PAUL SIMON The 2011 BLUERAILROAD Interview & 70th Birthday Tribute
To commemorate Paul Simon’s 70th birthday this week on Thursday, October 13, BLUERAILROAD is proud to present this, the complete interview conducted by Paul Zollo on April 23, 2011, a portion of which was used as the cover story for the most recent issue of American Songwriter magazine, and with a new extended introduction. Following the interview are Zollo’s reviews of Simon’s most recent album of original material, So Beautiful or So What, and his April 21st , 2011 show in Hollywood, as well as ICONS, Zollo’s column from American Songwriter dedicated to Simon.
We present all of this together as a birthday present for our fellow Paul Simon fans around the world, and out of ongoing respect for the phenomenon which is Paul Simon.
— Henry Crinkle, Publisher, BLUERAILROAD. 10.11.11
The Bluerailroad Interview
Words & Photographs by PAUL ZOLLO
That’s a joke that I made up
Once when I had eons to kill
You know, most folks
They don’t get when I’m joking
Well, maybe someday they will
That’s the main request I receive
Well you know I love all my children
And it tears me up when I leave
From “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”
By Paul Simon
IT TAKES A CERTAIN KIND OF COURAGE to be a songwriter. A measure of creative bravado, if you will. Unlike other professions in which one perfects a method and repeats it, songwriting isn’t something you do the same way each time, requiring instead a conscious reach into the unconscious, a knowing venture into the unknown, never sure where you’re going. Even after having done it for decades, and having written many of the world’s most famous and beloved songs, it’s still a process of going somewhere you’ve never been before.
“Songwriting is like you’re wandering down a path,” Paul Simon said in agreement, sitting in the soft morning sunlight unique to South California, “and you don’t know what the destination is. Somewhere towards the end, you can sort of see what the destination is and you can understand what the journey is about.”
Even Herbie Hancock, who surely knows the piano keyboard better than almost all other humans, told me that there’s always new musical ground to be discovered right there on the same keys he’s been playing forever. “It’s endless,” he said.
When I told Simon this, he laughed and said it’s endless for him as well. “If it’s endless for Herbie,” he said, “you can be sure it’s endless for me, too.”
Reach in the darkness
A reach in the dark
To overcome an obstacle or an enemy
To glide away from the razor or a knife
To overcome an obstacle or an enemy
To dominate the impossible in your life
From “The Rhythm of the Saints”
By Paul Simon
Unless, of course, you’re content repeating yourself. But Paul Simon, more dramatically than any of his peers, has gone to great lengths, literally, not to repeat himself. He’s gone around the globe – to Jamaica for the track that became the first reggae-tinged hit ever in America, “Mother and Child Reunion,” to New Orleans for “Loves Me Like a Rock,” to Africa for the tracks that became the landmark Graceland, to Brazil for Rhythm of the Saints.
And on his newest album, So Beautiful Or So What, he’s journeyed into the past, lovingly looping in great recordings from the dawn of recorded music. “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” boasts a great locomotive-charged harmonica exhortation by none other than Sonny Terry, sampled from his 1938 “Train Whistle Blues,” while “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” is woven tenderly around samples of a 1941 sermon delivered with much fire and brimstone by the Reverend J.M. Gates and congregation. Rather than ignore the potential of digital innovations such as loops and samples, he embraces them; not only is the potential for discovering new music endless, so is the sonic potential of any record, now more than ever.
From “Love and Hard Times”
By Paul Simon
“It’s all I do,” he said more than once, in regard to writing songs and making records. Which, to students of songwriting, is tantamount to Picasso saying, “All I do is paint.” Yeah, true, but those paintings, Pablo, you know, they’re pretty good.
Of course, Picasso did more than paint – he also sculpted and wrote poetry and danced and loved. And Paul Simon, just a few months short from his 70th birthday [on October 13] seems more than ever like the Picasso of popular song, does do more than write songs, of course – he also turns those songs into records, an art and science perhaps more tricky and elusive even than songwriting itself – and one which he says in the following he prefers to writing songs.
He’s also one of the planet’s most beloved and familiar vocalists; the sound of his singing, like that of his friends James Taylor and Paul McCartney, is one of the most consistently compelling ingredients of popular music through the past several decades.
Also, like both McCartney and Taylor, Simon’s an astounding musician, a guitarist who has consistently found new ways to express himself on this instrument he’s been playing since he was a kid.
“Nothing I do on guitar is very difficult,” he said. Which might be technically true – but what he does is ingenious, using the range and tuning of the guitar to find chords and harmonic passages that, while simple for him to play, sound anything but simple. To show me this, he took out his beautiful acoustic pearl-inlaid Martin and played me the lovely chord that comes at the start of “Questions for the Angels,” [Bminor-add 2/D] which sounds like an extended jazz chord but with the guitaristic sweetness of open strings resounding. He also showed off a nifty transition from an Eb/Bb to an Em7/B that he said he’d used first in “Questions” and then in other songs, and which sounds very Simon – both simple and complex at once, and elegant.
After his work on Graceland he did the same thing, happily showing me the partial chords in different registers he learned from the Africans, and which – while simple to play – aren’t in the usual American bag of tricks. He’s a guy who collects this stuff, and keeps it all close at hand, like a painter with many brushes.
To his vast worldwide audience, of course, all of these jobs merge into one – the singer, songwriter, guitarist, performer, record producer – he’s been multi-tasking, along with his peers, now for so many years most people forget how many simultaneous jobs he is doing.
But the songwriter knows. He knows the effort that goes into writing a great lyric or a compelling melody, and the heady mandate of matching each to each, achieving what he calls the “crucial balance” of words and music. He knows well the challenges – and potential peril – inherent in the act of turning a song into a record. Simon, especially, is cognizant of these challenges. As he discussed with me in previous conversations, it was his conclusion that his Hearts & Bones album didn’t do better business at the time because he failed to make good records out of good songs. It’s an arguable notion, as the album remains one of the most beloved among his fans, but what isn’t arguable is that it led him to Graceland.
After you climb up the ladder of time
The Lord God is near
Face-to-face in the vastness of space
Your words disappear
And you feel like you’re swimming in an ocean of love
And the current is strong
But all that remains when you try to explain
Is a fragment of song
from “The Afterlife”
By Paul Simon
Although already established in the business and the world both as one of this planet’s most accomplished songwriters, having written countless classics of lyrical genius and melodic splendor (“The Sound of Silence,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “America,” “Still Crazy After All these Years,” and “American Tune” are only a few) Simon abandoned his tried and true method of writing songs with just guitar and voice and invented a new method, of writing songs to tracks.
Figuring nobody was paying much attention anymore after Hearts & Bones, he went to Africa and recorded tracks with his good pal and engineer Roy Halee (now retired and living in Colorado), and then came home to NYC to write lyrics and tunes to those tracks.
In the midst of this work, he told me he met up with Paul McCartney, and in Simon’s car played the former Beatle the instrumental tracks he’d been working with. “He sang along to them,” Simon remembered, “and he came up with a lot of good melodies. Really good. Not as good as mine, but I’d already been working with them for months by then.”
Those tracks, of course, became the landmark Graceland, an unprecedented achievement for an artist of his age, to create an album that redefined the sonic context of records from then on. The phrase “World Music” became widespread, Simon received some flak over what was misconstrued as his exploitation of African musicians (as if he calculated that an album of African tracks with lyrics of American sensibility would be an obvious hit, a preposterous notion), but mostly he received profuse praise and further adoration, and reveled in the phenomenal reception this singular album received.
So great was that celebration – and with good reason, songs like “Boy In The Bubble” and “You Can Call Me Al” were brilliantly exultant songs and tracks that reshaped the face of popular music – that Paul felt he’d found a new method more effective for what he considered a rhythmic rather than melodic musical epoch. “We’re long out of the age of melody,” said this genius melodist to me back in 1993. And it was that conclusion that led him through his next several albums to create some of the most lyrically-rich and euphoric sounding records ever made.
By writing to tracks as opposed to a guitar, Simon freed himself physically and psychically from the instrument, allowing his imagination the liberty to roam and ramble while inspired by the wordless tracks, often driving while working, as discussed in the following. “Which is why I am one of the guys you want to avoid when you’re on the road,” he said with a laugh.
Ironically, Simon, who started using this method to focus on more on groove than tune, unchained the innate melodist in his soul and wrote some of his most gorgeous melodies track-first, such as “Wartime Prayers” and “Father & Daughter” both from Surprise, or “Further To Fly,” from Rhythm of the Saints.
He also proved then, following the accolades, awards and record-sales of Graceland, that he’s as enervated by triumph as by tragedy, or by what he perceived as failure, that of Heart and Bones . After Graceland, plugged into the electricity of the world’s attention, as he did after Sounds of Silence, he moved from strength to strength, creating next The Rhythm of the Saints, which contains some of the most powerful and distinctive songs he or anyone has written, such as “The Cool, Cool River,” perhaps the ultimate example of the track-first potential; to one of his most charged tracks emerged an astonishing merger of melancholy and hope. This is Paul Simon unbound, both musically and lyrically, taking on issues of God and love at his most passionate and poetically-infused:
The cool, cool river
Sweeps the wild, white ocean
The rage, the rage of love turns inward
To become prayers of devotion
And these prayers are
The constant road across the wilderness
These prayers are
These prayers are the memory of God
The memory of God
And I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours, I feel sure
From “The Cool, Cool River”
By Paul Simon
For his newest album, evidently ripe to walk a fresh musical avenue, he returned after more than a decade away to the simple dynamic of acoustic guitar and voice. Asked how he felt doing it, he said “Awkward at first.”
The first song he created this way was “Amulet,” which he then felt was too complex for lyrics, and kept it as an instrumental on the record. But the next one that came was also a composition of much complexity, but with a melody that led him to one of his funniest and also most touching lyrics, “Love & Hard Times,” the origins of which are explored in the following conversation.
Which isn’t to say that he abandoned totally the track-first method. He didn’t. The album’s wonderful title song, “So Beautiful Or So What,” replete with the essential question at the heart of this songwriter’s soul (Does life have meaning or not?) is a track-first composition, as are the other rhythm tunes on the record, while the ballads, including “Questions for the Angels,” are guitar & voice conceptions.
Folded in his backpack pocket
The questions that he copied from his heart
Who am I in this lonely world?
