Thursday, 3 July 2008

Insert some lyric here if appropriate

I always thought that as I got older, maybe I would understand. About Paul Simon, I mean. Here's a guy who starts off writing some dorky pop songs in the '50s of no real account, then goes to London for a while in his early twenties and comes back with a repertoire of amazing lyrics and music that completely transcends everything else in folk and popular music at the time.

When I was 14, my favorite band was Simon & Garfunkel. The Sound of Silence, Homeward Bound, America, Kathy's Song; lesser known ones like Bleecker Street, and some I didn't hear until much later, like A Church Is Burning and I Wish You Could Be Here. Then he writes a bunch more music after his return to folk-pop New York, most of which is decent to good, but very little that comes close to that brief cycle he wrote while in England.

And if you see him now the spark is gone. He plays his classics like a cover band at a bar, expensive karaoke. I saw him with Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl a few years back (snickering as I recalled the intense stage rivalry the two had in the '60s), but it was Bob who stole the show.

Maybe the biographies are right, and Kathy (of the eponymous Song) was his one and only muse. Their photo on the cover of "The Paul Simon Songbook" (the London album) shows a tenuous relationship, a love pervaded by distance. Maybe love at a distance was what inspired the songs. There are worse theories.

I still can't reconcile the Paul Simon that was, the Paul Simon that must have been, with the Paul Simon that remains. I suppose he's not the only old rocker you could say that of, but like so many of my musical heroes, they seem to burn brightly before I even have the chance to be part of whatever it is that they do. I think Paul Simon's a small piece of what brought me to London, some small hope that I could feel what he felt, or see what he saw. I think I realize now that that's not really possible, and it's freeing to simply appreciate what was, what happened, without trying to evoke its ghost from the cobblestones. I know I'm not explaining very well, but I hope that makes some kind of sense.


At 03 July 2008 16:34 , Blogger Beth said...

Devin was playing an mp3 last night of a relatively recent Eagles performance of "Hotel California," and I said, "I hate it when you can tell the singer has sung this song too many times and he's trying to make it interesting to himself." Because you could totally hear Don Henley doing just that. We saw Mark Knopfler on the weekend and it was kind of the same way when he played "Sultans of Swing." I don't know how musicians do it -- maybe they could just rotate certain songs, only play them once a year to make them special again, or something.

At 05 July 2008 20:04 , Blogger Eowyn said...

Hi, Wesley -- today's my birthday as well, and I found your blog while searching for interesting July 5 info.

Happy birthday to us! :o)

At 06 July 2008 04:12 , Blogger Zelmarific said...

Happy birthday:)

I think people, in general, become several different people over the span of their lifetimes. Every cell in your body (except your brain cells) replaces itself every seven years. In a sense, you are a new person every seven years.

It's funny that you should mention Bob Dylan, too, in the same post, because I've always wondered pretty much this about Dylan. How could he be so in tune with the universal consciousness, in a way, with all of his folk songs- How many times roads must a man walk down and all that- and then just sort of go on to other things? And to never be that way again?

At 07 July 2008 06:50 , Anonymous Felix Helix said...

Happy birthday, Wes!

Your birthday present is me disagreeing with you about Paul Simon. (I hope you like it! I saved the receipt, so let me know.)

Paul Simon has always struck me as the prime example of an artist who gets better with age, not worse. So many creative folks follow the same trajectory from raw, reckless brilliance to flabby has-beenitude; they discover fire and blow everyone's minds, and spend the rest of their careers in a futile and fading attempt to recapture the magic. I think Simon is the outstanding exception. His "Tom and Jerry" stuff in the early days was well-crafted but mostly unremarkable; the Simon & Garfunkel tunes were a whole lot better and deserved the huge fame they enjoyed, although (particularly in retrospect, I think) some of his lyrics from that time are unbearably twee and "look at me, look at me" intellectual. Today we'd call it emo. "I have my books and my poetry to protect me." Oh Cruel World That Doth Not Understand My Beautiful Anguish!

