My little band Vocalocity is doing really well (thanks for asking). We’ve just released a couple of live clips (Ariana Grande’s ‘Problem’, George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’–that’s me in black). Now in our fourth year, we perform only custom-written arrangements, which we commission from the very best a cappella arrangers in the world.
Like Ed Randell, the very funky bass of The Swingles. Vocalocity is already enjoying one arrangement of his (Lianne La Havas’s ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’), so we were negotiating a follow-up. “How about ‘Mrs Robinson’ in a slow funk treatment?” he asked. “Could you hum a few bars,” I asked in half-jest. Two hours later, he sent me a mouth-watering teaser of what’s to come.
After we picked ourselves up off the floor, we started thinking about how to present it to the group. We’re a serious group – they sit and squirm quietly while I explain the lyrics and background to what they’re going to interpret. They all know and love the song, but they’re millenials (it’s not their fault, I keep reminding myself), and I can’t take for granted that they know the song’s context.
And somehow Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ has become more symbol than song. Its connotations outweigh its content. Ask any earthling over the age of 30 about ‘Mrs Robinson’, and they’ll answer, “Oh, yeah, sure, Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman, Joe DiMaggio, “The Graduate”, ‘Dee de dee dee dee dee…’.
And the song. Do you realize what a strange composition ‘Mrs R’ is? It goes like this:
Chorus (And here’s to you…)
Verse (We’d like to know…’)
Chorus (And here’s to you…)
Verse (‘Hide it in a hiding place…)
Verse (‘Sitting on a sofa…’)
Chorus (‘Where have you gone…’).
If you’ve ever thought about the structure of a pop song—it ain’t nothing like that.
And the music. It’s all rootless and shifting and discomfiting. So I went to my Genius-in-Residence, OG, and asked him to explain the song to me. I remember him saying “It’s in the Mixolydian mode.” Then there was something about the chorus being in A but ending on F#, because the tonic makes its way down by fifths to B, then E, then A. But I was snoring deeply by then.
And the lyrics? Paul Simon was the guy you’d bring into your high school English class to show the teacher that M-M-M-My Generation could write poetry. To tell the truth, the three verses are pretty choppy and unfocused. No one remembers them.
Where did the song come from? Well, S&G were flying high on the coattails of ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’. They were a little intellectual but yet accessible, seriously fun, the perfect meld of sweet folk with a dash of rock edginess. They were playing in the big leagues, right up there with The Beatles and Dylan.
Mike Nichols caught the S&G bug while he was filming “The Graduate”, a coming-of-age story about (just in case you grew up on Mars) a disaffected and confused college graduate seduced into a summer affair by his father’s partner’s wife, Mrs Robinson. Some went so far as to say it was the story of a Jewish kid with gentile parents.
Nichols (b. Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, fleeing Nazi Germany at seven with his three year-old brother) first made a name in the improvisational comedy duo Nichols and (Elaine) May, followed by success as a director on Broadway. “The Graduate” was his second Hollywood movie, following Burton/Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.
Hollywood in 1967 was very much the provenance of white boxer shorts Republican America. You had your “Beach Blanket Bingo” teen exploitation movies. If you had an art theater in town you might catch an underground indie flick like “You’re a Big Boy Now” or the Maysles brothers or John Cassavetes. But the burgeoning counter-culture was off-limits.
So easy on the ear (and brain) were S&G that The Suits bought Mike Nichols the rights to three new Simon songs for his movie. Paul came up with ‘Punky’s Dilemma’ and ‘Overs’, but neither of them fit the bill. “What about that thing you were working on about Mrs Roosevelt?” Garfunkel asked. “What??” said Nichols. Simon played a scrap, Nichols said, “The song is now called ‘Mrs Robinson’, go finish it.”
The song was only released three months after the movie, and went to #1.
