Much as I admire Paul Simon, I’m sick to death of his Greatest Hits collections. They’re relentless. Only the Mamas and the Papas (It seemed like they had one album and dozens of Greatest Hits albums) impose on our admiration and exploit our ‘completionist’ fan- boy hoarding pathologies with such mercenary gusto. An upcoming boxed ‘collectors’ edition of Graceland, four concert records, a three disc career retrospective box set, and at least three other greatest hits discs, so far … or should I say four of them, since yet another one is going to be released on October 24th.
The worst part of this retread parade is their redundancy. Many of the same songs appear on every collection, from one-of-a-kind masterpieces like Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes to forgettable misfires like Darling Lorraine (off the largely forgettable You’re the One album), for which Simon holds a stubborn affection. Apart from feeling vaguely ripped off buying the same set of songs for the third or fourth or fifth time (not counting all the changing formats – from vinyl and eight-track to cassette to CD to digital download), the worst part of the ritual is that it creates the inexcusable illusion that Simon really hasn’t written that many songs worth anthologizing. Even a recent tribute concert, which began with high-flown speeches praising 40 years of consistent songwriting pretty much ignored everything he’s done since 1986.
But I’m not here just to complain. Whenever I attend a Paul Simon concert it occurs to me that he could have done a completely different set of songs with no loss of quality. The same is true for these endless re-packaging efforts. So, on the eve of the latest redundant reissue (This one is called Songwriter) I’ve decided to offer my DIY compilation. Fifteen minutes on iTunes and you can turn my list into the most unusual and worthwhile anthology of them all. I’ve chosen songs that Paul Simon never sings in concert, songs that have never appeared on any “hits” or ”best of” album, or retrospective. But they’re just as good or better than most of the songs you hear over and over again, in concert after concert , record after record.
Here’s the play list of the new compilation:
Paul Simon - Songwriter
1. The Sound Of Silence (Live at Webster Hall 2011) - new unreleased
2. The Boxer - Paul Simon - Live Central Park
3. Bridge Over Troubled Water - Aretha Franklin - studio version
4. Mother And Child Reunion
6. Peace Like A River
7. American Tune
9. Something So Right
10. Late In The Evening
11. Train In The Distance
12. Hearts And Bones
13. Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War
14.Still Crazy After All These Years
15. Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes
16. The Boy In The Bubble
1. Obvious Child
2. Further To Fly
3. The Cool, Cool River
4. Spirit Voices
5. Born In Puerto Rico
7. Darling Lorraine
8. Look At That
9. Senorita With A Necklace Of Tears
10. That's Me
11. Another Galaxy
12. Father And Daughter
14. Love And Hard Times
15. So Beautiful Or So What
And here’s my playlist, with notes
A haunting early ballad, with that young Paul Simon combination of sublime melody, lovely acoustic guitar playing, elegant harmonies … and stunningly pretentious lyrics. Hey, he was twenty. Read your own diaries (or poems) from that era of your own life. Even so, some of the lines work: ‘Voices leaking from a sad café/smiling faces try to understand/I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand/ On Bleecker Street”
Song for the Asking
This modest offering from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, is at least as tuneful as The Only Living Boy in New York ,say (that favorite of car advertisers and indie film-makers), or the title tune, which has been ubiquitous for more than four decades. The deft interior rhyme shows a lyric writer growing up: “This is my song for the asking/Ask me and I will play/So sweetly I’ll make you smile.”
At The Zoo
From the same Multi-platinun Simon and Garfunkel swan song record, this ditty was originally composed for The Graduate. Like much of the music Simon wrote for that film, Mike Nichols rejected it. He was shooting on location at the San Francisco zoo. Lyrics like “It’s a light and tumble journey from the east side to the Park” seemed perversely uncooperative. Paul does annoy people. But the song is lilting and lovely. And charming in its fanciful thumbnail portraits of the animals:” The monkeys stand for honesty/Giraffes are insincere/And the elephants are kindly but they're dumb./Orangutans are skeptical/Of changes in their cages … Zebras are reactionaries,Antelopes are missionaries/Pigeons plot in secrecy/And hamsters turn on frequently…”
Everything Put Together Falls Apart
This tune from the self-titled solo album that appeared in the wake of the big Simon and Garfunkel meltdown, is another secret masterpiece. After the lush orchestrations forced on him by his partner and his record producer (“I’ve been Roy Hallee-d and Art Garfunkled,”as he wrote in his Sullen Desultory Philippic, a few years before), this collection of songs was much simpler, with a live feel. And you can see the lyrics maturing: “Taking downs/To get off to sleep/and ups to start you on your way/After a while/They’ll change your style/I see it happening every day.”
