Friday 4 July 2008

Paul Simon "One-Trick Pony" (1980) ('Core' Review #78; Revised Review 2016)

You can now buy 'Patterns - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Simon and Garfunkel' in e-book form by clicking here!

On which Paul Simon is at least a three trick-pony, writing a film screenplay, taking a lead acting role and creating some of his best and most forgotten music…

 Late In The Evening/ That’s Why God Made The Movies/ One-Trick Pony/ How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns/ Oh, Marion// Ace In The Hole/ Nobody/ Jonah/ God Bless The Absentee/ Long Long Day 

‘I know Jonah he was swallowed by a song...’ or ‘The bigger the cushion, the better for pushing!’

Not content with writing some of the best songs of his – or anybody’s – generation, Paul Simon set his sights even higher in the late 1970s, openly debating in the music press whether his next project should be a film or a musical because he didn’t want to just make another album. Back to suffering writer’s block again post ‘Still Crazy’ and still suffering from wrist problems playing the guitar, Paul needed a new way of expressing himself. The musical will come (‘The Capeman’ in 1997) but for now Paul went with the film. Though both the music and film world at the time thought Paul had lost the plot, it makes sense: ‘The Graduate’ had shown Paul how powerful films with a musical soundtrack could be and he had been deeply envious of Arty’s acting career (not least because his own cameo in ‘Catch 22’ got cut before filming started). In the break between albums he set off learning what he could, hanging round Hollywood and agreeing to compose the soundtrack for the film ‘Shampoo’ where he met Carrie Fisher for the first time (though his part in the film again got cut to shreds, with old music and a new version of this album’s ‘Long Long Day’ all that made the final cut). In a more explosive cameo he stole the show in ‘Annie Hall’, the breakthrough film in so many ways for Woody Allen where he plays the film director’s love rival, a movie producer of all things. He also played ‘himself’ in Eric Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television special ‘The Rutles’, where he and Mick Jagger dead-panned their way through their supposed fake rivalry with the pre-fab four. As luck would have it, Paul was also out of contract, free from Columbia after a decade on the label and he was free to go wherever he wanted – including somewhere that made films for a living such as Warner Brothers, home to the Grateful Dead and, err, The Looney Tunes. At last Paul was eager to get to work and all he needed now was an idea.
Originally Paul was only meant to write the screenplay. Warner Brothers naturally wanted a soundtrack too and he saw the commercial sense in that so he agreed to write the songs as well. Then, however, came the real crunch: they wanted him to star in it. Paul, however, had no plans to be an actor. His cameo roles had been five-minute jobs that didn’t stretch him too much, but to carry a whole film? That was a whole different test. This understandably shaped how the film was written: figuring that he couldn’t exactly play a super-hero Paul went the other way and thought to himself that he ought to write about what he knew best. Figuring that music was what he knew better than anything else Paul wrote about that, but the world of music that he knew – not the world of glitz and glamour but the real hard graft of a band who nobody wants to see and yet who still want to keep playing. For roughly half his career at the point of starting this film Paul had been a ‘one-hit wonder’. Tom and Jerry scored just one hit together, while his spin-off Jerry Landis and his own rock band ‘Tico and the Triumphs’ had just managed to scrape the charts once each. At first Simon and Garfunkel hadn’t even done that well. Paul had spent most of his career post the electric re-issue of [98] ‘The Sound Of Silence’ looking over his career, wondering what might have happened if that song had been a one-hit wonder since and he’d been forever associated with one particular genre for the rest of his life. Paul plays Jonah Levin, a middle-aged rock and roll singer-songwriter whose been living off the one now-hated hit for too much of that life and is now so mired in people's eyes in a particular point in time that he's stuck forever trying to be that person in a changing record market he doesn't understand. Jonah, has ‘been on this road nearly fourteen years’ and he has nothing to show for it: the record company reject his new record, promoters cancel gigs without telling him, his band get fractious and desperate for money and his style of music has been replaced by newer, trendier bands (including the first filmed appearance of new wave favourites The B-52s’). The only work he can get is watching his precious music get smothered by mean record executives who don’t know what they’re doing or reprising his old hit about the Vietnam War for a nostalgia set on TV. Jonah’s personal life is wrecked too, with an ex-wife who wants him to grow up and stop playing at being Elvis and a boy he barely sees (played by Paul’s real life son Harper, just to show what an autobiographical tale this – he’s a far more natural than actor than his sometimes self-conscious dad). Even the band are played not by actors but by Paul’s real band, with old friends Richard Tee, Steve Gadd, Eric Gale and guitarist Tony Levin (whose life history is in here too, with ‘Levin’ being Jonah’s surname too) playing the parts – and rather stealing the film as they do so (Richard Tee as the Bruce Springsteen E Street Band style named 'Clarence Clampson' should have had his own spin-off show!) There is no happy ending for Jonah, his life unravelling as he unravels the canisters that contain his multilated recordings, just a realistic one of a musician who still does what he does because he has to and because he doesn’t know how to do anything else.
It’s somehow fitting that ‘One Trick Pony’ was a failure. It’s not a film that would know what to do with success if it had had any. I wonder, though, why this project hasn’t become at least a cult in the years since it was made – instead most biographers dismiss it as a brief expensive folly (in the otherwise exemplary series of CD-size pocket books Guide To The Music of… - which in the case of Paul Simon even studies his live albums in some detail - this soundtrack LP gets diluted to a simple page and a half of large-size print, these oh so sophisticated songs reduced to a single sentence in most cases), the film came out once very very briefly on DVD only in America and it has been screened on TV in Europe only once, in the middle of the night on Channel Five in the late 1990s. People point at Paul’s acting, to the lack of stucture in the script and the sudden ending, to the fact that they can only name one song on the soundtrack album as evidence that Paul had bitten off more than he could chew. But for me ‘One-Trick Pony’ proves that Paul is a master of all