Monday, 12 October 2015

Paul Simon "Songs From 'The Capeman' Musical" (1997)




Paul Simon "Songs From The Capeman" (1997)

Adios Hermanes/Born In Puerto Rico/Satin Summer Nights/ Bernadette/The Vampires/Quality/Can I Forgive Him?/Sunday Afternoon/Killer Wants To Go To College/Time Is An Ocean/Virgil/Killer Wants To Go To College Two/Trailways Bus

(Bonus Tracks: Shoplifting Clothes/Born In Puerto Rico (Cast Version)/Can I Forgive Him? (Paul Simon Demo)

Is rehabilitation ever really possible? Can someone brought up the wrong way, at an ideologically awkward angle to its peers ever really atone and be embraced by its peers? Does evil or betrayal run through the cores of people like sticks of rock until the end of their days or can they yet be made to see the errors of their ways and re-moulded into shape? Can a killer ever be a hero? Can a mistake ever be re-written? Should those who commit the most heinous acts ever be given a second choice? That's the debate that runs through the heart of 'The Capeman', an awkward uncomfortable musical co-written by Paul and Derek Walcott over an uncomfortable awkward subject, the life and times of convicted teenage murderer Salvadore Agron who defied his critics to get the education in prison he would never have had a hope of getting in life and trying to put it to best use. It could also, funnily enough, apply to the state of 'The Capeman' in Paul Simon's oeuvre: nobody seemed to like either the album or the musical much on release (me included) and this 'soundtrack' album is an uneasy compromise between being 'another Paul Simon album' sung by Paul throughout and a cast recording featuring the actor-singers from the original Broadway run (though an extended cast recording was released via iTunes later, this hybrid is the only version to have appeared on CD so far). With its curious mixture of doo-wop and street language swearing, it bears almost none of the trademarks we've come to expect from Paul and remains very much the odd one out in Simon's catalogue. Like Salvador 'The Capeman' sits there in our collections, originally buried in the bargain bins for years and tellingly absent from most Paul Simon retrospectives ever since, a member of the Paul Simon back catalogue but never really a part of it. Somehow it's rather apt that an album about misunderstood rebels should be neither embraced nor understood (the musical itself closing after just 68 performances to some atrocious reviews). But is there anything in the tale of a killer going to college worth resurrecting now that all the fuss had died down?

The answer is yes there is, but trying to re-assemble of 'The Capeman' perhaps takes up more brain power than most fans are likely to factor in. I've spent a fair bit of the past four hundred album reviews trying to work out if there's one classic formula that will make one album take off and another stall and though I haven't perfected my theory by any means and as always there are exceptions, it basically comes down to an album that offers what your public have come to expect from you, with a consistent batch of songs that also offer just that little bit more than anyone has realised you can do, with bonus marks for 'perfect timing' when an album's sentiment simply strikes a chord with a particular age (which is why 'Sgt Peppers' is rated over 'Revolver' despite having weaker songs and why 'Tommy' took off and 'Quadrophenia' stalled despite being a better work). 'The Capeman', alas, doesn't have any of these things: it's an inconsistent set of songs that sound nothing like any Paul Simon recording in the past and offer one heck of a lot more than we realised Paul could do all in one go, released into a world at a time in the late 1990s when we wanted to celebrate and revere our past rather than show people to be 'real' (Princess Diana's death mere weeks before this record's release changed the mood of many albums: Oasis' 'Be Here Now', released the week before, is another casualty). 'The Capeman' does have a handful of exceptional songs and an idea that's strong enough to sustain one very good epic song about the pitfalls of living in a world that refuses to believe that you can succeed.

On paper it's a good idea the tragedy of killer Salvadore's life is that he was sucked into a bad crowd early on because he knew he had no future and would never get the qualifications he needed for a decent job - had his education been given to him for free from childhood he would have led a very different life and his victims would still be alive. Unfortunately the musical has to spend a good hour trying to make the world of juvenile Puerto Rican delinquents believable in order to make the rehabilitation equally unfathomable when it comes - and by then you've simply stopped caring. Paul spends so long getting the dialogue right (dialogue which is just utterly wrong coming out of his own voice on this album) that he does too good a job of making his central character unlikeable and unlovable; the 'salvation' at the ends takes on a scarily bitter feel as you realise you're meant to root for someone you've just spent the first hour trained to hate and though the white middle classes who sneer at Salvador as he tries to do the right thing in the end deserve their comeuppance by having Salvador come good (showing all the hatred and wild fury he himself once showed, though without any of the same 'excuses') it's not enough of a resolution to make you feel comfortable. Of course whether works like this should make you comfortable or not is another debate entirely - you get the sense that Paul thinks not and more than one critic picked up on how this musical was infused with Paul's guilt - firstly for loving a wild hero in his youth who was a mass murderer and then guilt of his class for not listening when he tried to better himself. A Paul Simon musical - something we'd been promised for decades off and on by 1997 - was always going to make us think; fans weren't expecting how guilty and uncomfortable it was going to make us feel either and certainly not in a genre that's almost entirely new.