This song, a bittersweet meditation on divorce, closes out the album with a mournful electric piano solo. The bridge warns us: “Love is not game/love is not a toy/Love’s no romance/Love will do you in/ Love will knock you out/ And needless to say/You won’t stand a chance, you won’t stand a chance.” It ends with this plaintive question most of us are still asking: “I’m hungry for Learning/Won’t you answer me please/Can a man and a woman/ Live together in peace?”
Learn How to Fall
Another lost classic, this one on the superlative There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, from 1974. Who else would spin a dry meteorologist’s phrase like “prevailing winds” into a line like this :”You’ve got to drift in the breeze, before you set your sails/It’s an occupation where the win prevails.” Simon’s hard-working word-play always has a serious point to make.
St. Judy’s Comet
This is the famously ineffective lullaby that never got Harper Simon to sleep. “I sang it once, I sang it twice/I’m gonna sing it three time more/Gonna sing till your resistance is overcome/Cause if I can’t sing my boy to sleep/it makes your famous daddy look so dumb. Look so dumb.” I don’t know … it worked for my kids, I don’t even sing that well.
Backed by The Dixie Humming Birds, its plaintive “You say you care for me/But there’s no tenderness/beneath your honesty” strikes an unusual note in the cool, detached cannon of Simon tunes, where emotion is generally approached sideways. They say Simon fired the whole Capeman orchestra because they weren’t ‘musical enough’ I’m sure he had no such problems with his gospel back-up singers here. The doo-wop harmonies are gorgeous.
My Little Town
This dark little tale, which either concerns a mass murderer or (more likely) someone who just fantasizes about it, was written both as a duet for Simon and Garfunkel and, since it was going to appear on both of their solo albums, a bitter tonic for the chronic sweetness of his erstwhile partner’s solo work. With harsh lyrics inspired by British poet Ted Hughes (“And after it rains/there’s a rainbow/ and all of the colors are black/it’s not that the colors aren’t there/it’s just imagination they lack”), Simon soon comes to the ambivalent but alarming point “In my little town/I never meant nothing, I was just my father’s son/saving my money, dreaming of glory/ twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun/leaving nothing but the dead and the dying/back in my little town.” With its haunting one-finger piano intro and another dose of the finely-wrought harmonies his fans had been missing, this song is a keeper.
Some Folk’s Lives Roll Easy
This rueful tune’s obscurity can be explained by its complicated melody – nothing you’d sing in the shower; and its downbeat message. Yet it is redeemed (like many Simon songs, notably The Cool Cool River on the official CD) by the bridge, which firms into a much more sing-able tune and one of Simon’s better lyrics, full of self aware, ironic desperation: “Here I am Lord/I’m knocking at your place of business/And I know I aint got no business here/But you said if I ever got so low I was busted/ You could be trusted.”
Simon’s One Trick Pony album never got the success or the praise it deserved, possibly because there was a fair amount of filler on the record (Long, Long Day, God Bless the Absentee), and possibly because(Like The Capeman) it came yoked to another project in another field. The movie One Trick Pony had quite a few problems, but the primary one was asking the audience to accept Paul Simon’s character as a washed-up loser. There was an off-putting reverse vanity about that idea, exacerbated by the fact that Simon wasn’t a particularly good actor. Still, most of the songs were good and deserve a chance to be heard. This tune combines the chilly oblique side of the artist (“The boy has a voice but his voice is his natural disguise/Yeah the boy has a voice but his words don’t connect to his eyes”) with a more frank and open confessional voice: “Oh Marion, I should have believed you when I heard you saying it/the only time love is an easy game/ is when two other people are playing it.” The mental dissonance makes for a memorable song.
Ace in the Hole
The obscurity of this cut remains a mystery. It’s an up-tempo rocker with a lovely bridge. Maybe the slighting reference to Jesus (“Some people say Jesus is their ace in the hole/I’ve never met the man so I don’t really know”) put people off. Or the reference to cocaine (”Two hundred dollars is the price on the street”).
Too bad because it has some of Simon’s most beautiful writing, with lines like “In the hour when the heart is weakest/And memory is strong.” From the bus-riding middle-eight.
