And These Old Hopes and Fears, Still At My Side

December 6th, 2004 · 2 Comments · Writing

The music of Paul Simon has been the main soundtrack of my life for as long as I can remember. Simon and Garfunkel was a staple on the turntable when I was growing up. We were a family of singers, and we listened to folk music that you could sing in 3-part harmony. My mom, sister and I can still work out the parts of Peter, Paul and Mary songs like I Have a Song to Sing, O!, and it won’t take too much convincing to get us going on Fiddler on the Roof.

I was in fifth grade when my best friend Waverly’s dad played Graceland for us on the car stereo, and I remember being struck with something more permanent and profound than I had ever experienced before. It was summer and very humid. We were headed towards a Mexican restaurant for dinner. It’s all there, vivid and fresh as any other event that marks you forever. Hearing Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes changed me instantaneously, and the lyric embedded somewhere deep and rooted into a philosophy of living that I still carry with me.

She makes the sign of a teaspoon/He makes the sign of a wave/The poor boy changes clothes/And puts on after-shave/To compensate for his ordinary shoes/And she said honey take me dancing/But they ended up by sleeping/In a doorway/By the bodegas and the lights on/Upper broadway/Wearing diamonds on the soles of their shoes

I asked for, and received, a cassette of Graceland that Christmas, and it was the first album that I ever picked out for myself. I was eleven, and I still think that Under African Skies is about as perfect a Christmas hymn as you’ll ever hear. To me, Paul Simon’s Joseph is Jesus’s dad and he’s taking him to Egypt to keep him safe from Herod.

Joseph’s face was black as night/ The pale yellow moon shone in his eyes/ His path was marked/ By the stars in the southern hemisphere/ And he walked his days/ Under African skies

My best friend in high school and I bonded over Negotiations and Love Songs. Summer nights after I got my first car, we drove and drove through the sweating, empty streets of Dallas, windows down, Hearts and Bones at a volume that kept us hovering just above the edge of an awareness of youth and promise and longing.

Why don’t we drive through the night/ And we’ll wake up down in Mexico/Oh I
I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’/ About Mexico/ And tell me why/ Why won’t you love me/ For who I am/ Where I am/ He said:/ ’cause that’s not the way the world is baby/ This is how I love you, baby/ This is how I love you, baby

I was first in line to buy Rhythm of the Saints when it came out in 1990. Even though I liked the Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode and The Cure just like all the other kids my age, I knew I had found in Rhythm of the Saints something more real, more true than I had ever known before. This album was secret and full of mystery and truth; this album was saying things that I did not even yet know; this album was paving a way into my adult soul.

A family of musicians took shelter for the night/ In the little harbor church of St. Cecilia/ Two guitars, bata, bass drum and tambourine/ Rose of Jericho and bougainvillea/ This is a lonely life/ Sorrows everywhere you turn/ And that’s worth something/ When you think about it/ That’s worth some money/ That’s worth something/ When you think about it/ That is worth some money

My senior year, when my Honors English teacher asked us to bring in the lyrics to a song that had influenced us more than any other, I didn’t have to think hard about which one. It was a risk, sure, to bring Paul Simon to a class where Sonic Youth and The Pixies and The Sugarcubes were sure to dominate.

My fate was sealed when I went up to the front of the class, put in my CD and pushed play. The hot guy in the back rolled his eyes and slouched down in his chair; he’d brought in the Velvet Underground’s I’m Sticking With You. Only my teacher, who I admired greatly, seemed to appreciate my selection. It was my own small rebellion against the rest of the world, to love this song and let it speak for me in a way that I could not speak for myself.

The Cool, Cool River

Moves like a fist through the traffic
Anger and no one can heal it
Shoves a little bump into the momentum
It’s just a little lump
But you feel it
In the creases and the shadows
With a rattling deep emotion
The cool, cool river
Sweeps the wild, white ocean

Yes boss, the government handshake
Yes boss, the crusher of language
Yes boss, Mr. Stillwater,
The face at the edge of the banquet
The cool, the cool river
The cool, the cool river

I believe in the future
I may live in my car
My radio tuned to
The voice of a star
Song dogs barking at the break of dawn
Lightning pushes the edge of a thunderstorm
And these old hopes and fears
Still at my side

Anger and no one can heal it
Slides through the metal detector
Lives like a mole in a motel
A slide in a slide projector
The cool, cool river
Sweeps the wild, white ocean
The rage of love turns inward
To prayers of devotion
And these prayers are
The constant road across the wilderness
These prayers are
These prayers are the memory of God
The memory of God

And I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours I feel sure
Song dogs barking at the break of dawn
Lightning pushes the edges of a thunderstorm
And these streets
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven, to heaven
For the mother’s restless son
Who is a witness to, who is a warrior
Who denies his urge to break and run

Who says: hard times?
I’m used to them
The speeding planet burns
I’m used to that
My life’s so common it disappears
And sometimes even music
Cannot substitute for tears.

Category: Writing

2 Comments so far ↓

  • Fritz

    I appreciate your writings on Simon’s music. I, too, have adopted his music as my life’s soundtrack.
    She comes back to tell me she’s gone/As if I didn’t know that/As if I didn’t know my own bed
    But I’ve reason to believe/We all will be received in Graceland.
    His writing is so real — he captures all those emotions that I didn’t think anyone else felt. Keep enjoying his music for many years to come!

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