Like so many songs of my early childhood in the late 1970s, “Slip Slidin’ Away” became part of my pre-linguistic sensory experience. Instrumentally spare even for a Paul Simon recording, it nevertheless has the distinction of being a song I experience in my chest as some form of synaesthesia, of sound made into sensation. To a two-year old, lyrics are obviously irrelevant, so it’s a testament to the magic of Paul Simon’s voice and the distinctive “and three” percussion that the song makes an impression at all on someone whose cognitive abilities are limited.
It’s tempting to interpret the tune as a lullaby, but even then I knew the song was not telling me that everything would be alright. I understood the words in the title at least, and I knew it meant loss of control, of being slowly moved in some unintended direction.
Released in late 1977 as a bonus track for Simon’s Greatest Hits, Etc., the song went to #5 on the Billboard charts. It’s one of the few situations I can think of where an unreleased song was appended to a hits collection and actually became a hit itself. It didn’t make the cut onto Still Crazy After All These Years, so it seems as though Simon is saying “here’s this thing I didn’t want to tell you about.” Maybe he wasn’t sure it was good enough, or maybe he thought we wouldn’t understand or be prepared for the message.
Because the song was encoded in my memory as a sensation rather than a song, I never took the time later in life to comprehend the lyrics. I absorbed it as I do most songs – music first, lyrics last, if at all. Only within the last few years did I get around to comprehending the verses. A lot of Paul Simon’s tunes have a certain sadness laced with hope, but this one doesn’t offer much in the way of consolation. It simply presents the world as it is – a man too much in love, a woman with lowered (realistic?) expectations from life, a father who doesn’t explain himself, and then the final verse, the knock-down blow:
God only knows
God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man
We’re working our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away
It’s a dark truth that we are, for the most part, not in control, much as we may think we are. Maybe it’s just the timbre of The Paul Simon Voice that softens the punch, but the song manages not to be completely depressing; instead it transmits a feeling of being at peace with an uncertain universe. As children, our lullabies are either unreasonably rosy (“you make me happy when skies are grey”) or strangely horrid (“the cradle will fall?” WTF, mom?), so “Slip Slidin’ Away” might make a good middle ground. It’s the kind of message children would benefit from hearing more often. Somehow I think it was beneficial for me.
UPDATE: I realized recently that the most likely definition of “Slip Slidin’ Away” is death. I was reminded of a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh (and adapted by Chroma Key into a piece called “When You Drive“) wherein Han says, “we have the habit energy of wanting to arrive. That is why we want to go as quickly as possible…but we arrive at every moment…If we abandon the present moment, our final destination may be our death. You don’t want to arrive there.” So with that in mind, we really do think we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re just getting closer to death.