Paul Simon: Kodachrome Meaning
Song Released: 1973
On all the crap I learned in high school
Its a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of edu---cation
Hasnt hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall
They give us those nice bright colors
The first thing that needs to be understood is that narrator equates hard-work reality as Black and White, and carefree immaturity as Kodachrome, and we clearly know which one he prefers. Because "Everything looks worse in black and white" we know that he much prefers, in contrast, "the greens of summer" when school was out.
In the 2nd stanza, the narrator seemingly escapes the drudgery and failure of school with his Nikon camera. A camera, by the way, that "Makes you think all the world's a sunny day". That is to say, that even those days that aren't sunny can be made sunny with a camera. A hard life, when viewed through the lens of camera, can look to be much more colorful, pleasurable and interesting.
However, most photographers will admit that they consider themselves distant and detached observers of the static objects of their photography, or more of a chronicler or a journalist than a participant. Perhaps even a manipulator of reality. But when they lower the camera, the ever-moving black-and-white world re-emerges. So while the stanza seems cheery, in actuality we’re witness to the narrator’s sad self-delusion. A cheery self-delusion so addictive that he pleads to keep his camera.
The two most curious lines are the ones that end the first and second stanzas:
"I can read the writing on the wall"
"So mama don't take my Kodachrome away"
Regarding curious line #1: What, exactly, is the writing on the wall that the narrator understands so well, and even dreads? Does he understand that because he lacks a good education that his prospects are both few and dim despite the fact that, up to this point, his "lack of education hasn't hurt [him] none?" Are those carefree days numbered? Indeed, someone is, in fact, intent on taking his camera -- his escape -- away, which will then force him to face the hard unpleasant black-and-white realities of life.
Which leads us to curious line #2. Clearly he's pleading for someone not to take his camera away, which represents his carefree and constant "greens of summer" happiness. After all, the "greens of summer” soon enough become the browns of winter, except, of course, in a photograph. But who is this camera-taking "mama" and why does she want to take his camera?
In the third stanza, the narrator says "...when I was single", so we know that he is married. (At the time of the album’s release Simon had been married for four years. But considering the first stanza, I think we can dismiss any notion that the song is autobiographical.) I think we can now assume that this "mama" is the narrator’s wife who is perhaps pressuring him to get a job and settle down? Furthermore, the use of the word “mama” insinuates fatherhood – maybe even first-time fatherhood and all of its new responsibilities and hard realities. In fact, Simon’s first child, Harper, was born the year before the album’s release, so fatherhood, and paternal responsibilies, would be foremost in Simon’s mind.
Is this camera-less, black-and-white fatherhood fate the "writing on the wall" he dreads in the first stanza? Is the "writing on the wall", in fact, a ballooning pregnancy? And is the camera-taking “mama” really the concept and prospects fatherhood. If so, it would then serve to link the two apparently disparate stanzas together.
In the third stanza, which is yet another disparate break from the first two stanzas, we find out that he still frequently thinks about all the girls he knew in the past, or his former lovers, and absurdly imagines reuniting them all together for one night of mad crazy passion. However, he knows (and correctly so) that the black-and-white reality of such a night would never measure up to the crazy Kodachrome fantasy he's concocted in his mind. Indeed, he recognizes that his fantasy Kodachrome life is just that -- an absurd fantasy. Although it looks worse in black-and-white, it is, in fact, reality.
There is some optimism in his voice in the last line when he says that everything "looks" worse in black-and-white, or interpreted differently, “only appears” to be worse, giving him some hope to believe that looking worse doesn't necessarily mean that it is worse.
Taken together, what we're seeing is a young man who made irresponsible choices regarding his education and he's now heading into the stage of his life where he needs to find a job, settle down, and embrace imminent fatherhood, and although his lack of education hasn't hurt him to this point, he knows that's all about to change.
While he's still valiantly (maybe, foolishly) fighting this transition from immaturity into maturity, from adolescence into adulthood, he is beginning to realize the absurdity of continuing to believe in the immature fantasy, and he is now willing to accept the black-and-white reality and move forward with a hint of optimism.