Where will I make my bed tonight?
When twilight turns to dark
Questions for the angels…
Who believes in angels? Fools do..
Fools and pilgrims all over the world
From “Questions For The Angels”
By Paul Simon
Today he’s staying at the grand pink lady of Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hills Hotel, where movie-stars have stayed and played for many decades. It’s the day after three-sold out concerts in Hollywood, where he’s been putting on inspirational shows that weave the new songs from So Beautiful or So What with songs that span his remarkable career.
A friend worries aloud that Donald Trump is making waves, and Paul dismisses it like a bad joke. “Nobody’s listening,” he said. He’s more interested with what Ben Witherington, a seminary professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, blogged about him, which was then picked up by Christian Today, that although Simon’s previous album was entitled Surprise, that it’s this one that is the surprise since its message throughout is spiritual:
“I think Paul is being made God’s music even now,” wrote Witherington, “he just isn’t fully aware of it.” Asked if he felt this was accurate, true to his nature, Simon wasn’t sure. “Generally I feel it’s just a lot of good luck. Or the harder you work the luckier you get. But I look on it as luck.”
Today he’s worried about a sore-throat, and is drinking lots of water and herbal tea so as to be in good voice for tonight’s show near San Diego. “I had some coffee yesterday,” he says, “and that might be the problem.” He’s seems happy, relaxed, and very much in love with his wife of many years, Edie Brickell, and their kids. It’s a sense of spiritual harmony that permeates all of So Beautiful Or So What, the only album he created in his own home. This native New Yorker, long one of Manhattan’s most famous faces, has actually left New York (but not too far) and moved with his family to rural Connecticut, and it’s there, in a little house next to his big one, he teamed up with co-producer Phil Ramone, engineer Andy Smith and many great musicians and longtime collaborators such as Vince Nguini and Mark Stewart.
It’s a warmly familial lifestyle change, and speaks to the depth of his love for his wife and kids. As opposed to the isolated soul “stranded in a limousine” whose life slip-slides away as depicted in earlier songs, he’s happily working on lyrics in his head while picking up the kids from school, or coaching Little League. “You know that motion you make with your arms to call the runner on third to run home?” he said to a TV interviewer. “I do that a lot now, even when I’m not coaching.” Around his little town, he’s known to most of the kids as Coach Simon.
He does admit to being surprised that God turned up in so many of his new songs, and found it funny that Paul McCartney, after hearing these new songs of Jesus and Christmas, asked Simon, “Hey, aren’t you Jewish?” And Simon identifies the two constants that recur throughout the album, that of spirituality and humor. But there is a third constant which is every bit as predominant as the others, that of love. Divine love, familial love, romantic love – it’s all here.
That warm glow of that love colors all these new songs, and is crystallized in “Love and Hard Times.” In a narrative that cross-cuts remarkably from a funny earthly visitation from God and Jesus to a remarkably intimate glimpse of a marriage, in language both literary and domestic, the home so quiet you hear it breathing in “clicks and clacks,” comes the ultimate conclusion, the one we reach in that still middle of the night, gratitude for real love. And even Simon, who writes about God in six of this album’s tracks and yet dismisses any spiritual source of song, winds up by thanking God.
The light at the edge of the curtain is the quiet dawn
The bedroom breathes in clicks and clacks
Uneasy heartbeat, can’t relax
But then your hand takes mine
Thank God, I found you in time
Thank God, I found you
Thank God, I found you
From “Love and Hard Times”
By Paul Simon
BLUERAILROAD: So Beautiful Or So What feels as inspired as anything you’ve done. You’re aiming as high as ever – and getting there – whereas it seems many of your peers are disengaged —
PAUL SIMON: Well, I don’t know. Can’t really address that. Although I must say Leonard Cohen’s doing pretty well at 70.
And Randy Newman’s last album – Harps and Angels. Fabulous. Really great work. So he’s definitely, definitely at the peak of his powers.
I don’t know on the others. The creative impulse is varied. Paul McCartney’s writing a ballet. Neil Young is very involved in film. Bob [Dylan] paints. He makes these incredible gates, iron gates. Really beautiful, where he welds things together. So they’re very creative.
You know, there’s not too many songwriters that I’ve actually had a really sort of forthright conversation about songwriting with. Not too much. Yeah, I have spoken with other songwriters, but I haven’t spoken to my generation of guys. I never had a conversation with Bob [Dylan], barely had a conversation with Paul [McCartney] about it. We had some conversations about composition.
I know Dylan is very interested in you, and knows how to play a lot of your songs.
Well, I don’t get to talk to him much. But when we did tour together, we chatted and chatted about lots of things, but we never talked about that.
I saw your tour with him when you played the Hollywood Bowl. How was that for you – to sing with him?
Fun. [Laughs] And funny.
Yeah. He doesn’t sing the same thing twice, you know? So if my job is to sing harmony, I don’t know where he’s going to be.
A challenge others have had. Like Joan Baez.
Yeah. But I think it’s just sort of fun that the both of us were standing up there singing together.
Do you think that the changes in the industry have discouraged some great artists from doing new work?
Maybe. This is just pure speculation, so I don’t know . But because the record business changed so much and kind of imploded and evaporated – it might be that there’s not so much of incentive to go and make a record. Even the record companies don’t seen incentivized. They all seem afraid. Well, not this company [Concord] that I’m with. I’m very happy to be with them.
They’re doing a good job.
They are, yeah, and they were very enthusiastic.
But in an environment that doesn’t seem to value the album form as much as it does the single download, that might have some effect. But it’s pure speculation. Because none of those people that we’re talking about, they’ve never said anything to me so I don’t know how they feel.
But as far as I’m concerned, I feel like it doesn’t really matter what happens with the record business because I’m just following the path that I set out on in the Sixties. And I’m just curious to see where it leads. And I don’t expect it, really, to lead into big commercial success. But I am very curious to see where it will take me.
And I’m not particularly creative in any other field… [laughs] You know, I can’t paint or make gates or make ballets or films or any of that.
But you are very talented not only in the writing, but in the record-making. More so than most songwriters. .
I like the record-making more than I like any other part of the process.
You recorded this new album in your own home studio in Connecticut?
Yes. I did one track – “Christmas Day” – in a studio. Because my place is a little small. It’s a tiny little house that I use for a studio, and I didn’t think I could fit drums in. But I can. I can just about fit drums in. So then I started to record drums in there too.
That’s a very different process, being in your own place—
It’s very comfortable. Very comfortable. And [producer] Phil Ramone lives 15 minutes away. So it’s easy for him, too. We don’t have to drive into the city for an hour and then park, and then at the end of the day be exhausted and then drive back home on the Merritt Parkway when you’re tired. It’s very comfortable to do that.
Also, I have so many choices of instruments there. I have all my guitars there. So if I decide that I want to choose a particular guitar that I wouldn’t normally carry to a studio with me, for example, if I say, oh, let’s try a Dobro on this sound, or let’s try a Requinto, or maybe I should try that Country Gentleman. I have, whatever it is, 20, 30 guitars that are there. So I have a pretty big palette to choose from, in terms of guitar.
Also I’ve started to collect a lot of percussion sounds. Especially bells. There are a lot of bells on this album. Overtones of bells used in different ways to creates echo sounds.
That kind of thing, using bell overtones for echo, reflects the level of comfort you feel there—
Well, I am comfortable. With all this time available to me, and no particular pressure – like I don’t have just two days in a studio, or something – I have a lot more time for trial and error. And the trial and error aspects of this record were significant. Because a lot of things didn’t work, so they’re not in there.
Yeah, I mean I’m playing different bell sounds or overdub sounds. Or, the example before, let’s try a Dobro. You take it out and spend an hour figuring out the part and playing it, and then you say, “You know? It’s not that great, actually. So let’s go back to the Strat or something like that.” There’s a lot of trial and error.
I was impressed with how much electric guitar – lead lines – you played, that I don’t normally associate with you.
I can play leads. But I have to do it a bunch of times. [Laughs]
That’s how George Harrison did it. He’d work out his parts.
Yeah. They sound like that kind of composed lines. But, you know, that’s fun for me. To make up all the different parts
Andy Smith is your engineer?
Yeah, he’s been my engineer for over 20 years. He trained under Roy Halee. He’s something.
Would you work in the studio all around the clock—
No, no. No. We’d work from 11 to 6. Something like that. 11:30 to 6. Or 5. Or maybe 6:30. Depending upon whether I had to go pick up the kids at school, or if Edie was going to. It was kind of loose, but those are roughly the hours. That’s about it for intense concentration for me.
Given your full vision and love of recording, I wonder what Phil’s job is. Does he come up with ideas, or is he there to get your ideas down?
He does have some ideas, but he’s more a facilitator for what I want. And more than that, he’s somebody whose opinion I trust. So I don’t have to be an editor of my work constantly. I can throw out ideas, and if he says “That one’s the best,” I don’t have to say, “Well, can you play them all back so I can check and listen?” Same with vocals. I do my vocal tracks. And I’ll do a lot of passes on a vocal.
Then do we hear the whole vocal or are you punching in lines? Because your vocals always sound very natural.
Yeah, they are natural. This is my typical thing: I’ll do four takes, combine them into one, do another four takes, combine that into one, and take the two combined takes and make that into a master, and whatever I don’t like after that I’ll usually just go specifically for what I didn’t get. And I could come back two weeks later and say I don’t really like this vocal, I’m gonna do it again. And end up keeping one line from an earlier one.
It’s the same thing. I’ll just stay with it till I like it. Or I could get it in a take or two. It’s the same principle, really. The ear goes to the irritant. And if you don’t like it, eventually it has to go away. And if you like it and you capture something, then you keep it.
That’s interesting. “The ear goes to the irritant.” That applies also to your lyrics, in that the language is also so beautifully smooth and polished. There are no irritants. And I’ve found that since your first songs.
Well, thank you. I don’t have a clear picture in my mind of how that works. I have a very clear picture about how I do the music. The words come. [Pause] Usually it’s a long time before they come. And then when they start to come, it doesn’t take so long for it to be finished. It takes a long time to begin. And then it sort of gets finished.
Sometimes I’ll be stuck on a verse, or some aspect of a song. Could be a for a long time.
Yeah. “Love and Hard Times” took a long time.
That is such a miraculous song. We heard it prior to the album because you performed it live at Barnes & Noble and there’s a Youtube of it.