The song is today inextricably entwined with the movie in the minds of everyone familiar with the era. Together, they gave the most perfect expression to the youth revolution sweeping the US and the world. “Plastics.” Nouveau riche-ness. Hypocrisy. The Establishment and The Meaning(lessness) of Life. Initiation into the delicious, irresistible sins of the flesh. Convention and the deconstruction thereof.
But what the hell does the song mean?
It’s clearly excoriating Mrs Robinson, censuring her and reproving her in a way the film doesn’t. Anne Bancroft’s Mrs R is desperate and dislikable, but we’re never far from pitying her. The lyrics of the song, prima facie, have little to do with her. She doesn’t pray, has no spiritual pretentions whatsoever. She couldn’t care less about politics, and she no more belongs in an asylum than any other of the adults in the movie.
But then there’s that last verse, the DiMaggio one. Simon has mythicized America successfully elsewhere – in ‘America’ (from the “Bookends” album which was being composed at the time of “The Graduate”) and in ‘American Tune’ (several years later). [Speaking of which, here’s another fine Ed Randell arrangement for The Swingles.] In the former, he speaks in the voice of a diminutive, lost individual juxtaposed against the vastness of the country. In the latter, he attempts to don the mantle of a spokesman for The American People. With music by Johnny Bach, it borders on the pretentious. I’ll let you decide if it crosses the line.
Speaking of mantles, Paul Simon is a well-known fan of the New York Yankees baseball team. Simon (b. 1941) grew up idolizing Yankee icon Mickey Mantle (played 1951-1968), as did I. Mantle was portrayed as a sort of John F. Kennedy – copiously gifted, plagued by injuries, his talent struggling to perform in a pain-wracked body; while in reality, he was a dissolute farmboy. Nonetheless, he was The Golden Boy of the 1950s/early 60s. In his rookie year of 1951, Mantle replaced the great Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951) in centerfield, a truly mythic passing of – sorry, but that’s the word, folks – the mantle.
Joe DiMaggio began his major league career the year after Babe Ruth retired, and played alongside Lou Gehrig for four years. That alone gave him mythic stature, a flesh-and-bone hero who had stood with the ancients and was replaced by a man who retired the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
But Joe DiMaggio was so much more. He was the very essence of grace and dignity, a paragon of the nobility of restraint. Joe wasn’t taciturn. He had no more need to speak than does a mountain. Or a god.
Yet it was Mantle that Paul Simon grew up idolizing. Mantle asked Paul why he wasn’t mentioned in the song instead of DiMaggio. Simon replied, “It’s about syllables, Mick. It’s about how many beats there are.” And in Simon’s obituary for DiMaggio in the New York Times, he recounts his conversation with Joe about the song (“The only subject we had in common.) DiMaggio complained that he hadn’t gone away, he was still active. “I said that I didn’t mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply..”) Implant video with caption
Well, literal or not, a Jewish kid from Queens standing in centerfield at Yankee Stadium, singing a pop song that has the depth and power of an ageless hymn – that’s mortals mixing with the gods, a page out of the book of Genesis or the Iliad. And then you see Alex Rodriguez – watching Simon singing his paean to a true hero, the Yankee Clipper himself – demeaning those same pinstripes. Ah, what’s become of the world? Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Longing for that time when the world valued morality, when the world made sense. How should I explain that to the millenials in my band? They’re so far removed from the 1950s (and everything that went before) that I might as well be speaking Akkadian. I guess you just had to be there. Dee de dee dee dee dee…
John Lennon was murdered 36 years ago this week. Paul Simon wrote a song around that event.
Paul Simon (b. 1941) was a nice Jewish boy from Forest Hills. At 13 he started playing and singing with his pal Art Garfunkel, and at 16 they had a small Everly Brothers-styled hit (‘Hey, Schoolgirl’) under the name Tom & Jerry. Paul and Art both went to college, but continued playing together.
They were 22 when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and like all Americans, traumatized to the quick.
