Little Towns

This is probably my favourite Paul Simon song. It was recorded with Art Garfunkel for the latter’s Breakaway album, and was apparently intended as an antidote to Garfunkel’s gentle whimsy. It jars with the rest of the tracks on that album, which is mostly cheaply potent sentimentality, exemplified by Garfunkel’s gloopy cover of Bruce Johnston’s Beach Boys song Disney Girls, which itself is a sort of depoliticising riposte to the music produced by the social unrest of the late 1960s. It originally appeared on the over-rated Beach Boys Surf’s Up.

I’m guessing Johnston’s song more or less consciously borrows the idea of returning to more innocent times from Carole King’s Goin’ Back, which I think was first covered by Dusty Springfield back in 1966, where the singer professes a preference for seeing the world ‘the way it used to be’. But whereas King’s lyrics are primarily concerned with a way of seeing the world through the eyes of a child so as to confront a world full of lies, Johnston constructs a realm of fantasy and escape in a a ‘turned back world/with a local girl/in a smaller town’, through a litany of homely turns of phrase.

By contrast, Simon’s lyrics are caustic and mordant, rejecting the romantic but fundamentally reactionary image of the little town as a source of innocence and goodness in implicit contradistinction to the nightmare of the metropolis. On the contrary, the town is a stupid, dull place in which God is a watchful figure of authority, leaning on the singer as he pledges ‘allegiance to the wall’. The basis for the little town’s existence, the factories, seem to produce the ‘dirty breeze’ in which his mother hangs out her family’s shirts, which is the only detail about his mother the singer feels it relevant to mention. Such is the monochrome existence that all the colours of the rainbow are black, but, in flight from reality and in resort to cheap positivity we imagine pervades the place, that’s because they lack imagination.

If the last verse

In my little town
I never meant nothin
I was just my fathers son
Saving my money
Dreaming of glory
Twitching like a finger
On the trigger of a gun
Leaving nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town

had been written recently by a nobody on youtube, it would have a SWAT team sent round to the author’s house.

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