Right. I started to do it live. After I finished it. To see what the reaction would be to it, and whether people would understand what I’m talking about.
Simon performing “Love and Hard Times” at Barnes & Noble in 2008.
It was amazing to me, having gotten to know that live version well, that on the album version you changed the melody and harmony at the end of one of the bridges. That melody is so complex, and yet you were still working on it. And your change was even better.
Did I? I don’t know what that might have been; maybe the first quarter bridge where it went from a major chord with a 7th to a minor chord with a 7th. I changed that. I don’t what it was, really.
But yeah, as long as the process is going along, the opportunity for change is there. At a certain point you close it down, and you’re finished. And you try to finish the record. Unless there’s something that’s really irritating about it. In which case I’ll go back.
When I originally recorded “Love and Hard Times,” it was just with the guitar and the voice. And then I did the string session with Gil Goldstein. And when it was finished, I said, “Gee, I had hoped this was going to be more.” And that’s when I decided I was going to take Phillip Glass’s advice and put a piano on it. He also said it was a piano song. And I said, “Oh, well, I just worked out this guitar part and I hate to give it up.” And he said, “Well, you can do both, you know, you can have both on it.” And that’s when Mick Rossi came in and did the overdub. And that’s when we met, and now he’s in the band, which I’m thrilled about.
He’s a wonderful player. That song seems very much like a guitar-first song—
It is. It’s the second song I wrote for the album.
I thought it was the first.
No, “Amulet” was the first.
“Amulet” is a beautiful guitar instrumental. Were you thinking of it as an instrumental?
No. I was thinking of it as a song and then it was too complicated for me to figure out how to write a song over it. So I just left it. I sort of abandoned it, actually. Then Luciana Souza, who is a really wonderful jazz singer from Brazil, she heard it a couple years ago at BAM when they did a month of my music, and she was singing some of the songs. I played that for her and she said, “I’d like to record that.” And I said, “It’s not even a song, it doesn’t have words.” She said, “I like songs without words.”
So she recorded it. It’s a beautiful recording of it. It came out before mine did.
Luciana Souza’s recording of Simon’s “Amulet.”
How great. Cause it is a very lyrical melody, and there are parts where you are singing—
I got that idea from Lu, really. So that’s why I decided to keep it in. There’s also a nice marimba recording of it by a woman up inBostonnamed Nancy Zeltsman who is an excellent player.
Did that song emerge from just experimenting on the guitar?
Yeah. All of the ballads were the first things I wrote. They were all just sitting with the guitar and play.
Which hasn’t been your process for a long time.
No, that’s why I decided to do it.
Paul Simon’s recording of his newest instrumental, “Amulet.”
How did it feel to go back to that?
A little bit awkward at first. And then, you know, I was a little bit apprehensive about whether I could do it. “Amulet,” which was my first attempt, was much too complicated.
So I said I’ll have to think more like a song. Not so much like whatever my fingers do. I have to try to put it into a structure that can be made into a song. Although “Love and Hard Times” is a pretty complex structure for a song. It has different parts and changes key several times. But nevertheless, it is a symmetrical structure. And then I realized, well, of course I can do this. And it’s just a question of patience.
So those were the first three songs I wrote, and the fourth one that I wrote was “Rewrite.”
You wrote that one on guitar?
I just tapped the guitar and made a loop. Which is still in there, it sounds kind of like a drum, but it’s just me tapping at the wood of the guitar. And then I made up that guitar thing [sings fast line].
I played with a kora player at this show at BAM. And I liked the idea of the kora and the guitar. So I just added a kora. And that’s really all there was essentially, other than the percussion sounds. And there are a lot of nice colors in there.
For the percussion, I would send the tracks off to Paris to Steve Sheehan, who worked with me on You’re The One. But I would never send the vocal. I just would say, “Here, put anything and everything that you want on this.” I didn’t want him to hear the vocal. I didn’t want him to accompany me. I wanted to hear things that you didn’t expect. And then I’d take out all the things I didn’t like and keep what I wanted.
Why did you call it “Amulet”?
[Laughs] I don’t know. Didn’t have any title. I don’t know. I might have been reading something and saw the word and said, “Oh, there’s a good title.”
“Love and Hard Times” is so rich melodically, and the tune is, as you said, quite complex. The first time I heard it I loved it, but didn’t quite get it. It takes a few listenings—
Yeah, it does.
But then because of that, the complexity gives it more strength and richness.
Well, thank you. You know, it’s more literary as an idea than I usually write. Meaning that it stated a theme, it wandered away from the theme and then came back at the end to refer to the theme again, but from a different angle and in a different way, which made for a complete cycle lyrically, that was interesting. Because it started with God and God leaving and then it ended with “Thank God I found you.” That was really the pay-off to the whole thing. Because He left.
It’s an extraordinary song, in that we generally think of songs as confessional, about the songwriter, or a story song. Yet this is both – it starts with the story of God and his only son visiting earth, and then makes the transition to “I loved her the first time I saw her,” which is very much –
Yeah. That’s different. We don’t get that in songs much. It’s like a cinematic shift from one scene to another.
Yeah, that’s right. You could say that. That it shifts. Because once the first two verses were over and I’d finished that part of the story, I realized that the rest of the song was going to be a straight-ahead love song. There was enough cynicism in the first two verses and now I didn’t really need to go any further, and now the rest had to be pure love song. So in a sense, it is cinematic in that it now changes to another story. As if you did a flash ahead in time, or something. Or a flashback. But it’s two different places.
But the thing about it that’s interesting is that they do connect up. At the end. So that’s why I mean it’s more of a literary device than a song device.
In the past we’ve spoken about how you can combine enriched, poetic language in lyrics with colloquial language. In this song, you do that musically, as well. Lines like “Well, we’d better get going” sound melodically conversational, whereas “there are galaxies yet to be born” is enriched and poetic.
That’s right. And also it sort of changes key and shifts into a Jimmy Reed shuffle for a couple of bars when I sing “can’t describe it any other way,” it slips into a blues, a shuffle.
Well, that’s one of the advantages of writing a song with no drums, just guitar. You can change on a dime.
With “Amulet,” you said you wrote all the music before you even considered words. And then decided it wouldn’t have any. In the past, you’ve come up with words and music at the same time. How was “Love And Hard Times” born?
I think I had the opening line “God and His only son,” which I thought, that’s got to be a good opening line for me. What am I gonna do with that? It’s pretty far away from home for me. But otherwise, I didn’t have the story or anything.
That part of the process, I really can’t explain it. I don’t really know why an idea comes to me. But all of a sudden, an idea comes to me and then I understand now, because it’s all I’ve ever done, really, so from experience I can now intuit what something’s going to mean when an interesting line pops up. Or at least I can intuit what an interesting choice might be. And I can try a couple of different choices, and see which one feels right, and then continue the song to see where it goes.
In 1992 you told me you were more interested in what you discover than what you invent. Is that still the case?
Yeah. It’s like you’re wandering down a path or a road and you don’t know what the destination is. Somewhere, towards the end, you can sort of see what the destination is and you can understand what the journey is about. At which point, if I want, I can go alter some of the things that occurred to set it up. But usually I don’t. It usually just goes along as a story that I’m telling, and I’m a listener, and at a certain point I say, “Oh! That’s what it’s about.”
You said you can intuit meaning when lines start emerging. Do you give a lot of thought to the meaning while writing?
No, I’m not giving a lot of thought to it. The only thought that I give to it is “Is that something that I really believe?” It doesn’t have to be insightful or anything. It just has to be not a lie. I can’t say, “I’m setting out to write a really deep, philosophical song.” I would never say that. I have no idea.
And most of the time, most of the songs have jokes in them, or almost little sarcastic things, or purposely kitsch or something. So that’s going along with a story, like I do in life, just talking to myself and making fun of stuff and laughing at stuff that’s serious. And sometimes it’s a good idea to put the laughing into the songs. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s alright just to be serious. But most of the songs have some kind of joke in them.
You once said that the mind, while writing songs, will always pick up on what’s true. Even if it’s not the truth you want to face at that time. Besides the humor, one of the constants in these songs is God and spirituality. Why do you think that’s coming out now?
Well, I don’t know. But there was just some big piece and the writer [Ben Witherington ] said, “Paul is writing God’s music. I don’t think he knows what he’s doing now. I don’t think he’s aware that he’s a vessel for this.”
So I found that very intriguing, because I would never say, yeah, I’m doing this —
Is it accurate?
You know, I really don’t know. I really don’t know what exactly all the songs mean. Sometimes other people have meanings and when I hear them I think, “That’s really a better meaning than I thought, and perfectly valid, given the words that exist.”
So part of what makes a song really good is that people take in different meanings, and they apply them, and they might be more powerful than the ones I’m thinking.
You’ve always done that.
I think it’s just a natural thing. I’m not being purposely vague, but that seems to be true. Not just of me, but of a lot of songs, where they turn out to mean something really powerful, that wasn’t meant to be. Like “Born In TheU.S.A.” It’s a powerful song, but it’s not what Bruce [Springsteen] was writing about.
“Mother and Child Reunion” is that.
Yeah, “Mother and Child Reunion” is ambiguous enough that you could think a lot of different things with that.
And you intentionally leave mysteries in your song, such as “what the mama saw” [in “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard”] , so that enables us to bring our own thoughts to it. When I mention that line to friends, everyone has their own idea what the mama saw. Some think it was definitely that she saw them smoking pot.
And you’ve always had a lot of questions in songs, but these songs seem to have more questions than ever.
Yeah. “Questions for the Angels,” for example, is about questions. Questions for God, or for angels.
Well, really, it seems to be that. But the last question is almost a rhetorical question, really. The last question is the question: If there were no human beings on the planet, would any other living creature really care? Would the planet be suffering in any way? I mean, that’s really like a rhetorical question, because, I mean, obviously the answer is no, not at all.
To me that’s not obvious.
Well, do you think a zebra would really have any suffering if there were no humans being left?
Probably not –
Definitely not. What did we ever do for zebras?
[Laughs] You’re right, except wipe out their habitat—
But when I hear that, I think more about the character asking the question, and the choice of words, the zebra and zebra’s tears.