In 1964, when The Beatles conquered America and Bob Dylan released “Another Side Of”, they were 23 – a year younger than John, a year older than Paul, the same age as Bob. They were swept up by Beatlemania, sprouting from the same Everlies/Chuck Berry/Elvis/Buddy Holly roots. But they were even more impacted by Dylan and the folk movement, drinking from the same Woody Guthrie/Leadbelly well, not to mention doo-wop and early rhythm & blues. In short, they came from the same AM radio school.
Protest Music was all the rage, and Dylan’s Columbia label signed the two young Jews to a contract (Simon claimed that after much deliberation at Columbia, it was the first time that artists had used identifiably ethnic names). They recorded an acoustic album (“Wednesday Morning 3A.M.”) that had Dylan written all over it, even in the five unoriginal originals written by Paul. Protest, Protest, Protest. Paul, like everyone else, had a hard time grasping that the recent “Another Side of Bob Dylan” had turned the page. It would take everyone a couple of years to catch on and catch up.
But the album didn’t take off. Paul went to London to be bohemian, play the folk club circuit solo, and witness The British Invasion from behind their lines. It’s important to remember how profoundly the JFK assassination impacted the American psyche. From November 22, 1963 till February 7, 1964 (The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan), the US was in a deep depression. The Fab Four were the first thing to make the American people smile in months. This mood was reflected in folk music (‘He Was a Friend of Mine’, etc) as much as it was in Beatlemania.
It was the year of The Beatles, it was the year of The Stones, it was nineteen sixty-four
I was living in London with the girl from the summer before. [Kathy (Kathleen Mary Chitty), the Kathy of ‘Kathy’s Song and ‘America’]
It was the year of The Beatles, it was the year of The Stones, a year after JFK.
We were staying up all night and giving the days away.
And the music was flowing amazing and blowing my way.
Meanwhile, back in NYC, Tom Wilson, who produced both Dylan and S&G, understood that an amalgam of rock and folk needed to be forged. He took a track called ‘The Sound of Silence’ from “Wednesday Morning”, added a bass and drums and electric guitars in the studio. The song became an anthem and together with The Byrds’ version of Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ more or less invented folk-rock.
Simon & Garfunkel’s reputation is based on the mere four studio albums they went on to record. That they were early purveyors of Dylanism in a rock context is obvious. What time has obscured though is how much they were disciples of Beatle innovations. It went like this: ‘Hey, Jude’ was released in August, 1968. In addition to being a stunning song and a moving performance, it was an eye-opening, groundbreaking revolution in the evolution of what was possible in popular music. It was just about twice as long as any other #1 single, and included a 4-minute coda, a mantra that repeated and swelled and grew. It was Paul McCartney saying to the world, ‘Hi, here’s our new single, we’ve just invented this possibility.’ And The Stones and Simon and Garfunkel and everyone else would run out and try to work with what The Beatles had invented. Within a couple of months, The Stones had recorded ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, with a 2-minute fade repeating the same phrase over and over. And S&G had recorded ‘The Boxer’, also a 2-minute fade, even more in the hypnotic, swelling mode of ‘Jude’. Thus it was all those years ago, month after month, Beatles record after record. “Rubber Soul” followed by “Aftermath” and the “Sounds of Silence” LP, “Revolver” followed by “Between the Buttons” and “Parsley, Sage”, “Sgt Pepper” followed by “His Satanic Majesties’ Request” and “Bookends”.
Then The Beatles broke up, and S&G emulated even that. But while John lost his drive and direction musically, Paul Simon discovered his.
I don’t know much about the personal relationship between John Lennon and Paul Simon. I did hear one interview where Simon related a conversation he had with John: “He said to me, ‘How did you know to keep your publishing and not sign away everything’, and I said, ‘Well, we grew up in New York, but how did you know about combing your hair like that and wearing those clothes?’ He said he’d always thought he’d be a hairdresser.”
