Gates Of Eden part III: Hello lamppost, nice to see ya

 

by Jochen Markhorst

III         Hello lamppost, nice to see ya

                                                                                    it’s                iron claws
The lamppost stands with folded arms / pretends to be ^ attached
t the curbs neath wailing babies – tho it’s shadow’s metal badge /
All in all, can only fall, with a crashing but meaningless blow
No sound comes from the depths of Eden

“The Cool, Cool River” is a nice song from Paul Simon’s The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990), the successful follow-up to the mega-success Graceland. The song opens with a rhythm-driven, Graceland-like stanza and the beautiful opening line Moves like a fist through the traffic / Anger and no one can heal it, then switches back to slow and melodic, à la “Still Crazy After All These Years”, and then back to the African frenzy of the beginning. It’s defensible that the song was selected for the cash cow The Essential Paul Simon (2007), and Simon’s satisfaction with the song is once more evident when he selects it for the tracklist of his Farewell Tour (2018).

But that’s where it goes wrong. Simon plays in Portland on Saturday, May 19, and “The Cool, Cool River” is the fifteenth song in the set. The first two verses come out well. The first lines of the third verse (Anger and no one can heal it / Slides through the metal detector) are already not quite right and seem to be scraped together, and then Simon loses it completely. For twenty-four seconds, the band keeps hanging on the same chord and Rhymin’ Simon is frozen. Then he turns to the band and asks, clearly audible: “Anybody know the words?” Bandleader Mark Stewart laughs sheepishly, as does the rest of the band, we hang on to that one chord for another twenty seconds, and then Simon just skips the rest of the verse – the last two verses come out right.

Simon is 76 and on his last, very successful tour. He is self-assured enough to fully admit at the end of the song that he fucked up the lyrics and offers to make up for it:

“Ok. Because I made a mistake and forgot the lyrics to that song, I’m going to penalize myself… I need my acoustic guitar. I’m going to sing one of my songs that I loathe. Bring me a six string. Ok. This’ll teach me because I just… I hate this song.”

To the delight of the audience, Simon then starts “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”. After the first wave of enthusiastic cheering and applause, everyone soon starts singing along:

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
Ba da-da da-da da-da, feeling groovy

Simon makes no mistakes in the lyrics, stares into the audience sultry, quasi-fatigued and playfully grumpy, and reveals his greatest annoyance while singing the second verse:

Hello lamppost, what'cha knowing
I've come to watch your flowers growin'
Ain't you got no rhymes for me? – aarraghh I HATE this song
Feeling grooooovy

… the lamppost stanza. Indeed, not a literary highlight in Simon’s oeuvre. The aversion is certainly not feigned; despite the song’s eternal popularity, Paul Simon has not played it for twenty-five years, and in 2017, as a guest on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, he expresses his dislike in much the same words (“I loathe that song”). Colbert is shocked and persuades Simon to play it anyway, but then he will provide different lyrics, less “naïve”, because that is what bothers Simon so much. The first verse is the same, but the lamppost couplet is changed:

Hello lamppost, nice to see ya
We might get bombed by North Korea
We’re getting close to World War III
So run for the shelters, feeling grooooovy

… and then two more verses with current affairs (climate change, Trump). The men sing beautifully together, close harmoniously, Simon bows reconciled to Colbert and says: “I hate it.”

 

The transvaluation of values

It is the middle of 1964, and the Beat Poet Dylan is awakening. “Gates Of Eden” is the first song he writes after Another Side Of and, it seems, the first song in which he tries to imitate Burroughs’ cut-up and deconstruction. For which, very appropriately, he apparently leafs through Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy, or more specifically: The Soft Machine (1961). At least, that is what the later inserted “iron claws” indicates.

After this addition, we see, throughout the song, word combinations and images that are suspiciously common in The Soft Machine. “Phantom rider”, for example, “grey flannel” appears nine times, “silver” dozens of times, in dozens of combinations, plus word combinations too unusual to be due to coincidence. “Foreign sun” is one such, and “iron claws” is another typical Burroughs word combination, appearing three times in The Soft Machine alone (six times in Nova Express). “The all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure,” for example (chapter 15, Gongs Of Violence).

But apart from those rather blatant, not too subtle Burroughs borrowings, the fresh Beat Poet Dylan also seems receptive to a transcendent goal of the Junky poet: alienation and deconstruction. This, at least, is what the alienating opening line of this verse, The lamppost stands with folded arms, seems to indicate.

In the art of song, a lamppost is not a very popular decorative item, but if it is, then it usually signals loneliness, romantic longing and despair. Simon’s embarrassment at the silly supporting role he gives the lamppost is palpable – it really is too naive. Sinatra stands leaning against a lamppost, languishing during the wee small hours, as it should be. Herman’s Hermits are “Leaning On A Lamp Post” in case a certain lady comes by (1966), the most famous soldier girl in music history, Lili Marlene, stands underneath the lamp post by the barrack’s gate, and also Janis Ian (“Miracle Row”), Barbra Streisand (“Memory”), Randy Newman (“Naked Man”) and Tom Waits (“Jitterbug Boy”) find support in their loneliness and despair in a lamppost. It is an object, in short, with an emotional value that demands to be revalued – or rather: transvalued.

Burroughs picked up the dictum from Nietzsche: die Umwertung aller Werte, the transvaluation of values. Misunderstood (Nietzsche did not mean a renewal of our values, but rather a return to pre-Christian norms and values), for anarchistic, free-thinking artists such as Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac it is an attractive, catchy motto for their dreamed-of writing. Burroughs, in particular, sees language as an instrument of power and can disrupt that power by Umwertung, by cutting random words, sentences, paragraphs out of their original context and pasting them back into a new one, determined by chance.

Literally cutting and pasting, as Brother Bill does… Dylan does not go that far. But imitating it is not too complicated, and Dylan already has some experience with the related figure of speech catachrese (combining incompatible words, such as worthless foam, breathlike flowers and flaming feet). There, it is mainly alienating. The novice Beat Poet now goes a step further: umwerten, transvaluate. So, a lamp post is no longer a comfort and supportive piece of scenery, no: closed, with folded arms, he does not move an inch, gives no falter, clinging to the curb with his iron claws while in his light the babies lie wailing.

Quite a different value. Paul Simon’s flowery hippy lamppost clasps her hands in shock.

To be continued. Next up: Gates Of Eden part IV: Out of the depths have I cried

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Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

 

 

 

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