trades. His acting is great for someone so inexperienced, full of deadpan humour and solemn stares that don’t tax him too much (though Paul’s sex scenes are, it has to be said, most awkward – and there are a lot of them, with exes, groupies and the boss’ wife). Certianly he’s a far more convincing actor than Jonah’s idol Elvis ever was in any of his films. The script is powerful in the way it portrays everything Jonah has ever known gradually disintegrating and only really goes wrong by not knowing how to end (does Jonah’s album gets released anyway? Though the guitarist steals it from under the nose of his label, they must have kept a back-up copy. Or does his band splinter and he gets a normal job to spend more time with his son like he threatens? The greatness of this film though is in asking that question at all – should Jonah keep doing what drives him and makes him extraordinary or become as ordinary as the rest of the world because it’s easier on the people around him?) The cinematography and direction by another New Yorker Robert M Young – who once was a news reporter covering Vietnam protests and sit-ins for NBC - is excellent, particularly the performances (with the light behind Richard Tee’s shoulder set up to white out the camera whenever he moves just so at the end of a note, as he always does instinctively as part of his performance). There’s a feeling that everybody involved knows what they’re doing, which is more than you can say for Simon and Garfunkel when they started out. And as for the soundtrack album this alone makes it one of the greatest things Paul Simon ever did.
The album can be divided up into the songs that Jonah ‘plays’ and the songs that Jonah ‘thinks’ (he is, I think its fair to say, a less accomplished musician than Paul and more likely to stick to being simple, though this purist rock and roll element was always a most under-rated part of Paul’s appeal and the rockers work well). In the former category 'Late In The Evening', the one song people know, isn't really characteristic of the album and it's sudden injection of Mariachi horns (not what Paul asked for at all from the arranger, but he liked the result enough to keep it in) is clearly not something Jonah would ever have come up with. It is however as infectious as a flea bite and as fun as a bouncy castle, a celebration of music that's integral to our later understanding of why Jonah continues to struggle doing what he does in the face of so much opposition. We've studied a lot of AAA responses to punk by now: this album's title track might well be the most interesting, an oh so 1950s song with so much going on that's deeply jealous of the streamlined music the punks are making and yet still offers a blow for good old-fashioned rock and roll. 'Ace In The Hole' is a glorious pastiche of every early 1970s 'swamp rock' song that still manages to better them all, with lyrics comparing living life to playing in a band, with Richard Tee a glorious duet vocalist on a song that finally makes good on the gospel overtones that have been in Paul’s work for a while. Finally 'Long Long Day' tries so hard not to throw in the towel that the melancholy nearly breaks the song until Patti Austen (not heard in the film version) arrives to offer long overdue comfort, a similar homeless traveller drifting through life as the bus rolls on and on. The film version, by the way, substitutes this tender verse with a verse full of cheap and charmless string overdubs the record company have insisted on but Jonah doesn't like at all (his deadpan 'River Deep Mountain High', huh?' at the end of the playback is Paul's best line of the film) before swamping it with a gloriously smoky version duetted with Richard Tee again in a tearjerkingly slow version that knocks spots off the version that made the album. ). All four are seen actually being performed in the film by Paul alongside Richard Tee, Steve Gadd, Eric Gale and Tony Levin - Paul's backing band in real life for the whole of this record and perhaps the greatest one he ever had (though the Central Park gig of 1991 cuts close). They sound not unlike Tico and the Triumphs, the more free-wheeling rock and roll band Paul helped form after his first split with Art Garfunkel back in the 1950s.
Better yet though are the songs that have Paul acting as a third-person omnipotent narrator, telling us what is in Jonah’s head and what his motivations are. 'That's Why God Made The Movies' is a much sadder take on why Jonah took up music than the upbeat version we got on ‘Late In The Evening’: it's a Freudian song about needing love and something to hope for, the songwriter 'adopted by wolves' in a rock and roll band because he has no family who cares about him and nothing to hang around home for. Though his parents give him a love for music, they also make him so unloved and so unwanted that he has to go out in search of that love by making music of his own, the tragedy being that nobody loves him any more. 'How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns' is a truly sumptuous ballad as Jonah tries to keep in contact with his safe and comforting family out on the road and it seems a whole lifestyle away from the crummy motel he's just checked into. He feels his heart like a magnet taking him to where he cannot go, even while the divorce papers with his ex-wife are waiting to be signed. 'Oh Marion' is pure Paul Simon despite being in Jonah's head: his character’s heart beats out of synch with everyone else, he's got great brains he sometimes forgets to use and he's deeply in love but unable to express it. There’s only one person who understands him – and she’s in the middle of divorcing him, leaving him driftless (Marion is clearly ‘Peggy’). The song also contains one of the all-time great Paul Simon lines as the pair's friends and family look on in despair, angry that they don’t understand this fatal attraction: 'The only time love is an easy game is when two other people are playing'. 'Nobody' is all the heartbreak Jonah is unable to express as he limps through one more tour as alone and distraught as he's ever been in his life, empty, friendless, rudderless, full of such desperate aching sadness and a world away from the ‘generic blues song’ its often dismissed as but one of rock’s most emotional writers at his most emotional. 'Jonah' himself is aptly named, Paul spending a whole song on his creation's namesake only with the difference that the bigger thing that 'swallowed' him wasn't a whale but a song and one he can't help chasing after, no matter how much it costs him and no matter how many of his contemporaries gave up and grew up long ago. Finally, 'God Bless The Absentee' is the song that keeps arriving across the film, the thin thread that ties the increasingly different home and road lifes for Jonah. It’s a song of denial which Jonah clearly doesn’t really believe that’s filled with typical Paul Simon misdirection: 'my son don't need me yet, his bones are soft' shortly after we’ve seen how much the father-and-son bonding means to his little one. By telling himself his family are better off without him Jonah can fool himself inmto playing another tour, but you know from this song’s punchy verses that this absence is agonising for Jonah every bit as much as the folks at home. These songs are, it’s true, too deep for Jonah the character to play – and yet the songxs where he struts as Elvis are every bit as good and gift this album a touch of drama and raw power other Paul Simon albums lack.