At the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 1975, they presented an award together. John more than anything, was an ex-Beatle. Paul and Art weren’t speaking. And host Andy Williams RIP had divorced his beautiful French wife Claudine Longet. Paul and John had clearly been being naughty boys backstage, and were visibly giddy in front of the cameras. They giggled through some inane text about breakups from partners, then opened the award envelope. Winner Olivia Newton-John (somehow beating out Elton John, Maria Muldaur and even Joni Mitchell’s ‘Help Me’!!!) was unable to make it from Down Under, but accepting in her stead, to the utter shock of all, is, um, Art Garfunkel. Ensuing is one of the intensest, embarrassingest and funniest things I’ve ever seen. The animosity between Paul and Art is palpable.
John: Which one of you is Ringo?
Paul (to Art, but not looking him in the face): I thought I told you to wait in the car.
John: Are you ever getting back together again?
Art: Still writing, Paul?
From 1972–83, Paul Simon recorded a string of five sterling solo albums, the real achievement on which his reputation deserves to be judged: “Paul Simon”, “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”, “Still Crazy After All These Years”, the vastly-underrated “One Trick Pony”, and his masterpiece, “Hearts and Bones”. “Hearts and Bones” was a commercial flop. But then again, so was “Pet Sounds”. So was “Astral Weeks”. And in my not-so-humble opinion, “Hearts and Bones” can hold its own in that very heady company.
Even Simon’s subsequent “Graceland” (which I’m in a small critical minority of judging poorly) and “Rhythm of the Saints” outsold it. But I’ve never been one to care how well music does commercially. Really, it makes no impression on me whatsoever. And there are so many great songs on “Hearts and Bones”, and in Paul Simon’s string of his first five solo albums, that we’re not going to even deal with them here this week, they deserve their own day. Today we’re just going to address a single song from that album, “The Late, Great Johnny Ace.”
On Christmas Day, 1954, Johnny was fooling around between sets at a Houston show. Curtis Tillman, Big Mama Thornton’s bass player: “Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded…see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ – sad, sad thing. Big Mama ran outta that dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed hisself!”
Paul Simon had been bar mitzvahed two months earlier.
I was reading a magazine, thinking of a rock and roll song
The year was nineteen fifty-six (sic) and I hadn’t been playing that long,
When a man came on the radio, and this is what he said,
He said “I hate to break it to his fans, but Johnny Ace is dead.”
Well, I really wasn’t such a Johnny Ace fan, but I felt bad all the same.
So I sent away for his photograph and I waited till it came.
It came all the way from Texas, with a sad and simple face
And they signed it on the bottom “From the Late Great Johnny Ace.”
On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered by a crazy fan.
On a cold December evening I was walking through the Christmas tide
When a stranger came up and asked me if I’d heard John Lennon had died.
And the two of us went to this bar, and we stayed to close the place,
And every song we played was for the late, great Johnny Ace.
In September, 1981, Simon and Garfunkel gave a free concert in Central Park, attended by half a million people. Simon presented a brand-new song, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace,’ performed for the very first time. Towards the end of the song, a crazed fan rushes him onstage, saying “I just want to talk to you.” It’s hard to believe, but the scene isn’t staged.
Even today, my mind gets teary when it lights on John Lennon’s death. He appears in Paul Simon’s song only obliquely. Because the song isn’t about John Lennon, and it’s not about Johnny Ace. It’s about Paul Simon, born of a monumental artist informing a great one. So, thanks Paul, for talking about yourself so eloquently. Thanks for telling me something about myself. And John – you should know, up there in the sky with diamonds, that you shaped a large part of who I am. Me, and all of us.
“Hearts and Bones” (1983) was Paul Simon’s fifth solo album, following three consecutive hit albums and a mediocre success (“One Trick Pony”, #12, buoyed by the hit ‘Late in the Evening’), and preceding a megasuccess (“Graceland”). “Hearts and Bones” reached #35 on the charts, left little impression on the listening public, and discouraged Simon to the point that he thought his creative juices had dried up.
