078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

Posted by jeff on Dec 10, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

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.”

Johnny Ace (1929–1954)was a very successful rhythm & blues artist from Memphis, with a long string of hits in the early 1950s –’Pledging My Heart‘ (the first record Paul Simon ever bought), ‘Saving My Love for You,’ and ‘Never Let Me Go,’ (which was covered by such fine artists as John Martyn).

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.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

197: Paul Simon, ‘Hearts and Bones’

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197: Paul Simon, ‘Hearts and Bones’

Posted by jeff on Jun 6, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon – ‘Hearts and Bones’

4306971_640px“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.

Paul Simon Carrie Fisher Wedding PhotoI’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.

02Technically, 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.

downloadMost 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

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.

Paul Zollo’s fascinating book “Songwriters on Songwriting” includes a great interview with Simon.

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.

Wandering Jew

Wandering Jew

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.

Wandering Jew

Wandering Jew

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.

19300001351540132783449434545_950That’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.

ezekiels-vision-valley-of-dry-bones.jpg.crop_displayI 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

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

165: Paul Simon, ‘Jonah’
158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’
136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’
090: The Cyrkle, ‘Red Rubber Ball’
078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

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165: Paul Simon, ‘Jonah’

Posted by jeff on Feb 22, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon – Jonah

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

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?

  • That’s Why God Made the Movies’ (“Say you’ll nourish me with your tenderness/The way the ladies sometimes do”)
  • 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? 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’
136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’
090: The Cyrkle, ‘Red Rubber Ball’
078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’



158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Posted by jeff on Jan 4, 2013 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

I first heard a piece of music this week that touched me very deeply, Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer Girl’, as performed solo by Paul Simon in “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson” from 2001.

I’m guessing we all pretty much agree that the original ‘Surfer Girl’ is a pretty schlocky song. The lyrics couldn’t be more callow. The melody and vocal harmonies are Brian Wilson clawing his way out of the gooey larva of his California pubescence.

It even takes a back seat to ‘In My Room’, the other slow song from the Beach Boys’ third album (1963). And we all know what happens in the back seat of a Little Deuce Coupe.

Beach Boys 1962

California pubescents: (clockwise from top right) Mike (Don’t Fuck with the Formula) Love, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, genius Brian Wilson

Brian on the genesis of ‘Surfer Girl’: “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”

Thanks for sharing that, Brian. Go to your room.

Ok, so Brian may not be competing with Ludwig Wittgenstein, but I am among those who consider him to be THE musical genius of contemporary popular music.  Admittedly, ‘Surfer Girl’ ain’t the one I would choose to have played at his wake. The works of his fully-fledged genius begin to trickle out a year (two albums) later, with ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘Warmth of the Sun’ on “Shut Down, Vol. 2”. And then bloom a year after that (1965) on the legendary Side B of “Beach Boys Today!”: ‘Please Let Me Wonder’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘Kiss Me Baby’ (see also SoTW 004), ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ and ‘In the Back of My Mind.’). Not to mention, of course, “Pet Sounds” (1966), the musical opus magnum of our generation.

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

What the song ‘Surfer Girl’ does offer us musically is an early hint of what I call Brian’s Cubist melody lines. He’s doing an arpeggio on familiar chords (‘Little surfer, little one’), but then it opens up (‘Make my heart’) into a new context, and then follows this beautifully shocking line even further afield (‘come all undone’). If you’re into chords, it goes like this: C Am F G (ok so far), but then Cmaj7 C7 F Fm6! Huh?? WTF? What’s wrong with this kid?

I’m not going to talk here about how much the world wants brilliant reworkings of some of Brian Wilson’s unexplored works of genius. I have enough self-awareness to realize that I get obsessive on the subject and cause people (like the very fine Danish choral arranger/conductor Jens Johansen) to carefully edge away from me to another room.

Brian Wilson Songs

Brian Wilson Songs

No one (until Paul Simon here) has succeeded in unlocking the Brian Wilson treasure chest to my satisfaction. I won’t even mention the Billy Joels and Ricky Martins from the “All-Star Tribute”.  Here’s a pretty typical example of a competent a cappella group, Rockapella, missing the point of how to cover ‘Surfer Girl’. Even some artists I greatly admire have been daunted by the original material. Here are my friends The Real Group, and here are my friends The Swingle Singers, both covering ‘God Only Knows’. I think neither really master the material. It’s hard to blame them. Paul McCartney’s called ‘God Only Knows’ the greatest song ever written. Here’s Paul making a mess of  ‘God Only Knows’ with Brian. ”We were doing a benefit together, and at the sound check I lost it, because it’s very emotional, this song. I think ‘Oh my God, I’m singing it with Brian’, it just got me. I couldn’t do it.” I give both TRG and The Swingles credit – they do a better job than Paul and Brian himself. But there’s so much more still to be mined.

