Finally appreciating what Simon says
Recent reissues inspire new thoughts on Paul
When I was about 13, my music consisted of whatever I found in the Columbia Record & Tape Club catalog. Some of those albums are things I could still be proud of (the Clash, the Cars), some have thankfully ended up in that great IROC-Z in the sky (Ozzy, Def Leppard). And then there’s Paul Simon.
In those days, I disliked anyone deemed too sensitive and singer-songwriterly. Think Jackson Browne or James Taylor. Paul Simon particularly bugged me. I realized this when the first Columbia House installment arrived during the summer of 1983. The box included a tape of Simon & Garfunkel’s greatest hits with Paul, on the cover, in a beige beret, stringy, shoulder-length hair, and a horrible porn-star mustache. That didn’t do much for a kid whose idealized human had to be Joe Strummer, kneeling on the railroad tracks, with slick hair and a muscle shirt.
I think of that cover now as I gaze at the recently rereleased edition of “Still Crazy After All These Years,’’ Simon’s 1975 album. He’s got that same ’stache, a funny hat, and a pair of jeans that look tight enough to squash a french fry. But as a grown-up who knows the music on that record, I see this Simon differently.
He’s alone, perhaps in Paris, perhaps in New York, and there’s melancholy in that pose. I know this from listening to the record, which uses a variety of musical styles - lounge jazz, gospel, pop - to evoke several cycles of emotional disorder: Isolation, nostalgic longing, bravado, and ultimately resignation. I’m glad the reissue includes the demo for “Slip Slidin’ Away’’ as a bonus track. That song, released as a single on a greatest-hits record two years later, belongs on “Still Crazy,’’ Simon’s adult masterpiece.
Considering what I know about Simon’s life, I imagine “Still Crazy’’ wasn’t easy to make. He was in his mid-30s, divorced, not even sure how to deal with his onetime musical brother, Artie. On “My Little Town,’’ the pair do reunite on record for the first time since their 1970 breakup. You expect, because of the billing, a tender paean to times past. Instead, we get a bitter little pop song that builds to a loud, repetitive chant. “Nothin’ but the dead and dying back in my little town.’’
What is Simon’s best record? Many will refuse to back away from 1986’s “Graceland.’’ Fair enough, but I’m at least comfortable declaring Simon’s best record of the 1970s is his 1972 self-titled release. That’s also just been reissued, along with 1973’s excellent “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’’ and 1974’s “Paul Simon in Concert: Live Rhymin’.’’
Not to dwell too much on album covers, but on “Paul Simon,’’ he wears a winter parka, his face shadowed by the hood, his eyes cast to the side, looking out of the frame. It’s as if Simon wants us to think he’s not sure how to present himself as a solo artist. Then the music starts and you realize the shifty-eyed singer knows exactly what he wants to do.
The first sound of Paul Simon’s solo career is the gunshot snare and the thumping, rhythmic guitar of the opening reggae song, “Mother and Child Reunion.’’ It’s hard, 30 years later and with this song part of the classic-rock canon, to realize how startling this must have sounded to the masses, so accustomed to parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Simon’s stylistic jump, which would mark all of his solo work, serves as a bullhorn announcing his days as half a duo are through.
Of course, then he hits us with the most Simon & Garfunkelish song on the record, “Duncan.’’ This soft story-ballad could have fit perfectly on any of those S & G records, the Andean players borrowed from “El Condor Pasa (If I Could).’’ Same for the playful shuffle of “Run That Body Down.’’
On this record, Simon’s guitar playing is grittier than his work with Garfunkel, his singing more daring, and he’s got “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.’’ There’s a fantastic, all-too-brief instrumental with the great French violinist Stéphane Grappelli.
And like all great records, the debut, “Still Crazy,’’ and those other reissues will probably inspire you to dive headfirst down the rabbit hole. I did, downloading the much-ignored “Hearts and Bones’’ after reading, on the Internets, about how the 1983 solo album was originally an attempt at a Simon & Garfunkel reunion - until Paul stripped off Artie’s vocals. I also encountered Simon in, of all places, a
I wanted to resist. Buying a CD in Starbucks is the adult equivalent of being a teenager purchasing a pack of condoms at
Immediately, I felt the same glow I get when I hear a new record by another slow-working master, Randy Newman. It is the sound of someone who not only still knows how to write complex songs with catchy hooks, but a mature artist with a point of view. Simon’s voice is also remarkably preserved, which is notable considering Garfunkel is now unable to perform publicly after years of smoking.
The title track of “So Beautiful’’ ends the album. It’s a chugging, guitar blues and, to me, speaks of the randomness, the potential for a greater destiny, and what we choose to believe.
I don’t know if this begrudging spirituality is Paul Simon’s philosophical take after decades of personal and musical exploration or just a fictitious creation told in the first person. I just know this viewpoint makes me think about larger issues in life, which is a lot more than I can say about most of what cycles through my iPod.
“I’m going to tell my kids a bedtime story,’’ he sings. “A play without a plot / Will it have a happy ending? / Maybe yeah, maybe not.’’
Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.