PAUL SIMON’S TOP 25 Page 2
(11) “Late in the Evening”
I decided to include this song after I had finalized my selections—as a matter of fact, I had 33 songs that I’d already done full write-ups on and knew I would have to eliminate some. After all, 25 is 25—a self-imposed limit, but a limit nonetheless. But the reason I ultimately chose “Late in the Evening” was because, the longer I worked on the list, the more it kept coming into my head. More importantly, it was Paul Simon’s love song to music, and epitomized what music has meant to him throughout his life. It was introduced in the film, “One Trick Pony,” in which Simon starred and wrote the music and has been an essential part of his repertoire ever since. (To make room for this song, I had to drop the wonderful “Kodachrome,” which remains a classic pop song, and one far more successful than “Late in the Evening.”)
But this song acknowledges the power of music, and the role it has played in his life, and that, for me, made it hard for me to leave off this list.
It is a joyous celebration of Simon’s two loves—music and romantic love. In the first stanza, you can hear the influence of sounds coming from his mother’s radio as they seep into his room—and stamp themselves upon his sub-conscious. The second stanza conjures up urban images of doo-wop sounds from the street and handing out with your pals with the girls sitting on the stoops. It’s a real teen-age image from the mid-50’s, and easy to relate to whether you were “born at the right time” and lucky to have been a part of the birth of rock n’ roll, or not. By the third stanza, he is a performer, and with the aid of a little mood modifier, returns with his funky guitar, turns up the amp (perhaps to “11”) and “blows the room away.” Just like the hero reminiscing in “Duncan,” (see song #16, below) our hero is one with his talent and, no doubt, thanking the Lord for his fingers as well. In the concluding stanza, Simon salutes the romantic love he feels for a special (and unidentified) woman. This love has the power of music—and then some. If you love rock music—and love Paul Simon, you’ve got to love this song.
Best performance: “Simon & Garfunkel Live at Central Park, 1981.” Though not originally an S&G song, you see how great can become greater when the two combine in harmony.
(“One Trick Pony,” 8/12/80, Warner Brothers)
(12) “Mother and Child Reunion”
Like the light-hearted “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” this more serious song is a mystery as well. We don’t know what has happened to have brought about such a “strange and mournful day.” Simon has said that it was occasioned by the death of his dog, and he was dealing—for the first time—with a personal loss, and imagining it extending beyond a dog. Apparently, the enigmatic title comes from the name of a dish in a Chinese restaurant, and I have seen it on some menus, but always assumed the song came first. In any event, I took it literally enough to think it was referring to either the loss (or separation) of a mother from her child, and the hoped-for reunion to come. It was Simon’s first experimentation with a Reggae rhythm, and he used Jimmy Cliff’s band as the sidemen—can’t get more Reggae than that!
The song starts right out answering the mourner “No, I would not give you false hopes,” but, be patient, for “the mother and child reunion is only a motion (moment) away.” It’s an interesting turn of lyrical phrase, because it sounds as if he’s saying that it’s only an “emotion” away, suggesting that, perhaps, wishing can make it so. That’s just my take, but see what you think.
Despite the advice to “let it be,”(a Beatles’ reference) the mourner can’t, because “he’s never been laid so low,” and realizes that this is not an isolated occurrence—loss will recur “over and over again, in the course of a lifetime run.” And though it does, while we learn that loss is a part of life, we still yearn for that reunion, be it here or in a better place. The song has a beautiful melody, a strong lyric with a message, and an introduction to a new rhythm to which Simon would return.
(“Paul Simon,” 1/24/72 Columbia)
(13) “Hearts and Bones”
The title song of one Simon’s most personal—and underrated—albums, it tells of Simon’s relationship with the woman who was soon to become his wife, the late Carrie Fisher. If you didn’t know better (and I, for one, didn’t), you’d think this song was writtenafter they were married, perhaps, even, on the brink of divorce. Actually, it was written at a point in time when they had retired to their respective coasts (east and west) to think things through before finally beginning a marriage that was only to last eleven months. The images describing their relationship are literally electric (e.g …She burned like a bride…love like lightning, shaking till it moans.”) In it, he sings of “the arc of a love affair, his hands running down her hair, waiting to be restored.” The hearts part is obvious, the bones part less so. At the beginning of their relationship, Simon describes the very fact of their (upcoming) marriage being “outrageous, the bride contagious.” Simon, in marrying Carrie Fisher, a movie star who was herself marrying one of America’s most well-known pop singers (Simon), was replicating her mother, Debbie Reynolds’s marriage to teen idol, Eddie Fisher, a man, like Simon, with multiple gold records to his name.* At the song’s conclusion, the reference to hearts and bones becomes clear: “You take two bodies and you twirl them into one. Their hearts and their bones. And they won’t come undone. “ Anyone ever involved in a long-term relationship knows the truth of those words. Many of us pay quite a price for ignoring that fact.
The recent death of Carrie Fisher makes this complex song all the more poignant. The song is a true accounting, a recollection of a trip the two took together somewhere along the arc of their relationship. Unlike “The Dangling Conversation,” (not included on this list) this is a volatile relationship, and one never giving over to going through the motions with each other and mouthing empty platitudes.
I don’t think any line in English literature has ever contained the phrase, “one and one half wandering Jews.” Interesting how this line contrasts with the couple’s travels in the Sangre de Christo (“Blood of Christ”) mountains of New Mexico, distinctly Christian imagery. Are hearts and bones the relics of the couple’s past or the glue which will bind their future? Maybe both, because, as pointed out above, their hearts and bones won’t come undone. Is it love, or is heredity the immutable thing that makes us who we are in spite of ourselves? No wonder love and life are so difficult.
(Paul Simon, Hearts & Bones, 11/4/83, Warner Brothers)
*(If anything, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds were bigger stars in their day than Paul and Carrie, but that might just be my age speaking.)
(14) “The Late Great Johnny Ace”
In 1981, S&G had their marvelous reunion concert in the park. In it, Simon introduced this reminiscence about a relatively minor singer from the early days of rock n’ roll.* He apparently got the title from hearing a radio ad for a greatest hits recording by “the late, great Johnny Ace.” In the song, Simon recalls hearing of Ace’s death in 1954, and admits not being such a big fan, but nonetheless sending away for a memorial photograph “inscribed” with the song’s title. Simon uses Ace’s death as a metaphor for much of what followed musically, from the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stone’s when rock music had taken on an immediacy and importance like no time in its history and, as Simon says, the music was “blowing my way.” The song then skips forward to a cold December night some years later, when a stranger walks up to him and asks if he’d heard John Lennon had died. They then repair to a bar where they drink and play music until closing time, and every song they played that night was to (but not by) the late, great, Johnny Ace. Ace’s death, though both sad and tragic was—as mentioned above—that of a rock n’ roll footnote, virtually forgotten until Simon’s song revived his memory. Unfortunately for Simon’s debut performance of it, a fan stormed the stage near the end of the song, barked some message to Simon, and ruined the song’s ending.
Perhaps the song is meant to remind us that every such death (both Ace and Lennon died of gun violence) is tragic, whether a minor (Ace) or major (Lennon) figure. In any event, this song is a tribute to every performer (great and small) who died before his (or her) time.**
*“Pledging My Love,” Ace’s only number 1 song, was released posthumously, following what was either an accident with a hand-gun possibly playing “Russian Roulette, or a suicide..”
**Unspoken, of course, are the more familiar deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”), but it is hard not to think of them as well when listening to this song. Fortunately, they had a pretty good song (LOL!) to memorialize them in Don McLean’s classic “American Pie.” While “Johnny Ace” didn’t make the S&G reunion album, a spare, and haunting version appears on “Hearts and Bones.”
(15) “Rene and Georgette Magritte (with their dog after the war)”
In his Playboy Interview with Tony Schwartz from 1984, Simon was saying that he decided to write the song after seeing a photo of the artist walking with his wife and dog, (and the photo’s caption was the song’s title). Schwartz jokingly said, “Such an obvious title after all.” Simon, equally jokingly, replied, “that’s right, leaped on it before it could be spotted by my contemporaries.”
Simon, as mentioned in my introduction to this piece (and something he confirms in the Playboy interview), is a rock and roller at heart. It was in his bones at the beginning of his career as a recording artist, and he remains in its debt. This is a clever song, with a lovely melody and great counter-melody, provided softly in the background by an old rock n’ roll group, The Harptones, evoking images of the old songs that (Simon tells us) so captivated the artist and his wife (and perhaps the dog as well). While it is (I suspect) intentionally hard for us to make out the words sung by the Harptones, one can discern the fragmentary “in the still of the…” a reference to the marvelous “In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins, one of the groups whose recordings Renee and Georgette so treasured.
In the release, Simon talks of the couple falling asleep, and discovering that “all their personal belonging had intertwined,” just it did for the two lovers in “Hearts and Bones” earlier on the same album. In the process of writing the song, Simon has a lot of fun (as do we) in imagining Renee and Georgette Magritte’s walk.* Simon paints a portrait of the couple (Magritte was Belgian by birth) strolling the streets of post-WWII New York City. When they get home, Simon evokes nursery rhyme memories as the couple is described as “easily losing their evening clothes, they danced by the light of the moon,” to the Penguins, the Moonglows, the Orioles and the Five Satins, all early “doo wop” groups. This theme continues through the song as mannequins dressed in style in a Greenwich Village men’s store “bring tears to their immigrant eyes,” just like listening to the old singing groups.
In the final stanza, Simon talks about the couple “dining with the power elite,” an ironic reference to a mid-century non-fiction book by C. Wright Mills about what would now be called the “one per-centers.” Magritte, a communist sympathizer, was unlikely to keep such capitalist company, although the rich were doubtless purchasers of his paintings, now priceless (and doubtless now included in the collections of the millionaires and billionaires he refers to in the “Boy in the Bubble,” see #21 below). In the final stanza, the couple discovers, in their bedroom drawer, hidden away “in the cabinet cold of their hearts,”** recordings of the old rock n’ roll groups. This time, Simon, goes to a minor chord each time he recites the names of the groups, as if to salute something long gone, if not truly for the Magritte’s (who I doubt were acquainted with the early rhythm & blues groups), certainly for Simon, as they were the heroes of his youth. (“Hearts and Bones”)
* Magritte, by the way was a remarkably distinctive artist, whose originality and imagination is matched by few. Magritte, by the way was a remarkably distinctive artist, whose originality and imagination is matched by few. There are few words that are more over-used than “surreal,” but Magritte was the real “surreal” deal. His “Phases of the Moon” paintings are simply astonishing, as is this spare, beautiful song with words to match the haunting, nostalgic tone of its melody.
**I thought “cabinet cold of their hearts” was an evocative image, but not sure what it meant. I looked it up on the Web, and found a description of “cold cabinets.” I have no way of knowing if Simon thought of this in using the expression, but it refers to a “refrigeration pump built to last…pumps away defrost water and filters debris.” The idea of something built to last that would keep the storage unit clean of things that might corrode it and keep things like treasured recordings preserved is a bit of a stretch (even for me), but there you have it. In any event, it’s a turn of phrase that resonates.
This evocative story song tells of a young man with the quintessentially “American” name of Lincoln Duncan, and his journey from youth into manhood. It is, as our English professors told us, picaresque, as we follow him through both travels and travails. Musically, “Duncan” is a first cousin to “The Boxer,” both in the tempo of the fingerpicking guitar technique each employs as well as the break between stanzas. (It also is similar musically to “El Condor Pasa,” in its between stanza’s “break.”) Although both songs tell stories, “Duncan’s” tale is a more straightforward one with none of the closing mystery of how and why a boxer suddenly appears in the seldom told tale of a poor boy.
Duncan’s story is a simple rite of passage, taking him from his present in a cheap motel room where the thin walls betray another couple’s marathon of sex, to a reminiscence on his own coming of age. The lyrics to this song are a model of simplicity; no esoteric symbolism, no abstruse references. Duncan is a son of a fisherman (and the fisherman’s friend) and in but one of the song’s clever internal rhymes, when Duncan reaches his prime, he describes having “left my home in the maritimes, and headed down the turnpike to New England.” Following a few hard times, he meets the young girl who (later that night ) makes a man out of him. He encounters her, “preaching sacred songs and reading from the Bible,” and tells her “I was lost, and she told me all about the Pentecost and I saw this girl was the road to my survival.” As indeed she proved to be. The song ends with our hero reminiscing on that night with respect to which his “memory lingers. I was playing my guitar underneath the stars, thanking the Lord for my fingers.” What guitar-picker could ask for more?
(“Paul Simon” 1/24/72 Columbia)
(17) “American Tune”
In the Weaver’s classic concert album, “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall,” there is a marvelous folk medley entitled “Around the World.” It begins with a melody by Hans Leo Hassler (yeah, him) with words by old folkie, Tom Glazer.* Hassler’s melody was adopted by Bach, and subsequently adapted (with minor modifications) by Simon. Regardless, it is a splendid melody. Written at the time of America’s bi-centennial, “American Tune” expressed the uncertainty and doubt many felt at what otherwise should have been a time of great celebration. The war in Vietnam had recently ended in an embarrassing evacuation and defeat, and the impeachment and resignation in disgrace of President Nixon were definers of much of the nation’s mood. Simon’s lyrics bring this out—“And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered, don’t know a friend who feels at ease, I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered and driven to its knees.” Later in the song, in words that would have been just as apt if they had been written today, he describes a dream in which he is dying and flying high above the clouds, and sees the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea. In the next, and most powerful stanza, Simon evokes both history and potential that remains the American Dream. “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.” And few can sing (or write) an American tune better than Paul Simon.
Listen to the syncopation in the word “Mayflower,’ (with the emphasis on “flower”) as it precedes the downbeat. As the song closes, Simon reminds us that, although we can’t be forever blessed, he (reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara) tells us that tomorrow’’s still going to be another (working) day, and he’s trying to get some rest. That’s another wonderful thing about Americans. We survive by keeping at it. I think Bach (and Hassler before him) would have been proud to have such a lyric accompany their music. As with Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” ** “American Tune” is one for the ages.
“There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” (a silly title for a marvelous album). Honorable mention for the song: S&G’s reunion concerts, Willie Nelson, and the late Eva Cassidy.
*”Because All Men are Brothers ”and “American Tune” are both derived from Hassler’s “Mein G’mit is mir verwirret,” and appropriated by Bach in his more familiar “St. Matthew’s Passion.”
**Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” by the way, is also an adapted melody. one Dylan took from “Chimes of Trinity,” a song the late Dave Van Ronk learned from his grandmother and passed on to Dylan
(See “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald).
(18) “The Obvious Child”
This is a remarkable song, not just for its insights and allegories, but for its arrangement. It begins, unusually enough, with a drum solo, almost the kind that would precede a military march, celebrating a victory. But the victory (such as it is) being celebrated by this song is the endurance of two generations of Everymen; a father and a son who grows up and is himself relying on memories and the signs of advancing age. Is this the same son who Paul Simon once lulled to sleep with lines about his famous father in“St. Judy’s Comet”? Hardly.
Sonny, despite his father’s claims that he grows sunnier day by day, has no life of ease. The aging Sonny is himself leafing through his high school yearbook, remembering the days when he had a full head of hair and didn’t have to worry about monthly bills.
The father, who had a lot of fun and made a lot of money in his day, now struggles through sleepless nights. That said, as he looks up in the sky, there is something beyond the material that both he and this song glimpse; while some people say the sky is just the sky, he realizes that it is about another father and son—especially the son. Why deny the obvious child?
The reference to the cross is being in the ballpark is meant to remind us of a long-ago visit to New York’s Yankee Stadium by a long-dead Pope. But this refrain is itself a reminder that there is something beyond the mundane and repetitive lives we lead, something holy, something sacred. Doubt it? The narrator quells these doubts by saying that lots of temporal things are lies, but the truth is obvious. The line “why deny the obvious child” is both the father talking to Sonny with a comma between “obvious” and “child” and a reference to the world’s most famous son, Jesus. The obvious child is calling us to something higher, ineffable. (Once again the Jewish triumvirate of Dylan, Cohen and Simon are instructing us about the power of Christianity.)
Getting back to the complexity of the arrangement, following the martial drum solo, the song assumes an upbeat march tempo, slowing only in the release, when Sonny’s voice becomes a sweet and sad lament. Going literally from the sublime to the ridiculous, remember the old song, “Get a Job,” by the Silhouettes? At the end of that song’s inane and repetitive chorus, there is a “ba-po” line, the strains of which can be also be heard by instruments chiming in at “The Obvious Child’s beginning and end, just after that impressive drum solo. (Bob Seger was right when he said “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.”)
In Sonny’s contemplative passage, he echoes the words of his father, about having been accustomed to a smoother ride and not wanting to be played for a fool any more. Perhaps the lie to which they both refer is the lie that only exists on the temporal plane, and the aspiration to a higher truth is right there in front of him. After all, why should Sonny, the child, deny the obvious child, Jesus?
(“The Rhythm of the Saints” 5/7/73, Columbia)
If this song from Paul Simon’s best known “concept” album were to end with its first line, it would still be a great song, for it paints a picture of not only a part of the country, but a way of life. When, after a now iconic musical introduction, Simon enters with “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar,” you know you’re on a special journey with a gifted artist who has traveled halfway around the world to give us a guided tour of the apotheosis of America’s southern heartland.* Simon is taking his son (there goes that father/son thing again) on a trip to the secular shrine of the “King” of rock n’ roll, Elvis Presley. And, lest there be any doubt, Graceland (the destination) has the double meaning of not only being Elvis Presley’s estate, but (literally) the land where people go to find grace
And if Simon has reason to believe the two of them will be received at Elvis’s Graceland, it is no wonder. After all, there is no acolyte more loyal to the history of rock music than Paul Simon. He is in its debt, but he has paid his dues, and admittance is all but certain. Just as Simon, in an understated way, paid homage to the rhythm and blues part of what became rock n’ roll in “Renee & Georgette Magritte” with the haunting and recessed strains of the Harptones, “Graceland” features two High Priests of the country & western origins of rock n’ roll, The Everly Brothers, singing background so softly you have to strain to hear them. **
In the second stanza, Simon talks of a former lover (the mother of his son?) comes back to haunt him with memories that he knows all too well. He didn’t need to be reminded that they are no more; he knows that as well as his own bed, or the way she brushed her hair from her forehead. And what she says about their lost love becomes the song’s refrain: “losing love is like a window in your heart” through which everybody can see the state of your disarray. He revisits this simile in the stanza about the human trampoline, tumbling in the same turmoil that has them both “bouncing into Graceland,” and he, too, now looks through the open window caused by lost love. What Simon achieves in this paean to the King of rock n’ roll is a song that is neither rock, nor country. It is a different sound, “world” music, informed by the cadences of South Africa. And yet, Simon, pulls it off. No mean feat.
The trip to Graceland is one on which he is not simply accompanied by his son, he is accompanied by ghosts and empty sockets, painful and haunted memories that take him (and others) on this pilgrimage to what he hopes will be his own Mecca. At the end, he realizes that, just as all roads were once said to lead to Rome, there are many routes to Graceland, and perhaps we all will be received there. Hope so.
(“Graceland,” 8/25/86, Warner Brothers.)
*(Remember the cover art on Dire Straights’ album “Brothers-in-Arms? If not, take a look at it and you’ll better appreciate that opening line.)
**Simon paid the Everly Brothers the ultimate tribute by featuring them for a number at his 2012
“Old Friends” reunion concert with Art Garfunkel.
(20) “You Can Call me Al”
Graceland is another album from which I could easily have chosen four or five songs to put on this list. I’ll have to confine myself to the title tune and this one because of the “everyman” theme that Simon returns to time and again, as he does here. Like Sonny from “The Obvious Child,” the poor boy in “The Boxer,” and the peripatetic salesman in “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” Al is trying to come to terms with mortality, as viewed through the prism of middle-age, with its realizations and frustrations.
Al’s life is hard; he is getting “soft in the middle,” and has a shortened attention span. He’s searching for a photo op, and wants his fifteen minutes of fame before it’s too late. Just as many people descend into self-caricature as they age, Simon’s “Al,” fears winding up a “cartoon in a cartoon graveyard,” remembered only as a cliché. As he ages, Al longs for his lost role models—don’t we all! As a reminder of the time that has passed, Paul dots the song with old rock n’ roll memories: “na na na na’s,” and “duck back down the alley,” (shades of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”).
And who is his salvation—Betty, a dream girl to be his bodyguard. Not so surprising, as he needs protection against time’s doors that are closing around him. Whether she’s the “Betty” from “Archie” comics or Bogey’s “Betty” Bacall (or someone of else of his own imagining), she is the dream girl of his choice, and he chooses to call her Betty. Whatever, it’s an old-fashioned name, perfect for Al, whose best days, he fears, are behind him. As for himself, what better “everyman” name to choose than Al?
Perhaps it is because Paul and I are contemporaries, but in hearing this song for the first time, I flashed on its title as the plea for recognition uttered by the “Al’ of Yip Harburg’s lyrics to “Buddy Can you spare a Dime?” I think that Paul may have done so as well.*
In any event, to me, Paul’s “Al” and the one penned by Harburg are the same guy. They find themselves strangers in their own land. This is another example of Simon’s having written a very sad song, but deceiving us with an upbeat tempo. But wait, all is not lost. In the song’s final stanza, Al (or possibly a different man with the same yearnings) finds himself walking as a foreigner in the strange world that his reality has become. He looks around, sees “Angels in the architecture,” and shouts “amen” and “hallelujuah,” before again asking Betty to protect him. What will he offer in return? Perhaps, simply to be, like Harburg’s forgotten veteran, her long-lost pal. (“Graceland”)
* That song, with lyrics by “Yip” Harburg (of “Wizard of Oz” fame), was a number one hit for Bing Crosby in the Depression-era 30’s. Its “Al” was a forgotten man who built railroads and towers, and served as a doughboy in World War I. In the song’s heartbreaking conclusion, he calls out to anyone listening—“Say, don’t you remember, you called me Al. It was Al all the time. Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal. Brother can you spare a dime?
(21) “Boy in the Bubble”
This song is an attack on our senses, a barrage of modern imagery; life as we have come to know it. It was written in 1990, but could have been written today. These may, indeed be “days of miracles and wonder,” but modernity exacts quite a price. Our culture is disposable as “every generation throws a hero off the pop charts,” something, alas, that Paul Simon has doubtless come to recognize. And so, amidst miracles and wonders like “the long-distance call,” “the turnaround jump-shot,” and “the baby with the Baboon heart,” they are also the days of unexpected violence and terrorism (“the bomb in the baby-carriage”). Was there something prescient about drones in Simon’s reference to “lasers in the jungle, somewhere?” Certainly the loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires, then in its infancy, has certainly come of age. The song, like the age in which we live, is highly charged, electronic, and yes—explosive. (“Saints”)
(22) “Slip Slidin’ Away”
This is a song about life, and not about lives that are rocking easily. The first stanza employs a religious metaphor as it tells about a man who wears “his passion for his woman like a thorny crown.” He is so overpowered by her love that he’s afraid he’ll disappear—literally slip slide’ away. The second tells of a wife for whom passion plays no role whatsoever. On the brink of a clinical depression, her idea of a good day is simply when it’s not raining. The bad days, however, are when she thinks of things that might have been—what the poet called the saddest of all possible words.
The third is about a father who, for reasons unclear, no longer lives at home. He drives a long distance to explain things to his sleeping son, but was unable to speak, and silently returns from whence he came. His opportunity, too, has slid away. All the people in the song are paralyzed: the man by passion, the woman by “what if’s,” and the father, so longing to explain himself, is struck dumb by his guilt, and denies his obvious child the explanation that was due him, leaving his sleeping son none the wiser for the visit.
In the final verse in a song about people either unwilling or unable to act in their own best interest, God and His mysteries are invoked as the only explanation available. They are left protected only by their self-deceptions, thinking “we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.” Not the most encouraging of messages, but a very good and well-done song.
(“Greatest Hits, etc.” 1977 Columbia)
Best Version: S&G at the “Old Friends” reunion concert, 2012, when we get to hear the beauty of Garfunkel’s harmonies on a song they never recorded in the studio.
(23) “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”
"Me and Julio," is a wonderful example of Simon’s way with a lyric. In a sense, people tend to underestimate Dylan’s musical skills due to the stunning power of his lyrics, while Simon’s apparent ease with melodies can sometimes make us forget what a craftsman he is with words. From the Internal rhymes of its opening line, “The mama pajama rolled out of bed and ran to the police station. When the papa found out he began to shout and he started an investigation.” I guess, like most people, I’d love to know what Julio’s offense was. Simon himself, while assuming it was something sexual, says he doesn’t know, and considers the song “inscrutable doggerel.” Whatever, it’s a great song, with an irresistible percussive rhythm, and filled with local and political references. Written in 1971, the reference to “the radical priest come to get me released and we’s all on the cover of Newsweek,”* captures the tenor of the times perfectly. So, whether Julio was engaged in a furtive sexual encounter (with a boy or a girl), caught smoking pot, or participating in some sort of political protest, it got them on the cover of Newsweek, which was then (along with “Time Magazine”) the most significant sign that one was “newsworthy.” But the good news is that Julio, whatever his offense, will be back with his homies down by the schoolyard.
Sadly, however, he must bid farewell to his presumed girlfriend, “Rosie, the Queen of Corona.” For you non-New Yorkers in the audience, there’s some interesting wordplay at work here. Queens is not only one of New York’s boroughs, but the one from which Simon hails. Corona is a neighborhood in Queens, so calling Rosie a queen, makes her, in effect the unspoken “Queen of Queens.” Hey, I’m just sayin.’
*Anyone who lived through the 60’s and 70’s will remember the Berrigan Brothers, two anti-war priests (“Vietnam”), who made their own headlines as “radical priests.”
(24) “Love and Hard Times”
In one of Simon’s most spiritual and most deliberate of “concept” albums, “So Beautiful or So What” stands as one of the very best of his later works. At the time this penultimate studio album was recorded, Simon was nearing seventy, and reflecting on his life and beyond to the unknown that lay ahead—wherever that was to be It was difficult to choose one song from this fine album, but narrowing Simon’s body of work down to twenty-five is an even more daunting task. I almost chose “The Afterlife” but thought it was pretty much the heavenly equivalent of the next (and last) song on this list, “Wristband,” which is its temporal counterpart, and appears on Simon’s final studio recording. “So Beautiful” had almost passed me by, but I felt it had to be listened to and bought the album. Since that time, I spent a lot of time carefully listening to this fine work, and recommend it to any serious fan of the artist.
There is another song on this album that should be singled out as well, and that is “Rewrite,” in which a burnt-out Vietnam vet has decided to re-write the story of his life “and sell it for cash.” I’ve chosen, however, the song “Love and Hard Times,” in which a restless God is taken (unenthusiastically, if not reluctantly) on a visit to earth by His only son (the obvious child). After all, the son has spent some time here and can be a pretty good tour guide. The visit, described as “a courtesy call,” finds earth going through some hard times, and yet, the “old folks wept for His love” in, and probably despite, these hard times.
God is anxious to get going, and move on from the “slobs” who inherit the earth. This song examines the relationship between man and God from a different perspective as we thankfully worship a God who has other worlds to conquer and create and who may, in fact, take us and our hard times with something less than a grain of sand. This song reminds me of Randy Newman and his less than pious takes on a God that laughs at us for worshipping any shepherd that would treat his flock so ungratefully. In fact, Simon (admitting it to be a songwriting cliché) borrows a line from Newman’s “Marie,” (“Loved you the first time I saw you,”), as the song takes a turn from divine love (or the lack thereof) to the beauties of earthly love, which may or may not be a gift from God. Man, of course, is most apt to be grateful for love when things are going well, but less so when things spin out of control and love is gone.
But, at the end of this enigmatic song, she takes his hand in her’s and all is well. Thank God I found you in time, he say, and repeats. Is it his earthly lover he has found in time (for which, now that things are back on track, he thanks God) or is it God that he has found and to whom he gives thanks. Or both?
(“So Beautiful or So What” 2010, “HEAR Music”)
This cut from Simon’s final album*, is a first cousin to the song “The Afterlife,” referred to in 24 above. In “Afterlife,” a man, presumably after having lived a good life, finds himself at the pearly gates where—as in life—he has to fill out forms and wait in line. When he finally gets to meet God after an interminable wait, he (as a child of rock n’ roll) is undecided whether to say “Be bop a lula” or “oh papa doo.” Talk about being tongue-tied!
“Wristband takes place in more the more familiar environs of earth, as a matter of fact, just outside the stage door where Simon has gone for a furtive smoke and to check out his e-mail (if, as he says, he can “read the screen). When he tries to get back in, the six-foot eight guard (who would tower over most of us, let alone Simon) demands to see his wristband. Simon tells the guard, in so many words, that he (of all people) shouldn’t need a wristband—he’s the star attraction, the “Piano Man” they’ve come to see. Without him, they’ll be no show. He says to the unhearing guard, “My axe is on the bandstand. It’s another way of saying, “The cross is in the ballpark.” He’s asking, in effect, why is it in life that we’re only as good as our last achievement. Don’t we ever arrive? (Once again, wait until you get to Heaven as in “Afterlife”—Really? the waiting never ends. The lyric adverts to this eternal fact—even the guard is “standing like St. Peter at the pearly…”
Our post-menopausal society has become credential-crazed. You need this degree, that license, the special waiting room at the airport, and even at the show in which you are the show, “you need a wristband, my man.” Gotta keep proving yourself. The song ends with a secular judgment day in which the have-nots, sick and tired of never having a wristband, revolt. This notion of a day of reckoning is present in another fine song from this CD—the “Werewolf” is coming. Paul Simon may not be around to see the Werewolf do his thing, but the werewolf doesn’t care if you’re wearing a wristband or not. Everyone’s fair game. You, too, my man.
“Stranger to Stranger,” 6/13/16, Concord)
*Much of this final album is fine and thoughtful music. A running theme is that of the “Street Angel,” a wanderer in search of answers who is referenced in the song of the same name and elsewhere on the CD. Please give a listen as well to the splendid song, “Questions for the Angels.” If Paul has indeed cut his last studio album, he has gone out in fine style.