been listening to a lot.

Let me try and characterize what’s going on with me without getting mopey and LiveJournal-y: It’s winter, which means I feel burnt out and my thoughts are centered primarily on death. I hear Christmas music, and instead of feeling festive, I ask myself how the FUCK the year is already almost over, and begin to think about how I’ve wasted another year and have allowed myself to be pushed closer to the grave having accomplished nothing. These thoughts don’t tend to result in either aggressive rage of the aggro-metal I tend to listen to or complete nihilistic detachment of the hipster rock some of my friends like, it leads just to introspection and an increased puzzlement, with the sole hope that I can find the absurdity in it all and become bigger than my rock.

You know what album’s helping me out with this a lot right now? Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Now, to be fair, maybe there are some pre-existing bias here: My mom listened to this album a lot with me when I was growing up. I’ve known most of these songs for a long time, so perhaps listening to them again has allowed me to hearken back to childhood and cling to that familiarity, but I don’t think I was paying attention that much to the lyrics when I was 8, so listening to it now at 23 has added an additional dimension to my appreciation beyond pure nostalgia.

Here’s the thing about Paul Simon’s lyrical style, at least on this album (I’ve actually only listened extensively to this one and his latest, “So Beautiful So What“): It’s like getting into a conversation with a complete stranger who talks to you with warmth and familiarity that assumes you already know what he’s talking about, even though you kind of don’t.  There’s a specificity to the way he writes the characters in his songs, but he doesn’t spend time setting them up or introducing them, so each lyric seems like a very disparate idea. However, the very specificity of each of those ideas is meant to provoke certain feelings and associations that make the listener become aware of the very cohesive emotional whole of the song, like the seemingly separate dots of a Seurat painting, when viewed farther back, producing a detailed tableau. The product is something personal and sincere and relate-able without being cliched, forceful or, to borrow screen-writing jargon, too “on the nose.”

The quote at the top of this post is from the album’s third track, “I Know What I Know.” Let’s look at a whole verse from the song:

She looked me over
And I guess she thought
I was all right
All right in a sort of a limited way
For an off-night
She said don’t I know you
From the cinematographer’s party
I said who am I
To blow against the wind

The specificity I mentioned is in the naming of “the cinematographer’s party” here. It’s an oddly specific, almost random detail to suggest, right? That one bit of specificity, however, is all we need to flesh out the rest of the subtext in everything else the characters say to each other, because of all the assumptions it leads us to make. We can already envision the woman as some kind of show-business socialite, which informs why she would assume the narrator would be acceptable to her only on an “off-night.” That’s all Simon needs to write for him to proceed like we already know these characters, because we do know them.

When she tries to initiate interaction with him based on some dubious level of familiarity, we then get the seemingly non-sequitir response of “Who am I to blow against the wind?” But if we consider the established context: an otherwise unlucky, undesirable guy is being approached by some popular beauty, he’s saying “I might as well go with it.” This is followed by the chorus:

I know what I know
I’ll sing what I said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep
In the back of my head 

So the narrator has just decided to fully embrace this chance encounter and not “blow against the wind,” then here in the chorus decides to be completely honest about himself to this person. He can only know what he knows, and will make no pretense to anything greater or more glamorous, he is himself. Then the next thought is “We come and we go.” It feels like his decision to stick to his guns immediately and incongruously leads to a thought about mortality.

This might be where my interpretation is unique to myself only, but it makes perfect sense, because the thought of deciding to be completely honest with oneself to someone else, anyone else, is FUCKING HORRIFYING. Just as horrifying as death.

So much of the ritual of human interaction is about dishonesty. When we court, we create giant masks for ourselves where we hide the less desirable things and accentuate the things we think other people might find desirable about us, even though we have absolutely NO idea what they truly would find desirable. The masks are really just as much armor as they are advertising. Then, if a pairing is achieved, both possible mates begin to build a pile of shit where they both put all of  their truth, their flaws, their wants, their needs, and their hang-ups, and then proceed to dance in a circle around it, only seeing the pile but not touching it, and only looking at each other through the masks. We are aware there’s the pile of shit between us, and aware that there are weak, shriveled up people behind the masks, but we do our best to ignore both of those things until somebody trips and both end up cracking their masks and falling head-first into the pile of shit, and that’s supposed to be love.

