68. Simon & Garfunkel - Cecilia

My father-in-law is a big music fan, and a tremendous musician on top of that. He loves all kinds of music and was excited when I told him that I was doing this. He knew that a lot of the songs that I was picking were songs that he may not know and he was looking forward to being to exposed to new stuff that was cool. But as much as I know that he's interested in the "new stuff," I think he secretly wants me to pick a bunch of songs that he knows and loves as well. Multi-generational influence, that's what he'd love to see. Well, Dad, here's your multi-generational influence! (I'm not sure Neil Diamond counts, so I'll say this is the first one).

As much a fan of musical complexity and sonic lushness that I am, I'm also a sucker for great songs that are much simpler in their structure and performance. "Cecilia," by Simon & Garfunkel, is one of those songs. Acoustic guitars, simple drums & percussion (foot stomps & hand claps) & a xylophone to top it all off. Yep, a xylophone. But simple isn't bad if it's done perfectly. Tangent alert! It's like on Top Chef, when you get the cocky chef who thinks they need thirty-six ingredients with four different cooking techniques and a tartar foam for fish & chips. But then it's the chef who just makes simple, but really good fish & chips that are perfectly cooked and seasoned who wins the challenge. Fancy isn't always better. Simplicity has its place, and in most occasions, it's the simple songs that resonate through the years.

"Cecilia" starts off with an almost campfire rhythm to it. It starts with just a few percussive sounds - some hand clapping, foot stomping, kick drum, a quick hit of acoustic guitar, and then builds layers as the vocals come in and the acoustic guitar takes off. As the song continues, the sound becomes fuller and fuller, with more acoustic guitars and more hands to do the clapping - more vocals, too. For a simple song, the layers build and build and add a subtle complexity that you don't really hear unless you're listening for it.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are renowned for their vocal harmonies (I think if the Smithsonian could remove their actual vocal chords and put them on display, they would), and the harmonies shine in "Cecilia." Right from the start, they're harmonizing like it's against the law and the cops are at the door, and they won't stop. Their voices go so well together, it's almost as if it's two sides of the same voice. You hear one without the other and it seems odd. It took me a while listening to Simon's solo stuff before it sounded right to me (sorry, Art, never really gave your solo stuff a good listen).

So the vocals are soaring all over the place. More so than in almost any other Simon & Garfunkel tune, they really let loose with them. Hooping and hollerin', singing their hearts out. Then comes the xylophone. You don't hear too much xylophone in modern, non-polka music, but it works, doesn't it? I think they put the xylophone in there so while you were listening, you'd think to yourself, "Shhh.... What is that instrument that's in the background? Wait a minute. Is that a freakin' xylophone breaking into a solo? A xylophone?!! Awesome!!" So a simple song gives you that unexpected layer of strangeness that is just too cool for school.

Lyrically, the song seems pretty straightforward. It's about a girl named Cecilia, who's broken the heart of our songwriter. He wants her back so bad, he's begging. Just when he thinks it's as bad as it can get and his heart can ache no more, it gets worse.

Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia
Up in my bedroom (making love)
I got up to wash my face
When I come back to bed
Someone's taken my place

But then, Cecilia changes her mind and decides to return. Hallelujah!

Jubilation, she loves me again,
I fall on the floor and I'm laughing,

But here's the twist. I've also read that the Cecilia in the song is actually St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. So looking at it that way, it's a song about writer's block! He wants the inspiration of his muse and she's abandoned him. He desperately needs her to come home so he can resume his calling as a songwriter. I love this interpretation, but the "making love in the afternoon" verse throws me off a little bit. Could be he's talking about making love being a distraction from the songwriting he's supposed to be doing, and Cecilia moving on to someone who's more serious about the craft. Hmmmm. It definitely gets you thinking either way.

Great melodies make you want to hear them again and again. When you layer great harmonies on top of that, it's almost an embarrassment of riches. So without all sorts of newfangled instruments and production techniques, Paul & Art take singing a song back to its roots. Sing a great song and there's a timeless aspect to it. That's why this song is on this list, 39 years after its initial release. It's just a great song that will always be great, no matter whenever you listen to it.

Here's a cool youtube video that's just the record spinning. Both Dad and my brother Scott will appreciate it.

Here's another video that I couldn't help put in. It's an L.A. band called Local Natives who're doing a cover of "Cecilia" outside their house. It's so awesome. There's a guy playing a tree, for God's sake! And another guy lets loose on the xylophone solo with a kid's xylophone and then tosses his mallets! Classic.

1 Response
  1. Dick Lain Says:

    1. Cecelia is my mom's middle name, which made this song a major hit with my fam back in the day!
    2. Neil Diamond does indeed count...just because he hangs with Streisand doesn't mean he's a fop. His live performance at The Band's 'The Last Waltz' (check it on Youtube) was, to me, one of rock history's great surprises, not so much musically (although the moment is quite powerful) but for it's joining of seemingly disparate musical genres. To me, that's a real measure of artistry, the ability to open beyond the borders of genre and generation. That is your gift, Mr Walker! Keep on!