In the two subsequent albums where the song is included -- The Concert in Central Park and Paul Simon's Concert in the Park, August 15, 1991 – the last line is changed to "Everything looks better in black and white". This is not an insignificant change. Reflecting Simon’s own maturity, now the narrator has lived in his black-and-white reality for a while and has discovered that reality, as hard and unforgiving as it is, is in fact infinitely better than keeping yourself immersed in an immature and irresponsible fantasy life.
Buried deep in the repeating refrain of mama don’t take my Kodachrome is the enigmatic line
Leave your boy so far from home
I doubt this line has any significant meaning. I think Simon simply liked the seven hard-beat single-syllable words that make up the line, with the last three words rhyming with Kodachrome. The Beatles were similarly known to hide enigmatic lines within refrains, and perhaps Simon was just picking that trick up and applying it here.
A would be remiss to not mention contrasting interpretations of the song’s lyrics. The two most interesting are:
(1) Kodachrome represents Playboy magazines – Playboy pictorials at the time were taken in Kodachrome film which produced lush, almost artificial colors. The meaning of the refrain "mama don’t take my Kodachrome" can be interpreted quite literally then. The narrator of the song, who was a poor to middling high school student, has now found himself addicted to his Playboy magazines, and in the last stanza he imagines “all the girls I knew”, or all the Playboy centerfolds, in one big sexual (and highly unlikely) fantasy orgy.
(2) Kodachrome was also the street name for a 70s brand of LSD. These lines take on a deeper meaning then:
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, Oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
In this interpretation, the boxy Nikon camera he has represents the sugar cube with the LSD drop, and taking a photograph represents eating the sugar cube. The “nice bright colors”, of course, represent the surreal, hyper-intense colors associated with an acid trip. However, in this interpretation, the third stanza defies explanation.
These two interpretations are far-fetched. Taking Simon's body of work as a whole, these sorts of large sex and drug themes are largely missing. Overall, Simon’s work largely revolves around introspective personal journeys and sweet love songs, not masturbation and acid trips
anonymous Aug 25th, 2019 8:39am report
Heavily influenced by the war in Indochina. On the surface a very happy song, but seen from the perspective of a young GI in country (most were poor, recent high school graduates, or dropouts) it tells the saddest story possible. This was the first war in the history of the world to be transmitted to the television sets, and newspapers of millions of ordinary citizens. While the summer days of the early 70s were, for most kids, all about skinny skate boards, tube tops, smiles, and sunshine, they were a living hell for tens of thousands doing uncle sams heavy lifting, and both versions were commercialized and brought to you by the corporations moving the leavers
anonymous Mar 20th, 2019 3:50am report
Drugs baby. Kodachrome was LSD - makes the world look beautiful with so many colors.
anonymous May 11th, 2018 5:49pm report
Sound of silence Scarborough fair Bridge over troubled water. So many references to spirituality. The magnitude of Simon and Garfunkel. The hidden truth of the music industry to Hollywood from NY to LA. The person making the LSD connection wasn't so far off target my friend.
Try a little closer to "Biochemistry".
That's right. Now you know. That's how it's done. Here's your clue. The happier the tune,
the darker the underlying theme. Welcome to perfect creation. From tembrels to pipes ~
anonymous Sep 17th, 2017 9:02pm report
Let's start with the what we can know, From Wikipedia... "In an interview conducted in November 2008, Simon said that what he had in mind when writing the song was to call it "Going Home". However, finding this would have been "too conventional", he came up with "Kodachrome", because of its similar sound and larger innovative potential. He also refers to its first line as the "most interesting" part of the song."
So this is a song about going home. First stanza looks back at his high school education, and that in spite of it he is able to think for himself, in other words "Read the writing on the wall" (This phrase is from the biblical book of Daniel btw).
Second stanza talks about his memories, when he gets home he is going to see all the girls he knew and they are not going to look as good as he remembers, or as we like to say, in black and white.
So he would rather have his memories of his younger life in color, rather than in black and white.
It's not very deep, but it is a thoughtful song about aging, and how our memories of the past are perhaps better then what actually was the case.
anonymous Jul 25th, 2016 7:38pm report
Kodachrome is simply cocaine it is not a hard thing to understand
This interpretation has been marked as poor. view anyway
anonymous Oct 23rd, 2015 10:33pm report
This is clearly about the way we seem to color our memories in our own unique way. Ask your friends about an event you shared, say, five years ago,(not when you were all zonked out of your heads, but a sober memory) and watch what happens. Simon seems to think that Kodachrome is a nice, little, invention and has fun with that. But needs us to know that there is no comparison between our imagination and a technique developed by Mr. Eastman. If we all had photographic memories life would be intolerable. It is only through our own imagination- the colors we choose to paint our own memories with- that they become vivid and alive. Photographs are dull and two dimensional- they may as well all be black and white, thereby making the invention unnecessary. It is only in the photo albums that exist in our minds that the greens are greener and the days sunnier.
anonymous Jul 10th, 2012 7:03am report
Sounds like you are all a bunch of old burned out hippies! Kodachrome was exspensive to develop & like any expensive product the possibility of be discontinued for something cheaper always lingered. Hense- don't take my kodachrome away. Whether or not he hid his stash in his empty box like some of you..I don't know? Lol
anonymous Jan 4th, 2012 1:29pm report
His imagination is more powerful than those photos ..."I know they would never match my sweet imagination"... you could line up a all those color pictures of all the girls from back in the day and they wouldn't match his Nikon "aka black and white imagination"
Bottom line the original lyrics were:
"Everything looks better in Black and White" The lyrics were changed due to a nice tip from the photo industry which was pushing Koadachrome film.
anonymous Jul 1st, 2011 7:00pm report
simple...he hid his dope in the Kodachrome film cannister, just like everyone else did back then. Of course he didn't want his mama to take his dope away--DUH.
anonymous Apr 28th, 2011 4:52am report
That Nikon is a cube of LSD is preposterous.
Perhaps reading Susan Sontag on photography would help the above people understand the lyrics
anonymous Mar 7th, 2011 3:44am report
Its seems as if the person is out of high school and thinking back to his younger years realizing that he should have been a better student and live a better future career wise.
He then thinks of his social life and remember the good times he had with women and is weighing the difference of having a good education while living a less social life. Sound familair?
anonymous Feb 7th, 2011 2:39am report
That last line in Bob Dylan's interpretation is 100% facetious. The very last thing someone with a pen name like Bob Dylan would be is hateful towards a fellow musical genius like Simon.
Back in the Fifties' when Paul was an adolescent we didn't have much color photography--"Everything looks worse in Black & White".
Of course, every things just insanely wonderful today and we can buy a IPOD and watch porn anywhere we want to--FOR FREE!!!!
Praise America! The Home of the FREE!!!! Free porn that is! Just another American addiction--like Vince Vaugh movies.....
with such a deep excursion into the mind and souls of paul simon i couldn't improve on anything the first commenter said. as far as bob dylan actually commenting i don't think so. time to come out of your self imposed life as dylan. dylan in public forums as tv interviews never has a bad word about any singer past present and as far into the future he has left,he's not into that. as he said i'll know my song well before i start singing is a direct opposite of your errors in spelling and grammar. for paul simon i like him a lot since back in the day. i think his kodachrome is his vision of what he wants his future to be. he has touched on this plan in many of his older songs.
Most times poets mean (or intend) one thing. Sometimes not. However, in this song he is being playful and perverse. It is indeed about an adolescent or a High School adolescent drop out who thanks God Himself for these beatifull colorized (even better than the real thing) picutered girly-girls--they all want me so!
"If you took all the girls I knew when I was single, but them all together for one night"--Yikes! Paul's a damn pervert, creep!!!
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