The story isn't Elvis' though - in fact just the opposite with Jonah the ‘joker’ to ‘The King’ in life’;s pack of cards. However Elvis hangs heavy on this album with both Paul in real life and Jonah in the film besotted fans, desperate to re-create the sheer impact of the young Presley on the world - even though Jonah is now middle-aged and even Elvis himself couldn't stay young forever. His death in September 1977, around the time when the first draft of the script was being put together, hangs over it like a shadow: a warning of what happens to rock and roll musicians who refuse to grow up and live to excess. Paul must have been wondering why his teenage self ever envied his idol, who ends up being patronised and acquiesced to death with food, drugs and painkillers. This warning is something Jonah is reminded of several times by Jonah's wife, former friends and record company bosses who want something 'new' while also asking Jonah to stay in the same 'place' as his one and only hit, [230] 'Soft Parachutes', a sweet song about the Vietnam War that must have sounded the most outdated thing possible in 1980 when the film came out (it's not on the original vinyl but it is heard in the film and on the CD as a bonus track) but sounds rather sweet now. Not that Jonah was ever going to die of something as millionaire-ish as a drugs overdose; instead Levin finds himself getting by singing his hated hit on the TV for cheap money, touring down-and-out clubs across England's backwaters where the promoters more often than not cancel without warning and desperately trying to interest promoters with his old-style music when they dismiss it out of hand for young punk bands. Jonah is a ghost out of his time, denied every opportunity to prove what he can do and unqualified for any other job, despite his ex-wife's desperate need for him to settle down. Jonah is every bit like Paul Simon - driven, hard working, perfectionist, self-aware and capable of writing brilliant music; but he lacks Paul's faithful audience and his success. Paul's script reads at sometimes like a there-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I missive, perhaps shared by Paul in some alternate universe where Tom Wilson never followed up with his idea about overdubbing electric instruments onto 'The Sound Of Silence', and at others like a stubborn reply to Paul's ex-wife Peggy about why he does what he does and why he has to do it or else. In many ways 'One Trick Pony' seems like a 'thankyou' to fans for making 'The Sound Of Silence' a hit and giving Paul the only livelihood he ever wanted or could do - which is why it's so ironic his audience have always seemed to enjoy kicking this record. However it’s somehow fitting that this project, which is concerned more than anything with failure (of Jonah’s inability to move with the times, of the strength of his marriage in hard times, of the music business for chasing cents over sense) ended up being a failure in and of itself.
There was no lack of promotion for the project either – Paul, who had been with record label Columbia ever since they'd signed Simon and Garfunkel back in 1964, was tempted into signing with the much bigger budget label Warner Brothers, partly so they could help him finance both film and soundtrack. The deal wasn't cheap either and was seen as quite a game-changed in the record industry, with Warners also agreeing to buy up the rights to Paul's solo Columbia albums at a cost and re-releasing them (which slightly back-fired when this record got compared unfavourably to past works). Paul also seems to have had a major falling out with someone from his 'old' days somewhere: it's largely thought by those who know him well that Jonah's record label boss (played by the film's only 'name' role Rip Torn) is based on Walter Yetnikoff, head of Columbia's parent company CBS and relates to things he said when Paul tried to interest him in his film idea (Lou Reed’s loudmoluth producer may well be someone working for them too). Paul has many great qualities but an ability to move on and forgive and forget was never one of them – this bitterness does slightly colour the film after Columbia took a chance on him as an unknown and gave him ten healthy years of record making. Warner Brothers’ takeover of his old music does, on the plus side, allow a box set of all his music to come out under one banner, but I have to say that Warners never really goes to town promoting Paul’s music the way than, say, Columbia do the Simon and Garfunkel back catalogue. They just don’t care or need to; the music wasn’t theirs, apart from three new albums and of those ‘Graceland’ is the only one they’re interested in pushing because it’s the only one that sold, while they have many bigger fish to fry with Paul a minnow in a big pond where once he was a shark. In many ways it's no surprise the film didn't do that well despite Warner Brothers' heavy promotion: it came out in the middle of a peak period for action film franchises that starred classic 'heroes' - 'Indiana Jones' and, ironically, 'Star Wars' (the irony being that Paul's new girlfriend at the time was Carrie Fisher, who filmed Princess Leia in the films; it's a wonder 'Pony' wasn't shown as part of a double bill!) A film about failures starring unknowns to the general public (even if almost everyone in the film means something if you're a Paul Simon fan, with not only the band but much of Paul's management buddies getting cameos) was always going to struggle in these times (as we've said before, the only thing Simon and Garfunkel were never very good at was timing their product to contemporary tastes - unless other people got involved).
