on life, music etc beyond mainstream

Yesterday I was watching a BBC documentary in the ‘Imagine’ series, about Simon and Garfunkel’s recording of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water ‘. (It turns out that one arranger– not being particularly concerned with the lyrics of the track of the same name that he’d been working on, believed that it was called ‘Pitcher of Water’!) Although I’ve always liked Simon and Garfunkel, I have never owned a record, CD, mp3 or even cassette of their music or even borrowed any of it. There was something about their music that I was attracted to and yet at the same time something that stopped me from wanting to be close to it, which is a shame, because when I was watching the documentary one song really stood out for me – ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ and this made me think that I might have missed out on a few years of listening to it and other gems! For one thing, the title of the song itself is wonderful; I’ve no idea what it truly meant to Paul Simon, who wrote the song – and even though I could quite easily arrive at a plausible interpretation for myself, I don’t really want to do so, because at the moment it still holds all that beautiful potential that comes when something has an infinite number of possible meanings – and it’s that latent possibility that is so attractive in the title of any song that we love when we first meet it (less so in those we don’t) as well as in the lyrics – and which is gradually lost with familiarity. In fact, the general processes involved in encountering a song or a piece of music and then loving it and subsequently growing tired of it are, I suspect, what made me hesitant about owing any S&G music in the first place; whilst at the same time explaining why this song called to me more strongly than others in the programme – and why I will probably have to watch that love dwindle in time.

The song was written by Simon about his friend Art (or ‘Artie’) going away to film Catch 22 in Mexico (Garfunkel is referred to in the song as ‘Tom’ – his stage name in the early act that he and Simon had early in their career). The opening line ‘Tom, get your plane right on time’ is sung with the tenderness of someone who cares deeply about their friend (despite the fact that it’s possible to infer from even a cursory knowledge of S&G’s relationship that this moment must have involved a complex mixture of resentment, scorn and anger as well as amity) and shows an almost paternal concern – despite their being the same age: “I know, your part’ll go fine”.

This opening was what hooked me – at some subliminal level, because I wasn’t listening with any great attention to the lyrics at first – but clearly I could pick up on the tenderness. Next comes the base line (apparently an 8-string base played by session musician Joe Osborne) – I didn’t know any of this information at a conscious level when I was being hooked – just that the song (or the opening bars, at least) involved (A) tenderness and (B) a fat, loping bass line. But then, as I learned more about the song, which I had already made a sub- or semi-conscious decision to love, it turned out that I must be more sensitive to something about music than I thought as it turns out (from interviews with the producer – and other collaborator-musicians)that playing on this track were members of the Wrecking Crew (such as Hal Blaine) – I’m a big Beach Boys / Brian Wilson fan – AND that it involved significant use of echo chambers (I’m a big Lee Hazlewood fan).

The fact is though that there are competing forces at play which on the one hand liberate, by offering infinite potential and infinite possibilities, and on the other, which seek to constrain, hypostasize, limit and make staid that same potential. Just as something new and dynamic – or ‘different’ (any form of music, art or architecture, for example) will at first offer something incredibly alluring and as a result attract imitators, with this usually culminating in the creation of a ‘genre’, so there will inevitably follow process whereby the same genre will be the progenitor of further imitators – initially affectionate ones, who will then tip the balance away from overwhelming approval and invite parody and eventually ridicule. This, ultimately, will lead to the originators of the genre (as well as those who follow in their wake) and the genre itself being viewed with derision or contempt.

When this song was written, it arose from an initial thought of tenderness and of caring for a friend – a beautiful moment, untrammelled by limitation; but this moment contained within it the seeds of its own demise: it became a collaboration involving numerous musicians, requiring time and incurring expense, eventually culminating in its becoming a product or cultural artefact, which in turn attracted my attention and that of countless others. This process that subsequently followed the moment of creation was a necessary one – just as it is necessary to frame a work of art or to put flowers into a vase (or pitcher!) of water, but, paradoxically, the same processes that allow such initial moments of creativity to exist as art are precisely what chain them Gulliver – like in the bondage of Lilluputian-limitation.

As I’ve mentioned, the forces at play in the world mean that whatever might have existed at the moment of a song’s creation or at the moment that we first chance to hear any given piece of music or to learn about its creator(s), that infinite possibility – whether of unlimited meaning or unlimited interpretation or undying emotional attachment or love, will immediately begin to undergo a process of attrition or erosion through familiarity – through association with a particular genre, through being linked to a chain of history and knowledge, to categorisation and analysis – everything about the song and the artists who brought it into the world will be known, fixed, and limited or limiting – exactly as was the case with the creators of ‘TOLBINY’ and their creations. That is precisely the reason why for years I didn’t avail myself of the opportunity to possess any music by Simon and Garfunkel, despite my enjoying it, any time that I heard it.

It was my loss. However, what is great, and what should not be forgotten, is that these processes are dynamic and ongoing and so, just as stasis and limitation are the inevitable consequence once we begin to like a piece of music or artist, so the converse is true – that there will always be the opportunity for the limiting chains to be severed and for love and infinite potential to be released – as I can testify with my new-found love of Simon and Garfunkel, which I can now scream about unapologetically, like a gambolling Gulliver – hopefully besocked rather than behobnailed-booted!

This entry was posted on Freitag, 14. Dezember 2012 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    For the same reasons, I never bought an album of S&G. But now your thoughts led me to listen – and listen again – to that song from BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER. What a trip: I had nearly forgotten it, with all its echo chambers. But even more I liked the thoughts about the way we live with (old/new) songs, their endless meanings, how they become codified, newly discovered etc. Happened to me, lately, with The Blue Nile‘ HATS and two old songs there…

  2. Christopher Bell:

    Love it.

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