Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Seasons: A Hazy Shade of Winter

Simon & Garfunkel: A Hazy Shade of Winter

I know we can write about any season, but it would seem strange to be writing about summer now, since it is cold, and we are in the middle of the winter holidays. Of course, south of the Equator, it is summer, but I don’t think we have any writers from that part of the world. Parenthetically, it is a little strange—and maybe one of the most obvious examples of how world culture is so dominated by the American/Northern European tradition—that even in those places where Christmas is celebrated in the warm weather, there seems to be no lack of pine trees (usually fake), snow (fake), stocking caps (unnecessary) and other wintery symbols in the iconography of the holiday.

So, winter it is, but not a holiday related song. Instead, we will discuss “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” a relatively early masterpiece written by Paul Simon, and performed by him with his erstwhile partner, Art Garfunkel, two nice Jewish boys from Queens.  It is hard to read Paul Simon lyrics without realizing how great they are. And he has been able to write music in so many styles, that it is sort of mind-boggling. Unlike many of his peers (and even those younger), he never rested on his laurels—famously experimenting with world music, before going all in on Graceland, and even collaborating with Brian Eno in his mid-60s (Eno is only a few years younger than Simon, but you have to admit that the pairing seemed a bit surprising—likely part of the reason that their album together is called Surprise).

“A Hazy Shade of Winter,” though, goes back to Simon’s days in England, in 1965, where he had gone to perform as a solo act when the first Simon & Garfunkel album flopped. But a remix of “Sounds of Silence” from that album, became a hit, and Simon returned to New York and Garfunkel, for their amazing run. “Hazy” was recorded for the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album in 1966, but failed to make the final cut.  It was released later that year as a successful single, and was included on 1968’s Bookends album.

By the standards of that period’s Simon & Garfunkel songs, it is almost Ramones-esque in its tempo and how it rocks, but the song's lyrics are really what stand out. You can almost see the young Paul Simon, who as a teenager had written and recorded hit songs, feeling exiled and failing in chilly mid-1960s London, writing a song about an unfulfilled artist—still in the “springtime of my life,” but drinking while thinking of his “manuscripts of unpublished rhyme.” Meanwhile, it is metaphorically, and maybe even actually, the time when autumn is turning to an uncertain winter:

Leaves are brown, now 
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter 

The narrator continues:

Hang on to your hopes, my friend 
That's an easy thing to say 
But if your hopes should pass away 
Simply pretend that you can build them again 

Oh, that is bleak, isn’t it? (Which makes me think of one of my favorite actual Christmas songs that would fit this theme, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” also mournful, but religiously so.)

Some of you slightly younger folks might know the song better from the excellent cover by The Bangles, which they had long performed live before recording it for the soundtrack to the pretty bleak 1987 movie Less Than Zero, scenes from which can be seen in this video:

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