Thursday, April 17, 2008


We all know about misheard lyrics - how wrong we can get them, and how embarrassing it can be when we do. Some examples of misheard lyrics are unique to the individual (I devote a whole chapter to revealing some of mine in my book, Papa Do Run) while others, like Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” are famous ‘round the world. But what about the songs themselves? Determining the meaning of the entire song is often up to the listener. And people can really go out on some pretty rickety limbs when it comes to explaining the meaning behind popular songs. It has the potential to be as funny/bizarre as misheard lyrics. Here’s a personal example of a misinterpreted song that I discovered just the other day. The song is Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.”

This pretty song, tinged with melancholy, first hit the airwaves back in 1970, on S&G’s “Bridge Over Trouble Water” album. I liked it a lot right away. Even better, the lyrics were clear as a bell. There were none of those awkward car-karaoke moments, where I had to kind of mumble past something I couldn’t quite understand as I sang along. But still, the meaning of the song was a bit enigmatic. Perhaps at this point I should stick the lyrics here in, so we can all have a look as we go.

Tom, get your plane right on time
I know your part'll go fine
Fly down to Mexico
Doh-n-du-doh etc. and here I am
The only living boy in New York

I get the news I need on the weather report
I can gather all the news I need on the weather report
Hey, I've got nothing to do today but smile
Doh-n-du-doh etc. here I am
The only living boy in New York

Half of the time we're gone but we don't know where
And we don't know where

Tom, get your plane right on time
I know that you've been eager to fly now
Hey let your honesty shine, shine, shine
Doh-n-du-doh etc
Like it shines on me
The only living boy in New York
The only living boy in New York

Okay, we have the unnamed narrator of the song, addressing a guy named Tom, who is nervous about flying to Mexico. He has something to do there; he's part of some kind of venture. Hmmm, whatever could it be? What kind of operation would take someone in a plane (probably a small private unregistered one…) down to Mexico, make them nervous (it’s illegal) and yet excited (make big bucks)? Oh, you’re way ahead of me! Yes, I was sure he was singing about dope. This is a song about a pot smuggling caper! The narrator back in New York is wishing his buddy a good flight. He's happily stoned, not a care in the world (see verse 2). Eventually, he’s going to be down to seeds and stems again (see Apr 8/08 post) and will be knocking on Tom’s door for a refill. Yes, my friends, that interpretation more or less satisfied me for decades. Then a couple of days ago, I heard this song again, and realized that now I could go to one of the “song meanings websites” and see what they had to say. I discovered there are two main schools of thought about the meaning of "The Only Living Boy in New York."

One says that it's a foreshadowing of the coming breakup of Simon and Garfunkel as a duo. That has some merit, but the other interpretation, which seems more solid to me, is that it’s a simple song of friendship from Paul to Art - who at the time was shuttling back and forth between NY and Mexico, filming the 1970-released movie, Catch 22. So it would seem he was worried about his part in the movie, not a pot buy. Further evidence is the fact that the boys recorded their first record under the name Tom and Jerry. So, Paul (who would be “Jerry”) is addressing the song to “Tom” (Art). When I read that, boy did I feel stupid! But I will say in my own defense that back in 1970, when I first formed my pot theory, I didn’t know that Paul and Art had previously recorded as Tom and Jerry, or I might have got a clue a little earlier.

Well, time for a listen to this lovely little song. And let’s just forget I ever mentioned pot.

Photo from

Post title decoded - Yes but what does it all mean?


Quiet Paths said...

Wow, doshgarn I learn something new everyday on your blog. That song has made a come back in this decade because of the movie Garden State, but I loved it in the way back when even tho' I hadn't a clue to its meaning.

Deborah Godin said...

Thanks q-p! Yes, I just discovered it was on Garden State when looking for "the right" video to put with this post. Going to add it to my Blockbuster list. Great that the new movies are keeping the old songs out there.