Well, the zebras, I think, were in my mind because the whole family took a trip toEast Africaa couple of years ago and saw the great migration of animals that takes place every August. And there’s thousands and thousands of wildebeest and zebras crossing the river from Kenya into Tanzania. So it was a really powerful memory. I think that’s where the zebras come from. There’s a lot of zebras there. There’s more wildebeests than zebras, but a lot of zebras.
Do you recall where the opening lines came from?
Well, that’s one of those first lines that just popped into my head – “ a pilgrim on a pilgrimage/walked across the Brooklyn Bridge.” I have no idea why that came to me, or what I was thinking about, or anything. Nothing, as far as I remember.
But if a song begins with somebody setting out on a journey, that’s a perfect metaphor for what the song is trying to do anyway. So that’s fine. I’ve written quite a few traveling song. People are going from one place to another.
So that’s what that one was, and the questions that he asks, they sort of get deeper as he goes along. Who am I, where will I sleep? Things like that. And then they get a little bit more deeper in the next one: If you make a bad choice in love, do you have to pay for it, or can you not pay for it? And if you get called to a certain destiny, do you have to choose it or can you avoid it? Those are bigger questions, but they’re all adding up to the last question, which is what defense does the human race have for its behavior.
Musically, it’s really nice. I love the shift in the chorus to that chord on ‘questions.’ And the shift into the ¾ bridge is nice.
Yeah, that’s the guitar. Where your hands go on the guitar. It’s, let’s see what I have. Bm. I’m in Bm and then I go to a G and a C. Yeah, B minor, so it’s like D, and then I go to Cm, so it’s sort of like the key of Eb. But that’s basically what’s happening. And then that bridge in 3-quarter time goes to B major.
Simon performing “Questions of the Angels” in rehearsal with his band.
When you say your hands on the guitar, does that mean you are actively trying to find music on the guitar you don’t know?
I’ll show you. [Gets guitar out]
I asked Herbie Hancock if when he’s playing, if there are still places on the piano he’s never gone, and he said, yes, it’s endless. You feel that as well?
Of course, it’s endless, yeah. If it’s endless for Herbie, you can be sure it’s endless for me. [Laughter]
It is endless, of course. [Gets out guitar, and begins to play]
So I’m playing this [plays]. It’s a Bm with a D in the bass. This is making it a Bm9. [Plays more chords] See what I mean? With me on these guitar things, they’re always really pretty simple. Because I’m really a pretty simple player.
Yet it doesn’t sound simple.
No, it doesn’t sound simple. It’s nice voice-leading.
Does that come just from experimenting?
Yeah, just sitting there. [Plays more] So there I am, that’s in D. Then I go over here to Bm, Cm, G, Eb, Bb, B – I use this is a couple songs. This is in “Love and Hard Times.” And I’m back here, but when I go to the bridge, I have the minor third in the bass and move it –
Now it’s B major.
Right. It’s not that hard to play, really. But the mind has to say you should go somewhere now. You should go to B major. But sometimes I go into a place and it’s no good, and I say, “No, that’s not it.”
I use this chord a lot. [Sings with it] I use that as a way of navigating between C and Ab and Bb. It’s very guitaristic. And useful. If you’re in that key.
I compensate for what I can’t do on guitar by finding interesting things that I can do. But they’re not hard to play. I usually don’t play it when I’m on stage, I usually give the guitar parts to Mark [Stewart] or Vincent [Nguini]. Because there’s too much for me to sing about to play some counter line and singing. I can do it, but I won’t play it accurately all the time.
Yet you did “Wartime Prayers” solo, which is quite complex on the guitar.
Yeah, that was complex. And I did “Love and Hard Times,” which is complex. And I still do that. But for the most part, I give the parts over to Mark or Vincent, and then I play something really simple, or nothing. But when I’m making them up, they’re fun, and I can just keep playing them until I get a good take, and then that’s the take that sits there.
With “Questions for the Angels,” the bridge about seeing Jay-Z is nice, not only that it’s an unusually modern reference for you, but that it sings so beautifully – Jay-Z is a lovely name – and singability matters.
Yeah, that’s very important. But as it happens, that’s a true image. I was doing this month at theBrooklynAcademya couple of years ago, and every time I would come over the Brooklyn Bridge, I would see this big billboard of Jay-Z. So it’s real. It was a real image.
On the album liner notes you thank Phillip Glass for helping you get out of “harmonic tangles” you would somehow “miscreate.” Was that about “Love and Hard Times”?
It could have been about “Love and Hard Times.” Sometimes I’ll just ask him about a modulation and how to think about that, what notes I might want to have to solve the problem of it. Eventually I’d figure out. But with Phillip, he’s like Google. [Laughter] You ask Phillip, you pretty much get a quick answer. Unless he decides it would be better for me to just work it out. In which case, he says, “Hmmm, I don’t know. He knows.” [laughs]
And you use his answers, when he has them?
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, often his suggestions are absolutely appropriate.
“Getting Ready for Christmas Day” seems like a track-first song-
Track first, yeah. Well, the guitars and all that first. Then I said, “Let’s put that sermon on and see if that sermon works.” I didn’t have the idea of using that sermon in anything. Till I made that track.
I assumed it was the other way around, that you made the track to fit that sermon.
I did hear the sermon before making the track, but I didn’t have anything but a liking for that sermon.
Seems you even chose the key, A major, to match his voice. It seems perfect there—
Yeah, it does. Yeah. There was a lot of good luck on this album.
Do you think it’s just luck?
Yeah, that was luck That his voice fits perfectly and seems to be right in the right key, and the right tempo.
I think many, including the Christian writer who wrote that you’re doing God’s work would ascribe it to more than luck, to God or Providence—
You could, you know. Or the harder you work the luckier you get. But I look at it as luck.
You took the sermon and chopped it up to fit it in rhythmically?
Yep. It sort of laid right in. The tricky part was there was to write a song that went around the sermon.
“Getting Ready For Christmas Day.”
It’s something you haven’t done in your records – using a sample of a spoken voice – since “Silent Night 7:00 News” in 1966.
Oh, that’s right, yeah. “Silent Night 7:00 News” wasn’t even a sample. That was something that was written, and then we gave it to an announcer. And he read it.
Oh. We always thought that was recorded right from the radio—
No, it wasn’t, it was written. And then we hired a radio announcer.
But that combination of spoken word with your track, when you thought of that with “Christmas Day,” were you confident it would work?
Oh no, no. That’s why I said there’s a lot of luck in it. I just said, “Put that up there, let’s see.”
As soon as it was there, it was really compelling. If I were just a producer, I would have said, “Just leave that – with that track and that sermon, that’s fine. No need to do anything else.” But as a songwriter whose making a record, I have to figure out how to get me into the track [laughs].
It’s a cool groove—
Yeah, it’s a good groove.
The guitar has a great sound – what is that?
It’s got a really good tremolo on it with a dotted-eighth note attached to the click and a foot-stomp.
It’s both. It’s an acoustic-electric guitar that is miked acoustically and at the amp. And the acoustic is treated differently than the amp.
Did you do that in “Amulet” as well, where there are two different guitar images?
Yeah, but there I just overdubbed myself. There I’m playing acoustic guitar. I did that on “Questions of the Angels” and “Amulet.”
Sometimes I’ll just double a thing and I’ll keep whatever little thread seems to enhance the guitar. I’ll throw away 95% of the double and just keep 5%, and it seems to work. Again, the ear goes to the irritant and you throw out all the irritant, and what is left is nice.
So many of your peers have no interest in any of the new digital recording technology, whereas you have embraced sampling and loops on this album in a big and amazing way. Was that an easy understanding for you?
Andy, my engineer. Andy Smith. He’s very good. He’s really good with the technology.
I love how you use a sample of Sonny Terry’s harmonica [in “Love is Eternal Sacred Light.]
Yeah. On that one we had to change the key and the tempo.
Sounds like he’s in the studio with you.
Yeah, it does. It’s fabulous.
Now you played that harmonica part yourself live, right?
Yeah. Part of it. I’m playing along with him, and then they take that sample out and then I play the end of it.
Have you ever played harmonica before?
No. I’m getting better at it.
The title song, “So Beautiful So What” is built on a great guitar riff. Is that a loop?
No. Well, it might be a really long loop. It might be 16, 20 bars or something like that.
It’s similar to the “Mrs. Robinson” riff.
Yeah, it has the same kind of right-hand move to “Mrs. Robinson.” I do that a lot, too. I use things that I made up before. Change them around a little bit. Licks that I made up.
That song has a verse about the shooting of Martin Luther King. Such a provocative verse – “Dr. King has just been shot,” and this very vivid picture of the three men on the balcony. And yet the song isn’t just about MLK.
No, but he’s the embodiment of that choice, so beautiful or so what? He was a person who clearly said we have the potential to be living in a paradise, or we have a potential to live in hell.
When that verse emerged, did you feel it should be removed, or that it distracted?
No, just the opposite. I thought that the song was a little bit unfocused until that came about.
“So Beautiful or So What,” the title song.
The sequencing of the album is interesting – you put the title song last. A songwriter-friend of mine said, “He put his hit last.” She considered it the hit.
Oh yeah? I put it last because it was the last one I wrote.
I’m not sure that there’s any hits in there. Or what the hit is. You know what seems to be the hit in concert? “Rewrite.” “Rewrite” gets a lot of response. Which is sort of interesting. And a lot of people who have had the album for a long time have said that “Rewrite” has emerged as their favorite song.
Maybe people like them when they’re simple. When they’re really simple. Eventually. They don’t get on your nerves.
“Most of the times when I had hits as a soloist, I was surprised they were hits. I didn’t know what the hits were.”
The lyric of “Rewrite” was published in The New Yorker as a poem.
Yes. Paul Muldoon, who is the poetry editor, asked if he could use one of the songs from this album in The New Yorker, and he chose “Rewrite.”
Did that feel good – to have it printed as a poem like that?
Yeah, it did. Though I didn’t think of it as a poem, I think of it as a lyric. But yeah, it was nice.
Patti Smith, who writes poems and songs, told me she writes poems for herself, but songs are for the whole world, and for that reason, songwriting is harder than poetry. Do you feel that, that when you write a song, the whole world could hear it for years?
I don’t think that way, but I don’t write poems. No, I don’t think this is a something that the whole world will hear for years. And I don’t think I ever did. Most of the time when I had hits, as a soloist – maybe not so much with Simon & Garfunkel – but most of the time when I had hits as a soloist, I was surprised they were hits. I didn’t know what the hits were.