I’ve had to deal with multiple situations where the choice to be honest about myself has felt painful and horrifying. With comedy, it’s been whether or not to be completely honest about myself on stage to my audience and say “Listen, instead of just saying what I just THINK you guys are going to find funny, I am going to just to tell you what I find funny and present it to you in the hopes that we make a connection. I know what I know, and I’ll joke what I joke.” That inevitably leads to the risk of rejection, and there’s a reason that silent rejection is called “dying” on stage, because it is as towering, painful, and horrifying as death.

I’ve also had to learn to be honest about myself with a lot of other things, too. I’ve been in a relationship with another person for four years, and there are times where I still try to keep my mask on, and still try to hide things. However, when you spend that much time with a person you love, unless you are a REALLY good liar (I’m not), that person will find out every evil, nasty, dirty, animalistic thing about you, and that truth puts you at TREMENDOUS risk of rejection, and THAT rejection, to me, is even WORSE than death. The thought of her ever breaking up with me never feels like it could be a simple admission of incompatibility, but rather a scathing condemnation of myself as a person for failing to reach the standards of a proper boyfriend. So that’s the thing I keep in the back of MY head, that I might come and SHE might go.

I’ve had to learn to be honest about myself TO myself, as well. After a year and a half of regular therapy, I realized the hardest thing I’ve had to admit to myself is that I HAVE self-esteem issues, that I AM really bad about bottling up my bad emotions, and I DO actually have more trouble talking to people about my problems than I thought I did. For a long time I thought I had a firm grasp on myself and that I was emotionally balanced, but that was simply me doing a solo version of the mask dance around the pile of shit, because I was afraid if I took off my mask and looked at the pile, that I would reject myself. I would declare myself irreparable, irredeemable, and useless. To a degree, I might already have, which is what has lead me to my preoccupation with my own death.

But then I have to realize exactly WHY Simon’s narrator keeps the fact that “we come and we go” in the back of his head. Yes, it’s paralyzingly frightening, but ultimately, our mortality is the best excuse to BE honest and be vulnerable, because, no matter how hard we try to protect ourselves from the pain and discomfort of honesty, we will still die, and we can’t change that, so it’s best to just avoid the REAL pain caused by self-deception and refusal of the reality of human existence. You know what you know, you sing what you say, and that makes it easier to deal with the fact that you come and you go.

Somehow almost all of the songs on this album manage to strike similar chords with me, similarly centering on the specificity of a single lyric. Take this example from “Gumboots.”

I was having this discussion
In a taxi heading downtown
Rearranging my position
On this friend of mine who had
A little bit of a breakdown
I said breakdowns come
And breakdowns go
So what are you going to do about it
That’s what I’d like to know

I’ve had to deal with a lot of my friends going through similar emotional crises, and upon realizing how draining it can be, I become aware of how draining I must be when I expect similar support from them, and I begin to demand the same solution to the crisis from myself that I selfishly demand from them.

Now an example from “You Can Call Me Al”:

He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard
Bonedigger Bonedigger
Dogs in the moonlight
Far away my well-lit door
Mr. Beerbelly Beerbelly
Get these mutts away from me
You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore

I could do a whole other post about this song, so I’ll just post bullet points of things that this verse triggers:

  • Guilt over gaining weight as a result of my emotional distress
  • The need for external validation
  • The simultaneous want to not be perceived as a distorted version of myself created just to please someone else (the “cartoon”)
  • I’ve dealt with so many pet deaths that having dogs or cats around distresses me more than comforts me.

I’ve managed to find some crevice in every lyric in every one of these songs for my mind to nest in, and it’s been just as cathartic to listen to as any comedy album I own and more so than most other music I’ve listened to.  So that’s probably the longest you will get me to talk about music at any one time.



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