Thursday, January 5, 2012
Boy in the Bubble
Of all the songs Paul Simon has done, this one has my favorite opening.
Not just musically.
Simon was coming off of a major commercial disappointment at the time.
Hearts and Bones.
It also didn’t fare so well with critics, but it has undergone a reassessment.
So, one day, in his car, he was listening to a cassette given to him by a friend.
Struck by how much it reminded him of the music of his youth - 50’s pop and R&B, he began to explore it further.
And that led to the artistic and commercial triumph of Graceland.
Let’s set aside the discussions of cultural appropriation and the fact that Simon broke the UN ban on cultural contact, shall we?
Because the song is the thing.
Now, here’s why I love that opening.
Normally, I hate accordion.
But it plays this odd, off-kilter, loosey goosey rhythm unlike any I’ve heard.
It’s evocative of small villages.
Particularly the music of Newfoundland.
I’ve said before I don’t care for jigs and reels.
But this is not that.
It is, however, kind of universal.
You can hear Celtic and French elements in it.
At least until the band kicks in with a very distinctly African groove.
Again, kind of shaggy.
Like it’s held together by strands of chewing gum.
A bouncy, burbling thing that ambles along for a bit before Paul Simon drops a narrative that could easily launch a great novel or Hollywood thriller.
‘It was a slow day, and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road. There was a bright light. A shattering of shop windows. The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio.’
That’s a lot of detail in just a few lines.
Any other artist would have explored the fallout.
But not Simon.
You get the sense of why as he goes along.
It’s a song about media overkill.
‘Staccato signals of constant information.’
Everything from a boy in a bubble to a baby with a baboon heart.
And this was 1986.
Imagine if you wrote a song about the media now.
Simon is not only trying to make sense of all this info, all this media, but also how we react to it.
How it reacts to us.
‘The way the camera follows us in slow motion. The way we look to us all.’
It takes everything in.
And has no answers.
The striking thing about it is, despite the hints of violence and death and privation, the words ‘these are the days of miracle and wonder’ never come off as ironic.
He doesn’t say how or why it is so.
Or how you encounter it.
But it is there.
The boy in the bubble?
The baby with the baboon heart?
But they’re astonishing.
Or maybe it’s the ‘way we look to a distant constellation.’
It could even just be this song.
A magical meeting of cultures.
That happened because someone lent Simon a cassette.
A form of media.
One that brought a boy who thought he had spent his inspiration out of his bubble.