Which is a shame, because the message at the heart of the film – how long can you keep doing what your heart tells you and not your head – is a good one and a subject that had cropped up quite a few times on earlier Paul Simon albums. Many superstars get so big-headed when they make it big that they often forget about the years of struggle that went into their career (or not, as is the case for most boy and girl bands of today), assuming their destiny was pre-determined and that talented others can always follow the path that they took. Little do they realise that every star becomes a star because of a path that’s unique to them and there is no blueprint for success in the music business to follow – if there was, every rock band who got past it would have been manager to somebody younger. With this in mind its no wonder that so many artists fail to help others trying to achieve the same success (nearly all the artists on this list started their own record labels at some point—and nearly all of the groups ‘discovered’ by them and given heavy promotion failed to make any impact whatsoever. I find it hilarious this film inadvertently made a success out of the B-52s because the whole point of it is that no one can predict the next big thing in music – not the musicians but especially not the record label bosses who haven’t got a clue, however many awards they get). But not Paul Simon: Jonah might be a talented failure, but he’s a failure, no two ways about it, and Paul seems to go out of his way to emphasise that Jonah really is himself, just a Paul Simon that happens to live in an alternate universe without enterprising producers talented enough to overdub electric instruments onto old recordings. ‘One Trick-Pony’ is very moving in the way it portrays the underworld of the 1970s music business, with gigs that are cancelled at the last minute for no good reason and promoters and managers looking to rip off their artists off at every turn, all accompanied by music that tries so hard to make sense of it all. Heartily recommended to everyone who wants a ‘real’ music film, to complement the jaded digs of Spinal Tap and the sheer stupidity of ‘Spice World – The Movie’ (which is to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ what Donald Trump is to Lincoln), so attached do you become to Jonah that you long for him against the odds to get a hit and make a comeback album made on his terms that celebrates the sort of music within him no one else can like ('Graceland' in other words if you're a populist; 'Rhythm Of The Saints' if you're enough of a fan to see past that's records faults).
'One Trick Pony' then is the dark horse of the Paul Simon canon, unknown by most people unfairly. But not everyone: as a fun piece of trivia it's this album that seems to survive until the end of the universe - at least if author Douglas Adams is to be believed. The 'Hitch-Hiker's author had a run of dedicating books to whatever albums he happened to play obsessively when writing them and 'One Trick Pony' is the main dedication in his second book for the series 'The Restaurant At The End Of Universe'. Given the plot's main thrust - with everyman Arthur Dent even further out of his comfort zone and desperate to get back to a home he knows has been destroyed and doesn't exist anymore - there are actually more similarities between the two projects than you might suppose. Although sadly Marvin the Paranoid Android doesn't appear in Jonah's band (this despite being a pop star himself of no small repute - seriously, check out the two Marvin singles sometime which are science fiction's finest releases!) Jonah's band are definitely on pan-galactic gargle-blasters by the second half of the film. Interestingly 'Restaurant' was a rare case of Douglas actually getting on with his work (he famously once said that he liked the noise of deadlines as they went swooshing past his head) - and he must have been a friend enough of Paul's to be given an advance copy as his book actually came out a full seven months before the album (now that's time travel!)
One quick mention too for how the film soundtrack differentiates from the album. I long for the day when we get a proper deluxe re-issue of this album with about half an hour’s worth of material from the movie stuck back in because it’s almost all different and fascimnating. ‘Late In The Evening’ has been sped up a little to fit the credits but works well like this, with an extra urgency. ‘That’s Why God Made The Movies’ becomes a duet for vocal and bass guitar for a verse that’s reallty effective. ‘Ace In The Hole’ is a whole alternate take that to my ears is crisper and strudier than the album take played by the band live in their ‘club’. ‘Nobody’ has been sped up and sounds nervier like this, less bluesy and ends not the way the album version does but with the ghostly choir that just keeps going, the saddest doo-wop on record. ‘Jonah’ features a different mix of the album take, which alternates different combinations of instruments and at one stage ends on a unique harmonica solo where the vocal would go, something that’s highly effective. ‘Oh Marion’ ends early, the rest of the song mixed down so that we get some great groovy bass playing that slinks out of the room. ‘God Bless The Absentee’ is perhaps the most interesting, wrapped the whole way around the album, sometimes with just the piano lick in place, sometimes wirth the verses ending with extended solos, so that the whole song takes about an hour to play. Best of all ‘Long Lond Day’ features in a scintillating live band performance with Richard Tee duetting with Paul on a version that’s so much more poignant and sad. We also get brief acoustic performances of this song and ‘Ace In The Hole’ as Paul tries to play his songs to Rip Torn’s producer in the film – alas these are broken off in the plot as the producer gets distracted time and time again, but the latter especially sounds great done like this.  Finally [230] ‘Soft Parachutes’ is an entirely different performance in the film compared to the version on the CD re-issue and rather better performed it has to be said, Paul singing in a style closer to his ‘Simon Songbook’ days, slower and thoughtful. Oddly ‘One Trick Pony’ itself is mimed to the studio cut even though it’s one of the few tricks we’re meant to think is ‘live’ (though the audience of extras do add some natty handclaps!)
Well, we might be a long way off getting that deluxe re-issue sadly – for some reason ‘One-Trick Pony’ just never really registered with the wider public. I’ve never really understood why: Paul’s script is full of the bewilderment and struggle of his best songs, his songs are a league above those he was writing on ‘Still Crazy’ back to being full of warmth and power as he really cares about the characters he writes about and the acting is a lot better than it has any right to bem given that the only person with any real experience in the film (Rip Torn) is only in two scenes. Perhaps the public just couldn’t equate Paul with being anything other than a ‘one-trick pony’ and couldn’t see him as either a leading actor or a film-writer. That’s a real shame because this project has so much to offer, tying together several themes that have been running through Paul’s work for years and looking at why he struggles so hard to do what he does instead of getting a ‘proper’ job. With a balance and variety that other albums like ‘Graceland’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, however good, can only envy, ‘One Trick-Pony’ has been a blot on Paul’s discography for far too long and even though everyone has long assumed this is an old nag that came in last, I put it to you that in the long run ‘Pony’ might yet be seen as one of Paul’s most daring and satisfying projects. As usual with Paul the only thing the film really didn’t was the timing, being just too down and too drab for a year full of colourful Hollywood sequels.