Well, we say 'entirely' because one of the things nobody else seemed to pick up on was how similar 'The Capeman' was to the Paul Simon classic 'Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard'. Both works come from the Puerto Rican heritage that Paul was always fascinated with (he and Arty had several Puerto Rican boys at their school and it was their branch of doo-wop that Paul latched on to first before the more 'white' version performed by The Penguins and co), full of the same jiving latino rhythms. In a sense an album in this style was inevitable, after the success of the 'African' 'Graceland' and the 'Brazilian' 'Rhythm Of The Saints' and was even closer to Paul's heart and closer to home. Both songs also deal with criminals, albeit Julio and 'me' are of the petty sort: the types of teenagers who hang around street corners dreaming of their future while nicely brought up elders turn up their noses and spit on them when they walk by (if that's even medically possible - I will have to try it sometime). However the key difference is that the narrator and his pal Julio have their whole future ahead of them and the rest of their adult life to go good, 'on my way - though I don't know where I'm going, taking my time but I don't know where'. 'The Capeman' is what happens when that teenage idleness starts taking over and leading to murder: Salvadore Agron hadn't 'meant' to be a killer and was far from the worst boy in his town or street gang. In a painful adolescence his father had run off and left the family home and he'd come home from school one day to find his beloved step-mother had committed suicide, unable to take it anymore: he wasn't thinking straight when he was invited to join local street gang 'The Vampires' and was a little too eager to fight without knowing his own strength; as it turns out the two teenagers he stabbed to death weren't from 'enemy tribe' The Norsemen at all but passing white  strangers. It was this the press couldn't abide (they were used to street gangs beating up each other, as long as they didn't beat up the middle class white families): Salvadore was the perfect scapegoat for everything 'wrong' with his race, class and breeding and exaggerated into all sorts of things he was never meant to be. The look on Salvadore's face from press reports when the police worked out who he was and arrested him is a case of 'it figures - my life couldn't get any worse' rather than 'ah ah ah ah I'm a mass murderer!' Infamous at the time as the youngest inmate on death row (tried and convicted, controversially, as an adult at the tender age of sixteen), the sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison (after the father of one of his victims bravely spoke out and said even he thought the sentence 'too harsh'). Paul, not immune to a bit of teenage hoodlummrey himself in the dim and distant past, clearly feels sympathy with his subject matter who is really 'Julio' or his narrator friend on an unfortunate day after a series of unfortunate events. There's a sense throughout most of this musical of 'there but for the Grace(land) of God go I'. However the trouble with this work compared to 'Julio' is that in the earlier song we, quite brilliantly, never find out what upsets the world around them ('Something sexual I'd imagine, though I never hung around to find out - that wasn't the important bit of the song' Paul once said when asked); 'The Capeman' though is about a specific case: a little too specific for some people. Salvadore had an awful life and he should have been helped - but it was him holding the knife and no one else forced him to use it.

The debate about how much of the 'problem' was due to society (the musical starts off the night of the trial, when everyone is sure Salvadore's background will help get him off - everyone except Salvadore who knows no white man ever helped him and wanted him to succeed) and how much was due to Salvadore himself (the killer isn't exactly a nice guy even before his life goes wrong) is, however, a revealing Paul Simon-style dialogue that leads to a handful of clever lyrics and some overall good songs. We start with The Capeman 'guilty from my dress, guilty from the press' and judged before a word has been heard in 'Adios Hermanes'. We get Salvadore's full background wrapped up in a well crafted five minute song 'I Was Born In Puerto Rico' in which every wrong deed comes back to a life of impoverished crime. 'Time Is An Ocean' is an exquisite song about redemption and feeling, frustratingly sung by the cast when it's the one song here you sense Paul would have sung well himself. Alas, somewhere along the way in writing this work Paul's nerve seems to have failed him. So much of this musical is too busy telling the not actually all that interesting story to actually think about the characters and the impact on their lives: even the one song from this album to get some kind reviews (the closing halfway-redemptive 'Trailways Bus') isn't as moving as it ought to be, picturesque rather than healing. Though Paul has always had the ability to see into people's souls oblivious of race, gender and age he struggles here to really get into the mindset of a man whose one unthinking as a teenager haunts his life forever and the ripples that fall from one unfortunate act he couldn't control. It doesn't help that in real life 'The Capeman' was scorning of the world's press, monosyllabic and sarcastic when interviewed about his crimes - an attitude that's heard in the sound-bites scattered throughout this work like barbed wire confetti, nor that much of the 'character' built up for Salvador has come from Paul's imagination not his research (though the killer 'wants to go to college' and eventually does, he barely spoke about the murders in his 43 years though he did write a series of colourful poems about 'street life' in Puerto Rico which opened the eyes of many white middle class families intrigued by the murder). Though sadly the musical doesn't include it, ending when Salvador is finally released from prison a full nineteen years after the murders, Salvador did find a redemption of sorts, selling the rights to his life that was made into a TV play in 1979 and all the money he made from it went back into a fund to compensate the families of the victims he'd accidentally murdered, the young Puerto Rican dying soon after at the age of just forty-two. Typically, the world's press didn't report that kinder fact - it seems rather less understandable that Paul doesn't mention it either.

It's not just 'The Capeman' himself that's the problem though. Paul also invents a romance sub-plot which seems very out of place and which also ends up as some of the most generic writing he's ever made. 'Satin Summer Nights' sounds like a song not good enough to make the soundtrack of 'Grease', while 'Bernadette' is as empty a character as he's ever written for. The Puerto Rican supporting characters are a rum lot too: they don't seem to do much except swear and boss each other around - there's no sense of the solidarity and brotherhood in difficult circumstances of street life (which even Leonard Bernstein managed in 'West Side Story' and is the obvious precursor to 'The Capeman', though oddly the Puerto Rican community hated that work far more than this one) and the gang disappear from the story the minute Salvadore is arrested (the musical might have had more emotional impact if we'd cut from him to their shock the moment they realise it isn't a 'game' and that they've all been 'lucky'; Salvadore was a very junior member of the gang after all). Paul has clearly worried about not making their life 'real' enough, but actually he makes it too 'real': Paul swears like he's Eminem on 'The Vampires' for almost the full five minutes on what must be his heaviest going track for fans since Art Garfunkel went down the ol' folks home for 'Bookends'. As for the 'white' characters in this musical - the judges and even the victim's families - they're ciphers too, passing on judgement from afar; the judge in fact could have been turned into a real villain, completely oblivious to what poverty and hopelessness does to a man and judging without ever understanding but is barely mentioned. In contrast the musical might have had a lot more emotional impact if there'd been a sense of loss from the family's perspective (who were more sorry for the young killer than anything else and really weren't the 'enemy'). The best musicals unfold song by song, act by act, until the outcome of inevitable; 'The Capeman' can be divided into three scenes: the murder, the sentence and the decision to find God in prison. Everything else is a subplot that takes away from the central story and none of the other characters besides 'The Capeman' himself are worth spending time on. Though the show got changed round and did improve from the first batch of songs from the few I've heard, but even from the first Paul seemed unusually vague about where he wanted this story to go and it's no wonder, then, that the show ended up as directionless as it did (there's a telling 'board meeting' early on where Paul is asked what he wanted to do with this subject and what his audience should feel and he says he doesn't know - he just wanted to 'explore' it. An album can get away with posing questions, but a musical or the equivalent stage plays/TV episodes/films need answers and a resolution of some sort for the audience to take away). Salvadore's younger sister passes on in the documentary the fact that her brother told her on his deathbed that she should keep his writings safe and keep from the greedy exploiters who came to make money out of the family name when he died, until one safe pair of hands would come to tell the story properly. Alas Paul didn't turn out to be that person and perhaps the biggest problem with the musical is that 'The Capeman' remains as elusive at the end as in the beginning.

It's not just the story though, which could have worked in different circumstance. More worrying is the level of the music: despite Paul's claims when half the cast was let go that the work was 'too tough', it's actually far too simple-sounding a piece to reach the layers of both Paul's own past and the depths of The Capeman's complex personality. Most fans know that Paul's earliest musical loves are doo-wop groups and that many of his earliest recordings as 'Tom and Jerry' 'True Taylor' and 'Jerry Landis' are in this style. The 'real' Capeman murders took place in 1960 when Paul was just starting life as an eighteen-year-old musician and songwriter: naturally the style and the subject are going to be linked in his memory banks. However I'm willing to bet that little or none doo-wop singles were actually played in Salvadore's house or those of 'The Vampires'; that's a Paul Simon addition to the story and a connection few other writers would have made. Though there are, too, several songs slotted round a latin rhythm section which are far more in keeping with the feel and style of the piece, I'm not entirely convinced Paul makes the most of these either; at its best latino music throbs and amplifies the way that dance music or even disco does, taking the listener to new heights thanks to repetition and crescendos. Very few of 'The Capeman' songs actually do this: 'The Vampires', for instance, is a gang song that ought to get more desperate with every line but instead just sits there limply. Throwing in a couple of twee ballads performed in a very white style (and which sound to me as if they were added late on to appease cross critics - if you think the murder in the musical was bad, that was nothing on the savage reviews! - and confused Broadway audiences) makes the sound even more confused. Both musically and lyrically Paul gets about a third of the way to understanding his character, of what makes him tick and the ticking timebomb of his life waiting to explode, while exploring the music and rhythms he'd have known (the murder should be the latino crescendo in all of this, the moment when all that fury that's been in the background so long takes over - but that's not what happened on stage or on this album); the other two-thirds just sketch in the story and characters in any style going.