This final orphan from the 1980 film sound track is a mournful little tune, celebrating a loved one and subtly invoking the end of the relationship: “Who knows my secret broken bone/Who feels my flesh when I am gone/Who was a witness to the dream/Who kissed my eyes and saw the scream/Lying there/
Nobody/.” Later he adds “Nobody but you,” yet it feels like an elegiac afterthought. Not a rouser, not a toe-tapper; it’s a dirge, really. But a haunting one
Think Too Much (a & b)
These were going to be the title tracks of a Simon and Garfunkel ‘come back’ album, in 1983, with the sly joke hardwired into the name: “Simon and Garfunkel think too much.” Well, at least one of them does. And his thinking around that time was that his erstwhile partner was a resentful lazy arrogant diva who couldn’t be bothered to write his own harmony parts or even show up for rehearsals. So Simon fired Garfunkel, stripped his vocals off all the tracks, and Think Too Much became Hearts and Bones and promptly tanked with a million disappointed fans. Too bad because it was good record and could have been a hit. All Simon ever trots out for the re-packagers are the new title track -- and Train in the Distance, admittedly one of the greats. But the old title track has a lot to be said for it. The fact that Simon wrote two songs about thinking too much is a wry commentary on the process, and the songs chastise the over-worked ‘left side of the brain’. He asks at one point “Have you ever experienced a period of grace/When your brain just takes a seat behind your face?” and concludes with a vision of his departed father holding Paul to his chest, saying “There’s not much more that you can do/Go on and get some rest.”
Song About the Moon
I love this abstract ditty about making art (Yes, he does think too much, deal with it). His consultation moves from the wittily oblique “If you want to write a song about the moon/walk along the craters of the afternoon” to the bizarrely prescriptive “Wash your hands in dreams and lighting/Cut off your hair and whatever is frightening”, finally coming down to earth, saying “If you want to write a song about a face/ Think bout a photograph/That you really can’t remember but you can’t erase.” In the end he’s bluntly exasperated: “If you want to write a song about face/If you want to write a song about the human race/ Then do it/Write a song about the moon.” . There are fifty ways to leave your lover or write a song and it all comes down to one: just do it. Tough medicine, with a shuffle beat.
Graceland was such a tremendous achievement that it has become a generic term – at least among my friends. It means, the best work. Atonement was Ian McEwan’s Graceland; West Side Story was Leonard Bernstein’s; Guernica was Picasso’s. Think of an artist – you’ll figure out their Graceland instantly. Tom Wolfe? Bonfire of the Vanities. Dylan Thomas? Fern Hill. Arthur Miller? Death of a Salesman. There are no bad songs on Graceland, which makes it all the more frustrating the same three or four tunes get continuously recycled, leaving others to languish. Gumboots started as a track by the South African group, Boyoyo Boys, the title song of a bootleg CD that Simon was playing in his car during the career low-point after Hearts and Bones. It’s really where the Graceland album started: long drives where the defeated artist floated his own tune and lyrics over the propulsive South African beats, purely for his own pleasure. You can feel the improvisational lilt in the words: “I was walking down the street when I thought I heard a voice say/”Hey, aint we walking down the same street together on the same day?”/ I said, “Hey Senorita that’s astute/Why don’ we get together and call ourselves and institute?”
I Know What I Know
Another instant classic relegated to the B-side of some forgotten single. The jangling guitar and drum track set up another dose of ironic urban lyrics – the piquant cross-cultural dissonance that irked people most about the album when it first came out. “She moved so easily I could think of was sunlight/ I said ‘Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?’” People who railed on about Simon’s “exploiting” the Soweto musicians he worked with never talked to any of them. He gave them an international audience, full credit on the record … and some of the first (and certainly the biggest) pay checks of their lives, when the royalties started coming in. Joseph Shabalala put it best: “Everybody loves Paul Simon.”
All Around the World, or the myth of Fingerprints
This is the final song on the record, an upbeat rave that indirectly answers the critics of Graceland’s global music experiment: “He said there’s no doubt about it/It was the myth of fingerprints/I’ve seen them all and man they’re all the same.”