The album has since grown in prestige, at least among critics. That it was a commercial failure is almost enough to make me esteem it above its populist/popular younger brother, “Graceland”. But it’s not that, really.
I’ve been listening loyally, hundreds of times each, to every Paul Simon release since the beginning, since ‘Sounds of Silence’ unwittingly invented Folk Rock. I interviewed him in the spring of 1967, when ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘I am a Rock’ were big hits (ouch). Jewfros weren’t so common back then. “Hey, Art, this guy looks like you,” said Paul. I was 18, and it was a moment of glory.
But my admiration for “Hearts and Bones” isn’t for its underdoggedness, or from my knee-jerk snobbery. It’s that good. I don’t want to argue about why I think “Graceland” isn’t such a great album. We come to praise Paul, not to trash him. “H&B” the album, and especially the song, are works of rare beauty – consummately crafted and emotionally searing. They are the pinnacle of Simon’s pantheon corpus, scaling heights rarely achieved in popular music in our times.
Eddie, Debbie, Carrie
It’s as beautifully produced a song as Simon has ever made. Production is one of Paul Simon’s overlooked talents—the aural palette, the sonic composite. One of Simon and Garfunkel’s unappreciated gifts was for painting beautiful sound pictures (together with engineer/producer Roy Halee, who also recorded ‘Like a Rolling Stone’). Listen to “Bookends” or “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” with headphones (as I’ve done three or four bejillion times). The beauty of the texture, layer over layer under layer of weavings and surprises and nuances and tapestries. Beauty for the ears.
My understanding is that although Simon was of course the creative artist in the mix, he and Garfunkel and Halee were equal partners in the studio. Simon’s first four solo albums were made under the tutelage of Phil Ramone. They evolved soundwise from the bare-boned acoustic first album (but, oh, what compositional wonders Paul can create with two or three acoustic guitars! and a modest rhythm section) through the band-based “Rhyming Simon” to the “Bridge”-like broadly canvassed “Still Crazy”, then stepping back into a live club sound for “Pony”. “H&B” reunites Simon with Halee.
Technically, the song ‘Hearts and Bones’ is rather unassuming. A very simple AABA structure, mostly in 4/4 time, except at the start of the second sentence in each verse (“On the last leg”, “These events” “Easy time”) where he adds two beats and simultaneously shifts the accent from the backbeat to stressing each beat (ᴗ/ᴗ/, ᴗ/ᴗ/, // ᴗ/ᴗ/), creating a momentary reverse movement. Note that we don’t have the bass drum guiding us through that section, enabling the fluid shift.
The instrumentation employed is standard Simon. The first verse is based on two (three?) acoustic guitars, one heavily strummed Everly-style to provide the rhythmic counterpart to the pattering hand drum. Two or three background voices and a strange little creak which becomes rhythmic provide the ambient colorings, followed later in the first verse by some touches of electric guitars, a Fender Rhodes filler, and a marimba for good measure–all backing Paul’s unadorned, very naked voice.
Most people who talk about the song like to address the autobiographical elements. The memorable opening line, “One and one-half wandering Jews” according to even Simon himself, refers to him and his soon-to-be wife Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia of “Star Wars”, the author and subject of “Postcards from the Edge”.
Carrie’s father was Eddie Fisher, son of Jewish immigrants, a pre-rock teen idol, with 35 Top 40 singles in the early 1950’s. Confession: his song ‘Around the World’ (theme song from the Oscar-winning film “Around the World in 80 Days”, produced by Fisher’s best friend Mike Todd) was the first record I ever bought.