Paul is a better writer than that so something clearly went wrong. We know now that 'The Capeman' wasn't a happy experience from the first. Paul felt pressurised to tailor his work to what Broadway wanted (though he was also given more creative freedom than he perhaps should have been) and didn't always see eye to eye with either the directors (this show had four - the last one introduced just three days before the first preview) or his cast (there's a revealing documentary about the making of the musical - planned as a triumph but a sorry catalogue of a defeat - that was made for TV titled 'A Roll Of The Dice' in which the Puerto Rican cast look at Paul Simon with the same disbelief and defensiveness with which he looks at the judge in the story; half were fired eight months into rehearsals for 'not being up to speed' with the work). The show really needed someone with a strong creative vision that matched Paul's own; though co-writer Derek Walcott was an empathetic collaborator, everyone else either seemed to pull away from the idea in Paul's head and imprint too much of their own ideas, or simply weren't strong enough to say 'no'. After eight months of rehearsals the cast and crew should have known this work backwards - but even a week before the preview no one was ready, with too many key structural changes and a sinking feeling that nothing about this show was working. By the second half of the 'Dice' documentary you can tell the fun and excitement has left the room a long time ago - this is a show that has been compromised so often its lost the vital spark that could have made it work; though everyone still speaks about 'hoping' for a success nobody seems very sure (including Paul) and the musical's early closure is met with a sigh of relief rather than tears. Paul himself looks a worried man from the first: he must have been reminded of the backlash given over to his film project 'One Trick Pony' seventeen years earlier only this time he's not even got his friends/musicians around him to get him out of trouble. He also looks as if he sacrificed something essential that kept him interested early on and is now only seeing out his obligations, whatever the sound-bites about being pleased to have had the 'privilege' to have learnt from an experience that cost Paul $1million of his own money (the show lost $11million in total).  

The release of this curious 'soundtrack/solo album' hybrid a month before the musical opened didn't help matters much either. A better bet might have been to get the cast in to record the whole thing and put Paul's name small on the cover as the record is launched as a 'new musical' to live and die with the others. A complete Paul Simon re-recording could then have been offered either as part of a 'deluxe edition' or at a later date as a 'year's anniversary' or whatever. The sad truth is that though Paul wrote them all he can't sing these songs. hard as he tries, a fifty-five year old Paul whose seen and lived it all can't make himself sound like a scared sixteen Puerto Rican kid doomed to be caged the rest of his life. Though Paul sings well (on 'I Was Born Puerto Rico' especially) he can't sing this part as well as the cast who were hired specifically because they could play these parts. The fact that fans got to know Paul's version of the album before ever having a chance to see the cast on stage actually hurts rather than helps this musical: we should be living those characters, not trying to remember what Paul sounded like as he knifes a passing teenager. I can see why the 'soundtrack' album turned out the way it did: Warner Brothers naturally wanted Paul, while Broadway wanted the audience to actually hear what they were going to get onstage. However a compromise still could have been sought with Paul 'playing' 'The Capeman' surrounded by the incidental cast, with some CD 'bonus tracks' featuring Marc Anthony's take on as many songs as would fit on an album. A two disc version with all the dialogue might have been worth a punt too. Having half and half just seems a bit 'wrong'.
Any one of these factors on its own 'The Capeman' could withstood. A cosy Paul Simon musical in the doo-wop vein most people would have accepted. An uncomfortable Paul Simon musical in his traditional natural style most fans would probably have taken too. A soundtrack album by either the cast or Paul solo would have been better understood. But a musical in a whole new style about a whole new style of character from a whole new way of writing, as heard on a 'soundtrack' album where we alternately get Paul sounding like he's never sounded before as a Puerto Rican teenage hoodlum alternating with voices we don't know (though lead actor Marc Anthony went on to be quite a success after 'The Capeman') is at three leaps into the dark too many. Like 'The Capeman' himself this project seemed doomed to failure from the moment of its birth, as a white man tries to tell a primarily white audience about Puerto Rican life played by a  Puerto Rican cast performed in a curious mixture of the two styles. Only a writer like Paul Simon would have been able to pull off making such an initially unlikeable character a 'hero' - and yet his usual storytelling skills have deserted him here, with 'The Capeman' too unlikeable for the first half and his conversion too unlikely for the second. However, just as the musical's core message is that even the worst of us have some good deep down in us somewhere, so this much slated musical too has its moments. The opening song makes you think the critics are wrong and this all going to be great after all; 'I Was Born In Puerto Rico' turns a life of grime and crime into a haunting lament for the ages and 'Time Is An Ocean' is the musical's natural end, a celebration rather than a song of frustration over what it means to be alive (we really need don't need the last three songs - it's here, finding God in prison, where 'The Capeman' is transformed). Though by far the weakest entry in the solo Paul Simon songbook, many lesser writers would 'kill' to have a failure this good and thought-provoking.