The Rhythm of the Saints also holds a ‘generic term’ status for me: the iconic second best effort. If Catch-22 was Joseph Heller’s Graceland, the Something Happened was his Rhythm of the Saints. Schindler’s List was Spielberg’s Graceland; Saving Private Ryan was his Rhythm of the Saints. Pat Conroy? The Prince of Tides and Beach Music. T.S Eliot? Prufrock and Four Quartets. Arthur Miller? Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. It goes on and on. Pick an artist you like; you’ll see the pattern emerge. Even with Tolstoy! Though opinions differ and I think he’d be irked to know that War and Peace is his Rhythm of the Saints. Anyway … Proof is a great song, cannibalized in later (lesser) efforts, like Darling Lorraine. Check out the original.
This is arguably the greatest song on a fine record, a cryptic masterpiece whose melodies and harmonies stay with you like the smell of old summer houses or your mother’s handwriting on a forgotten envelope. It’s about music and art and the life of the artist, and the death of the planet and love and loss and pretty much everything else you can think of. Another sublime omission.
She Moves On
This song has won some later renown through Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking; it was written about her and her short-lived marriage to Paul Simon. She’s funny about it; and him. But the song transcends its gossipy roots, with its intricate drum figures and troubling minor-key variations. It’s actually kind of a difficult piece, and no kind of hit (greatest or otherwise); but well worth the effort.
Almost ten years passed between Rhythm of the Saints and The Capeman. Once again, Simon got involved in an extra-curricular project – in this case a Broadway show about a Puerto Rican gang member convicted of murder in 1950s New York. He wrote the lyrics with poet Derek Walcott, which was probably a mistake. But the music is all Paul Simon – unlike Graceland—and its mixture of salsa and doo-wop is unique and wonderful. The show flopped for a lot of reasons. I actually got a bootleg of the whole cast album, and most what Simon left off the official record sounded like filler to me; sorry. Simon tried to tell the whole story in songs, which is fine for an oratorio – but he left no space for a libretto, and nothing for actors to do. So it felt stilted and dull on stage. It was recently revived, both at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and (later) at the Delacorte. Both times it was treated as a play for voices, a song cycle … and it did quite well. Even the sternly exigent Ben Brantley at The New York Times had to admit the piece worked when performed in on the shore of Belvedere Pond. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/18/theater/18capeman.html?_r=1
Lines like “When the leaves are dark/I have a hiding place in Central Park” (From Bernadette, see below) must have seemed magical in that setting. Trailways Bus harks back to the lovely bridge of Ace in the Hole (“Riding on this rolling bus/ Beneath the stony sky”) and even further back, to the great American Tune. Buses inspire Simon and this road story of an ex-convict’s long ride west to meet his prison pen pal, takes an angry – and timely -- turn when the bus is rousted by immigration officials. It’s a mournful ballad, but the gentle pulse of the acoustic guitar seems to be driving the wheels and the poignant snapshots of life on the road make this forgotten episode in a lost man’s life stirringly vivid. It’s a keeper.
This single was the first thing I heard from The Capeman, and it gave me hope. This is a love song in Salvatore Agron’s voice, before all the murder and the jail time. It’s innocent, buoyant, beautiful. “Though my words may be jumbled/I’m telling you just how it feels.” The song if full of hope and the hope is laced with bitter irony. But the dark edges keep it memorable.
This brooding song from The Capeman, with its harsh lyrics and its pounding latino beat, sets the mood for the rest of the play. The concussive piano seems to exult in the mean streak of this “spic you scrubbed off the sidewalk”, as Agron refers to himself in the stunning album highlight, Adios Hermanos -- occasionally re-packaged, and thus disqualified from our list.
The gang leader sings the song to Sal. Here he is talking about their hideout:
This is the cave of The Vampires,/Count Dracula's castle,/The very sight could turn a white man grey./Made in the shade, use my umbrella/Black like the night we fly in./That blade is all you need to keep the dogs away.”
The recurrent themes: “We stand for the neighborhood” and more to the point: “If you got the balls, then come on mete mano.” Draw the battle lines clearly. This song is a dangerous object; it feels like a switchblade in your hand. It also boasts one of my all-time favorite lyrics, describing a big Irish gang-member coming out into the street to defend his mother: “Then along comes the son/He looks like a ton/of corned beef floating in beer.”
That’s Where I Belong
There wasn’t a lot to get excited about in Paul Simon’s 2000 album You’re the One. It seemed to be mostly filler, but a few songs stand out and That’s Where I Belong is the best of them. It’s one of those rock n roll declarations, music about making music, and it has a noble ancestry, dating back to Chuck Berry’s Rock and Roll Music though Juluka’s “Mquanga Man” and even Billy Joel’s Baby Grand. The first lines say it all: “Somewhere, in a burst of glory/sound becomes a song/I’m bound to tell a story/That’s where I belong.” Aint it the truth, Paul. Aint it the truth.