The Songs:

Despite this project’s unloved status, there is one song from the album that everyone seems to know. [228] Late In The Evening was the first thing anyone heard from the film and was deeply popular, perhaps because it sort of sits outside the film, heard only over the opening titles. It is a song of triumph, the motive for Jonah to keep making music as he remains how much it’s meant to him across his life. A winning argument for why musicians take such ridiculous risks in their career and sacrifice everything and everybody for the muse, it recounts Jonah’s childhood and teenagerhood which also happens to mirror Paul’s. As a toddler he hears the sound of the radio ‘coming from the room next door’, instinctively recognising it as what he wants to do with his life (it’s worth remembering here that Paul’s father Lou was a bandleader in real life). He hears it again at the youth clubs when he’s trying to fit in, with the added description of ‘a capella grooves’ (suggesting Paul is really remembering his own teenage doo-wop obsession). By the third verse he’s no longer listening but participating, with being in a band the one time that failure Jonah feels like a somebody, forgetting his troubles as ‘I turn my amp up loud and I begin to play’ and when he sings how ‘I blew that room away’ it’s not smugness but surprise. All those years of trying to follow other people and here at last is something that Jonah can do better than anybody else he knows. Of course he’s going to stick to it and refuse to get a proper job. The fact that all this happens ‘late in the evening’, when every other worker is relaxing or in bed, even makes the time of day like a fairytale, a special time when normal rules don’t apply and Jonah is no longer a pumpkin. By the last verse we’re getting the story of how Jonah met Marion, how it gave him the confidence to say ‘I’m gonna get that girl no matter what I do’ and he does, whilst admitting earthily that ‘once or twice I been on the floor, but I never loved someone the way that I love you’. The song’s infectious good-time groove, with a bass and guitar bobbing up and down in tandem, needs to be one of Paul’s best riffs for this song to work ands thankfully it is (a sort of slowed down version of [163] ‘Kodochrome’) and you can easily imagine a group getting so carried away with this as a song that they really would end up playing it late into the night. It is a shame, though, that this song isn’t used in the film more as a sort of riposte to all the arguments that Jonah is too past it to play, with the message that music is in his blood as we never actually get to see the band play what’s always been something of a live favourite. The horn lick in the middle has almost nothing to do with the rest of this rocky song, by the way - as Paul himself has pointed out – and he was horrified at first when he first heard guest dave Grusin’s arrangement for the score. It’s not rock and roll at all but jazz and far too sophisticated for anything Nonah’s band would play, but equally Paul recognised the sheer fun and escapism of the part and left it intact, somehow fitting anyway as it mimics Jonah’s zest for life. Steve Gadd also plays a distinctive drum lick that he used to teach in musician academies for hos drummers could sound really big and powerful with two drumsticks doubling everything to sound as if he’s playing a duet with himself. A cracking start to any album, underlining from the first just why Jonah the failed musician has reason to be so committed to his art.
[229] That’s Why God Made The Movies tells the same story but without the joy and from the point of view of Jonah’s subconsciousness rather than a song his band would perform in a club. On this complex Freudian song Jonah feels abandoned from birth, telling us first that the day he was born ‘my mother died’ but later that she ‘waved him bye bye’. Figuring that nobody else is going to care for him Jonah sets off into the big wide world to fend for himself. By the end of the song he’s been ‘adopted by wolves’, the rock band he formed, a band of vagabonds who allow him to ‘grow up wild’ away from the respectability with which everyone else lives their lives. Jonah clearly associates his early betrayal with his tyearning for a crowd of people to love him and why he became a musician. However this song also sounds as if it came from an early draft of the screenplay when Paul wasn’t quite sure what he was writing yet. The refrain, as said to Paul by his deperating mother, was ‘That’s Why God The Movies’, with Hollywood a place for unloved and lost souls to go to in order to find the love they crave. The metaphor works just as well for rock and roll musicians and the phrase feels so tidy and so right that you can see why Paul didn’t want to change it. Interestingly we never do see Jonah’s parents or see them referred to except for this song (in real life Paul’s musical family were more supportive than most, his dad even writing a couple of songs for ‘Tom and Jerry’). Switching wildly between images of his mother and his ex-wife, this song appears to be Jonah’s subconscious talking to us here, telling us of his great need to be loved and his fear of being abandoned all over again. This song sounds the other extreme to ‘Late In The Evening’ too, being a slow reflective shuffle that’s full of sadness and longing (themes Paul’s always done so well) perhaps filling in the story of what goes through Jonah’s mind all the hours that he isn’t actually on stage. A pretty Hawaiian guitar solo adds a dash of colour to the song, but it’s the track’s eerie echoing synthesiser that adds much of the mystery and catches the ear with its mournful heartfelt cries that the more poker-faced narrator would never reveal in his tale.