I never thought that “Loves Me Like A Rock” was going to be a hit, or “Mother and Child Reunion” was going to be a hit.
“Kodachrome” I thought was a hit. It sounds like a pop song. All the other ones sound odd. “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” They didn’t sound like what the hits sounded like at the time. Radio was more open to things that weren’t exactly what every other hit was.
Definitely. And hearing those songs in that context was always wonderful, we loved it.
Yeah, that’s right, people liked it then. That’s sort of gone away. It’s too bad.
Your previous al bum, Surprise, was a collaboration with Brian Eno, and quite an amazing album.
Some people didn’t like Surprise. They didn’t like the combination of me and Brian. Not personally. They didn’t like the combination of our sounds. But I did.
I know a lot of people who loved, and have imitated that sound. Acoustic instruments with techno. It influenced a lot of people.
Oh well, that’s nice. That’s nice.
This album is more simple than Surprise was. Every time I finish a record, I say, now what was it about that record that I really liked? And what about it could I just leave and not repeat?
I think what I took out of Surprise was that I don’t need to have complicated, polyrhythmic drumming, which I happen to like. But I also like that really straight 4/4 Rock & Roll, like Fifties Rock & Roll and African. Really just 4/4. Not even a backbeat.
“Christmas Day,” no backbeat. So is “So Beautiful So What.” And so is “The Afterlife.” And I’ve said this many times, that my two favorite records, my two favorite records are “Mystery Train” and “Bo Diddley,” and neither of those had backbeats either. If you think of a bunch of my songs – “Me and Julio,” doesn’t have a backbeat.
It’s not that I don’t like backbeats, I do. But I really like it when it’s not. And I guess there were a bunch of Fifties things that had that. Especially the foot-stomping records.
“How Can You Live In The Northeast? From Surprise is an astounding song.
“How Can You Live In The Northeast” was a good song. And a good question..
The ending quatrain about three generations off the boat, wearing your father’s old coat reflects an American experience so few songs have ever touched, that so many of us are so recently off the boat.
Yes, that’s true. It was not my father, but his father who came off the boat. My parents were born in New York. But, yes, three generations. It’s true, it’s a big leap in three generations. In a hundred years, it’s a long way. That’s the American story.
“The Boy In The Bubble” is just amazing in concert, and it’s such a special song.
Yeah, “Boy In The Bubble” is Sutu rhythm. That might have been my favorite of the South African grooves, the Sutu.
That lyric is just phenomenal, so interesting with all those modern and mysterious images, like the lasers in the jungle and the bomb in the baby carriage. .
Thanks. That’s a song that I wrote – I completely wrote it — and didn’t like it at all and threw the whole thing out and said, “That’s awful.” And then rewrote it as “Boy In The Bubble.”
“The Boy In The Bubble”
A whole other lyric? Do you remember what it was?
No, I don’t. It would be interesting to see. I just said, you know, this is a great track and this lyric, I don’t believe it. I don’t really believe it. I don’t believe that. Sounds like I’m trying to say something. Instead of it naturally coming out of me, it sounded like I was already saying something that I knew.
Anyway, I can’t remember what it was. And either I threw it all out or I threw 90% of it out and kept a line or two. I don’t even remember. That’s happened a couple of times to me. Not too often, but a couple of times. Very aggravating when it does happen.
“Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” is like that. That song was called “Brand New Pre-Owned Automobile.” Like the last verse. And when I sang it, I said, “Nah, I don’t believe it.” And as I said to Phil, “You know, I don’t like it. I’m not gonna do this,” some voice in me said, “This should be called ‘Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,’” which, actually, I didn’t even like as a title. But you tend to give credence to these voices that come from within. Not always a good idea, but we tend to do that.
That’s interesting, because it didn’t strike me as your kind of phrase. I can see why that church guy thought you were preaching God’s songs here.
Yeah. I was surprised. I was surprised that all of these God references had come up. Five out of the first six songs. I noticed it but it was unintentional.
And you listened to that voice, and trusted that was the right title, even though you didn’t like it at first—
Well, you know, it has that title and then you can see me take another angle at the title by the time you get to the middle of the song.
Very much so—
So I wasn’t totally committed to that title. Or to that thought. I let the thought play out and then I came at it from another direction.
“Love Is Eternal” has that remarkable section of short lines starting “earth becomes a farm/farmer takes a wife.” You’re describing the origins of mankind on earth.
Right. “Farmer takes a wife” is from a children’s song, “Farmer in the Dell.”
So it has that kind of nursery-rhyme rhythm, but with the fast passage to man becoming machine, “oil runs down his face” – it’s very quick —
Yeah, very quick description of evolution.
It goes into a section about the Big Bang being just a joke. Is that the voice of God?
I think so, yeah. Or somebody.
It’s got that poignant line, “I love all my children, it tears me up when I leave.”
It’s the second song where He left.
Also, being a native Chicagoan, I like that the song is placed in the Midwest and you mention Lake Michigan. Which is rare in your songs. Why did you place it there?
Well, when it came it just felt like it was really fresh. And the song felt like it was aMidwestsong, that end part about driving along, all that stuff. It’s sort of vaguely Chuck Berry-ish. Rock & Roll-y.
And you kept in the line about the “brand-new, pre-owned ’96 Ford” – you knew it was a good line, but not a title.
Yeah. I liked “brand-new, pre-owned.” It’s just a bullshit line that salespeople use. Brand-new pre-owned.
And so American.
Years ago you told me you found the structure of “Slip-Slidin’ Away” boring, because it doesn’t have a bridge, a third section, and you said the normal song structure seemed a bit restrictive. In this album and others in the past years, you’ve exploded the song structure – you have C sections which aren’t just bridges you hear once, they are whole other places you go to.
Yeah. “Darling Lorraine” has five different sections. But both ways are good. Other songs really never change their structure, like “Christmas Day.” It’s the same chord pattern through the whole song, and then there are different structures laid over it, but it’s the exact same chord pattern. Same with “The Afterlife” and same with “So Beautiful Or So What.” Same with “Rewrite.” Same chords. Never changes chords, never changes key.
And that’s a great sound – when a melody moves over a repeating riff like that. And I love the words to “So Beautiful,” starting with the image of making chicken gumbo – and just images and even flavors you give us – and then you step back and say, “Life is what you make of it/so beautiful or so what.” –
I had that title very early. Way before, years before, I had that song. I had written down a sentence, “Everything is either so beautiful or so what.” So, again, that is what I mean there was a lot of luck in this album. I come up to the last song, and this phrase which I like, it fits, I can call it that, and then I thought that’s a good title for the album. It does sum up the album, and the cover, with the DNA on it, same question. Same things as “Questions for the Angels.”
Have you done that before, take lines you have from the past and use them in new songs?
No, I don’t use the lines from the past. Actually I probably should, but once I finish, I put the stuff away, put the box somewhere, and I don’t go back to it. But I keep a notebook and I use lines or thoughts from the notebook when they’re appropriate for the song. There’s still a bunch of stuff that’s not used, that just didn’t fit in anywhere, or I lost interest in it, or you know, I did like it, but I just couldn’t find a place for it.
What was your writing process like for this album? Did you work on songs every day?
Well, in a way I was. But it’s not like I go and sit down at my desk and do that. In fact, I don’t really like to write at a desk. I like to write when driving in a car.
With the track going?
Yeah. Which is why I am one of the guys you want to avoid when you’re on the road. [Laughter] I’m more listening to the track than I am paying attention to driving.
So do you mean you finish a track for every song before you write the words?
Quite often. Not always. On the guitar songs, that’s why I did have to sit in the room and play. And it makes me restless to sit in the room and play.
Yeah. I like the car. Because you’re passive, stuff is passing. You know you can look and things are going on. You get bored and you turn it off and you turn on a baseball game or something.
I’ve had good ideas come to me for songs when I’m away from work, like in the car or something.
Yeah. Once you’re working on it, you’re working on it all the time, and sometimes stuff’ll come in the middle of the night, in a dream or something. Your mind is working on it all the time.
“The Afterlife” is a funny song about death. How did that come to be?
I think it’s another one of those songs that had a first line.
“After I died and the makeup had dried—“
Yeah, “I went back to my place.” I didn’t know what that song would be about. I thought it was a pretty good first line, not really good. It was a little too complicated for a really good first line. The first time you hear that, it’s not like you really grasp, what? “After I died..” Because it’s a concept and it has a little bit of a joke in it, all that stuff, all coming in that line. But anyway I didn’t find anything else, so I stuck with that. I like that track a lot.
That’s a cool groove.
Yeah, it is.
People pick up on your lines in a way they don’t with most songs, it seems. I hear people already saying, “Well, we’d better get going… these people are slobs here…”
I really put the lyrics up front. I don’t really get it why people bury their lyrics. Especially if they have something to say.
I don’t either. Like a Rolling Stones song—
Yeah, okay. Or a lot of indie bands. Or like Radiohead, I can’t hear the lyrics when I first put the record on. I think, you know, these are guys who have something to say, why stick it there in the track where I’m kind of straining to hear what you have to say? But, you know, everybody has a different aesthetic. But I put mine way out front. And that’s sort of part of my sound.
And your lyrics are meant to be heard. Interesting you say they are songs and not poems. They are meant to be heard.
Yeah. Well, I mean, sometimes they have elements that could be shared with poetry. But they’re not poems. They’re lyrics. They’re meant to be sung. They come out of the rhythm of the music, as opposed to creating your own rhythm of the words.
Also, there’s much more use of cliché in songwriting than there is in poetry, because a song is going at a certain tempo and it’s going fast, and if you miss a line, you missed it. But when you’re reading poetry, you read it at a much slower pace. So the lines can be much more dense. And have words which are not usually in a speaking vocabulary and which carry multiple meanings. Because you can slow it down so you can get it.
You’ve told me you’ve read poetry a lot, and the influence of poetry on your work is especially evident in some songs – I think of “Cool, Cool River” – “moves like a fist through traffic” – the language is quite charged and poetic—
Thanks. Yeah, there are poets who have definitely influenced what I write. There are poets who write in a way that is good for songs. For simple kind of songs, straight-ahead, Robert Frost is very touching and simple. Who I like, especially if it’s an American kind of song, maybe if it’s set in the woods or the country or something like that.