This song pounds out a repeated riff, one of Simon’s favorite rave-up techniques, and it goes back through his musical roots to kickstart his auto- biography in a couple of lines:
The first time I heard “Peggy Sue”/I was twelve years old/Russians up in rocket ships/And the war was cold/Now many wars have come and gone/Buddy Holly still goes on/but his catalog was sold.” The song segues into the metaphysical soon after that, but it never loses its sense of humor.
Everything About it is a Love Song
Surprise, released in 2005, began a resurgence that continues through the present day, with Simon’s new record, So Beautiful or So What. A unique collaboration with long-time David Byrne cohort Brian Eno, the album, though not perfect, marked a radical improvement from You’re The One. The only two songs that from this fascinating album that Simon seems willing to repackage are Father and Daughter, a sentimental trifle; and Wartime Prayers, an uneven effort that rises to a kind of lush majesty in its stirring bridge section, before dwindling back to lifeless somnolence as it dwindles to its conclusion. Too bad – there’s part of a great song there. By contrast, Everything About it is a Love Song is a fully realized minor masterpiece.
I can’t play you the tune, but listen to these lyrics: “Early December, and brown as a sparrow/Frost creeping over the pond/I shoot a thought into the future, and it flies like an arrow/Through my lifetime, and beyond/If I ever come back as a tree, or a crow/Or even the windblown dust/Find me on the ancient road/In the song when the wires are hushed/Hurry on and remember me, as I’ll remember you/Far above the golden clouds, the darkness vibrates/
The earth is blue/And everything about it is a love song.”
Paul Simon once remarked that he was always surprised by which songs became hits. That always struck me as disingenuous – hello, it’s the up-tempo ones, Paul. That’s why Graceland was your biggest seller: it’s all up-tempo songs. By the dame token, it seemed to me that Outrageous was the obvious hit from the Surprise album. But it tackles the subject of ageing, and with its repeated question ‘Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?” it might have put people off. The song fits into a long tradition in Simon’s song writing – the self amused rant – that stretches back as far as A Sullen Desultory Phillipic from the Simon and Garfunkel days, and Have a Good Time, from Still Crazy After All These Years. It’s sprightly fun, with faint overlay of easy-going religiosity, and it deserves a wider audience.
Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean
This is one of my favorite Paul Simon songs ever, alternating sweet melodic lines with a pulsing machine-like Brian Eno electronic beat that snaps you to attention. It tells the story of a man staring his life over, but ultimately being unable to escape his past. A whole novel boiled down to three verses and a clear thematic bridge: “Once upon a time there was an ocean/Now there’s a mountain range/Something unstoppable set into motion/Nothing is different but everything has changed.” This is a song you’ll listen to occasionally – forever.
This is my favorite song from the new record, and I was happy to hear him perform it in concert this spring. It’s a straight-ahead love story, with second act reverse (Miles apart/Though the miles can’t measure distance/Worlds apart/On a rainy afternoon”). The song is autobiographical, a bouquet for his wife, and the final verse is a knockout, going all the way back to their beginning: “Sweet July/And we drove the Montauk highway/and walked along the cliffs above the sea/And we wondered why, and imagined it was someday/And that is how the future came to be.”
The music feels a little like Graceland, with an African spark in the track, and it sticks with you. I find myself singing it at odd times – driving, or thirty-five feet up a ladder on a windy day – just because the music feels so good.
Finally, the song about what happens after you die. Turns out, you fill out a form and wait on line, just like life -- and the DMV. The irrepressible shuffle beat pulls you toward the final revelation in this dream, and it turns out to be – no surprise -- the ultimate celebration of rock and roll: “When you climb the ladder of time/And the Lord God is near/Face to face in the vastness of space/And your words disappear/And you feel like you’re swimming in an ocean of love, and current strong/But all that remains when you try to explain is fragment of song/ Lord, is it Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?” Maybe Paul McCartney had glimpsed god when he woke up with the tune of Yesterday in his head. I can believe it.
Well, that’s the record, and just a few days late for Paul’s 70th birthday. It’s no better than the one they’re releasing on October 24th, but it’s a little more interesting and a lot more fun.
Download it and see for yourself.