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Even at the peak of his popular stardom, Paul Simon was armed purely with his talent for the American song. He played arenas and stadiums, he had platinum records and made his fortune, but he was never magnificently cool like Lennon, darkly beautiful like Elvis, implacably enigmatic like Dylan, or three-quarters crazy like a hundred others. Style, roguishness, bad behavior, self-conscious unpredictability were never his tools. Modest in manner, he did not boast a mysterious background or invent one for himself. He came with less rock and roll packaging and tiresome self-invention than anyone in the business. And one effect of time has been to show how little the absence of theatricality mattered. Paul Simon's songs have become a part of life's fabric, an inner walking-around music. You stroll around New York and hear the echoes of his loneliness, his comedy, his passion, his ache, and his growing older. Even now, as he writes new songs and immerses himself in yet another song form and rhythmic realm, he has secured his place in musical history. Simon stands with both the unpretentious masters of his own youth — the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson — and his greatest predecessors: Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, and Cole Porter. As you browse through this book, the enormous (and unfinished) catalog of Paul Simon's art, you will see just how many songs he's written that rate with "How Deep Is the Ocean" and "Stormy Weather."
You undoubtedly know the story: Simon was born in Newark in 1941. He was raised in Kew Garden Hills, a middle-class area of Queens. His mother was an English teacher. His father was a professional bassist, but for a long time Paul had a limited interest in music. At a school production of Alice in Wonderland he became friends with Art Garfunkel — Paul was the White Rabbit, Art the Cheshire Cat — and, together with two sisters, Angel and Ida Pelligrini, they formed an a cappella group and sang doo-wop songs. Dispensing with the Pelligrinis, the two boys performed as Tom & Jerry and wrote an ebullient pop song called "Hey Schoolgirl," which became a hit in 1957 for Big Records. As teenagers they were famous, appearing on a bill with Jerry Lee Lewis on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. In 1964, with Dylan and The Beatles now in full flower, and with college and years of apprentice work now behind them, the two young men reâ€‘formed in full ethnic name (a rarity at the time) as Simon & Garfunkel, with Paul providing the songs and melodies and Art the harmonies. Their first LP, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. featured "The Sound of Silence," a number one hit on the American charts.
Many of Simon's earliest songs were the songs of a very young man, full of longing and self-exploration. The best of them — "The Sound of Silence," "Homeward Bound," "America" — are tender, anthemic, and inventive, but there was also a quality in Simon's early work, often overlooked, of New York wit. It was not the scornful and scabrous finger-pointing style of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "It Ain't Me, Babe," but a wry, gentler species of social comedy. In "The Dangling Conversation," Simon parodies a certain kind of wised-up Manhattan conversation in rapid quotation even as he expresses his sense of lost love:
Yes, we speak of things that matter With words that must be said
"Can analysis be worthwhile?"
"Is the theater really dead?"
And how the room has softly faded And I only kiss your shadow I cannot feel your hand You're a stranger now unto me Lost in the dangling conversation And the superficial sighs In the borders of our lives
What a book like this neglects, unless you have a particularly acute memory and encyclopedic ear, is the musicality of the songs. The danger of such a book is that it seems to ask the reader to consider the lyrics as verse, written for the page. But even the best songs, Simon's included, are utterly linked to the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic qualities that go along with them. Simon was always a voracious consumer of songs and varieties of music — he would eventually combine forces with forms and players from New Orleans, Jamaica, Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere — but he was also a reader of English verse: W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, and, of course, his collaborator on The Capeman, Derek Walcott. He does not pretend to imitate those poets, but it is clear that he learned from them — their imagery and economy — as surely as he did from his musical forebears.
Take a song like "Duncan." Simon constructs a complicated narrative with incredible speed. Right away we get an autoportrait of the self-pitying boy in a cheap hotel room whose misery is compounded by the insatiably athletic couple in the next room ("Bound to win a prize"). We get his backstory in a few lines: the son of a fisherman and a "a fisherman's friend" ("And I was born in the boredom/And the chowder"). Penniless and on his own, he meets a preacher-girl, and, after the service, he creeps into her tent: "And my long years of innocence ended." Now, as an older man, he remembers that awakening with pleasure and gratitude as he plays his guitar under the stars: "Just thanking the Lord/For my fingers."
Although Simon first started writing hit songs in an era that had a tendency to mistake portentousness for meaning, his songs valued patient construction and a clear-as-gin transparency. This seems to be a conscious way of working for Simon. In 1990, when he was old enough to look back on his working method, he told an interviewer, Paul Zollo, "The easier it is for people to understand, the better it is, I think. As long as you're not sacrificing intelligence or insight or feeling in order to make it easier. If you can capture something that you feel is real and express it in a way that a lot of people can understand, that's rare and there's something about that that makes a piece have a certain kind of life. And if it enters into popular culture and it's not just about popular culture, then from a writer's point of view, that's a satisfying achievement."