There are other poets who influenced me. I learned a lot from Derek Walcott when we wrote “The Cape Man.”
Back when you were working on songs for The Rhythm of the Saints, you had a line about your head “resting on a rented pillow” – for the song that became “Thelma.” You said Derek told you not to use the alliteration, because alliteration is easy. But it seemed you would have so much more wisdom than he would about what would work in a song. So I’ve wondered what you thought about your collaboration, because you were writing songs together, not poems.
I enjoyed the collaboration. I thought when we really did mix the two of our styles, it created an interesting song. Lyrically. But even if the song was mostly Derek’s, which a couple of them are, they still had my melodies, and I would still say, “No, you can’t do that, I need this,” and he would change it around. And a bunch of those songs are all me, too.
But the ones that are combined, they have a quality to them that’s sort of a mix of pop and poetry that I think is very interesting, like “Can I Forgive Him?”
Well, all your work has that quality – since the start, they’re all poetic songs.
But with the Derek work, it sounds like his poetry a lot.
It’s not clear to me which is which. But I love “The Cape Man.”
“The Cape Man” is, I think, coming back, I think, in 2012. It played last summer in Central Park. It was very well-received. I think “The Cape Man” was, perhaps, ahead of its time. Well, it was also a flawed piece of work. But it was an interesting piece of work. And it got unusually beat up. More beat up, actually, then it deserved.
So I think now there is a willingness – it took ten years – I think there was a willingness to take a listen to it again. And it was treated much more kindly. It came back twice, once at BAM and once last summer inCentral Park. It was fabulous in Central Park, outdoors. Right in the middle of the world I was talking about.
It’s got a fantastic score, those songs are wonderful. Reminds me of “Porgy and Bess” – that was attacked at first and then people grew to love it.
Yeah, “Porgy and Bess” was ripped apart, too.
Simon & his band at the historic Pantages Theater in Hollywood. [Left to right] Drummer Jim Oblon, multi-instrumentalist Mark Stewart, bassist Bakhiti Kumalo, Paul Simon, percussionist Jamey Haddad, guitarist Vince Nguini, pianist Mick Rossi.
I love the song “The Vampires,” and your version of it is great – the timing of the dialogue is great.
Yeah, I like that rhythm, too. I think it’s a guajera.
And then it explodes into a great horn section and solo.
That’s Oscar Hernandez. He’s great, Oscar. His album just won a Grammy this year. His band is called The Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Really good. I just saw him the other night, he came the other night, lives out here [in Los Angeles].
The new album doesn’t have much bass on it – why is that?
There’s bass frequency on the album – sometimes it’s a low talking drum, or maybe it’s a baritone guitar. Couple of the tracks have a little bit of bass. Mostly when I took that out, it sounded like Fifties stuff. And when you listen to Fifties stuff, you really never heard the bass, because, first of all, it was an acoustic bass and second of all, they had a couple of mikes, and they put them up in the studio. Things weren’t miked in stereo where you could fix everything after. It was all mono. So there was a sense of a bass, but you didn’t really miss it. And it created this kind of empty openness that the best of those records seem to embody as a kind of mystery. So I was trying to get that. I wanted that emptiness.
So it wasn’t a case of having a bass and then taking it out—
A couple of times I tried to put a bass on. And immediately said I don’t want it.
Is that how you do it live?
No, I tend to put more bass in. But I do keep the bass at a pretty low level onstage. I’ll find most of the time when I’m hearing a band that is too loud on stage, for my ears, it’s usually because the bass is really loud so everybody turns up to get the proportion right. Ad you can’t get it, once the bass is too loud, you can’t get it. And you can’t get the vocals, you can’t get anything cause it’s just too many decibels.
On “Love and Blessings,” what is that instrument on the opening riff that you’re playing?
That’s a Moog guitar. That’s an interesting instrument. It’s on other tunes. But in small things, because it has that great sustain and great feedback sound.
In “Love and Blessings,” you have a wonderful verse, “if the summer kept a secret/it was the heaven’s lack of rain…” Which to me seems to be about Global Warning –
Interesting how you touch on that but obliquely, as in “Can’t Run But,” when you discuss the cooling system that burned out in the Ukraine—
Yeah. But you don’t do it overtly.
Yeah. You know, I don’t want to be preachy. I don’t think anybody really needs to be preached to. And people resent it if they think that you are preaching to them, and I think I would resent it. I don’t need to be told things that I know, or lectured, or any of that stuff.
So it’s just a comment on what’s going on. It’s not saying anything. It doesn’t tell you a moral judgment. It assumes that you have already taken the issue into account and you have an opinion. That’s all. And just move on.
With “So Beautiful So What,” the song, and like many of the songs on this album, the rhyming is playful and fun. And in that song you rhyme to the title – rhyming the ‘what’ word with different words each time. How do you make something like that, which needs to be contrived to work, sounds so natural and non-contrived/
[Pause] I don’t know the answer to that. As I say, there’s a significant part of writing songs that I have no logical explanation for. Just seems to be something that comes from me. And I sort of recognize it, as opposed to shaping it. Oh, that’s a good idea, that’s a good line. I wonder where I can use that.
But with rhymes, you have to be conscious to make rhymes work, don’t you?
Yeah. But, you know, when you get into a rhyme group like ‘not,’ you got a lot of rhymes, you got a lot of choices. Whereas if you get into ‘climb,’ for example –
Time, crime, lime-
And ‘I’m.’ And you’re pretty much gonna go for ‘time.’
‘Love’ doesn’t have many rhymes.
Yeah, you got `of,’ `above,’ `dove’ and `glove.’
Yet one of the great things you’ve always done is use rhymes in a way that doesn’t call attention to them, that one is there as a set-up. It just seems inevitable, and that, to me, seems like the greatness of great songs.
Well, the more you do it, as I say, the better you get. I really never had any other job since I was 15. I made my first record at 15. It’s really all I ever did. I went to school, but all I’ve ever done is write songs and make records. Now it’s a long time, and I’ve had a lot of experience at it.
You’ve gotten pretty good at it.
[Laughs] Thanks. But a lot of it is just, you know, good luck.
Paul Simon at the Pantages Theater
April 21, 2011
PAUL SIMON AT THE PANTAGES was a joyous event, as the venue is one of Hollywood’s first and most ornate movie palaces, replete with awe-inspiring Art Deco wonderment throughout. And the man didn’t disappoint. At 69, his voice is remarkably as strong as ever – he sounds more vocally unchained and youthful as ever, singing with passion and purity, delivering a career’s worth of glorious songs, from 1964’s “The Sound of Silence” to new songs from the remarkable recently released So Beautiful or So What. It was the title song of that album, wrapped as it is around a strong guitar riff and a powerfully propulsive groove – and delivered by Simon with much pointed soul – that was one of the evening’s highlights.
The problem with a Simon concert is that the man has written so many great songs – many of which are classics – that it’s simply impossible to do every one everyone wants to hear, and still weave in new material and some unexpected gems. So we didn’t get “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “You Can Call Me Al,” “The Boxer” or “American Tune,” and yet we did get great Simon’s work from the very start to the present, spanning decades, including songs which were hits long ago, such as the effervescent “Kodachrome” (now referring to an artifact of the past – color film – remember that?), as well as songs that were never hits, but which are very potent, especially “Peace Like a River,” from his first solo outing in 1970 – which resounds with even more power, perhaps, than when it first emerged. Also his most touching song ever for his former partner Art Garfunkel, “The Only Living Boy In New York,” was delivered with much love by Simon on his 12-string. From Graceland he included a few album tracks, all energized by great triple guitar work and powerful grooves, including “Crazy Love, Vol. II” which opened the show, “Gumboots,” the first song he wrote for Graceland, and “That Was Your Mother,” which exploded into a great New Orleans Dixieland closing jam, with everyone soloing joyously at once. The momentous “Boy In The Bubble” fueled by the huge bass & snare slams and serious accordion, was chilling.
His 8-piece band is remarkable. It centers around the “masterful Mark Stewart” as Simon introduced him, who serves as ostensible music director, and is a genuine musical monster – he leads the band, signaling endings and such, while also playing electric and acoustic guitar, including those intricately intertwined African guitar figures that have been a mainstay of Simon’s music since Graceland (now 26 years old!), as well as clean retro Les Paul lines, distorted guitar hero leads and more. He also played some homemade flutes, and beautiful arco cello on “Love & Hard Times” (unlike most multi-instrumentalists who also play cello, Stewart plays with the rich tone of a real cellist) as well as joining the horn section – with electric guitar still strapped on – on bari sax. The wonderful Cameroonian guitarist Vince Nguini (“his majesty,” Paul called him, in reference to his saintly, lanky figure adorned in long robes and baseball cap) entwined African guitar lines flawlessly with Stewart throughout, as well as his own chromatic flourishes. Even when he’s on fire, Vince never breaks a sweat; he has a zen calm, at one with rhythm but completely focused. He also added some rich low tones to harmony vocals.
New pianist Mick Rossi – who plays elegant acoustic piano on “Love and Hard Times” on the new album – recommended by Simon’s pal Phillip Glass – played beautifully on that song, as well as on “Still Crazy” and others which feature piano. And Tony Cedras – on keys and percussion – was a great utility player, tirelessly switching percussion instruments and keys throughout each tune. Also from Graceland is the great Bakithi Kumalo on bass – and though he didn’t get his famous bass solo in this show on “You Can Call Me Al” — his mammoth bubbling tone fueled “Boy In The Bubble” and “Late In The Evening” – locking ideally with drummer Jim Oblon to create a formidable rhythm section throughout the evening. Oblon was robust throughout, capturing the often quirky tapestry drumming of many of the post-Graceland songs, while also keeping subtle reins on quieter tunes, like “Still Crazy.” Though he didn’t match Steve Gadd’s famous martial snare figure on “50 Ways” identically, he made it his own.
New songs like “The Afterlife” were greatly charged by a strong groove built on Paul’s 12-string guitar rhythm and vocal phrasing, while “Rewrite” burst with an immediacy even more captivating than the studio version, and was the only song on the new album greeted by knowing applause by the audience. “Love and Hard Times,” the stunning ballad from the new album, was performed with just Paul on acoustic, Rossi on piano and Stewart on cello – and was beautiful. It was one of the most hushed moments of the night, and it was haunting.