By contrast again, [230] One Trick-Pony is a surprisingly raw rock and roll track performed ‘live’ by the band in the film (although this is, I think, the only one of the three ‘band’ performances in the movie that’s mimed rather than played for real). The performance might be raw (Paul’s typically polished vocal aside), but this track is still pretty elaborate: flowing easily through multiple sections, it shows once and for all that Jonah is not the ‘one trick pony’ his manager, family and handful of fans make him out to be. The words, too, are pure Paul Simon – who else would use the six-syllabled phrase ‘immaculate machine’ in a no-holds-barred rock and roll song?!? The title can be taken both ways: on the one hand Jonah is a one-hit wonder, trapped in a box the public won’t allow him to escape from. On the other he can’t just give it all up and do a normal job because he was born to do this and rock and roll is the only thing he knows how to do. Then again, the song is told from a third person, of someone standing in the audience (perhaps Jonah at an Elvis gig?) who lives a ‘normal’ life and a ‘working day’ that’s messy and chaotic in contrast to the very rehearsed, co-ordinated performance on stage. The rather muted applause given in the film by a rather bored audience waiting for the B-52s to come out and perform seems decidedly unfair when the band have given such a strong performance, only underlying the pressure on Jonah to give performing up for something he hates (OK OK, so everyone whose ever heard more than one live record will know that the sound of audience applause is hard to judge by listening to an album after the event and is forever being ducked or raised in the mix by engineers to make a group sound better. However, the local paper chronicling this concert in the ‘One Trick-Pony’ film called it a ‘muted reception’ and I’m not one to argue so there!) The performance sounds great to me though, not so much rocking as slinking, arriving stealthily and only revealing slowly just how many weapons this band has in their arsenal, with Eric Gale’s guitarwork the standout, playing some of the most mellifluous solos this reviewer has ever heard (it means about the same as bodacious).
[231a] How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns also features some of Paul’s most devilishly tricky words, heard in the film as Jonah is out on the road and trying to call his ex. Ironically this search for love that led Jonah to become a musician has drawn him away from those who love him at home and put a distance between them that’s even bigger than the physical miles they’re apart. Jonah is in a Belvedere Motel. Away from home everything is distorted and sad, even the TV on in the background making everything physically ‘blue’. For all of Jonah’s talk of needing to be out in the road this tale is about how our hearts magnetically turn towards the people we love like a compass in times of stress, even though Jonah is in the process of separating from wife Marion. I wonder too if Paul had been keeping a close eye on his old partner’s music as this song is basically a re-write of Arty’s Jimmy Webb cover [202] ‘Crying In My Sleep’. Paul wakes up in a fever, imagining that he’s heard his lover’s voice but realises too late that she isn’t there so tries to call her anyway, from a ‘local bar and grill’, watching his ‘coin return’ in the days of pay boxes (and signifying, of course, the fact that she isn’t there to look after him through all these dark moments any more). A further verse has him back on the road, a ‘bone weary traveller’ lost in a fog of his own making. ‘Where’s he going?’ shrieks Jonah in the third person. I’m tempted to say he got lost in Cleveland, but what he really means of course is that his home life is disintegrating the longer he stays out on the road. This gorgeous piece of music features one of Paul’s typically fragile, typically beautiful melodies and has the most delicate of synthesiser-come-string arrangements running through it, buoying the narrator up with the comfort blanklet he yearsn for and which lies just out of reach. The result is a real tearjerker and is to these ears note-perfect, the re-recording on ‘In The Blue Light’ in 2018 a hollow mockery of everything that made this era great.
[232] Oh Marion! comes at the end of the first side and appears at first to be a lesser song among its more distinguished cousins, possessing a basic boogie woogie beat and in places an alarming Paul Simon falsetto. But dig a bit deeper and this song is pretty impressive too, full of memorable couplets of homespun philosophy defending Jonah’s decision to strike out on his own. Across the verses it’s a little like The Wizard Of Oz – ‘the boy’ – i.e. Jonah – got brains, a heart and a voice. What he doesn’t tell us is that he’s also got quite a nerve, sacrificing what other people want him to do for this dream that he won’t let go. His heart may ‘beat on the opposite side’ to everybody else around him but the passion that keeps Jonah going is no less important than the respect and security that others work for, ‘shifted for safety’s sake’. Equally, Jonah has been blessed with brains ‘but he don’t use them, that’s all’ – ignoring traditional occupations for something that burns in him deeper than security and a homelife. He also tells us that his voice is acting, a cover-up for how he really feels when he’s lonely out on the road. Realising that his deeper thoughts about life bring him and his loved ones only sorrow, Jonah contents himself with being a clown, helping others out from their down moods even though he shares them too.  The song is addressed to Jonah’s ex-wife, as if she is the only person Jonah knows who would ever understand his predicament, but Jonah has nothing to say to her except that ‘I think we’re in trouble here’ as neither half will budge over their views of his rock and roll lifestyle and he wishes he’d listened to her warnings. The song also results in one of the greatest lines of Paul’s career as he tries to make sense of his complicated lovelife: ‘The only time love is an easy game is when two other people are playing’. The result is the album’s slow burner, a track that will come out of nowhere to be your favourite somewhere around the hundredth playing.
