Continuing, ever so slowly, to trawl through Art Garfunkel’s Seventies output one song at a time.
I love the hell out of “Waters of March.” I love where it came from, and what it says, and how Art sings it.
That’s really all you need to know, but I’ll blow a couple hundred words expanding on that in case anyone wants to know more.
The source: “Waters of March” was written by the legendary Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the fathers of bossa nova, possibly the coolest musical style this planet has ever birthed. I am a small-scale Jobim fan, owning a couple of his records, and thus far I have not heard much of anything that stands to his demerit.
If bossa has any shortcoming, it’s languor. There’s an exceedingly fine line between laid-back bossa cool and loungey schlockiness. (Think of the Blues Brothers taking that ungodly slow elevator ride to the tune of “Girl from Ipanema.”)
But, if you can trust anybody to keep you on the right side of the coolness line, it’s Tom Jobim.
The song: (Pretty much all of this next section is paraphrased from Wikipedia, which means it could be nonsense, but I find the story sufficiently marvelous that I support it without reservation.)
Jobim’s home city of Rio de Janeiro is, of course, in the Southern Hemisphere. There, the rains of March represent the end of summer, the coming of cold weather and, allegorically, the approach of death. Jobim’s original Portuguese lyric is a mosaic of images that evoke that.
(Supposedly, the imagery in the Portuguese lyric — some of which carries over to the English version — is inspired in part by the trash and waste that the rains of March wash through the streets of Rio.)
In the Northern Hemisphere, March represents the first delicate rising of spring — the first glimpse of what comes after the cold weather.
So the English lyric, also written by Jobim, includes nods toward life and promise, without abandoning the darkness of the original.
(Does “it’s the end of all strain / It’s the joy in your heart” refer to the first warm sunlight of spring, or to the release of death?)
“Waters of March,” then, is a marvelous musical ambigram — not just creative sleight-of-hand, not a parlor trick, but a thoughtful construction that works differently and well from two varied angles.
The English version lets in more sunlight than the Portuguese, perhaps, but it’s still a dark vision … a reminder that death can arrive at any time, even when the sun is coming out and the crocuses are blooming.
The performance: I’ve busted on Art before for underplaying his hand. Usually I prefer him when he’s in full voice, flying flags of crimson and vermilion.
That wouldn’t go well with bossa, though, and Art’s delivery of “Waters of March” is low-key and effective. He sounds gently bemused, like he’s presenting a mystery one clue at a time, turning each one over, not entirely comprehending how they all came together into a big picture.
Art’s take is modeled on Jobim’s own version from 1973. While I see the charm in Jobim’s, Garfunkel has better pipes, and I’d probably be more likely to bring out Art’s version to play for pleasure.
(The synth solo on Garfunkel’s version also sounds oddly like a European police siren — a further unsettling touch I don’t get as strongly from the Jobim recording.)
Unfortunately, Art would not return to the Jobim catalog until 2007’s Some Enchanted Evening, a journey through the Great American Songbook that included a side trip to “Corcovado.” I think he could have gotten away with one or two more bossas, myself, but I guess he didn’t feel it.
So the needle clicks up on side one of Breakaway, and we move to the stereo, weighing the images in our mind, wondering what it all means and hoping there’s something nearly as engaging or interesting on the other side.