Simon played a few surprising covers, including a soulful “Mystery Train,” which he’s often said is one of his favorite songs, Jimmy Cliff’s buoyant “Vietnam,” (segueing seamlessly into a dynamic “Mother and Children Reunion,” which remains one of his most forceful and mysterious songs), and best of all, a tender “Here Comes The Sun,” reminding us that Simon was one of the only non-Beatles to ever perform the song with George Harrison – as they did on SNL in 1976.
“The Obvious Child,” from Rhythm of the Saints, which matches a exceedingly propulsive groove to a tenderly mysterious lyric, like “Mother and Child Reunion,” was a pure delight, one of his greatest fusions of rhythm and melody. But most poignant of all was one of his often unsung masterpieces, “Hearts and Bones,” a love story that’s perhaps his most intimate, propelled by a quiet rhythmic insistence on triangle and various percussive instruments, with Simon outlining its lovely foundational riff on acoustic guitar. “You take two bodies and you twirl them into one/their hearts and their bones/and they won’t come undone…” he sings in the final verse of what is maybe his most beautiful love song, and one of the night’s most emotional moments.
He performed six songs in the encore, of which “The Sound of Silence” – mostly solo Simon – was the first. Singing the melody which Garfunkel sang on the record to his lower harmony, he introduced a new melodic twist on one line in each verse, but unlike Dylan and others who often trainwreck beloved melodies with unnecessary divergences, his variation was thoughtful and right, enriching the now iconic splendor of this song. He also delighted the crowd by pairing two rhythmic classics: “Kodachrome” and “Gone At Last,” as well as the great Latin/New York horn-powered celebration of “Late In The Evening,” ending with “Still Crazy After All These Years,” with its great gleaming sax solo in the bridge.
Though Simon rarely speaks on stage, his songs – and his voice – are such a beloved part of our shared experience, that he spoke through his music. Some of these songs have been a cherished part of our lives forever, it seems – while others are brand-new, but capable of standing boldly with the others. Though one leaves a Simon show often hungering for those great songs which weren’t included, this one was a thoroughly fulfilling journey through the decades with one of the greatest songwriters America has ever known. This is just the start of his 42-show tour through America and Europe – if you happen to catch him in your city, you’re in for a treat. –Paul Zollo.
So Beautiful Or So What. [Concord]
YEARS AGO HE SAID HE WAS more interested in what he discovered than what he invented, a bold statement coming from this most inventive of songwriters. Yet it’s clear he’s been on a journey of discovery for years, and lucky for us all, it’s far from over. Decades beyond the point at which most of his peers peaked, Paul Simon is still discovering new ways of writing and conveying amazing songs, discovering beautifully unexpected and often spiritual language, as well as new rhythms, melodies and instrumental textures, to create a brand-new epic of great songwriting proportions. If you’re one of the many millions of living humans who have been touched by this man’s work at some time in your life, you’re in for a treat, this is a pure delight.
At a time when most of his contemporaries don’t even want to look at the new digital technology that has revolutionized the state of recording art – ProTools, loops, samples – Simon embraces them. Rather than traveling around the globe to stir exotic sounds into the mix, this time around he’s traveled into the past. When B.B. King told him to check out the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet’s records from the 1930s, Simon grew so enamored of the gospel vigor of their vocals that he wove their voices into the track of “Love and Blessings,” which also features the sweet harmonies of his teenage daughter Lulu Simon.
Similarly, on “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,” there’s a great locomotive-charged harmonica exhortation by none other than Sonny Terry, sampled from his 1938 “Train Whistle Blues.” The title song “So Beautiful Or So What” hinges on an acoustic guitar loop that echoes Simon’s own famous “Mrs. Robinson” riff, while the remarkable opener, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” is woven lovingly around samples of a sermon delivered in the year of Simon’s birth, 1941, with much fire and musical brimstone by the Reverend J.M. Gates and congregation, and merged with a wonderfully funkified acoustic guitar figure and tender harmonies by Mrs. Simon, Edie Brickell. (Word on the wire is that the two have been working on an album of duets; I hope it’s true.) These are dimensional sound-collages both raw and refined, something we’ve never heard before, but instantly inviting when we hear that voice we’ve known for so many years sounding – as others have noted – as young as ever.
Back in the day, the presumption that Simon was playing on the same field as his peers – be it Dylan, McCartney, Neil Young, etc. – seemed sensible. But as the decades have passed, it’s become evident that he’s very much on his own field, playing his own game according to his own rules. Though his proximity to an acoustic guitar has caused many to consider him a “folk singer,” or “folk poet,” as USA Today dubbed him just last week, this is, in fact, a guy who defies any simple categorization. He had a rock & roll hit before the days of Dylan (with Garfunkel as Tom & Jerry, they scored with “Hey Schoolgirl” while still in high school), and wrote folk-rock epics like “The Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer,” while displaying a prodigious gift for rich melodicism – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was as brilliantly tuneful as any Gershwin standard, and so majestically melodic that great tunesmiths like McCartney and Brian Wilson were stunned by it. (McCartney said “Let It Be” was his attempt to reach the level of “Bridge.”) “El Condor Pasa,” written to a Peruvian track by the band Urubamba in 1969, was his first conscious foray into combining American thoughts with music from beyond our shores, and also of writing track-first, the method by which he created Graceland and all of his subsequent albums until this one.
His solo albums reflected more explorations in sound expression, connecting journeys to Jamaica and New Orleans with the heartbeat of New York City. Songs like “American Tune” and “Still Crazy After All These Years” elevated the American popular song to a new level, breaking through prevalent pabulum and recycled dross murking up the airwaves to deliver something fun, fresh and often profound. “Late In The Evening” from One Trick Pony telegraphed the ecstatic rhythmic excursions that were to follow. Hearts and Bones contained some of his most sophisticated and successful songs, from the heartrending title tune to the surreal masterpiece “Rene and Georgette Magritte (With Their Dog After the War).” It also contained not one but two songs about an overactive mind (“Think Too Much A” and “Think Too Much, B,” the latter of which also reached that place from which Graceland emerged, a place of stirring rhythms matched with heartful melody – both complex and simple simultaneously.) Then came Graceland and its maybe even more brilliant companion The Rhythm of the Saints (which includes “The Cool Cool River,” sonically and lyrically one of his most dynamic and ingenious songs). The Capeman, a Broadway musical written with the poet Derek Walcott, was initially panned, as was Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, and like that work, it’s already been rediscovered and reinvented as a beloved American folk opera, replendent with great Latino grooves and angelic doo-wop strains of his childhood.
His previous album, Surprise, was co-produced by techno wizard Brian Eno, and contained staggering songs such as “Wartime Prayers” and “How Can You Live In The Northeast?” which showed Simon not only connecting as powerfully as ever with his singular muse, but also embracing the new sonic possibilities Eno introduced to give this album a unique and unprecedented blend of acoustic and techno. That it wasn’t even nominated for a Best Album Grammy was hard to believe, as it was far and away the best album of 2006.
So for awhile, the revelation that Simon wasn’t even playing the same game as that songwriter with whom he’s been most often compared, Bob Dylan, led to the conclusion that he was really working much more in the world of Irving Berlin – like him a savvy Jewish New Yorker who had hits in almost every genre, and continued working well into his 90s. But the truth isn’t quite that – Berlin stopped challenging himself and became a relic of a previous era, whereas Simon’s journey now seems to have a vast and irrepressible arc, showing that he’s really much more akin to Picasso – an artist who changed the world of art with his own work while always moving on to new possibilities and new masterpieces into his tenth decade, never repeating himself. Paul Simon, I think it can safely be said, is the Picasso of popular song.
More than any living songwriter, he has discovered that crucial balance that songs can contain better than any artform, that of language both conversational and poetic; his songs are often very serious and quite funny at the same time. He speaks in the language of the streets and the language of the angels concurrently, proving again and again that the only limit to what a song can do is the songwriter’s own imagination and ambition. When I asked him years ago if writing songs to existing tracks, as he did with Graceland, was not a very tough challenge, he said, “Sure it is, but whoever said songwriting is easy?” And in that answer lies perhaps the secret to his ongoing success – the man has no reservations about working hard. In fact, he seems to love it. “I am still absolutely enthralled with songwriting and record-making,” he said. “I’m just glad they let me still do it.”
This time around, as mentioned, Simon has returned to his original method of writing songs – composing them at the guitar – just voice, instrument and a yellow legal pad. (He’s written only one song at a piano during his entire career, “Nobody.”) This is the man writing songs at his guitar, and it’s there that much of the most urbane and remarkable melodicism of the past decades was conceived. Though traditionalists cling to the belief that great melodies can only be composed on piano, Simon – along with pals Lennon, McCartney, Joni and few others – has long contradicted that archaic notion.
And what we get is simply stunning. “Love and Hard Times” is not only one of the most beautiful songs he’s personally penned, it’s one of the most stunning songs ever. Sumptuously beautiful, it’s his most poignant love song since “Hearts and Bones” (excluding “Father and Daughter” from Surprise, since it’s not about romantic love). Musically it’s quite complex, and it takes a few listenings to fully grasp the splendor of its melodic and harmonic beauty. Like a Joni Mitchell song, it might seem asymmetrically divergent at first, but it’s because new ground is being broken here – we’re outside of the conventional vocabulary of rock and pop melodies and simple progressions. But give it a chance, and it’s those very divergences which resonate most deeply, those odd turns of phrase which delight a little more each time.
Simon thanks the composer Phillip Glass on the album for knowing “how to untangle the harmonic knots that I occasionally miscreate…” It’s probably a good guess that this is one of the songs he’s referring to, as the convolutions of fragmentary chords and passing tones in which a composer might get entangled is evident. But whether it was with or without Glass’ assistance, this is an astounding achievement. The melody is rich and pure, achingly touching while also disarmingly colloquial. It opens on God and “his only son” checking in on the planet but needing to duck out quick because, like an artist forever obsessing on his latest work, their obligations are also ceaseless: “There are galaxies yet to be born/creation is never done.”