Rainbow over Desert Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Carrie’s mother was Debbie Reynolds, an über-shicksa (raised a strict evangelical), a peach-cheeked (“Isn’t she adorable?”) actress-singer. They married in 1955, America’s most beloved couple (except for a few spoilsport old Jewish relatives of Eddie). In 1956 Eddie and Debbie co-starred in the musical comedy “Bundle of Joy”. In 1957 she starred in “Tammy and the Bachelor” and had a #1 hit with ‘Tammy’. In 1958, Mike Todd died in a plane crash. In 1959, Eddie began consoling his widow, one Elizabeth Taylor, in the biggest Hollywood scandal of the decade. Dream couple Eddie and Debbie divorced, Eddie and Liz married. In 1960, Eddie appeared with Liz in the steamy “BUtterfield 8”. She won the Oscar for Best Actress. They say that Debbie even voted for her. Who says Hollywood isn’t an enlightened town?
Paul Simon is of course himself Jewish. Hence the opening line of the song: 1+½ =1½.
PS: That was one of my best songs. It took a long time to write it and it was very true. It was about things that happened. The characters are very near to autobiographical. It’s probably the only track that I really like on that album.
Ironically, the song was copyrighted 1982, whereas Simon and Fisher were only married in 1983. So the song presages a failed relationship. Well, they’d been together on-and-off for a decade, so they knew each other pretty well.
PS: Had “Hearts and Bones” been a hit, I would never have written “Graceland”. So for me, it was a tremendous flop. In “Hearts and Bones” the language starts to get more interesting. The imagery started to get a little interesting. And that’s what I was trying to learn to do, was to be able to write vernacular speech, and then intersperse it with enriched language, and then go back to vernacular. So the thing would go along smoothly, then some image would come out that was interesting, then it would go back to this very smooth, conversational thing. So that was a technique that I was learning… I don’t know where it came from.
Carrie Fisher is half-Jewish, so…and Wandering Jew is a flower, isn’t it?
Q: Was it a conscious move to get Jews and Christ into the beginning of a love song? The next lines discuss wandering together in the Blood of Christ mountains.
PS: No, it wasn’t conscious. [Pause] In fact, I thought it was actually funny. One and one-half anything is funny.
That’s what we call emotional disingenuousness, a very fine example of why we shouldn’t listen to artists explicating their own work. It’s not funny at all, Paul.
Q: It’s your only song, with the exception of “Silent Eyes” that discusses being Jewish. And once you said that you try to keep spirituality and religion out of your songs–
PS: Yeah, but it seems to come in all the time. Not so much religion but spirituality.
Q: Do you think that your Jewish consciousness has anything to do with your abilities as a songwriter?
PS: I don’t know that there’s a connection, no.
Q: I ask because so many great songwriters are Jewish–
PS: That’s so. I guess it’s not a coincidence, but I don’t spend a lot of time connecting the two things. But maybe their words…brain and heart, you know? I think one would have to strain to make the connection. I don’t think there’s an obvious connection, but I think everything is explainable and connected. So there’s a connection, but I don’t know what it is.
That’s what I would call historical disingenuousness. In the middle of the twentieth century, Jews comprised less than 3% of the American population and perhaps 80% of the great songwriters. You need to do some pretty tricky self-denying calisthenics to jump through those statistical loopholes.
But of course in the end it comes down to The Song. ‘Hearts and Bones’ is a work of utter beauty, describing the disintegration of the very core of two people’s shared life, about the emotional essence (heart) coming undone from its framework (bones). The soft and hard, that which can only feel pain, and that which can only be broken. The vital and the inflexible, the palpitating and the rigid. The pulsating, quivering, throbbing passions within us, and the structures and strictures and scaffoldings that hold it all up. It’s about how they cohabit within us – intimate, interdependent, synergetic, yet profoundly and inherently separate. Like a married couple.
I have a couple of degrees in poetry, so if I had to, I could parse images such as ‘rainbows in the high desert air’, or perhaps even describe how the rhythm guitar breathes life into “The arc of a love affair/His hands rolling down her hair/Love like lightning shaking till it moans.” But ultimately I would have no words to describe the beauty that is this song. It’s incandescent and transcendent and ineffable. It deserves to be listened to, cried over, appreciated, and loved.
