Workin’ on My Rewrite

One of my favorite songs from the Paul Simon concert this past weekend was one I had never heard before, “Rewrite”.

At its most basic level, it’s a story of a Vietnam vet working at a car wash, but what he really wants to do is write a screenplay. So he spends his nights “working on his rewrite”, hoping to “turn it into cash”.

The song is great on many levels. Like many Simon songs, the musical instruments are ones you may not often hear. Rewrite’ features the following instruments:

  • “glass harp” – an array of drinking or wine glasses with varying amounts of water in them, which affects the pitch produced when their edges are rubbed with the player’s finger.
  • “kora” – a cello-size African string instrument with a rounded body; it produces the music box-like plinking head in the song.
  • “djembe” – a goblet-shaped hand-drum; the smaller ones are held under the arm like a bagpipe, while the larger ones are supported between the knees of a seated player.
  • “angklung” – an Indonesian percussion instrument of ingenious design. A horizontal frame holds vertical bamboo poles of varying lengths. Sticks are placed within the hollow poles, and when the poles are shaken the sticks rattle inside, with tones differing depending on the lengths of the tubes they are in. Small versions can fit on a table, while larger variants are on larger racks resembling those for tubular bells. The overall effect is not unlike that of a vibraphone.
  • “wildebeest” – Simon admits he added the animal’s grunt to the end of certain notes.

I am not sure which of those instruments are actually part of the live version of the song. The song had a unique sound to it compared to other songs during the concert, but when you listen to the studio version of the song (below), you really pick up what a unique sound this song has.

But it was really the lyrics that stuck with me. I love stories where the “hero” keeps working on his dream, and to me that’s what the guy in Rewrite is doing. I’m sure he would love to be paid for his screen writing, but since that is not happening, he finds a day job at the car wash, which he notes is not a “pay job”. And he’s willing to burn the midnight oil to keep his dream alive. And he seems willing to ask for help, and grateful when he receives it.

He also realizes that while his original screenplay might have played more to our truest emotions, that’s not what audiences necessarily want, so he rewrites it:

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops

I feel bad for the guy that he has to do this; perhaps it’s a comment on how we have trouble facing what’s real, and go to the movies to escape from reality. While some action movies are great, I prefer movies that make me think, and ones that reach me emotionally (I’m reading this last sentence, and I feel like a washed-up movie critic; my apologies).

Anyway, who knows if Simon had all this in mind as he wrote the lyrics. He did note the other night right before he started playing the song that it struck him one day that the guy featured in Rewrite could probably be the teenager he wrote about in his song “America”, several years later.

There are a few interpretations of the song on line that offer different perspectives as to what it means. But what caught my eye the most was a comment on such a site which noted:

As to the brilliance of the song, many agree; the lyrics appeared in The New Yorker, presented as a poem.”

That sums it up for me; the song is brilliant, and like many well-written songs, it is like a poem, one with deep meaning. And when you pair poetry with beautiful music, it’s a winning composition.

Here’s a video of the song, with the lyrics:

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