Unlike all the other tracks, this one is built only on the foundation of Simon’s exquisite acoustic guitar work, and is bolstered by a gloriously inventive orchestral backing arranged by Gil Goldstein that brings to mind McCartney’s collaboration with George Martin. Though Martin did the heavy-lifting when writing orchestral arrangements – notating and arranging all the parts – you know McCartney was in there singing his ideas. In the same way, Simon sheds some light on their collaboration in his thank yous, in which he commends Goldstein for spending an “inordinate amount of time with me thinking about and notating the ideas that he eventually incorporated so beautifully into his orchestration. “
The song, which seamlessly connects the divine visitation with the singer’s own romantic journey (“I loved her the first time I saw her,” he sings, adding, “I know that’s an old songwriting cliché.” ) concludes with a recognition of that which sustains us through these soul-battered times, the simple grace of a loved one’s touch. When he sings “Thank God I found you in time, thank God I found you,” it’s one of the most moving moments on any of his albums, especially cognizant as we are of his longtime marriage to Edie Brickell, and their raising of three kids. (On his first solo album, back in 1970, he posed the question: “Can a man and a woman live together in peace?” in the song “Congratulations.” Seems he’s found the happy answer.) It’s a musical and lyrical culmination that brings to mind the end of “Hearts and Bones,” which similarly ends a romantic narrative with the simple splendor of a perfect line. Unlike “Hearts,” however, this one has a happy ending. Were it only for this one song, this album would be well worth the price of admission. But there’s much more.
In these songs, as in life, there are far more questions than there are answers, which seems to suggest that his attitudinal edges have softened over the years. The guy who was often categorized as dour, reminding us our lives are forever slip-sliding away, shifted into recognizing there is a “reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland” and now has composed an album contemplating spiritual questions of God and man in almost every song. When I asked him – back in 1993 – if his feelings about where life leads has shifted, he said he didn’t have one single attitude, and presenting both sides of an equation is often more interesting – and always closer to real life. The very title of this title song is a question about life, and the meaning we attach to our existence, and within the song other heady questions about the human condition emerge: “Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant,” he asks twice, “how we seek out bad advice?”
“Amulet” is an achingly beautiful acoustic guitar instrumental which is as lyrical as anything he’s written, even without lyrics. It’s his first recorded solo guitar outing since his rendition of Davey Graham’s “Anji” back in 1966 – and it goes straight to the heartstrings as it brings back shades of bygone Bookends days, days of “Old Friends,” with its warm Satie-like guitar colorings, his harmonies adventurous even then. This is a good example to the uninitiated the full breadth of the guy’s musical prowess, combining melody and harmony with easy and fluid grace. Leonard Cohen has always joked about himself that he has “only one chop,” and indeed most great songwriters are not great instrumentalists. But as musicians know well, Simon’s got serious chops, and on this record, much more than recent ones which have featured other astounding guitarists such as Vince Nguini and Ray Phiri more than himself, the playing is mostly his – on both electric and acoustic – and it’s glorious.
“Amulet” segues directly into “Questions For The Angels” which is all about questions for God – or for God’s representatives. But never presenting a simplistic equation, Simon questions the very premise of the song itself: “Questions for the angels/who believes in angels? Fools do.” Later in the song, however, he identifies himself as one of the faithful fools. Built on a vibrational bed of acoustic guitar, marimba, celeste and harps, it’s a new song for the asking. It starts with a young “pilgrim on a pilgrimage” heading out of Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge, passing the sleeping homeless with some serious and fundamental questions about man’s place in this world. Simon dodges any sugary New Age sentiment with injections of levity, breaking the narrative with a brushes-on-snare waltz-time confrontation with the mammoth image of the rapper Jay-Z hawking clothes on a billboard. This is the world we’re living in – a world of celebrity commercialism all about now played against the eternal expanse of questions forever in the mind of man. Uttered in language gentle and colorful enough that it could appeal to the unbound imagination of a child, and sparked by a beautifully chromatic shift on the chorus, it questions man’s place in nature:
“If every human on the planet and all the buildings on it
Would a zebra grazing in the African Savannah
Care enough to shed one zebra tear?”
From “Questions For The Angels”
By Paul Simon
“Dazzling Blue” seamlessly fuses Indian percussion with American bluegrass as provided by Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver, while “The Afterlife” – which turns out to be much like a DMV for souls, requiring standing in lines and filling out forms – is energized by the dynamic rhythm of Simon on 12-string guitar.
The forementioned “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” is set to a great stomping groove, as is “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light,” which cooks with great gospel fervor, and is Simon’s most direct statement on the spiritual timelessness of love. With a title that seems straight from a Baptist hymnal, it’s a remarkable song, relating in delightfully succinct verses the very origins of life that God and Jesus are tending to in “Love & Hard Times.” He gives us the evolution of man and earth, all in two short verses, leading from the rural rightness of nature into the age of the machine, and ultimately the political dissonance of modern existence:
“Earth becomes a farm
Farmer takes a wife
Wife becomes a river
And the giver of life
Man becomes machine
Oil runs down his face
Machine becomes a man
With a bomb in the marketplace…”
From “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”
By Paul Simon
“Love and Blessings,” which opens with a mournful moaning riff that sounds like fretless bass (but is most likely Simon on “Moog guitar,” as credited) and later veers off into a celebratory Dixieland clarinet flourish, provided by Dr. Michael White, is another tale of love and spirit, but one ever conscious of the world around us, and how we’ve poisoned it. As with “Can’t Run But” from Saints, which touched on the Chernobyl disaster, this one obliquely comments on global warming, recognizing that neither love nor spirit separate us from our home, our planet.
In this day when people download singles and rarely even purchase whole albums anymore, Simon’s reminded us that creating an entire collection of new songs is as much of an art as making a great single, and the album flows from song to song with a sweet inevitability that echoes the great listening experiences of previous decades – be it Abbey Road, Blood on The Tracks, or Still Crazy After All These Years. The momentum and depth of these tracks each enrich the others, and as beautiful as each song sounds alone, that beauty is deepened by hearing them as part of this musical narrative, not unlike separate movements of a symphony that only make complete sense when heard as part of the whole. In a world where everything seems to be getting cheaper, more disposable and breakable than ever, and where beauty seems to be a diminishing resource, Paul Simon continues to make records like this one that enrich our world, and connect us with recognitions of our own human faith and foibles. It’s another masterpiece from the Picasso of song, an artist ever evolving, ever expanding the promise of the popular song.
ICONS: Paul Simon
A Journey of Discovery
By PAUL ZOLLO
He told me years ago that he was more interested in what he discovered than what he invented. It seemed like a fine line to draw, so I asked him what the distinction is in his mind between discovery and invention. “You just have no idea that that’s a thought that you had,” he said. “It surprises you. It can make me laugh or make me emotional. When it happens and I’m the audience and I react, I have faith in that because I’m already reacting. I don’t have to question it…. But if I make it up, knowing where it’s going, it’s not as much fun. It may be just as good, but it’s more fun to discover it.” And there, in his words, lies the secret to Simon’s ongoing greatness as a songwriter. Decades beyond the point at which most of his peers stopped looking, Paul at Simon is still on a creative journey, still looking for new ways to combine words and music and rhythm and sound to create something new in this world, something that will be as resonant and enriching as the vast body of work he’s already given us. While it seemed he might become the Irving Berlin of his generation, working into his 90s, now Simon, with the upcoming release of the extraordinary So Beautiful or So What, seems more like the Picasso of popular song, an artist perpetually evolving through various stages of creativity, forever challenging himself and us in the process, and seeming to enjoy the joy of creation now as much as ever.
Simon, of course, has busted precedents for years. Back in the 80s – some two decades beyond his first flush of success with Simon & Garfunkel and long past the point at which most of his peers peeked creatively – he created Graceland, a masterpiece of songwriting and record-making that changed the shape of popular songwriting, making new musical connections in the world which forever shifted the idea of what a song can do. Not content to repeat himself in any regard – in terms of his writing or the production which surrounds his song – he fused formerly disparate elements – African-influenced music with American thoughts – and came up with one of the most engaging albums of all time. He followed it with subsequent masterpieces, including The Rhythm of the Saints and Surprise, the latter of which was a collaboration with Brian Eno. All of these albums were created with a method that was the flipside of his former songwriting technique, in which he’d write with an acoustic guitar and a yellow legal pad. From Graceland on, he’d make a rhythm track first – often based on jams and such he recorded with his friend and fellow producer Roy Halee around the world from Brazil to Africa and beyond – and write songs to the track. It was a bold move for this guy who was already considered one of the great American masters of songwriting. But as always, it was a voyage of discovery for him, and he reached a new hybrid of lyrical and rhythmic genius that has impacted popular music as much, if not more, as his landmark work with Art Garfunkel. Here the guy who was known as one of the most serious and even dour songwriters around was creating funny, joyous music – but without sacrificing his level of intelligence. Singlehandedly, he brought songs to a new place, one of the most substantial evolutions in the form in decades. “It wasn’t until Graceland,” he said, “where [my writing] was sophisticated and simple at the same time…. And that’s an objective. Try and do that. Try to simplify and simplify without losing what was really interesting.”
And now comes a new chapter in the voluminous Paul Simon songbook. Just as he embraces conflicting ideas often in songs, he often reverses his ideas about how to approach his art. After creating the stunning Surprise, a remarkable sonic collaboration with Eno which effortlessly combined the new palette of digital recording with real-time instruments, he took a break from songwriting, and gradually eased back into his old method of writing songs with a guitar. The result is an astounding and beautiful album, one that weaves together elements from all his musical journeys while moving into new territory, that of found voices and loops. And so we have both the intoxicating rhythms of recent works with a return to acoustic guitar-based songs ripe with some of his most poignant melodicism in years, luminous harmonies, and even a dazzling guitar instrumental, “Amulet,” as well as tracks which seamlessly fuse Indian percussion with bluegrass, but all into a gumbo which is uniquely Simon. All of which reveals that his journey is boundless, as he’s exploded through every limit imposed on musical artists, such as age, genre, and even immense success ( a hard hurdle for many to clear), he continues to amaze.
But how has he done it? How has someone who has been to the summit of the songwriting mountain several times continue to do great work? He answered that often it’s the journey itself, even more than reaching the destination, that matters, and perhaps it’s this understanding with propels him. “I just keep going to whatever it is that interests me,” he said. “But the experiment, the investigation, is important… What you find is what it is you are always interested in.” Later he added, “I mean, writing songs is what I do and I enjoy it. I’m grateful that people are still interested after all this time. That I can keep doing it… I’ve been interested in writing songs and making records since I was thirteen years old. And I’m still absolutely enthralled with it.”