Song of the Week: Simon & Garfunkel, “The Only Living Boy In New York”

Simon & Garfunkel: great songs and black turtlenecks since the 1960's.
Simon & Garfunkel: great songs and black turtlenecks since the 1960’s.

Sometimes a song finds you.  It can emerge unexpectedly on the radio or TV at the exact moment you’re ready to hear it.  This happens often.

Sometimes you find a song.  A friend, confidante, or trusted blog recommends it.  You search YouTube or iTunes for a proper clip.  This happens sometimes.

And sometimes a song hunts you down, chases you through the wilderness of your everyday life, pounces, pins you to the dirt, holds a knife to your throat, and demands your attention.  This happens rarely.

But it happened to me a few weeks ago.  I was channel-surfing through commercials when some music caught my ear.  “That sounds like My Morning Jacket’s ‘Rollin Back,'” I thought.  Did they lend their song to a car commercial?  Then I realized, “no, that’s the similar-sounding coda-thing from ‘The Only Living Boy In New York.'”  Ahh, that’s nice.  Sell some cars, Paul!

Fifteen seconds and two channels later, I heard the exact same part of the exact same song.  This time it was accompanying a scene in Garden State.  You know the scene in Garden State where they hang out at the Big Obvious Metaphor?  And then the crazy guy who lives in the Big Obvious Metaphor verbalizes the metaphor?  And then they go outside the Big Obvious Metaphor and laugh in the rain?  Simon & Garfunkel’s  “The Only Living Boy In New York” accompanies that scene.  Ahh, that’s rainy.  Sell some metaphor, Art!

So, a New Blog Rule: anytime I hear the same moment of the same song twice, at random, in the span of twenty seconds, I have to revisit it.

I expect all of you to hold me to this rule.

Song of the Week, Simon & Garfunkel, “The Only Living Boy In New York

I initially loved this song for the same reasons anyone/everyone would: it’s generous of spirit, the harmonies are beautiful, planes are fun to think about, etc.  But now I’m struck by something new: this is both an atypical and an exemplary S&G lyric.

Most Simon & Garfunkel lyrics try to do a lot.  Rich imagery sits alongside tight narratives.  Big Ideas abound.  Words come fast and furious, but are rarely wasted.  For example, listen to “The Sound of Silence,” then listen to this.  “Living Boy” is at ease.  It repeats phrases, it lets things settle, it allows the audience to ask questions, and it allows itself to let them go unanswered.  Who’s Tom?  What’s really going on here, line to line?  Many S&G songs try to do a lot lyrically.  This one gives itself a break.

It gives itself a break because it’s already done what most songs fail to do, and what Simon and Garfunkel songs do so often.  It attaches the right phrase to the song’s most memorable moment.  One breath crystallizes the entire song (0:48-0:56).  Check it out:

(“Hey, I got nothing to do today but smile/da-dah-dum…”)

I don’t mean to diminish the rest of the song.  S&G are Hall of Fame songwriters; if you’re looking for other interesting pockets in the song, other lovely lines, other musical things to catch your ear, they’ve got plenty.  But say you didn’t speak a word of English and heard this song for the first time.  How would it sound to you?

Like someone’s got nothing to do today but smile.

Crucially, the line isn’t, “all I wanna do is smile,” “I just have to smile,” etc.  It’s “I’ve got nothing to do today but smile.”  That gives the lyric enough texture to keep it from a saccharine, cliched pledge to good times and great oldies, bro.  The singer is the “only living boy in New York.”  Everyone else is elsewhere.  He’s got nothing to do but smile.  So he will.

And that’s exactly what this song sounds like.  That pairing–the right phrase at the right moment–can separate a good lyric from a great one.  It can transform an ordinary song into something unforgettable.

It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw…” (S&G)

Don’t follow leaders who watch the parking meters…” (Dylan)

I’d love to turn you on…” (Lennon)

Can y’all think of any more?


3 thoughts on “Song of the Week: Simon & Garfunkel, “The Only Living Boy In New York”

  1. I wish it was the sixties I wish I could be happy I wish I wish I wish that something would happen
    She had a weakness for writer’s and I’s never that good with words anyways


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