At the Zoo - Simon and Garfunkel
The very best albums have a musical shape to them which makes them greater than the sum of their individual songs and this is the case with four out of the five Simon and Garfunkel LPs, from "Sounds of Silence" to (the least great of the four, though it outsold the lot) "Bridge Over Troubled Water". "Bookends" finishes whimsically and poetically with "At the Zoo". Many years ago, upon the release of his first solo album, I saw Anne Nightingale interviewing Paul Simon on the Old Grey Whistle Test and she asked him how it felt to be writing all his songs on his own without Art Garfunkel. Paul Simon, quite rightly, looked astounded and then said "Well we weren't a writing partnership - we didn't write together..." and then, when Ms Nightingale followed this up with "So it was always your song/his song/your song then ? ", he replied "no, he didn't write any of the songs....I wrote all of the Simon and Garfunkel songs." I always thought that this might have been the reason why he called his next release "There goes Rhymin' Simon", just to be sure everyone knew he wrote the songs. The great Nightingale can be forgiven for not doing her homework properly - we've all been there, we were just lucky we weren't on tv.
English poet, Yorkshireman Ian McMillan once said that it was thanks to Paul Simon's frequent appearances on the Northern England folk circuit in the early to mid sixties that many young men were inspired to pick up a pen and have a go at writing poetry.
I once helped arrange the funding for the wonderful Little Angel Marionette Theatre to host a storytelling festival and they invited Ian to do a performance of "adult" storytelling. This was unusual for him, as normally he did poetry readings, and I was only there because we (Islington Council) had funded it, but he told a tale that I have been telling people ever since.
Many years ago one Saturday morning Ian received a delivery of wine. Let's say it was September 1994. He had, in a whimsical moment, subscribed to have a 30 days' free trial membership of the wine club of a certain Sunday broadsheet newspaper and then (as one does) forgotten about it, so that now he was surprised and delighted to be presented with his joining pack. This consisted of some twenty small 250 ml bottles of wine from all corners of the world. It was one of those Saturdays when, after lunch, the rest of the family had things to do elsewhere, and Ian was left on his own to potter around house and garden. After a while he sat down to explore the selection of wines. With delight he released each small bottle from it's cardboard mini-rack, found poetry in each variety and origin as he uttered the wine profiles out loud, rolling the names, descriptions and places around his tongue like good claret, - "Malbec, Argentina: velvety, bold and packed with black fruit flavours, great Malbec is simply irresistible. And right now, Argentina is taking this once unknown grape to new heights of popularity". He then drank them, imagining himself transported to one location after another. It was around the world in 20 bottles, except that Ian didn't get that far and, soon realising he had become pleasantly tipsy, took himself off to bed early to dream of exotic climes.
As is the case on such occasions, Ian awoke at around 2 pm and, still slightly drunk, made his way to the loo and then across the living room to the kitchen for a glass of water. When he switched on the living room light, he noticed that the family's pet gerbils, in a cage on a desk the other side of the room, had woken up and were scurrying about, one even performing its early morning exercises on the wheel. Ian, fascinated, surmised that they, not unreasonably, had interpreted the light coming on as morning. He thought for a moment, and then switched the light back off. The gerbils went back to sleep. Ian realised that, to the gerbils, night had once again fallen, and, for them, a day had passed. For a moment Ian saw himself, not so much as the gerbil God, but as a kind of Einstein, inventing time travel for gerbils. He switched the light back on, waited a moment or two for the gerbils to respond, then switched it off again. On, then off. On, then off. I shall never forget Ian's triumphant pronouncement: "By three fifteen, I had transported those gerbils forward to the 20th of February 1995!" Well satisfied with his Wellsian night's work, Ian turned off the light one last time and went back to bed.
The next day he woke late. Having washed and dressed, he went into the living room to find his family gathered round the gerbil cage. One of the gerbils was dead while the other was lying on its back, visibly palpitating. It died about five minutes later. Everyone was at a loss to know what had happened to them. Conversations with fellow rodent owners and local vets suggested it might be due to some kind of gerbil virus, but where could they have got it from? Their pet food may have contained some accidental poison, but the suppliers had had no other reports of contamination. The cause was accepted as being "one of those things", an unsolvable mystery, and Ian kept his silence, burdened by his secret guilt. What would they think of him if they knew? His children, though teenagers, might never forgive him. Many times he was on the point of confessing, either at a family meal, or to one of them, driving in the car, or on a walk, but each time the fear of ruining the moment stopped him. The longer he put it off, the harder it became.
Until one day, the literary supplement of a Sunday paper, in fact the same periodical whose wine club had precipitated the gerbil's demise, contacted Ian, asking if he would contribute a piece on a chosen topic. You know the kind of thing, twelve well-known writers all do a short piece on their most disastrous holiday, or their favourite novel or some other item of literary interest. Only the subject for this one was guilt. Ian could not avoid noticing the fate-like circularity of the invitation, and accepted the commission, telling, much as I have done only far better, the tragic story of the time-travelling hamsters. On the day the newspaper came out, he bought five copies and strewed the literary supplements around his house, folded back to lie open on the page with his article. The morning came and went, then the afternoon, the family all read the papers, but no-one made any comment on the piece. Finally, unable suffer any longer, Ian confronted his son, shoving the paper under his nose and crying, "Did you see? did you see? It was me that killed the gerbils!" The son smiled and said, "Don't worry about it Dad, we all figured it must have been you ages ago. We're over it."
"At the Zoo" is a beautiful song, brimming with poetry. Take the opening (or nearly opening) lines:
"It's a light and tumble journey from the East Side to the park just a fine and fancy ramble to the zoo"
capturing the fleeting happiness of childhood outings, lightly, like a sniff of fairy dust, - "the animals will love it if you do".
Not many have bettered the animal cavalcade that ends the song, and the album, on a note of gentle jubilation and fun:
"....the monkeys stand for honesty, giraffes are insincere and the elephants are kindly but they're dumb, orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages and the zookeeper is very fond of rum;
zebras are reactionaries, antelopes are missionaries, pigeons plot in secrecy, and hamsters turn on frequently, what a gas, you gotta come and see,
at the zoo...."
Now all we need is for Quentin Blake to do the drawings.
found wonerful puppet theatre justThe songs, Simon and Garfunkel, I wrote them all, he didn't write any.