One and one-half wandering Jews free to wander wherever they choose
Are travelling together in the Sangre de Cristo
The Blood of Christ Mountains of New Mexico
On the last leg of the journey they started a long time ago.
The arc of a love affair, rainbows in the high desert air
Mountain passes slipping into stones
Hearts and bones
Thinking back to the season before, looking back through the cracks in the door Two people were married, the act was outrageous The bride was contagious, she burned like a bride. These events may have had some effect on the man with the girl by his side. The arc of a love affair, his hands rolling down her hair. Love like lightning shaking till it moans Hearts and bones
She said why, why don’t we drive through the night And we’ll wake up down in Mexico? Oh I, I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’ about Mexico. Tell me why, why won’t you love me for who I am, where I am. He said, “Cause that’s not the way the world is baby. This is how I love you, baby. This is how I love you, baby.”
One and one-half wandering Jews returned to their natural coasts
To resume old acquaintances, step out occasionally
And speculate who had been damaged the most.
Easy time will determine if these consolations will be their reward.
The arc of a love affair waiting to be restored.
You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
Their hearts and their bones, they won’t come undone.
Hearts and bones
You think you can just walk in and get the job? There’s a whole pile of prerequisite qualifications you need to schlep with you just to get the interview: a father who fought in WWII, professionally diagnosed pronounced arrested development, an acute affection for anal archivism, no social life, and first and foremost a highly evolved obsession for completism. And they snicker??
I have great admiration for Paul Simon. I’ve watched his musical accomplishments go from very good (half of Simon and Garfunkel’s oeuvre) to very very good (the other half) to Yes!! (the first solo album) to Yes!! (his second and third solo albums–note the lesser squeal) to Magnum Opus (“Hearts and Bones”) to Nope (“Graceland”) to Also Recorded (the last five, since 1990).
Woody Allen, Paul Simon, Diane Keaton
As all of you fellow compulsives have of course noted, I’ve skipped not only over the recycled live performances, but also that most puzzling of his albums, “One Trick Pony” (1980), five years after “Still Crazy”, three years before “Hearts and Bones”. Ostensibly, he’s at the height of his creative powers. But in 1975 he divorced his wife of 16 years, Peggy, the mother of his then three year-old son Harper. He also moved from Columbia Records to Warner Brothers, taking his catalog with him. In 1977, he played The Record Producer Who Gets The Girl in the movie “Annie Hall” written and directed by a brilliant, diminutive über New Yorker of Hebraic ancestry.
Bitten by the bit part, in 1980 he wrote and starred in his own movie, “One-Trick Pony”, this time portraying Jonah Levin, a short New York singer-songwriter who had a major hit with a protest song ten years before and is currently struggling with a floundering career. He’s separated from his wife and three year-old son. Someone will probably get a doctorate some day in English Literature laboriously demonstrating that there’s some autobiography in the movie.
Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’
Paul Simon acts with the passion and nuance and dexterity of a cigar-store Indian. He acts about as well as Woody Allen plays clarinet, I’m guessing. I’ve never subjected myself to hearing Mr Konigsberg play, and I regret having watched the movie this week. But it was untenable that a Paul Simon devotee such as I, an ostensibly serious listener, would not know the film. So I did it. A man’s got to do what a boy’s got to do. I just hope I’m not compelled to watch it again, because I really admire the music from the movie, and the film only diminishes it.
The album “One-Trick Pony” isn’t defined as a soundtrack. It doesn’t include un-noteworthy and thankfully undocumented guest appearances by The Lovin’ Spoonful, Sam and Dave and Tiny Tim at a retro record convention where Jonah reluctantly performs his Top 40 Hit gentle anti-Vietnam diatribe, ‘Soft Parachutes’ (“Haven’t they heard the war was over a long time ago?”). ‘Soft Parachutes’ was included as a bonus track on the remastered re-release of the album. I’m including it here to dissuade you (and myself) from sitting through the movie to hear it.