[233] Ace In The Hole kicks off side two with a return to Jonah’s band’s version of rock and roll (but in a different version to the performance in the film) and you can almost smell the club atmosphere (filmed in ‘The Agora Theatre and Ballroom’ in Cleveland if you were wondering) oozing out of your speakers on this song. Richard Tee (playing the part of Clarence Clamson in the film) takes over the vocals in the middle and his part-gospel part-soulful tones actually suit the song a lot better than Paul’s own. Primitive compared to most of Paul’s songs, the ‘live’ feel of the song and a sterling group performance actually manage to make it more satisfying than a lot of Paul’s carefully constructed work. The lyrics seem to be about Jonah’s ‘love’ for his music with the mentions of Jesus and dollar bills a red herring – when he’s ‘down and dirty desperate’ and unsure of what to do in his life, the music always kicks in to save him, although the song widens to take in sideswipes at poverty, religion and defence against personal criticism (‘My ace in the hole was I knew I was crazy, so I never lost my self control’). Jonah can try and hide from it, try to lead a proper life, but whenever he gives in his mkuse taps him on the shoulder and says ‘hey junior, don’t you know me? I’m your guarantee!’ Jonah might sing about ‘stormy skies’ on this track, but he also seems to enjoy his work and feels he is in exactly the right place, especially on the delightful middle eight that finds Jonah and band getting back onto the tour bus late at night after a successful gig, his mind still vibrant and alive compared to the sleepy grimy cities around him (its no coincidence that Jonah seems to inhabit a different time zone to the other non-musicians we meet in the film, coming out late in the evening when the daily hustle, bustle and grind is all but over with). The great group performance here also makes it easy to sympathise with Jonah when his producer later over-rules him in the film and makes him record a slowed-down version of this song, insisting on overdubbing a gospel choir and strings to make it a ‘hit’ instead of the really funky vocval ‘n’ percussion finale. In this case, less really does mean more, although conversely the most thrilling part of the whole song is the quite thrilling and complicated harmonies on the ‘roll on’ section, amongst the best harmony work Paul has used without Garfunkel. One Trick Pony’s quiet ace in the hole, this song’s great groove makes for a welcome change of tempo in amongst the more reflective songs that surround it.  
One of the problems with One Trick-Pony’s poor standing with Paul Simon fans occurs in the next song, [234] Nobody, If you come to this album first by leafing through the lyric sheet rather than hearing it, then at first glance this song seems to be horrible: one of those typically generic, nobody-loves-me-going-out-to-eat-worms songs and the sort of lazy blues that the whole world and their dogs have recorded at some point (literally, in the case of Pink Floyd and Seamus). The melody of this song too is hardly one of Paul’s better ideas; the odd wash of synthesiser aside, there is nothing really going on at all in this track. Yet hear the performance of this song, especially in the context of the film, and something magical happens: this performance is truly one of Paul’s best as he really digs into this song’s feeling of desperation and loneliness, perhaps the pinnacle of his many songs on this same subject. The song is particularly in the context of the film where Jonah is alone on the road, overlaid with memories of his separation from marion in court, wondering how it got so bad so fast. Jonah is so drained, so tired and so lonely that he is questioning everything he has ever believed in throughout the whole of his adult life. He doesn’t have a bed but wishes his wife was there to make it, he has no one to share the very major emotions he feels in his heart and nobody to tell his secrets to. The song is also not as simple as it appears at first: sudden shifts between major and minor keys help add variety, mirroring Jonah’s relentless searching for direction under every stone he can turn. Meanwhile out of nowhere we suddenly get a doo-wop gospel chorus of Pauls literally crying ‘wah’ over and over, on what’s actually quite beautiful sound (and heard more in the film than on the album). These only make Jonah’s weary vigil sound even more isolated by the fact his lead vocal is excluded from their counterpoint warmth as they play in the background. Sterling stuff.
[235] Jonah is a complex character and he deserves an equally complex song, so Paul duly obliges with one of the most elaborate compositions on the record with snazzy percussion tricks and a lovely subtle orchestra once more. Presumably Paul named his character after this song or at least the ideas in it. The most famous Jonah was of course from The Bible where this Israeli man was swallowed by a whale, something bigger than he was. Sent by God to warn the people of Neneveh about their destruction, Jonah is nearly lost in a storm until God sends a whale to (though technically the translation is ‘giant fish’) to eat him up and vomit him on the shore days later. This Jonah feels as if he is doing something he is meant to do but was swallowed instead by ‘a song’.  Telling us that ‘no one gives away their dreams too lightly’, Jonah also believes that all it will take is ‘another year’ of playing the same clubs and then the dream will come true, although there is also the feeling of ‘wait, didn’t he say that last time?’ Paul also asks us to wonder where all the people who once shared Jonah’s dream have gone – and why he is still standing. The stark matter-of-fact descriptions of the band at work, doing mundane tasks such as tuning up and travelling between shows, suggests that Jonah is struggling to work out why his dream drives him on when the rewards are few and the reality is so dark and depressing. The song would have worked much better if it was placed a bit earlier, like it is in the film, to give us some idea of Jonah’s character – by now we feel we know him already and this track is nearly superfluous. Yet this song’s strange mix of laidback balladry and confused urgency also makes a fine fit for the troubled soul, unable to settle down into the typically neat song structure many of his peers are churning out.
