Don’t underestimate the simple two minute love song, especially when it’s got a guitar solo by Neil Young. Two minute love songs are the most basic unit of pop songwriting, and as such, are often easily dismissed. Why bother with a two minute love song when you can write a 25 minute opus about the British class system? Well, I am certainly the kind of person who enjoys prog rock at its most convoluted, and I’m not above throwing stones at artists who lean too heavily on silly love songs. But as far as the simple love song goes, this one is a favorite. I like how he only ‘thinks’ he loves her, but he still thinks that she ought to sit down. That combination of words has always gotten me. It feels natural to life, the way that people often blurt out their feelings in stupid ways, and I find that cute.
Paul Simon’s being too snarky for his own good. He was an angsty boy in the 60’s, and mostly that came out in plaintive ballads. But apparently he also had a mean Bob Dylan impression in him. He nails the cadence – Dylan’s signature Midwesterner-does-New-York-Jew as done by an actual New York Jew. He nails the verbosity, which is also, of course, the posturing of a Midwesterner doing New York. It’s also a very modern song. We can certainly relate to the sensation that pop culture references and tedious political figures are all anyone ever talks about and we’re all slowly being reference-pointed into submission.
There’s no nostalgia industry for The Animals, but they used to be one of the most important British Invasion groups and the most serious of the British blues bands. History can be cruel that way. The best-remembered bands of the era were the best-branded ones. The Rolling Stones looked into the future and saw that the future lay in logos. The Rolling Stones are now a very successful corporation. Although the Animals were not above pumping their name for punny album titles, they didn’t take it to its full potential with a clever logo. You can’t keep yourself marketable over decades without a clever logo. Another things that undermines the Animals’ legacy is that they were more of a ‘singles’ band. They weren’t about putting together albums as a self-contained artistic statement. They never even straightened out the confusing disparity between UK and American releases. Those were managerial mistakes that undercut a strong body of work and that’s why we don’t remember them alongside their more PR-literate peers.
The ‘she’ in this case is Peter Fonda. Everything else is LSD. The Beatles were fervid converts to all things psychedelic, and they promoted it with the enthusiasm of children. In hindsight, encouraging the unwashed masses to indulge in volatile mind-altering drugs was pretty irresponsible, but at the time it must have felt like psychedelic consciousness was going to save the world. What LSD does is loosen the synaptic pathways formed in the adult brain to filter out unnecessary stimuli and prevent the mind from becoming dangerously distracted, thus allowing the brain to return to a more childlike state of perception. It can be therapeutic in the right circumstances and traumatic in the wrong ones, which is why it should, at the very least, be taken in a safe and controlled environment. Of course, if you happen to be a creative genius with all the time and money in the world, LSD feels like a gift basket from God. But even among the genius-elites there were plenty of cases of people having nervous breakdowns from overindulgence, triggering previously unremarked mental illnesses, or even getting killed because they didn’t notice that the damn light was red. In 1966, though, all those bum trips were still in the future, and everyone sincerely thought they’d unlocked the key to a higher consciousness, and they were going to be the evangelists of a new school of thought.
An Irish folk song that has been sung by every troubadour/Irish singer who ever sung for centuries, which Marianne Faithfull, in 1966, recorded with a prominent sitar accompaniment. Because it was 1966 and sitars were totally trending. It’s kind of terrible but it illustrates the odd niche Faithfull occupied as a pop singer. Keep in mind that teenage girl pop singers didn’t get to make very many creative decisions vis a vis their own careers, then as now. So this weird combination of very traditional and very on-trend was considered to be a product that record companies were confident in selling. Faithfull herself was a fragile product whose image was in many ways the creation of her management. With her fallen-aristocracy background and convent-school education, and of course, those looks, she was the embodiment of a certain centuries-old ideal of an English rose of a girl – pristine but plucky, virginal yet dead sexy, upper class but hardworking, etc. – but updated for the times, modern and hip, down with the trends, mod for the sixties. Edgy, even, with her dangerous friendships and her habit of saying and doing controversial things. Of course the real meat of Marianne Faithfull’s story is how she systematically sabotaged that image, how she very nearly killed herself on her journey to becoming a real artist. But it’s important to examine just what a seamless and appealing product she was at her pop star height, what a beautiful gleaming pedestal she leaped off of. Today, of course, no one wants to hear a girl in a Peter Pan collar trilling Irish folk songs in a thin reedy voice accompanied by dignified acoustic plucking, but the appetite for virginal teenagers with big eyes and innocent hearts is no less voracious. It’s the eternal fantasy of a girl who is ripe with unplucked sexual promise, with a full heart and an empty bed, a blank slate too young to have a real identity, too innocent to be wary of romantic entrapment, too full of love to hold herself back, just ready and waiting to be claimed and defiled and too dumb to know better. She doesn’t have a story of her own, she doesn’t have any needs except to be filled with whatever a man fills her with, she doesn’t have anything to express but longing. She’s basically not a person, she’s a trope. The music might change, but the trope does not.
If any hit song has undeservedly and inexplicably been bludgeoned into pop culture oblivion by excessive overplay, it’s this one. Is it because it’s catchy and very slightly ominous, or just because witches are very trending right now? Nothing ruins a cool tune like hearing it repeatedly shoehorned into some shitty piece of entertainment completely removed from its original meaning and context. It’s at the point where being made into an entire full length Nicolas Cage movie is not even the greatest indignity. Donovan, of course, must be earning enough royalties to purchase the Scottish highlands in their entirety, and no one could possibly begrudge him that, but when your song is being featured in a live-action adaptation of an Archie comic, I don’t know, maybe stop and think back to 1966 and how much you presumably cared about not appearing to be a greedy corporate sellout.
We take if for granted that pop culture moves at lightning speed. Memes and trends have lifespans akin to fruit flies’. It’s hard to imagine something being consistently popular for more than a few weeks, let alone decades like Simon & Garfunkel have been. Even harder to wrap our infinite-scroll addicted brains around is something staying popular for centuries. Centuries. This song has been iterated and reiterated for so long, we don’t even really for sure what period it dates from. As far back as the middle ages, maybe. Our culture may appear frenzied, on the surface, but old folk traditions die hard. Tunes that were spread and passed down through generations in times when most folks didn’t know their letters remain entrenched in the culture. It makes you think about the implications of our collective social evolution. Society and technology may change each other in unimaginable ways in the space of a single lifetime, but people will cling to and remember useless things like a song across a timespan of countless generations. Cultural memory exists outside the whims of technology. Technologies rise and fall like empires. If it feels that societal change comes slowly and with great pain, that people’s habits and beliefs aren’t keeping up with the pace of technological development, that we aren’t living up to our own potential to evolve and improve as a global community and as a species – remember that we’re all carrying memories from forebears whose names have been forgotten and whose lives passed with no form of record. We’re still living, unconsciously, with the culture of our ancestors, still singing the same songs they sang.