There’s a radio coming from the room next door/ My mother laughed the way some ladies do.
I don’t really understand what the music critics wanted from “One-Trick Pony”. For my money, it’s as full of heart-rending sincerity and masterful musicality as all but the very finest of his work. Best known from the album are the upbeat band numbers, especially the hit ‘Late in the Evening’, a charming autobiographical tale of a boy from the Brooklyn ‘hood, with an indelible Latin-infused groove. And ‘There’s a radio coming from the room next door/My mother laughed the way some ladies do’—who else can capture a whole world of feminine sexuality in a glimpse of a phrase?
And the title track ‘One-Trick Pony’? Okay, maybe it’s not ‘Kodachrome’ or even ‘Baby Driver’. But there’s a lot to mull over there. He’s saying that Jonah/Paul is a songwright of limited range, but admirably dedicated to his craft, which he practices with a purity of purpose. Paul can afford the irony; he is in fact a proven master of a great range of styles.
Paul Simon as Jonah Levin, with Joan Hackett as Mrs Robinson in ‘One-Trick Pony’
But if he has a specialty, it’s the wistful, complex acoustic ballads honestly examining the experiential nooks and emotional crannies of his heart and bones. The album “One-Trick Pony” is chock-full of them.
I interviewed Paul and Art in 1967, when the album “Sounds of Silence” was riding high on the charts, as the cliché goes. Paul was engaging, cheerful and outgoing. He was not yet a major star. In later years, at least publicly, he adopted an ultra-cool persona, void of smiles or openness or warmth. The absence of facial expression recalls Montgomery Clift, the disaffected veneer James Dean. This is in contrast to his music, which was rivaled only by few other artists for its emotional forthrightness. A mask, perhaps, protective padding.
Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’
I begrudge Paul no masks. In his songs, he is as open and vulnerable and honest as a boy can be. How often have I felt a very specific emotion, usually one involving both love and pain, the corner of a facet of a shade of a feeling – and there’s this phrase of his that nails it so precisely?
‘Oh, Marion’ (“Oh, Marion,I think I’m in trouble here/I should have believed you when I heard you saying /The only time that love is an easy game/Is when two other people are playing”)
‘Long, Long Day’ (“I sure could use a friend/Don’t know what else to say/I hate to abuse an old cliché/But it’s been a long, long day”)
Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’
Even the lesser songs in these musical veins and emotional arteries are respectable: ‘Nobody’, ‘God Bless the Absentee’, ‘How The Heart Approaches What it Yearns’.
But the gem for me has always been the eponymous ‘Jonah’, the protagonist of the movie, the alter-ego of Paul Simon, whose own career has been immeasurably more successful than Jonah’s, but his confidence seemingly just as frail, his pain just as real.
Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’
The song is a wonder of craft and passion. Who would have thought that feelings, the notoriously amorphous and slippery quick of our inner lives, could be so precisely dissected, reconstructed, and formulated in a mere song? Well, Jonah Levin does it. That other Jonah, he was cast overboard for his doubts, swallowed by a whale, and emerged intact. Paul Simon has gone through his own ordeal and emerged with a song for us, one by which I have often been thankful to be swallowed.
Half an hour you change your strings and tune up
Sizing the room up, checking the bar.
Local girls, unspoken conversations,
Misinformation plays guitar.
They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale
But I say there’s no truth to that tale.
I know Jonah was swallowed by a song.
No one gives their dreams away too lightly–
They hold them tightly, warm against cold.
One more year of traveling ’round this circuit,
Then you can work it into gold.
They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale
But I say there’s no truth to that tale.
I know Jonah was swallowed by a song.
Here’s to all the boys who came along
Carrying soft guitars with cardboard cases all night long.
Do you wonder where those boys have gone?