Sparrow

Simon & Garfunkel’s great trick was to blur the boundaries between contemporary songwriting and traditional music. They made pop hits out of songs that had been in the culture for hundreds of years. They also wrote original songs that sounded like they’d been lifted straight from a psalm. This one I’ve always thought was an arrangement of something from a literary archive, or the Bible, or some other repository of ancient words. But apparently Paul Simon wrote it himself. Of course, Simon was not always above taking credit for things that already had an author, so you never know where a studious young poet such as himself may have found an inspiring parable about a hungry little bird.

Spanish Caravan

You will pry my Doors LPs from my cold dead fingers, world. We might be moving further away from the kind of unhinged rock star megalomania that Jim Morrison represents. We’ve come to realize that Morrison was kind of a bad person, and very definitely a sick person, and maybe we shouldn’t hero worship sick, bad people. Still, Morrison remains the Platonic ideal of the mentally unstable genius, and that shit is catnip for the romantic and sexual imagination. The entire premise of Morrison’s Messianic persona was that he was living life on a different spiritual level – not necessarily a more elevated one, but definitely removed from the ordinary realms of experience – and he could take you there, and though the journey might be difficult for you, you would emerge a changed person. That promise was fulfilled for fans who felt that the music had changed them in some way, in the safety of their own home. It was a much rougher journey for people who had the misfortune of actually having Jim Morrison in their lives. According to John Densmore, being in a band with Jim was very much like being in an abusive marriage, and that seems to be the general consensus. But the mystique of the very unstable genius persists, because we still want someone to take us through to the other side, against all better judgement.

Space Oddity

In 1969 David Bowie caught his first big break when the release of Space Oddity coincided with the Apollo 11 space mission and subsequent moon landing. That event was greeted with worldwide celebration and optimism about our impending Utopian technofuture. What Bowie tapped into was the opposite of that, the creeping suspicion that all that technological innovation would bring nothing but sorrow. Every step of human progress, of course, has always been shadowed by the fear that technological dehumanization. The introduction of the printed word led to fierce debates about how all that pesky knowledge would cause widespread delinquency and endanger people’s souls by leading them away from God. Or whatever. The tech may change but the conversation is always the same: the availability of new gadgets will destroy human empathy, reasoning ability, social circles and fine motor skills, creating a society of mindless sad robot-people adrift with no sense of purpose or ability to form meaningful connections with one another. Space travel is that, placing quite literally alienated humans alone in an environment where they have no business ever existing. The image of the lone astronaut floating through the void has been as haunting and disturbing as the idea of colonizing new worlds is gung-ho and exciting. It also makes a powerful metaphor for the various alienations we experience in normal life; the office cubicle, the MRi machine, the commuter vehicle, the empty McMansion, the prison cell, the nuclear submarine – they’re all symbols of untethered lonely lives lived by people who might as well be in outer space.

The Sound of Silence

You can’t have a movie about sad people set in the 1960’s without Simon & Garfunkel’s famous refrain about loneliness and alienation. It’s just one of the rules of Lazy Writing 101. Which cheapens the magic of the song with overfamiliarity. Setting aside what I like to call The Cameron Crowe Effect*, try to listen to it like you haven’t heard it a thousand times before. Is there really a better ode to being young and mildly disgruntled? It’s the very, very specific brand of sadness that comes from being a young person who thinks the reason they’re so lonely is because they’re too special for the boring old world around them, and they feel alienated and at loose ends but not too much because they probably have really good taste in scarves. You can see, of course, why everyone wants that sentiment in their movie.

*Cameron Crowe is a film director known for using pop songs as a substitute for character development.

Soul Kitchen

There’s nothing mystical about the pleasures of an all-night diner. It’s a haven for the silent camaraderie of insomnia, fried eggs and bad coffee, unchanged since Edward Hopper’s time. If you haven’t staggered into a diner at 4 a.m. robbed of sleep by strange circumstances, have you even lived? Jim Morrison wrote a lot about altered states of consciousness, surreal and dangerous episodes fueled by drugs, and not so much about the mundane stuff of life. But in the diner the strange bleeds over into the mundane, and even the Lizard King has to admire the restorative powers of a cheap breakfast. No matter what misadventures you’ve just had or what journey you’re still in the middle of, going into a diner is like pressing pause. You can step into a greasy bubble where time stands still, twitch-chug five or six cups of burned coffee, maybe eat an or some bacon, and observe the tableau of all the other human strays around you.

Sponsored by Denny’s.

Sorry, Suzanne

Don’t talk to me about how all these pop groups today all sound the same. I challenge you to pick any one of the dozens of indistinguishable pop groups of the 1960’s out of a lineup. There were, in the end, maybe four or five British Invasion groups that people still remember as separate entities. Otherwise it was a hit parade of quartet and quintets who all sounded like the Hanna-Barbera to the Beatles’ Walt Disney. Who remembers The Hollies? What were their names? What were the names of their wives, children and pets? No one cares. It’s not their fault; they weren’t a bad band. They were just good at something that a lot of other people were equally good at, and history doesn’t remember the averagely skilled. At least Graham Nash went on to distinguish himself as the fourth best-known member of C,S,N&Y.

Sophisticated Lady

Sarah Vaughan strikes a mood. Vaughan had a voice like silk and satin, and she made everything she touched sound refined. So, she could almost be singing about herself, for she was an icon of sophistication in her time. The refinement must always be tinged with melancholy, implying that it has been gained at great cost, for otherwise it wouldn’t be anything more than a pose.