Even as Simon's musical and rhythmical goals became increasingly complex, particularly with the Graceland album, his lyrical strategy retained its determined patience. "You Can Call Me Al" begins like a "three-guys-walk-into-a-bar" gambit: "A man walks down the street." And he begins to ask himself why he is "soft in the middle" when the rest of his life is so hard. Simple as that: a man in the throes.
"You have to be a good host to people's attention span," Simon explained. "They're not going to come in there and work real hard right away. Too many things are coming: the music is coming, the rhythm is coming, all kinds of information that the brain is sorting out." In this song and many others, the more abstract or ornate images come later, but the listener is prepared because by now "those abstract images, they will just come down and fall into one of the slots that the mind has already made up about the structure of the song." A similar thing, with a different tactic, happens in the title song, "Graceland," which opens with a clear simile: "The Mississippi Delta/Was shining like a National guitar." A National guitar, of course, is a steel-topped instrument that gleams like water. Two quick lines and we have entered a new world.
With time, many songs and their performers grow dated, as faintly ridiculous as an old fashion, a preposterous hat. We wonder, How could we have ever loved that? Simon's restless searching into himself, into forms of music undreamed of by the Everly Brothers, has been ambitious but always honest and unprepossessing. Maybe that is why Simon's best songs, whether sung by himself or by his most distinguished interpreters (think of Aretha Franklin on "Bridge Over Troubled Water"), do not date.
In the last pages of this book, you will encounter the songs of a writer no longer young, no longer at the top of the Billboard charts, but whose capacity for feeling and thought compressed into song has only deepened. In his maturity, he considers even the hardest thing with the serenity of the psalm writers. In "Quiet," Paul Simon is decades past youth, yet eager for the next chapter:
I am heading for a time of quiet When my restlessness is past And I can lie down on my blanket And release my fists at last...
And I am heading for a place of quiet Where the sage and sweet grass grow By a lake of sacred water From the mountain's melted snow.
— David Remnick New York, New York Introduction copyright © 2008 by David Remnick
If the experiences of people like me, who grew up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, had been the subject of a movie, Paul Simon would have written the soundtrack of our lives. In fact, for the forty-plus years of my professional life as an artist, every single painting that I have executed has been painted with Paul's music playing in the background.
His music is appreciated by me, and probably the majority of his fans, just by letting his words and music wash over us as an experience — and what a powerful, rich, and varied experience that can be. Musicians, however, tell me that for those who share his musical craft, their appreciation is special. No less a composer than Philip Glass has called Paul the greatest songwriter of our time. Other musicians comment on his innovative rhythmic shifts, which are often abrupt and unexpected, and his unique use of chord changes and melodic transitions. He is universally admired by musicians of every stripe and every generation.
Artists are by nature generous in sharing their interest in and passion for the work of other artists of different generations and cultures. Think of Van Gogh and Japanese woodblock prints, Picasso and African tribal art, de Kooning and cubism, Warhol and advertising and pop culture. As an artist in a different medium, Paul shared his passion for doo-wop, R&B, and early rock and roll, and more famously went out of his culture to celebrate African, Caribbean, Latin American, and Cajun zydeco music, and the artists who invented those sounds. He has collaborated with other singer/songwriters, jazz and pop musicians, and vocalists of every stripe.
Paul and I have spoken often of our shared interest in "process," limitations, and innovation. We share many concerns, because the incremental nature of composing music with individual notes building larger units and phrases mirrors my process of constructing big, complicated images out of small, incremental passages of paint. He has recently shared with me his current process — starting with tapped rhythms, sometimes drumming with his fingers on the dashboard of his car while driving to Connecticut. These rhythmic shifts and changes suggest possible melodic options to fit that beat. Finally, that resultant sound — rhythm and melody together — will be wedded with lyrics that seem to him to "fit" the earlier layers of his process. This counterintuitive methodology is the opposite of his earliest technique, in which lyrics and melody came first, and makes clear how he has moved, changed, and evolved his process as he has matured as an artist. To keep all the balls in the air as styles change over forty years requires real effort and creativity. When the British invasion occurred, Paul was one of the few American musicians to weather the storm. In fact, his music had such authenticity and urgency for Americans that he was continuously played, going toe-to-toe with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He emerged from that competition with such power that many of his best recordings were made in the 80s and beyond. For me, Graceland represents the most perfect album ever recorded. Every song is a gem: varied, inventive, and divine.
In recent performances of his music at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, broken down into three bodies of work over as many nights, it became crystal clear what a national treasure Paul Simon has become, and just how right Philip Glass was — he is our greatest songwriter.
— Chuck Close Foreword copyright © 2008 by Chuck Close