Friday, 9 December 2011
"Paul Simon" (1972) (News, Views and Music 124)
Paul Simon “Paul Simon” (1972)
Mother and Child Reunion/Duncan/Everything Put Together Falls Apart/Run That Body Down/Armistice Day//Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard/Peace Like A River/Papa Hobo/Hobo’s Blues/Paranoia Blues/Congratulations
To properly need to understand this low-key and under-stated album, you need to cast your mind back to when it was made, even more than I usually ask you to do on this site. We think of this album now as part of an ‘arc’ of Paul Simon records that grow in stature and confidence over the years, so much that it’s hard to remember how much of a break and change in pace this album really was. As the first record release either Simon or Garfunkel had made after ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, complete with two top ten singles, you’d expect speculation and marketing for this album to be ridiculously big and for CBS (the original owners of this album before it changed hands, like most of Simon’s catalogue to Warner Brothers and later Sony) to be all over it. Instead this is kind of the ‘McCartney’ of Paul Simon’s albums, a release most fans knew nothing about despite being released hot on the heels of an album that broke records (in this case ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – in that case ‘Abbey Road’). Everyone involved was doubtful about this album, unsure whether Simon and Garfunkel apart could draw anything like their old audiences or whether they’d had their time and they were over, a relic of the 60s now that the 70s promised a whole new dawn (which never quite arrived). This album had practically no marketing behind it and, as engineer Roy Halee (the only other figure from the S&G days who worked on this record) remembered years later, the bosses at CBS were convinced it was going to bomb big style because it had none of the harmonies or the lushness that was the duo’s trademark. According to Paul’s Rolling Stone review of 1972 (an illuminating read, re-printed as part of the excellent ‘Paul Simon Companion’) they even referred to this album as his ‘toy’ and kept asking him when he was going to go back to Simon and Garfunkel. Perhaps because of that underwhelming response, those who were unsure about the album even included the artist himself, with Paul Simon admitting that he felt he could never ever top the success of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and that it would be stupid for him to try.
They were all wrong. Commercially this album ended up making #1 in Britain and, despite never coming close to the 18 month chart success of ‘Bridge’, still managed to enjoy an impressive six months in the top 100 charts. Artistically, too, I see the humble ‘Paul Simon’ as a much better and more consistent album than its often scatter-brained predecessor. There might be nothing as boom-bastically captivating as ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ (the song) or as note-perfect as ‘The Boxer’ here, but ‘Paul Simon’ is nevertheless a forgotten delight, a low key sequence of songs that open up a whole new floor of doors to Paul’s songwriting he’d never have been able to do as part of Simon and Garfunkel. There are hints here of pretty much everything that’s to come: the jazz of ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, the semi-autobiography of ‘One Trick Pony’, the world music vibe of ‘Graceland’. You’ll be hearing more of all three styles much better worked out and played with much more gusto and confidence on follow-up ‘There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’ (review no 56), but considering no one involved with it gave this album much of a chance and that the artist involved had to learn so much of his craft again from scratch then ‘Paul Simon’ is still a pretty impressive place to start your series of solo albums.
It must have been odd for the public of 1972 (who hadn’t got round to buying the ‘Paul Simon Songbook’, re-released after the duo’s success in 1966) to hear Paul’s voice without Arty’s for the first time. We’re used to hearing the two men apart now, very nearly 40 years on from both men’s first solo albums, but what’s odd about this record is that it doesn’t try to hide the fact that Paul is working alone or soften the blow with the odd harmony part splitting tracks as you’d expect, but instead it delivers pretty much a straight one-vocal performance all the way through, barring the odd gospel chorus. There’s even less double-tracking than on any other Paul Simon record, giving the listener the feeling that this really is just one man at work, with the odd bit of help, in contrast to the ‘band’ arrangements of most S&G records. As a result this album also sounds much more personal than anything Paul wrote for Simon and Garfunkel, especially as around half of the songs here are quiet acoustic numbers that sound like Paul is playing in your living room. You do miss Art Garfunkel’s voice sometimes, if only to break up the monotony a little, but somehow Arty’s rich epic tapestry of a voice would have sounded out of place on an album about mind and body wearing down and wondering what will become of the world in the early 70s (to be truthful Arty doesn’t sound right on some of the ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ songs which just aren’t his style). Pauk’s own vocals here are nearly all delicious, revelling in the new freedom he’s found and exploring several new facets of his ‘voice’, both literally and metaphorically. In other words, this is a whole new style quite unlike any previous work and in retrospect it’s amazing that the public accepted this new sound as readily as it did when even the record company thought it was too much of a departure from the records of old.