Woodie, including back seat

Woodie, including back seat

The one and only cover I’d heard before that to my ears really showed how much gold there is in them thar hills is that by a not-yet-fully-appreciated young artist, Kat Edmonson. She’s a knockout songwriter, and does great covers as well. On her 2012 album ‘Way Down Low’, she tackles ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ with taste and intelligence and talent, and comes up with a gem of a gold nugget.

When I talk about covering a work of substance, I believe it should be a piece that deserves to be revisited, that has musical value beyond that which earlier versions have found and which deserve to be explored. The original ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ is great, but would have been better served left alone.  All of its value was right there in the original. More is less.

In researching this post, I was tickled to trip over three tributes that I hadn’t been aware of. The ‘All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson’ (2001) is a pretty embarrassingly lowbrow affair, our SoTW itself excluded. More interesting is the 2000 ‘Caroline, Now!’ CD, but the material is obscure, the artists mostly unknown to me, and the results unengaging. Most successful for me is ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, a jazz tribute to Brian Wilson from 1997, even though it takes Brian’s perfected edifices into the playing field of improvisation and thus doesn’t really deal with the essence of the material itself. The exception was a serendipitous discovery, five lovely, short a cappella cuts by ‘The Clark Burroughs Group’, L’Arc. And listen to this folks! Clark Burroughs is the original tenor of the Hi-Lo’s!! And not only that, he wrote the vocal arrangements for The Association’s ‘Windy’ and ‘Never My Love’!!! That connection has my head spinning, and you can bet your booties I’ll be pursuing it. Take a listen to what Mr Burroughs has done:

Surf’s Up – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Can’t Wait Too Long – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

‘Til I Die – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Cabinessence – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

I Went to Sleep – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

If I have a reservation, it’s that Mr Burroughs chooses material from the ‘Smile’ era, when Brian was in full control of the studio and free of the fetters of Top 40 considerations. That’s not mining, that’s plucking gold from the surface. Still, it’s gold, and I just discovered this. Give me a few thousand more listens to coalesce my opinion.

Angst on the Beach, Surfer Girl, Beach Boys

Angst on the Beach

Brian Wilson’s early masterworks have so much still untapped that it breaks my heart to not hear this treasure appreciated anew. Jens Johansen reworked fully realized jewels such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. How much more fitting that he apply his great talent and that of his marvelous Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line to treat unrefined treasures such as those of Brian Wilson before he had his run of the studio with “Pet Sounds”. Or perhaps Clark Burroughs.

Paul Simon has recorded very few covers of other artists. With Art he did ‘The Times Are A-Changing’ (before he knew any better) and a couple of Everly Brothers just for fun (‘Wake Up, Little Suzie’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’). Much later he did a more respectable job on ‘Here Comes the Sun’, here solo and here with David Crosby and Graham Nash. But neither is really revelatory. More successful is the collaboration with James Taylor and Art Garfunkel on Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’, but that’s really James’ work rather than Paul’s.

Paul Simon is a remarkable artist. He can sing a phrase that’s so poignant and emotionally precise that it will echo in your heart for weeks. He’s also a perfectionist. He gets oodles of credit for his songwriting and even his singing and guitaring, but I think he’s too seldom recognized for his production and arrangement abilities, even from the old days of Simon and Garfunkel.

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

For his live performance of ‘Surfer Girl’, he clearly did his homework. The melody line is lovely and just a bit challenging. Paul employs it as a springboard for his own unique, affective talent and thereby both pays due respect and enriches the original. Listen to the beginning of the second verse. He sings ‘I have seen you on the shore’ in falsetto up an octave, and you’re saying ‘Oy, the melody goes up, he’ll never make it!’ But with a feat of inventiveness, ‘the sound of surprise’, he creates a beautiful new descending line, moving seamlessly from the head voice to chest voice.

He looks the line ‘I would drive you in my woodie’ right in the eyes, without flinching, and delivers it with compleat sincerity – neither pandering to the shlockiness nor pretending that it’s anything other than what the song really is: a beautiful, heartfelt ballad of unrequited teenage love, performed impeccably. What more could we ask for?

Little surfer, little one,
Made my heart come all undone.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

 I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the oceans roar.
Do you love me do you surfer girl?

 We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow.
In my woody I would take you everywhere I go.

So I say, from me to you
I will make your dreams come true.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

142: Kat Edmonson, ‘Champagne’
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)
Brian Wilson Songs of The Week
Paul Simon Songs of The Week

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