'Adios Hermanos' takes us straight to the 'heart' of the story when on October 6th 1960 'The Capeman' murdered two white teenagers by accident,. mistaking them in the dark for members of The Vampires' rival street gang The Norseman. The whole piece is sung in the doo-wop sound that would have been playing in Paul's own household and head when the news report first broke, but has nothing whatsoever to do with Salvadore. However it remains the best use of doo-wop throughout the musical, a sad and reflective take on what should be a happy and joyous sound, as if 'childhood' is over the minute The Capeman uses his knife. The single best melody in the whole musical is rather wasted underneath the story-telling lyrics which only really come alive when Salvadore brushes aside hopes that the judge will be lenient because of his age, a sentiment that draws a sad and weary 'woah I knew better' that makes Salvadaore sound much older than his sixteen years. Before the case has even started the judge is telling the press 'it's the electric chair for that greasy pair' as Paul stumbles over the first of many 'f' word in the piece - he won't be quite so prudish by the time we reach the middle of the musical. Though the melody is lovely and there's a nice sense of 'us' and 'them' developing already, there's no real character on offer here, just a bundle of press reports of the court case strung together.

Stacking the better songs at the beginning, next up is the musical highlight as a whole 'I Was Born In Puerto Rico'. 'The Capeman' arrives as a child, eternally the outcast left with nothing in a world where those around him seem to have everything. Though the song is in first person throughout, Paul seems to break with tradition in the third verse and addresses his muse and anti-hero directly in the most moving part of the song: 'No one knows you like I do' he sings, 'No one can testify to all you've been through - but I do'. This is Paul at his best, telling the newspapers some forty years on what the 'real' story was that never made the papers: that 'The Capeman' had been betrayed by everyone and street violence was a way of life - that in a violent world you fight back but that doesn't make you 'evil'. The sweet song, played with Spanish flamenco flourishes throughout, is very lovely and contains the best lyrics of the whole musical full of poignant reflections that makes the Agron family stand as out as strange from the first: wearing their summer clothes in winter (because it's all they have) and The Capeman's broken education which meant he can't even read the newspaper reports about himself. Had the rest of the musical been up to this standard then 'The Capeman' would have been a winner. However Paul struggles a little with his own performance - the one performed by Jose Feliciano (who played the older Capeman on Broadway) and included on the CDs as a bonus track is better.
'Satin Summer Nights' though is awful. Paul promises in the documentary that 'I'm going to make a work about my generation's childhood and that it wasn't all 'Grease' but that's exactly what he's guilty of here, trying to paint such a false sunny portrait of a happy day before all the violence happened that he might as well have added rainbows and kittens as well. A bright and sunny doo-wop background seems deeply out of place here: even as the backdrop to 'The Capeman' falling in love it jars against what we've been told of his life so far. A mock-Graceland style Ladysmith Black Mombaza chant is unworthy of Paul's talents and we're heading into the cheesy grin that represents the worst of musicals. The one part of the song that fits is the verse about being 'in the power of Saint Lazarus', a line Paul admits on camera to his co-writer he doesn't 'understand' on the documentary. However, it's by far the best line here: Lazarus was restored to life by Jesus according to the gospel of St John and, while not a saint, it makes perfect sense that he would be one for The Capeman and his ilk; they have nothing going for them and yet still wait for redemption and to be brought back to 'proper' life. The sudden flash of insight Salvadore has here, in relation to being in love for the first time, ends up being the love for Christianity that will 'save' him in prison.

'Bernadette' is the object of his affections, a girlfriend who is merely sketched in as a character and an appalling waste of the musical team's actual research (they spent a long time with the 'real' Bernadette finding out her feelings towards The Capeman - they should have asked her more about herself). A typical Paul Simon ballad made worse by the twee lyrics, once again it's far closer in style to the sort of music Paul would have been listening to in his own past than what the Puerto Rican community would have been hearing. 'I want you to be my girl - I want you to be my movie' is as good as the lyrics get, over a melody line that's pretty but also rather odd, always being broken up by a stop-start structure and a leap into something else. Though this hints at the fact this love story is going to be cut in two by The Capeman's prison sentence, it doesn't make for ease of listening.