Even more than losing another voice, the loss of Art Garfunkel made a huge difference simply because Paul felt that, for better or worse, the expectation was all on him to perform. The old S&G days had seen a ‘three-way split’ between Paul, Art and engineer/producer Roy Halee – if one person argued for something and the other didn’t like it, the idea was thrown out without another word. This time around Paul wanted to make every single decision himself and spent aeons debating the instrumentation, pitch, timbre, metre, arrangement and mixes of every little thing on this record. At times this album does sound a little laboured, with even the ‘laidback’ songs sounding like there’s been two takes too many already, but that said there’s also a ‘bounce’ about this album, a delight in being able to leave the rough edges in (something Paul would have been vetoed other by both Art and Roy, both lovers of shiny production techniques). Paul could have got a ‘big name’ producer in to help in (and indeed that’s what most of his contemporaries did when facing life without their ‘bands’ for the first time in the early 70s) but you sense that, after some six years of working in such a close partnership, Paul is simply fascinated to hear just how differently a Paul Simon on his own would be without the old ‘team’, oblivious of how successful this experiment would be. Arty’s first records, while not as lush as his later ones, do notably keep the big epic orchestral feel of the late S&G records, building up a sound that knocks you off your feet even if some tracks are much ‘edgier’ and grittier than most fans think. Paul’s early records are more casual, less fussy about the odd wrong notes and odd mistake as long as the ‘feel’ is there. People call ‘Paul Simon’ a relaxed sort of album, which it is in terms of mood and tempo (mainly slow, lugubrious wordy ballads) but certainly isn’t in terms of theme. On the first side alone we cover bereavement, sexual awakening, futility, illness and the chances of world peace. In fact, the words of ‘Run That Body Down’ hint at just how un-relaxed this album was and how much the perfectionist Simon badly wanted to control every last drop of music on this album.
What people often forget about this record is how hard Paul went to lengths to break away from the usual Simon and Garfunkel ‘wrecking crew’ of Larry Knechtel, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, etc to give it that new sound, meaning that it wasn’t just the singers who had changed (although Knechtel does guest on the closing track, ‘Congratulations’). Back in the days before ‘Band On The Run’ and eventually ‘Graceland’ it was unusual to see anybody travelling so far to make an album and the ‘musicians’ list on this album is longer than most 70s records, totalling around 30 people. Parts of ‘Paul Simon’ were recorded in Jamaica, some in Paris and even the ‘local’ American recordings spanned studios in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with each little overdub and tracking session adding a little continental ‘vibe’ to a record full of strange and exotic sounds. The Jamaican studio might sound like an odd choice, but Paul was into reggae long before most people in the Western world were and indeed had attempted the style on ‘Why Don’t You Write Me?’, almost the last song Simon and Garfunkel ever recorded together. Getting musicians who’d never even heard of the style had resulted in a very odd, unlikable mess that time around and that taught Paul a lesson he’d learn well while making this album and one he would use again: if you want to get a particular style or feel of music then travel to the place where it’s made. (Side-note: actually Paul was interested in recording in a Ska style for this track, but the musicians told him ‘we don’t do that anymore, its out of fashion’ and turned him onto reggae. Ska will be back, bigger than ever, in the 1980s, though perhaps surprisingly Paul is one of the few musicians not quoting ska in his works of the time). The resulting song ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ was an admirably risky first single, changing virtually every key element of Paul’s style without necessarily demonstrating the way forward this album would take. Some people hated it , some people loved it but everyone talked about it – which helped make this album one of the big key word of mouth albums of the 1970s.