[236] God Bless The Absentee is another special track, with a barely heard orchestral arrangement and a terrific rolling piano lick. The song is heard in the film several times – it’s got too catchy a riff to use only once – as if it’s a thought that occurs to Jonah every time he travels between gigs (which is often, especially when they’re cancelled like they often are in the film). Like the last song, Jonah is no longer sure of why he pursues his dream to the exclusion of all else. He is now a ‘working man’ every bit as much as any of his peers with his dream turned into a slog and the entire film can be summed up with the sighing line that ‘I have a wife and family, but they don’t see much of me’. Yet despite everything Jonah sounds much happier with his lot on this track - even as he sings about his regrets at leaving his family so often, Jonah has a smile in his voice. He knows that he is doing what he was out here to do, comparing his work to a surgeon as he ‘cuts away the sorroew and purified my past’ with his music. As the film makes clear, Jonah is in denial throughout the song and for once is not singing from the heart in this clever, catchy number. He tells us that ‘my son don’t need me yet – his bones are soft’, believing that he won’t be missed, even though we know from the scenes of dad-and-son together in the film that he desperately will be.  He also tells us that he misses the ‘soft places’ of his exes skin where ‘I used to lay my head’ instead of the hard motel mattresses. However each time this song goes somewhere dark and gets thrown out of whack and the music accelerates and arrives at a million miles an hour, somehow the song catches itself and simply moves back to a major key without any fuss, mostly thanks to that classic rolling piano lick. It is as if Jonah has a re-set button he is ued to using to keep his thoughts at bay and he uses them a lot. However it wasn’t just Jonah that gave up a great deal to follow his rock and roll dream; his family suffered for it too and this is secretly an anxious, worried song quite different to how it comes across.
The album then closes with [237] Long Long Day, which is suitably performed as a long long slow mournful blues. Originally written for the ‘Shampoo’ film and heard in a superior form in the film as played by the band, the record version is a duet with singer Patti Austin. Jonah the songwriter is tired, both of his life and of his music, and struggles to write something about how he is feeling. As his overwhelming condition now seems to be one of weariness every waking hour tiredness is the only subject he can think of to write about any more. Paul tells us that he’s been ‘on the road nearly fourteen years’ (this puts it at 1966 compared to the film’s premiere, a good hit for the [98] ‘Sound Of Silence’ hit as our model for being a one-hit-wonder). He knows his dream isn’t done, that ‘you don’t see my face in Rolling Stone’ and instead of being at the top of his profession he’s stuck, ‘slow motion’, in some run down juke joint. So far, so depressing, but the song sports a sumptuous arrangement and the sudden addition of some breathtaking harmonies on the chorus hints that Jonah is not as alone as he feels, giving the song a slightly optimistic air. There is also hope in the song’s moving final verse, when Patti plays a passing stranger who takes an unexpected interest in Jonah and the two lonely souls seem to have their predicament in common, with the two of them weighing up whether to break the silence and talk to each other or not. Ultimately, though, Jonah seems to pass up this invitation and instead sighs one last time that it’s ‘been a long long day’. Though perhaps the weakest of the ‘One-Trick Pony’ songs and decidedly so in this performance the version in the film with Richard Tee singing Patti’s lines really sparkles.
I like to think there’s a happy ending in there somewhere though, because ‘One-Trick Pony’s greatest strength is how invested you become in the characters. Though in many ways Jonah is an anti-hero, sleeping with groupies even while he misses his wife and even sleeping with his new bosses’ wife, he’s three-dimensional enough to win your sympathy as he spends his middle-age in a young man’s business, still desperate for that one last break that will get him through. Ambitious and determined Jonah may be, but he also has a big heart and you feel for both him and his band and family as they all have to cope with the ripples of this musical bug. Inspired in a way he hasn’t been since 1973, Paul delivers some of his most moving sets of lyrics and a handful of his best ever vocal performances, in sharp contrast to the immaculate-but-empty craftsmanship of previous album ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, a cold shower to this album’s warm bath. No wonder Jonah was ‘swallowed by a song’ throughout the film - when compositions as rich and varied as these songs are out on the market you can’t help but think that the art of music is worth all of the struggles and hassles, however many people get hurt and left behind. Because music this good is important, not just to their creator but to the people in the audience listening to them who can see their crazy chaotic rootless restless lives mirrored back to them too. Good on you, Jonah. Now, when are you releasing your follow-up? (Hey, if the B-52s can get back together than so can the Jonah Levin band!!)


'The Paul Simon Songbook' (PS, 1965)

'Sounds Of Silence' (SG, 1966)

'Bridge Over Troubled Water' (SG, 1970)

'Paul Simon' (PS, 1972)

'There Goes Rhymin' Simon' (PS, 1973)

'Angel Clare' (AG, 1973)

'Watermark' (AG, 1977)

‘Scissors Cut’ (AG, 1981)

'The Animals' Christmas' (AG, 1986)

'Songs From The Capeman' (PS, 1997)

'Stranger To Stranger' (PS, 2016)

Every Pre-Fame Recording 1957-1963 (Tom and Jerry, Jerry Landis, Artie Garr, True Taylor, The Mystics, Tico and The Triumphs, Paul Kane)

Live/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part One: 1968-1988

Landmark Concerts and Key Cover Versions

No comments:

Post a Comment