'The Vampires', the earthiest most bad-ass song in the Paul Simon catalogue, has divided fans. In the musical it works rather well, containing more of a latino feel and a much more realistic attempt at street dialogue. Paul's attempts to sing this track himself on the soundtrack album is hilariously wrong though, with Paul mocking The Capeman for still living with his mother and swearing like a trooper. Sung in the musical by The Capeman's comrade Hermandes aka 'The Umbrella Man' who is portrayed rather badly actually: slightly older and the closest The Capeman had to a friend he could easily have saved his own skin by pinning everything on his younger friend (the one who actually committed the murders) but instead stuck by him, receiving a shorter prison sentence for his sins. The Capeman production team got in touch with him too - this surprisingly bitter and cruel song seems like an unjust reward: we should by rights be marvelling at the pair's friendship at a time when they have little else going for them. Though the music is much more suitable than the doo-wop, it quickly gets out of hand and turns into noisy modern jazz that just doesn't change or go anywhere - latin music should accelerate and grow not just sit there going round and round in circles. Though the cast recording is far better (full of action and adrenalin) Paul's own version may be the weakest thing on the original record.

'Quality' is an unwelcome return back to the bah bah diddly doo-wop for another slightly scatter-brained love story that returns back to the feel of 'That Was Your Mother' from 'Graceland', interrupted by too many sudden switches in pace and feel as we cut between the boys and girls. However at least the tune for this song is a good one, however badly it fits the mood and background of the story and there is at least a clever sub-plot underneath all the daft teenage preening. 'I want to know' the girls coo, 'are you just passing through my life?' The Capeman is of course soon to be in prison and will only ever be 'passing' through Bernadette's life - and yet their love, as replayed via letters and told by Bernadette herself in the Capeman documentary film, will last until the end of his life. It's not the 'love' that's fleeting at all but his presence in her life. Even so the rest of the song is awful: why is a writer of Paul's talent wasting him time on lines like 'come on baby let's rock some more' and 'every time we meet they say that boy sure looks fine'. For all of Paul's denial, this song is pure 'Grease', silly teenage pop fluff that harks back to a simpler time that actually wasn't anything like this simple.

I have real problems with 'Can I Forgive Him?' Not with the music for once, which is much more in keeping with Paul Simon songs of the past with its sad unfolding acoustic guitar riff, but with the words. A duet between the two mothers lamenting their loss (the mother of one of the victims and The Capeman's own, now locked away for life and still potentially facing execution) it runs blatantly in the face of the what really happened. The victim's families were the first to campaign against the judge's verdict, claiming that he was biased and that The Capeman was only a child; they were as horrified as anyone in the courtroom when the electric chair verdict was handed down. Though it's probably fair to say that they never did 'forgive' The Capeman for his cruel deed, they certainly did understand it - they too were from a poor part of town and the victims skirted with violence and street gangs; it's the judge from his privileged ivory tower who didn't realise what real life was like. What might have been better would have been to draw more of a parallel between the mothers who only wanted the best for their sons and the mutual feelings of guilt for victim and murderer that the system 'let them down'.

Ednita Nazrio stars on 'Sunday Afternoon', one of the better songs in 'The Capeman'. Salvadore's mother is in the kitchen, trying to get on with her life but she can't, surrounded by memories and trying to piece together what has happened. The song adds much back-story that's long overdue: the failed marriages, the poverty ('I'm still hoping for that raise they promises me on Monday') and the beatings The Capeman got from his second step-dad 'while preaching about repentance' (who sounds not unlike the hypocritical judge). Though she wants to put things right, she feel helpless and unable to do anything except dream that she can hear her son's footsteps upstairs in his room and that life can be like it was again. Though the tune is slightly anonymous and forgettable, it is once again in the latin style and 'fits' the musical better than most of the songs, it's irregular and uneven rhythms hinting at the disruption in the Agron household.

Next up, the salvation as 'Killer Wants To Go To College', The Capeman transforming from scared futureless teenager into educated matured adult. Paul's hint with this song is that had the killer got the education he got in prison in his life the first time round, the murders would never have happened with Salvadore going on to be a much championed writer with a flair for stories about the struggles in the Puerto Rican community living on or often under the breadline. However this major turning point deserves a better song than this bluesy two minute throwaway where Paul turns in his worst Puerto Rican accent yet. Simply here to tell the story, it's a boring 12 bar shuffle that you really wouldn't choose to hear again outside the context of the album. More interesting might have been to keep this generic 'white' sound of the day for the middle eight of press reporters desperate to provoke a re-action from the scared teenage lad: 'Will his violence return? Will he call out to his mama 'will you watch me burn?' Who'd have thought the Daily Mail would be the first in the queue to report the story, eh?!