In fact, rhythm and sound is a key part of this album, far more so than on any previous Paul; Simon record. Until Paul runs out of ideas in the middle of side two, each new song on this album is taking us somewhere else soundwise, often via a new continent, but nearly always with a different time signature or ‘pulse’. ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ is gospel via reggae, ‘Me and Julio’ is calypso via folk and ‘Hobo’s Blues’ is jazz tinged with country – and those are just the three most notable examples. For better or worse, none of the Simon and Garfunkel records could be divided up that way and all have a distinctive ‘feel’ that belong together whatever the album (It’s a curious fact that Simon and Garfunkel compilations are much easier to navigate than Paul Simon solo ones, which mash up tracks featuring all sorts of different eras, with the gap between this album and ‘Graceland’ bigger than S&G’s journey from ‘Wednesday Morning’ to ‘Bridge’). Like the whole of ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ album (review no 94) and parts of every record to come, several of the songs here had the backing tracks recorded before Paul had written a word of what the song was all about. Few people at the ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ session would have guessed that this breezy song was going to be a moving song about bereavement, for instance, based solely on the music and suggests a very different way of thinking about songwriting, letting ideas germinate over time (the fact that Paul – and Brian Wilson – do this as a matter of course is a source of amazement for most songwriters).
But that’s not to forget the words on this album: perhaps more than any album since ‘Sounds Of Silence’ the lyrics to this record are key. Never has Paul mentioned himself or people we ‘know’ to be real from his life story on a record. It’s as if the idea of making a ‘solo’ album has led Paul to question what would make ‘his’ records different to everyone elses and therefore worth buying as opposed to, say, an Elton John record or even an Art Garfunkel record. By investing part of himself in each song (many of which are at least partly written in the first person), the audience feel as if they’re being let in on a big secret, that we’re hearing Paul’s audio diaries rather than an S&G state-of-the-union address every few months. Perhaps that’s why, despite travelling halfway around the world to get the ‘sounds’ of other cultures, ‘Paul Simon’ is a record that sits happily amongst the run of singer-songwriter records made between late 1970 and early 1972 where semi-autobiography that’s relatable to those listening is at a peak of popularity it will never reach again (think ‘After The Goldrush’ ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ to name just a few AAA albums similar to this from the same period). Even the title seems like a singer-songwriter set, bearing in mind that there never was an album titled as boringly as ‘Simon and Garfunkel’. (That said, this album was to have been named after the track ‘Duncan’ until the last minute, a fact which is fascinating given that ‘Duncan’ could be seen as a Paul Simon alter ego and because it seems like yet another two-finger-salute to a record company that didn’t care what was on the cover. The fact that Paul is on the front sleeve with his face half-hidden in a parka coat re-enforces this idea. Note also the fact that Paul is not smiling, unlike most S&G covers, very in-keeping with singer-songwriter jackets of the time).
Paul never really gets close to this ‘confessional’ feeling on record again (the film script of ‘One Trick Pony’ with Paul as Jonah the failed musician is a clear parallel, but the actual songs on that album are much more other-worldly and in the third person for the most part) and that’s why, for some, ‘Paul Simon’ is such an odd record, with jarring musical styles and sudden switches between the personal and the universal, often in the same song (‘Peace Like A River’ is a case in point, with the solution to the world’s problems revealed to be just a dream caused by personal realisation). There are also some songwriters jokes that simply would never have been passed for a Simon and Garfunkel record: American energy drink ‘gatorade’ is included in ‘Papa Hobo’ deliberately because ‘that’s a word that doesn’t belong in a song’ (1972 Rolling Stone interview) and the song ‘Everything Put Together’ was written around the uncomfortable opening word ‘paraphernalia’, as if Paul is seeing what he can get away with now he’s working on his own. Remember too that the first thing Paul did after leaving S&G was to enrol as a teacher at New York University, spending a semester chatting to pupils about their songs and offering hints about how they should progress based on his own experiences. Pupils remember him as a highly nervous but enthusiastic teacher, one more than happy to chat about his own work in stark contrast to the silence that greeted most reviewers and interviewers in the S&G days. It’s clear that, with the harmonies out of the equation, Paul realises that songwriting is his biggest key, the part that makes him different to his contemporaries and here he has fun bending the rules as far as they will go, simply because there’s nobody around to veto the experiments. This approach annoys as many people as it enthuses and you can see why ‘Paul Simon’ isn’t as loved as some of the albums to come, even if some of the experiments pay off handsomely and act as the template for all Paul’s work to come, so much more than ‘Wednesday Morning 3AM’ acted as a template for later S&G albums. That said, not many fans love ‘One Trick Pony’ or ‘Hearts and Bones’ either, two of the best records Paul made, with success a matter of timing as well as quality. Even so, ‘Paul Simon’ is perhaps just a little too ‘different’ for some tastes, varying to a degree that no other Paul Simon record will, even though most of them vary quite considerably from each other.
