It’s a Paul Simon kind of day: some brief observations on “Bleecker Street”
Most days if you were to ask me who my favorite songwriter is I would almost automatically reply with one word: “Kristofferson.” Regardless of what else I’m listening to at the time, Kris’s music is never far from the stereo and I’ve come to recognize his songs as little pieces of truth and honesty in a world severely lacking those qualities.
Last night, in a discussion on the forum here at No Depression, I made a reference to a somewhat obscure Simon & Garfunkel tune called “Bleecker Street” and the song was playing in my head all night.
So I woke up, showered, had breakfast, and headed to the car. I skimmed through the CDs I had inside the vehicle: Nashville Skyline, Aretha Franklin, a sacred steel compilation I’ll tell you about in a few weeks, The White Album, the new Drive-By Truckers, Hard Promises, a disc of Cash’s Sun recordings, and around a dozen other albums. I usually try to keep it a mix of perennial favorites and discs I’m listening to at the time. But no Paul Simon and at that moment I absolutely needed to hear “Bleecker Street.”
So I hurriedly ran back inside, went straight to the shelf in my bedroom and took down the box set with all of the Simon & Garfunkel albums in it. I got out Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M, the 1963 debut album that included “Bleecker Street,” but then wondered if I really wanted to listen to the album. You see, its not exactly what anybody would call a classic. The Simon-penned tunes are great, but there is also a lot of filler: folk numbers that come much closer to the Kingston Trio than Bob Dylan’s debut. So I took the album just for the one song and grabbed a live recording of the duo from 1967 as well.
“Bleecker Street” was just as subtly powerful as I remembered. With an acoustic guitar doing most of the work musically, the two voices unite in harmony on the opening verse to describe how “fog’s rollin’ in off the East River bank” and at that moment their voices become like the fog itself: slowly washing over the listener and putting them in a hazy state of calm. And just as you can lose your vision in the fog, you can also lose sight of the desolate and starkly poetic lyrics amidst the beautiful harmonies
“Like a shroud it covers Bleecker Street,” continues Simon’s lyrics, “Fills the alleys where men sleep/Hides the shepherd from the sheep.”
Perhaps these sheep being hidden from their shepherd were the same ones who, in the duo’s signature song, “bowed and prayed to the neon gods they made.” This loss of individuality and loss of hope in the modern era seems to be a recurring them throughout Paul’s work.
Voices leaking from a sad cafe
Smiling faces try to understand
I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand
On Bleecker Street
On the rare occasions when this song is written or talked about, the line that gets the attention is always “I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand,” but to me the line immediately before it is, while admittedly simpler, just as honest and equally powerful.
A poet reads his crooked rhyme
Holy, holy is his sacrament
Thirty dollars pays your rent
On Bleecker Street
Obviously Simon is referring to the difficulties of connecting art and commerce and though you’d have to ask the Rent is Too Damn High guy to be sure, I’m almost certain that thirty dollars will no longer pay your rent on Bleecker Street or anywhere else in New York. Still, let’s continue on to the last verse:
I head a church bell softly chime
In a melody sustainin’
It’s a long road to Caanan
On Bleecker Street
It’s a long road to Canaan everywhere, Paul. And had you said “hard road,” it would have been just as correct, but not as perfect somehow. That’s why, although I have never been to Bleecker Street in New York City, I have been to the Bleecker Street Paul describes in his lyrics. We all have. Its a metaphor for the world we’re living in and tells in detail of the loneliness and deceit that run rampant in that world.
I listened to it about five times before switching to the live CD. On it, Simon & Garfunkel do play some beautiful songs, the best among them probably being “The Dangling Coversation,” but in my estimation neither the duo nor Simon on his own, have ever equaled “Bleecker Street,” which may be the one essential song on their only non-essential album.
Ask me tomorrow who my favorite songwriter is and you’ll more than likely get the standard reply of “Kristofferson.” But ask me right now and I won’t hesitate in answering with “Paul Simon.”