22
Jul 01

ARE YOU GOING? – Simon and Garfunkel and memory

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“And you read your Emily Dickinson/and I my Robert Frost”
— “The Dangling Conversation”, Simon and Garfunkel

The LP Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme came out in 1968: my father bought it for my mother that Christmas, and it was played a lot in our house over the next months and years. They had many records, but not much pop: aside from Beatles, S&G was as out as it got. They were in their early 30s, felt somewhat of the age, but mostly somewhat older, caught already in the rhythm of work and kids. Too late to be freaking out, anyway.

In response as much as anything to the “grown-up” reponse to Simon and Garfunkel, pioneer rockcrit Robert Christgau — in his late 20s — wrote an essay, ‘Rock Lyrics are Poetry (Maybe)’, in (I think) Esquire that same year. He zeroed in on ‘The Dangling Conversation’, praised in the New York Times for its portrait of non-communication, as “a pitiless vision of self-consciousness and isolation”: as ever, both protective and dismissive of rock’s claims for itself, determined it be respected, suspicious and worse to the children’s-crusade excesses of the, um, counter-culture, he [faint]praises Simon’s obvious craftsman virtues in order to slam this song above all: “[the] voice drips self-pity from every syllable…The Mantonvani strings that reinforce the lyric capture its toughness perfectly.” (The latter remark, for the Mantovani buffs among us, is boilerplate sarcasm: Mantovani was the unhippest of the unhip in 1968.)

Aged eight, I loved ‘The Dangling Conversation’. I liked the picture painted, of two adults reading in a quiet apartment: we’d only just got TV, and I could easily remember back to when mum and dad often did just that, while my sister and I played in front of the fire. I liked the controlled sense of brooding, looming menace that the singing pushes towards, then steps aside from: there’s danger here, maybe, but no, we’ve escaped it. Our house was safe from this danger. “And you read your Emily Dickinson/and I my Robert Frost”: I liked this line most of all, possibly because I KNEW WHO ROBERT FROST WAS. There was a book in the bookcase, hardback, pale pale green paper jacket: The Complete Poems of Robert Frost. I never saw mum or dad reading it — another sign that the danger did not yet threaten.

In 1967, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease: unusually young, and a couple of years before the L-Dopa breakthrough. It was assumed that he would not be cured; that he had perhaps ten years to live at most. If I knew this aged eight, I hardly grasped it: I think I probably didn’t know in any real sense for three or four years. In the event, he’s lived with it for 34 years, fighting and declining, declining and fighting. Bed-ridden earlier this year — courtesy chickenpox, ludicrously enough, from which he’s recovered, albeit slowly — he played the three Simon and Garfunkel CDs (burned for him by my sister’s boyfriend) more than anything else. When we were trying to convert mum and dad to CD technology, one of my arguments was that new music was simply no longer available on vinyl. “But we don’t really want to listen to new music any more, Mark,” said Dad, simply: “We want to listen to the old music.” Which I suppose I had long known, and never faced: if I consider the amount I’ve actually talked about my work — my life — with my father, given how much I see of him, it seems almost absurdly little.

“And you read your Emily Dickinson/and I my Robert Frost…”: Xgau is right, of course: the song is shallow and judgmental. Its narrative eye sees more than its narrative-‘I’, a classic mark of untackled complacency. We are enjoined to feel superior. But in discussing why or how it goes wrong, Xgau goes wrong himself, in a classic young-man way: “… all he’s really doing is scratching [the people who buy his records] where they itch, providing some temporary relief but coming nowhere near the root of the problem.” For years I would certainly have used some line like this about S&G, somewhat embarrassed, I suppose, at memories of my eight-year-old love of them. (With some tiny personal justification: because they were actually the root of the first aesthetic argument I ever had, with my schoolfriend Chris, a Sabbath fan: I said I liked them, and he said, “Oh, I always thought you had some taste…”. He was at war with his dad; I’ve never been at war with mine — or anyway always avoided its overt expression.) I read Xgau’s essay at college in 1978, when I was already planning to become a rock-writer, though as yet telling no one. It had a big effect on me: poetry bad/pop good is the crass, silly version I often throw at people. Sometimes it makes them stop and think.

The uncrass, unsilly version is harder: crafted songs where you can hear the words, the great Crosby-crooner tradition of adult expression, to me this has always been a world of ambiguous evasion. Of grownupness as a retreat, a settling, a compromise. Rock’s callow address of Other Issues — war, race, genderfuck, hate, craziness — issues from within a 15-yr-old listener’s world, yes, but this is the context that save and protects and allows it. Think of all the things Sinatra ever sang of; then think of a few things Fields of the Neph sing of. Who’s more grown-up, who’s more evasive, who’s sillier, who’s deeper? Triviality protects awesomeness; awesomeness protects triviality. Dad likes music where you can hear the words; I almost never listen to the words in music.

There is no music without shadows: I no longer quite know what once I knew I knew, about what’s wrong and weak about of settling, compromise, or not freaking out. Strength is not about what presents; it may well be about what doesn’t.

“Coming nowhere near the root of the problem”: if this is why my dad liked S&G then and likes them now, well, good. Good for him and — as a result — good for them. Evasion is sometimes FAR more life-affirming and helpful than pitiless idealistic examination of all that’s the case in the situation. Yes, I could start discussing my work with him, and my theories and my worldview — and probably I should — but at some point there’s going to be a hiccup I can do without: the music that gets him by, the reading — he has always adored poetry — mean almost nothing to me. Would this amuse him, or would it crush him? I deal with the disparity by not dealing: by accepting my opinion-when-eight of S&G when I’m sitting with dad, CD player softly running, not what I may think now, shadowed and conflicted as that is. There’s grief that needs to be dealt with, and grief you can avoid.

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