One of the more overlooked songs in 'The Capeman' is 'Time Is An Ocean', a song about redemption as The Capeman discovers Christianity and realises that even he can be 'saved'. 'I have walked through the valley of death...row' he slurs (in Marc Anthony's voice this time) as he compares prison to church, places of purgatory and suffering waiting for enlightenment. The Capeman is portrayed at his best here as we join him in his solitary cell escaping the limiting bars through his discovery of the delights of the written word. However its not just the physical bars that disappear but the years of being 'caged' in a life that was inevitable before he learnt to read and write and discovered that his world was only as limited as his imagination. For the first time he can also contact his mother and tell her he's sorry, in a language he's only just painstakingly learnt (you hope that his mother learnt to read or at least knows someone on her block who can!) This dark and bleak musical needs a little light and this song shines like a beacon. Perhaps not co-incidentally, this is also the most 'musical' like song on the album full of overlapping vocals as the two locked up criminals find comfort from their families and the silence of their incarceration is broken. Once again Paul shows himself to have as strong grasp of latino rhythms - so much so you wonder why he bothered with the doo-wop and the other weird genres on other songs.

For instance 'Virgil' is a Western song, a sort of straight-faced version of 'The Lone Teen Ranger', the best of the songs a pre-fame Paul was writing as Jerry Landis around the time of 'The Capeman' court-case. In this song we get introduced to another character, the mean prison guard, who sounds like Mr Mackay from Porridge crossed with my jobcentre advisor Attila The Sanctioner. He doesn't understand what all the fuss and sympathy is about - life hasn't exactly been kind to him either stuck in a no good job with low pay and a family to provide for. His comment when asked about the 'The Capeman' is 'He's smart and he's quiet' and while The Capeman has been no trouble at all while he's been inside 'He's a troublemaker if ever I've seen one!' The title 'virgil' intrigues me, a cross between the idea of the media keeping 'vigil' outside The Capeman's door and paying his own prison guards for information and the Roman poet 'Virgil' who was an early advocate of education helping people out of their animalistic ways. However, clever as this may be, it's an ugly song and hard to listen to with its repetitive chugging style which is so out of place here (even granted that this song should be out of place here, representing another whole viewpoint that's brittle and unwavering, it really doesn't work in context).

By now 'Killer Wants To Go To College II' is becoming an anthem. The determination and aggression of the early version has given way to a much more playful sequel. However this is still at heart a sad song: though The Capeman's language has grown now, he's become more and more aware of how precious life is and understands more what a terrible deed he did. 'I know you're trying to protect me' he informs a well wisher, 'searching for another truth' but adds later that 'my life never made much sense'. The Capeman refuses to take all the blame, however, declaring in the single best verse of the whole show that 'the streets were dark with danger, I had to stand up for my friends, in a land where I'm a stranger, and the hatred never ends'. Though still based around a generic blues pattern, it's a much more inventive and decorated version of the song that's a lot more interesting and enjoyable. The song then ends with a thirty second snatch of conversation from the 'real' Capeman, as taken from an in-prison interview around 1976 when Salvadore was thirty-two, although it doesn't tell you much you didn't already take from the song (its as if Paul wants to go 'see - I've done my research, honest I have!')

'Trailways Bus' is the most famous song from the album and is closer in style to the sound Paul will adopt on his next three works 'You're The One' 'Surprise' and 'So Beautiful Or So What?'  Though the song features latino rhythms, they're now played on the more familiar instruments of electric and acoustic guitars as Paul croons over the top a lyric of salvation, with Salvadore finally making his way home on parole. Many fans rate this song as the only moment in the musical which 'works', perhaps because it's the closest to Paul's natural style, but for me the song is one of the biggest disappointments of the musical. Up till now the one strength (and even then its hit and miss) has been The Capeman's study of character, watching Salvadore grow from a confused teenager to a self-assured adult in a world of strangers. This finale should have been the pay-off, when all the sins have washed from The Capeman and he feels at last as if he 'belongs' in the world through both the fact that American society has moved on (and become slightly more accepting of other cultures across the 1960s and 1970s) and that he is now educated, able to hold his own in conversation with anyone around him. Alas all we get is a description of sodding trees and all the other sights The Capeman sees when he gets on the bus that takes him to home. The Capeman is more interested in other people than himself and breathes in all the sights both within and outside the carriage, which makes sense for him but is awful for us: we can see mothers and babies and weary passengers any day of the week and there's no sense in this song about what seeing other people leading their lives (and being more openly affectionate about it too - one of the longest lasting legacies of the 1960s) means to the central character. It's the 'Capeman' equivalent of ending The Wizard Of Oz with a three minute dialogue about ruby slippers instead of saying goodbye to all her friends or Citizen Kane with the last five minutes replaced by a description of the snow falling outside. There's no pay off here and nothing for the audience to take away with them, which might well be the single biggest individual mistake of 'The Capeman' as a whole. The melody is also pretty dull and generic by Paul Simon standards, without his usual wit and wordplay and without any musical variation from the 'dit dit dit dit dum' hook. 'Trailways Bus' ought to be a season ticket, a way to return back to the start of the musical with memories of all we learnt on the way as The Capeman is embraced by those who thought they'd never see him again. Instead it's a one-way street where the outside world is still experienced through the glass of a bus.

