Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sounds of Silence

"Kathy I'm lost," I said, but I knew she was sleeping.
~Paul Simon, America

The other night while rifling through some old LPs I came across Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence, put it on and drifted back to high school art class. There was a record player in the art room and there were two girls who seemed to own the right to decide what everyone else should listen to because I don't recall ever seeing anyone else ever even touch that record player except them. They were juniors and I was a senior.

The reason Sounds of Silence brought me back to that class is that it was one of the only records they played all year. The other two albums they played were Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., Parsley Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and Bookends. The net result is that by year's end the lyrics to nearly every Simon & Garfunkel song had become permanently etched within my cranium.

As I listened to Side II it dawned on me how dark their music really was. On one level their vocal harmonizations and acoustical sound provided a musicality that was sweet and pleasing to the ear. But getting to the lyrics themselves brings shadows across this landscape and a density that is almost unexpected when juxtaposed with the melodic voices.

The first song is a re-telling of the story of Richard Cory, which was originally a poem by E.A. Robinson about a wealthy factory owner who "owned half of this whole town, with political connections to spread his wealth around," as told from the point of view of an envious man who is at the bottom rung in his factory, looking up from the dust. "My mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read, 'Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.'" It's a song about suicide.

And the second song is the same, only this time is the suicide of a man who is a social misfit. He lives alone, isolated... ...and all the people said, "What a shame that he's dead, but wasn't he a most peculiar man."

The side concludes with another song of alienation by a man who has given up on love, who is now shut off. "I am a rock, I am an island," is his refrain.

The opening cut on their Bookends album picks up on the same theme. A boy standing on a ledge, preparing to leap to his death as a gathering crowd below reacts.

What strikes me is the context of all this heart-wrenching drama and its contrast with the writers of the Lost Generation. In the 1920's a generation of writers and artists had seen first hand the horrors of war, captured the pain and challenge of fitting into society after having suffered physical and emotional wounds "over there." In the 1960's, we see a generation of song writers emerge who grew up in an age of modest abundance, yet reflecting the empty soul of this abundance. They had money, but something inside remained hollow.

This was Paul Simon's legacy, the ability to tap into that painful hollow space and make it vivid so we could better understand ourselves and our times.

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