Simon & Garfunkel and the Natural Order

One day while strolling around on the internet, I come across a comment; “…hello darkness my old friend.” I’ve never heard this before, but it seems… good. So I google it.

A few months later, I’ve got a playlist with all of their songs which I take around the block almost every day. The first thing about their music that catches my attention is the sound of it. I think Simon and Garfunkel heard a harmony at age 16 and said “hey, that sounded great — let’s do that all time time!” Turns out, that optimization target is basically just awesome. Their songs are what harmonies are for, and make me regret that I have but one voice under my own control.

The harmonies draw me in, but they’re not what make me stay. As I listen, song after song, I start to appreciate how… thoroughly unobjectionable their lyrics are. I’ve more or less given up on being inspired by the words to songs I get stuck in my head. They tend to be vulgar or mindless or downright uninterpretable. Most songs are just ornaments; just another dimension along which to set the scene of my experience. I put them on and they help evoke a mood and I go about what I was doing. But Paul and Art do not play such games. They knock on the door, and my attention is cut. They begin to speak, and I listen, because someone is speaking to me. This music is not just another dimension along which to set the scene.

Their songs don’t wrench my heart; they’re not like Harry from HPMOR speaking the thoughts that bring his true Patronus. They don’t speak about the things closest to my heart and they don’t speak in my own language. But as I listen I can tell that they are minds looking at the same world as me. Their songs span subjects modern and timeless. They speak about loneliness among crowds and the conflict people feel toward the society handed to them at birth. They paint for us life in modern cities or as a rolling stone spirit, and they never let us forget that we are embedded within the natural world. These things are beautiful. But they don’t concern me. There is another theme sewn throughout their work which does.

(If you don’t want to be spoiled or anchored, I’d recommend giving these songs a listen before reading on.)

My Little Town is sung from a character who finds no value in his place of origin. Nothing changes there and nothing has changed. His nostalgia is dull and static, lifeless to the point where the refrain of the song is “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.”

Richard Cory and A Most Peculiar Man describe the lives of very different people, at least from the outside. We hear the details of their behavior and how others see them. We sink into their environments, just a bit. Then we are told that they committed suicide. No one reels from shock, and no one says comforting words. Despite heavy references to Christianity throughout their work, we are not told that these people go to heaven. We are just told that the remaining observers are sad and bewildered.

The Sun Is Burning maximizes the contrast between idyllic states of the world and the fate which awaits us all. It does this through the juxtaposition of the summer sun with a nuclear detonation, one giving life and one taking it away. The song opens with the most lulling of guitar picking and never veers. The lyrics veer. We’re welcomed with “In the park the lazy bees are droning in the flowers among the trees.” and departed with my favorite line among others; “Twisted sightless wrecks of men”. Simon & Garfunkel are ’60s hippies through and through, so it’s no surprise they would write a nuclear age song. But they don’t tell us whose fault it is; they don’t use anti-war rhetoric; they don’t tell us we should instead live in harmony, with no religion. They just tell us what life is like, and what could happen.

Sparrow is about a bird who struggles through life. It’s gorgeous and allegorical, personifying elements of the landscape. The plants give various excuses for not helping the sparrow, and when she dies it is asked;

Will no one write her eulogy?
“I will,” said the Earth,
“For all I’ve created returns unto me,
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be.”

A relationship dies, a raindrop dies, a brother dies. Things don’t “move on” or “pass away” in Simon & Garfunkel songs.

To my ear, their best treatment of this theme is a song which does not mention death by name.

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song.
I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Once my heart was filled with the love of a girl.
I held her close, but she faded in the night
Like a poem I meant to write
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

I threw a pebble in a brook
And watched the ripples run away
And they never made a sound
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.

Hello, hello, hello, hello.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
That’s all there is.
And the leaves that are green turn to brown.

Why is it so important what happens to the leaves? Some other song writer might tell us that the leaves are reborn next year, that pleasure requires pain, and that Heraclitus is the man. But a dead leaf will be forever gone, and the new leaves cost us precious negentropy. The song draws no such conclusions. Just that the leaves turn to brown, turn to brown, turn to brown. That’s all there is.

Simon’s corpus of lyrics uses more Biblical allusions than references to death. I’m not sure why; I like to think it’s because the Bible is a powerful source of poetry. It says a thing or two that I agree with, in exactly the way I might want one to say it. Whatever their expressed beliefs, they know that death is not a journey to another land. They know that those who die will never be seen again, by anyone. They know what the natural order looks like, and they do not sing its praises. They sing about the way things are. It does not always end on a major chord. And when the guitar stops and the resonance fades you are left to face the way things are, and judge it for yourself.

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