Still, there was clearly something real and honest and smart, as well as totally original, in the music. I don't think it was until after he went solo that he figured out he didn't need to show off. His first great solo album, "Hearts and Bones", had almost none of the glibness of his earlier work; though the voice and perspective were still unmistakably his, they had gone from self-centered to self-aware. Hermetically sealed intellectual exercises were giving way to something deeper, a consideration of larger landscapes. Kind of like the way Japanese art will feature an enormous craggy mountain in great detail, trees and boulders and streams, and somewhere in the midst of it all are a few tiny human figures. Less reckless, perhaps, but more radical.

"Graceland" was his big comeback, of course, and it was awfully good. The landscape got larger. Simon's dry wit got subtler, sharper: "Hey senorita, that's astute/ Why don't we get together and call ourselves an institute?" But it was his next album, "Rhythm of the Saints", that I consider his masterpiece. Here his voice nearly vanishes at times into the breathing jungle that fills and overflows the frame of each song. His poetry is some of the most exquisitely beautiful language I've ever heard anywhere, and by beautiful I mean truthful. The heart of this music ain't no valentine heart; it's got arteries and it palpitates. It's hot and dark and wet. He sings the whole thing, the whole organ, the whole jungle basin. The landscape is wild, beautiful, dangerous, dying; he's down by the cool, cool river singing from a calm and clear-eyed center, and every word is truth.

I like that Paul Simon acts his age. He was 20-something when he was writing "Patterns" and "Richard Cory", and he sounded like a smart-ass whiz kid; he was in his 30s when he wrote "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover", and he had the voice of experience; he was in his 40s when he wrote "Think Too Much"; "Rhythm of the Saints" came out just shy of his 50th birthday. He's not hopping around the stage like Mick Jagger trying to be a teenager again; the art he makes reflects his growth over time. No wonder he sounds like crap when he sings the old hits at concerts now; he's doing covers of a younger man's songs. "The 59th Street Bridge Song" should not be sung by a 67-year-old man who may be feeling a variety of ways, but probably not groovy.

I must admit that I haven't been particularly drawn to his recent work, "You're the One" and "Surprise". I've listened to them both many times, and they're good every time, and they continue to bear repeated listening, and Paul hasn't lost his integrity or craftmanship or playfulness at all, and there are a few songs that are really top-notch; still, they don't stay with me the way his earlier work has done. Which is OK. He's still Rhymin' Simon, and when he has something to say, it's always worth hearing.

At 07 July 2008 06:54 , Blogger Bob Feldman 68 said...

Unlike John Lennon or Phil Ochs, I don't think Paul Simon or Bob Dylan were really able to continue reflecting the changing consciousness of their original fans once they both became extremely wealthy and more culturally mainstream after 1965. There's an interesting to reference to Paul Simon's pre-Sounds of Silence period in the UK in the 1996 book by Victoria Garfunkel, Simon & Garfunkel: The Biography, which indicates why Simon may have declined as an artist and performer as he aged:

"The Tuning Fork was run by Chris and Robin Sherwen...Paul had his sights set on stardom and wealth. Chris said, `He told us he had a publishing company...And he did say that if he hadn't become a millionaire by the time he was thirty, he would consider himself a failure.'

"This drive to succed was something I would hear about again and again from different sources during this tour. Robin remembered it too: `Yes, he did say that, about being a millionaire by the age of thirty...'

"...Paul was met at the Central Hotel by the Sherwens' close friend, Geoff Speed, in whose home Paul was to spend the next few days while he worked at a variety of local clubs...

"...Geoff recalled: `...He told Pam[Geoff's future wife] that if he hadn't made a million dollars by the time he was thirty, he would consider something had gone wrong...'

Possibly Simon may have always been more commercially-motivated than artistically-motivated even in the pre-Sounds of Silence period in the UK because of he was less than 5 ft. 2 inches tall and may have been driven by some kind of "Napoleonic complex" in his youth.


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