Friday, June 29, 2007

Journeys Into Adulthood

Hello darkness, my old friend....

That's the first line of Paul Simon's I remember, from The Sound of Silence. Even then, when I was an undergraduate, what stayed in my mind was a radical inelegance in fusing words to a tune. The first stanza went this way:

Hello darkness, my old friend,
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

You know where I'm going with this, right? The creepy way he and Art Garfunkel had to sing all the words that ended the 3rd and 4th lines in each stanza....

Because a vision soft-LEE-EE creep-ING

This was off-the-wall horrible, but we adored him for elevating our youthful enchantment with vague and lonely ideas and making!

If his lyrics seemed to be unremarkable in those days, his guitar playing was the key that got his music into my soul. Paul Simon played in the same folky finger picking style that I did, that we all knew how to do, but I think he made his playing sound more fluid, more natural to the music he made. In those years, he was a star and I was a grad student, reaching for a new fusion of art song with folk song. I didn't have a gift for melody, nor one for harmony, and my song lyrics were, if not admirable, workmanlike. Years later I realized that liking something and wanting to be like somebody were not the same thing as having the gifts to belong in the spotlight.

Since I'm being a critic, I owe you a brief, mercifully brief, glimpse at what passed for a song lyric in my lonely boardinghouse room when I was studying much better music in grad school:

It's been dark all day on the lonely side of town,
The light behind the clouds is slowly failing.
I will set my mind at peace before the night comes trickling down,
I'll provision all my thoughts and set them sailing.

I could do a few things pretty smoothly, you know? I could get a lyric started and then smash into a creative wall. I could do this repeatedly! The thing about "fewness" is that it wears down the listener by the third or fourth song of a set. Paul Simon developed a broader talent, learned to invent melody for his lyrics while not being what one would call a "melodist." Mozart was a melodist, and Schubert, but they didn't write their own lyrics. Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, contemporaries, groped around for their melodies in thin air. In the process they both came up with some successful surprises and song structures. Simon's sheer inventiveness got him over any number of musical and lyrical difficulties. Bridge Over Troubled Water signaled a maturing of his talent as a song-writer. Even my mom loved it! Let's celebrate inventiveness in the human soul!

I lost interest in Paul Simon until his Still Crazy After All These Years album in 1975. Those songs were amazing. What sat me down and nearly brought me to tears was a saxophone solo on that first song, the title song. It’s one of those snatches of melody that works its way in like a fishhook and stays there, and you’ve been landed, grounded as it were, in a defining moment of the soul, and it’s not a particularly happy one. It's not just the saxaphone, either, it's Simon working with Phil Ramone to "produce" an appropriate environment of sound for these songs. It's the soft background of an electronic keyboard, a muted, intimate feel of a small ensemble, so that the sax gives the impression of being a thought, a recollection of some kind, rather than a musician in the same acoustical space; and then Paul Simon comes back in and sings,

Now I sit by my window
And I watch the cars
I fear I’ll do some damage
One fine day
But I would not be convicted
By a jury of my peers
Still crazy
Still crazy
Still crazy after all these years

Like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album the previous year, this one revolves around the breakage of love. The rhythm of the rhyme gets in your ear in Paul Simon’s lyric to “I do it for your love:”

The sting of reason
The splash of tears
The northern and the southern
Love emerges
And it disappears
I do it for your love

Eleven years later, I caught up with him again when he created the Graceland album and the tracks of South African music from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and on the title track an image for guitar players only:

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War

The National guitar, chrome plated, gleaming, and I know the silvery look of the river when the sun hits it right. But if you don’t know it’s a “National” guitar, you may think it’s some sort of nonsense about a “national guitar,” whatever that is! He’s on a pilgrimage, a divorced man with his nine-year-old child, thinking about the crevasse of love lost:

She comes back to tell me she's gone
As if I didn't know that
As if I didn't know my own bed
As if I'd never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

And the guilt he feels about this breakage is assuaged in a statement of faith:

But I've reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

You know, that’s the kind of song that’s so personal, nobody’s cover of it carries the sense of insight or conviction Simon brought to it. The other night I heard Alison Krauss sing it at the Gala honoring Paul Simon. She was great, the band was great, and Jerry Douglas’s dobro playing was beyond words. But it was as if she was giving a “reading” of someone else’s autobiography. We have to make our own journeys, and the maps we leave behind are sometimes embedded in a song.

Paul Simon always seemed to me to operate in Bob Dylan’s shadow, way back then. But when they both left childhood behind and lived the sorrows of an adult, their careers took different turns. I’m fascinated to consider Blood on the Tracks and Still Crazy After All These Years as crowning achievements of two highly gifted song writers of about the same age, who then had to go on and figure out how to grow themselves anew after their phenomenal beginnings.

1 comment:

CareyT said...


Nick Hornby has a book called 31 Songs that I recently heard him read from on BBC radio. He made me more even more aware of how popular songs influenced me and provided sign-posts in my life--as they did in his.

One favorite memory is late at night, 1 or 2 p.m., in my freshman dorm with no air conditioning and our windows wide-open, starting to fall asleep We'd hear the mad whistler from somewhere out in the quad--we never knew. It was quiet then, all the stereo bass turned off for a few brief moments. He was a talented whistler. He would serenade us all with a heart-breaking renditions of "Sounds of Silence" or "Bridge over Troubled Water." That still makes me smile. Benediction.