I'm not sure where the CD bonus track 'Shoplifting Clothes' might have come in the musical - somewhere near the beginning, probably, when the Vampires are still young and penniless. A rather lacklustre doo-wop song where the usual songs of love are replaced by the refrain 'doo doo doo shoplifting clothes'. An attack on capitalism, the petty thieves are shocked at how far their money goes compared to the rich and pointless fashions enjoyed by their peers. Worth hearing simply for the fact that it's the only place where you can hear a full four-way Paul Simon chorus, it was probably rightly dropped from the musical - its uneasy humour doesn't fit the relatively serious tone of most of the rest of the musical and doesn't add much of our understanding of the plot or the characters. Two further bonus tracks appeared on the album from the very first release, a cast recording of 'I Was Born In Puerto Rico' that's rather good and a demo of 'Can I Forgive Him?' which is very close to the re-recording on the album to begin with.

Overall, then, 'The Capeman' is a disappointment. Though the idea behind the story is a good one - raising issues about the importance of education, racism, poverty and rehabilitation - the realisation both on stage and record left a lot to be desired. The main problem with this show seems to be that Paul's own idea of what he was doing wasn't clear: did he himself think that Salvadore was an unfortunate, robbed of his future by society's dead-ends? Or will the world always be full of killers? (Though The Capeman found respite from his life in prison by reading and writing, his younger self may well have rejected learning anyway and he'd have still been part of the street gang culture). Everyone else followed suit: this is a tale about someone we're never quite sure is hero or villain and yet everyone else in the show is either an angel (his mother) or a monster (the judge) or empty-headed ciphers. Four directors all tried to imprint their own views on the work, but all were too specific to match the ambiguity Paul wanted in work. Performed as a concept album in the usual Paul Simon style he might have got away with this (the film One-Trick Pony', with its similar tale of stubborness and failure, is the only 'real' concept album in Paul's canon to date and is far more similar than many people think), but divided up into characters (a mixture of the heavily defined and the empty) it doesn't quite work. Even with Paul taking the lead on most of the soundtrack album, it still doesn't work - Simon is the wrong sort of performer for these songs and while he makes a better job of the ones closer to his own style these doo-wop and early pop songs are mis-written and mis-conceived for the Puerto Rican world we should be immersed in. However, though audiences were divided over whether redemption for a killer was ever possible (the point which almost all critics picked up on), we at the AAA believe that redemption is always possible. Even for the Spice Girls if we live long enough. There is worth in parts of 'The Capeman': the songs 'Adios Hermanos' 'I Was Born In Puerto Rico' 'Sunday Afternoon' and 'Time Is An Ocean' are all four top-notch songs that deliver exactly what this musical should have done: a power reminder of a very different world which was the long-term factor resulting in The Capeman's short-term trigger finger, with believable characters trapped in believable situations. The musical goes greatly downhill with the presence of doo-wop-singing street gangs (who belong in a Franki Valli and the Four Seasons musical set in New Jersey, not one set in the Puerto Rican community), comedy security guards, wrongful takes on what the victims' families said and a boring monologue about the sights seen from a trailways bus true - but there's a kernel of songs in this musical that tell a story well and do The Capeman justice: certainly no angel, but no devil either, just a confused boy in a confused period with nothing to lose. Had 'The Capeman' remembered that thought and kept it uppermost in their minds throughout, this might yet have been a triumph of stage and record: instead it's largely a waste of $11 million dollars that might have been better spent paying for education in poverty-hit areas of America and seven years of Paul Simon's life when we could have had a very different and rather better conceived album.

Other Paul Simon-related articles from this site you might be interested in reading:


'Sounds Of Silence' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/simon-and-garfunkel-sounds-of-silence.html
'You're The One' (2000) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/paul-simon-youre-one-2000.html

The Best Unreleased Simon/Garfunkel Recordings http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/simon-and-garfunkel-unreleased-tracks.html


No comments:

Post a Comment