October 13, 1941– Paul Simon:
“I don’t write overtly political songs, although American Tune comes pretty close, as it was written just after Nixon was elected.”
In his gorgeous recording American Tune, there was a sense that this weary portrait of our country from 1973 could have been written today:
“But it’s all right / You can’t be forever blessed / Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day / And I’m trying to get some rest.”
In his hometown of Queens, on September 22, Simon opened his final concert with the Simon & Garfunkel classic, which also contains this lyric from his song America:
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”
I know, Mr. Simon. We are all growing weary from the Trump administration and the chipping away of our rights. I’m getting beat down.
The tune is based on a melody line from from Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Saint Matthew Passion. It has been covered by many artists, including: Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Eva Cassidy, Ann Wilson, The Indigo Girls, Kurt Elling, Shawn Colvin, Allen Toussaint, and Curtis Stigers. Mandy Patinkin sings it in Yiddish on his album Mamaloshen (1998). Last year, Elvis Costello released it as a single under the pseudonym “The Imposter”.
It is a musical reflection on the election of Richard Nixon, but it resonates now more than ever.
Simon has been a major musical force in my life for 50+ years. I purchased, listened to, played, and imitated the songs of the Simon & Garfunkel catalog beginning in 1964. At 11-years-old, I sang in my sweet boy alto, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme at a grade school talent show, accompanied by my own plucky guitar, a feat never to be repeated. I would insist on piano accompaniment for the rest of my life as a vocalist.
My favorite solo album by Simon is probably a career low for him, Hearts And Bones (1980). I am listening to it as I type away. This album is Simon’s personal response to the breakup with his then-wife Carrie Fisher. The title track refers to the traveling of “one and one-half wandering Jews”, a reference to Fisher’s famous father and Simon himself, but it is also a song about love and loss.
Hearts And Bones also contains one of the few songs that I can think of on the subject of numbers, When Numbers Get Serious, which evokes the beginnings of our Information Age. Also unusual musically is Think Too Much, actually two different songs with the same title and chorus line, dealing with the act of thinking.
The beautiful Train In The Distance is a haunting tune. I have dreamed this song in my sleep, while I hear the mournful whistles of the trains near my home in Portland, Oregon.
My favorite track on Hearts And Bones is a surreal song about the surrealist artist René Magritte and his wife. Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War suggests that the famed couple secretly admired the music of such early doo-wop artists as The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles, and The Five Satins. The title derives from a caption to a photograph of the Magrittes, with Simon changing “during” to “after” because sounded better for the song lyric.
I am still dazzled by the African inspired sounds on Graceland (1986), for me a near perfect album, and songs inspired by the music of Brazil on Rhythm Of The Saints (1990).
There are so many amazing pieces by this prolific artist, but I think my favorite is Something So Right from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973). This song simply destroys me on every listen. It has been given powerful covers by other singers as different as Trisha Yearwood, Barbra Streisand and Annie Lennox.
In September, Simon released his 14th solo album (plus nine Simon & Garfunkel albums and Greatest Hits packages). In The Blue Light revisits 10 songs from his vast catalogue that he felt were ”almost right, or overlooked”, and gives them a new spin that he compares to ”a new coat of paint on the walls of an old family home”.
In The Blue Light is gentle and subtle, deliberately placing as much emphasis on the words and melody as the instrumentation, which isn’t necessarily the case with the dense original albums. It’s just fine to listen to In The Blue Light as you putter around the house, but it rewards with close listening, not only because you will hear the clever song construction but also what the song selection reveals. It’s possible to hear his lively wit not just in the songs but in the performances, revealing that for Simon, this is not a collection of his confessions; this is his craft.
It is not only the dozens of Top 10 hits, the 16 Grammy Awards, or his extraordinary gift for lyrics, but how he grew as a composer through the decades, using different genres and instrumentalists from around the world. He challenged listeners unaccustomed to counterpoint, polyrhythm and immaculate musicianship. From the start, his songwriting brought obvious autobiographical refrences and disarming honesty. Bob Dylan‘s lyrics impressed, Carly Simon‘s simplified, and Leonard Cohen‘s beguiled, but like Joni Mitchell, Simon’s words laid bare his life and relationships.
Tonight, on his birthday, Simon is set to appear on Saturday Night Live (SNL). This marks his 15th appearance on SNL, either as host or musical guest. On one appearance in the late 1980s, he did a sketch with a politician who shared his name, Illinois Senator Paul Simon. On September 29, 2001, Simon made a special appearance on the first SNL to air after the 9/11 attacks. On that show, he performed The Boxer in front of the live audience of NYC firefighters and police officers.
He is one of only six artists to have won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year more than once. In 1998 he was entered in the Grammy Hall of Fame for the Simon & Garfunkel album Bridge Over Troubled Water. He received an Academy Award nomination for for the song Father And Daughter from the animated The Wild Thornberrys Movie in 2002. He is a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; as a solo artist in 2001, and in 1990 as half of Simon & Garfunkel.
Rolling Stone magazine named Simon as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All-Time and one of The 100 Greatest Songwriters. He was the very first recipient of the Library Of Congress’s Gershwin Prize For Popular Song in 2007.
Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home
And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong
And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest