Friday, August 19, 2005

Paul Simon's Muse
Why his solo work is superior

Paul Simon sits in a Chinese restaurant, waiting for his order. A friend's words keep coming back to him. "Simon and Garfunkel is a household word. Whatever you do alone, you'll never be able to touch that success." This was said to him a year ago, in 1970, when he and Art Garfunkel broke up their legendary act. It was about time. Simon had written all those great, classic songs - "Homeward Bound", "The Boxer", "Bridge Over Troubled Water", Garfunkel given them voice (harmonised with his own)…but the songs were too lush, too lustrous, too limited. Simon wanted to do funkier, more experimental, more cutting-edge work, Garfunkel didn't. This, coupled with Garfunkel's acting ambitions, had pulled them in different directions. Now, here he was, mulling over his first solo project. There's something about this chicken and egg dish that is inspiring. An idea is forming in his mind, images of his dog that recently died appear, as do thoughts on mortality. He doesn't know it yet, but this idea will graduate to "Mother And Child Reunion" - a poignant song about the loss of someone close. Whether it is the loss of Garfunkel as his artistic partner or of Peggy - his soon-to-be estranged wife, that is subconsciously driving this song, he doesn't know.

The simply titled Paul Simon (1972) was his first solo release. Recorded all over the place - Jamaica, Paris, New York, Los Angeles - Simon worked in several musical styles while demonstrating a lyrical inventiveness. The opening track, despite its humble gastronomic origins, was a tour de force. He used reggae, becoming the first major white artist to do so. It was even recorded in Jamaica, with Jamaican sessions musicians including a backing singer Cissy Houston, who had a cute little daughter called Whitney. There were other classy tracks, like the coming -of-age, idiosyncratic-sounding "Duncan", the exquisite "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" which used no drums - just percussion, the collaborative instrumental with legendary violinist Stephane Grappelli "Hobo's Blues" and the sad, sarcastic "Congratulations" where he wondered "Can a man and a woman/live together in peace?" The album garnered respectful reviews but sold barely a tenth of what the last Simon and Garfunkel album had. But Simon was confident - he'd matured as an artist and it showed.

Paul Simon throws a softball off the wall while pacing the room. It's his oldest, truest writing aid. Helps clear the mind. He's trying to write a song on his young son Harper. It's a long haul, he's too overcome with love to write. Damn, all I want to say, he thinks, is that you totally amaze and mesmerize me and I can't contain myself, and that's just not a healthy song to write. But the album's shaping up well. The songs are lighter than anything he's done before, yet as engaging, perhaps more. The album opens with "Kodachrome" with the words, "When I think back on all the crap I learnt in high school…" and covers every kind of mood through its 10 songs. Reverend Juter's done a nifty falsetto on the New Orleans carnival song "Take Me To The Mardi Gras". And "American Tune" - that's turned out well. Have to make it clear that it's Bach's melody, not mine. Maybe I should just write a lullaby for Harper, he thinks. These lines write themselves, "If I can't sing my boy to sleep/well it makes your famous daddy look so dumb." This would be one of his finest songs ever ("St Judy's Comet"), but right now he's struggling with it.

There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973) was one of the masterpiece albums of the seventies. Every song exquisitely crafted and gloriously performed. "Kodachrome" ran into trouble though, banned by some US radio stations who objected to the word "crap", banned by the BBC, who considered it advertising! But "American Tune" made up for both these hiccups. It practically became an alternative national anthem - remarkable for a wistful song of broken dreams, devoid of any jingoistic fervour. In 1977, he would perform it at President Carter's Inaugural Ball. In 1986, at the 100th birthday celebrations for the Statue of Liberty. Studying classical guitar and listening to diverse forms of music, like Jobim and Gospel, had matured Simon and his music. The next album would bear even better testimony.

Paul Simon stands with his handful of Grammies backstage. To the flashing cameras he says he won because Stevie Wonder hasn't released an album this year. The laughter pleases him. It had been a tough year. He'd felt worthless and lost after his divorce. He'd done a song with Artie (Garfunkel) in this album - a short-lived pleasure, he'd finally written a song on baseball - his other great love ("Night Game"), he'd overhauled his musical style in this album, they'd all worked beautifully. The easy, flowing, jazzy feel represented his body rhythms now. This was seventies East Coast music, and yet, it would stand the test of time, he felt. He had broken new ground, he thought, like " 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" - one of those rare hit songs where the chorus is actually weaker than its verses. But what depths one has to plunge into, what pain one has overcome, to create worthwhile art. The whole album is about Peg and our broken marriage, he ponders. "I Do It For Your Love", I remember crying while writing its lyrics. Out of that pain comes this joy - of being this feted songwriter, at the pinnacle of one's craft. Is this the pinnacle? God, surely not….

Still Crazy After All These Years (1975) was an amazing album. It was jazz-inflected and gospel-influenced. In fact, a critic would say years later that Woody Allen's 1979 film Manhattan was the cinematic equivalent of Still Crazy… There are lots of similarities in their work, and indeed, their personalities - both New York Jewish neurotics examining man-woman relationships, with feeling, often with a lightness-of-touch. (Simon would even go on to act in Allen's legendary film Annie Hall). The collaboration with Garfunkel "My Little Town" was a highlight too. The song about the claustrophobia felt in a small town could well have been an expression of how Simon felt working with Garfunkel now. Yet, 1975 was an eventful year for Simon, with a pleasant culmination. But it would be his last hurrah in the seventies.

Paul Simon sits in an LA psychiatrist's couch talking about his feelings of inadequacy. He'd been suffering from depression for some time now. After his stunning success with Still Crazy…, he'd lost the plot somewhat. His first attempt to write and direct a feature film One Trick Pony didn't go down too well. Its accompanying album of songs also sunk. Then, he'd reunited with Garfunkel for a memorable Central Park concert, but the old ghosts came between them again. They weren't even on talking terms anymore. His second marriage to Star Wars star, Carrie Fisher, was breaking up too. He feels immobilised, unable to break out of the writer's block he's clearly in. Are you working just to produce hits, he is asked by the psychiatrist, or is it to make a contribution, any contribution? I just feel that my music is of no importance now, Paul says. A long discussion ensues at the end of which the psychiatrist tells him that the way to contribute is through the songs. It's not up to Paul to judge their merits, but just to write the songs. Paul begins to feel liberated.

Hearts And Bones (1983) was the resulting album and it was the lowest-selling album of his career. But it was an artistic success. Easily his most personal, intense collection of songs, the title track was a beauty. Analysis had helped heighten self-awareness in Simon, and the songs were therefore more introverted, particularly lyrically. Simon himself felt that two of these songs were among the best he'd ever done. But the slight sales were again dispiriting. It gave the message loud and clear that his audience had moved on. The future seemed empty. All that seemed to occupy him now was rearing his son and staring at the sea.

Paul Simon is demo-ing a song, multi-tracking himself to give the chorus effect. Nothing new, after all, the famous Simon & Garfunkel harmonies were accentuated by doubling the voices. But this music is miles away from what he and Artie used to do. He's trying to create a song with just voices here, without any musical instruments. The line, "moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake" had been floating in his mind. The song, the voices, would be around this line. Joseph is now adding some Zulu lyrics to it; the blend is working. Yes, this is definitely working. As Paul sweats over the demo, the future smiles knowingly. This track would become "Homeless"- a shimmering gem in a magical album that would change Paul's life and art forever.

The album that became Graceland (1986) had ironical origins. Two years ago, a bootleg cassette called Gumboots: Accordian Jive Hits, Vol II had come into Simon's hand. The music in it, South African township jive, fascinated and overwhelmed him - he felt the same excitement and musical freshness that had pulled him to music 30 years ago. He heard more indigenous black South African artists and made up his mind - he was going to merge his sensibility to this glorious sound. Soon, he was in Johannesburg recording with the very same musicians who'd played on that Gumboots tape. Lyrics and melodies were improvised over the basic rhythms … and the results were stunning. Local groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo ( their frontman was Joseph Shabalala, who co-wrote "Homeless") and new wave rock-and-roll bands like Los Lobos gave each and every song a separate identity. Yet, overall, it was distinctly a Paul Simon album - his trademark calm sense of balance driving the songs. Graceland was that very rare album that married commercial and artistic success and took popular music a few steps forward. Yet, Simon had his detractors, who accused him of "stealing" South African music. An amazing charge, considering how thankful the musicians themselves were of Simon, for having literally pushed them to the international stage. There is no better example of the unifying power of music. As Graceland won the 1987 Grammy for Best Album, the "has-been" was suddenly a "visionary artist" again.

Paul Simon is singing his words, shaping the lyric, while listening over and over to the backing track they recorded. The song is called "Can't Run But" and it's his favourite track in the new album. His friend J.J. Cale is playing blues guitar. What fabulous percussion, what amazing musicians - these are classically trained guys who've invented their own instruments! Paul sings, "A winding river/Gets wound around a heart/Pull it/Tighter and tighter/ Until muddy waters part/Down by the river bank/A blues band arrives/The music suffers, baby/ The music business thrives/ I can't run but/ I can walk much faster than this…" Stream-of-consciousness is fine, Paul thinks, but it's got to be coherent. How radically he has overhauled his songwriting method. Before, it was guitar, pen and paper - words and music would emerge together. Now, the words come from the rhythms, and the lyrics have actually gotten better, but that’s probably a function of age and maturity. This album's more interesting than Graceland, yet people around him insist it's less accessible, despite instantly likeable songs like "Obvious Child", "The Coast" and "Born At The Right Time". Hmm… maybe it’s the fact that the vocals are 3 decibels under the tracks. Jeeze, it'll be tough mixing this record. But hey, there's no problem we can't solve in the recording studio, its not like life.

Rhythm Of The Saints (1990) was a very worthy sequel to Graceland. This was a Brazilian - West African hybrid album and continued his experiments with indigenous sounds. Simon even went to Rio and Bahia to record, with renewed accusations of "musical tourism" leveled at him. Though this is not an instantly likeable album, it definitely grows on you. It contains lots of subtle riches, and will surely stand the test of time.

Paul Simon stares at the yellow legal pad in front of him. Nobel prize-winning poet, and collaborator on this project - Derek Walcott, sits opposite him. They're writing a Broadway musical together, yet another experiment for Paul. They end up discussing the potential scope of controversy in their subject matter. The Capeman is the true story of a Puerto Rican gang member in New York who was sentenced to death in 1959 for murdering 2 teenagers. Wait and see, they'll say we're glorifying a killer, says Derek. This is not a story about killing, but about human life, Paul exclaims. Sure, but will they buy it? They should, because it's not a superficial treatment of the characters, I mean, it’s a musical but not light escapist entertainment. Yeah, it either stands up as a work of art or it doesn't. What's really exciting Paul is that the period necessitates using doo-wop and Latin music - fifties style, certainly a progression of his own musical journey.

Songs From The Capeman (1997) had 14 songs from the play, all lovely, if you liked the style of music. For the first time in his career, Simon told a story through its lyrics, thus reinventing himself again. But for those who found this musical style outdated, it was a disappointing collection from this master songwriter. And the play didn't do well either. "Killers tale in doo-wop" is how someone described it, the moral outrage not exactly unexpected by Simon.

Today, Paul Simon's work can be divided in 3 categories - the early folk stuff with Garfunkel, the jazz-influenced work in the seventies and the music that celebrated world music in the eighties and nineties. His body of work in any of these categories would propel him to the top of any songwriters' heap. But all three make him a giant, a legend, a truly great artist. The best thing is - the magic is far from over.

September 1999


Anonymous narayan said...

love it man

you rocknroll heart you!

6:00 PM  
Blogger nina said...

thank you.
perhaps not for the music,
but for capturing the essence of it.

5:37 PM  

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