That said, it’s still easy to see a logical progression from ‘Bridge’ in terms of theme, whatever the sound, arrangements and subtlety of playing. Both albums are divided sharply into ‘us’ and ‘them’ songs, troubled songs about troubled times and troubled relationships, with both personal and universal issues mirroring each other as regrets and sadness mingle with the blues of a generation who couldn’t get the Woodstock vibe to work (people never think of Paul as a hippie, but he was a key member of the Monterey Pop Festival committee and there was never a more summer of love occasion than that, even if his hair was always kept shorter than everyone elses). While there’s nothing specifically about the S&G break-up here (unlike the Beatles solo albums, by and large) this album does have the same feeling of time running away from you that we heard on ‘Frank Lloyd Wright’ and ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’, a theme of things turning sour before you even had a chance to enjoy how wonderful they were. Instead of Art Garfunkel, though, its first wife Peggy who inspires much of the uncomfortable mood of this album, with Paul unusually mentioning his current partner/girlfriend by name for the first time since 1965 and ‘Kathy’s Song’. Although the pair don’t split till 1975 – and go on to have their first child Harper (star of the ‘One Trick Pony’ film in 1980) eight months after this album’s release, inspiring the much happier depiction of family life on ‘Rhymin’ Simon’- there are already dark clouds on the horizon of this album, a land where past supports are being knocked out of place and the future is scary and unknowable, when even the record company believe you’re a ‘has-been’.
Perhaps the biggest shift in Paul’s songwriting is on the ‘them’ songs, the three tracks here that look at the world with the sceptical, bitter eyes of ‘The Boxer’ rather than the innocence of ‘America’. There is nothing else in Paul’s catalogue like ‘Paranoia Blues’ ‘Armistice Day’ or ‘Peace Like A River’, three songs that all seemed to be tied into the muddled political feel of the early 70s (even if one of them was written in bulk in 1968). Paul caught onto the contradictions and brutality of the Nixon Government long before most people did, turning out a burning rock and roll attack on Tricky Dicky with ‘Cuba Si, Nixon No’, a track intended for ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ before Art Garfunkel said no (the row over that and Garfunkel’s choice of the Bach fugue ‘Fueilles-Oh’ is often said to be what finally broke them up, with the two realising their wishes were now opposite ends of the spectrum from each other. Art will record ‘his’ song on first album ‘Angel Clare’ but strangely Paul never returns to his song, possibly the best of the smattering of unreleased songs in his catalogue). ‘American Tune’ on the next album will be a much better, thought out and empathetic ‘state of the union address’ for his audience the following year, but for now it’s good to hear Paul debating such hefty issues in his songs. In fact few artists were ever as fair or as penetrating in their political songs (the obvious comparison here is CSNY, whose Deja Vu album – released just before the album sessions – has a similar ‘goodbye-to-the-hippie-dream’ theme). This shift in style also makes much more sense having finally seen the ‘America’ TV special from 1970, with its footage of poverty, rich-poor divides and assassinated political figures on this year’s ‘Bridge’ CD/DVD set and in the context of 1972’s first tentative steps towards a Simon and Garfunkel reconciliation when the pair agreed to play together at George McGovern’s Democrat campaign trail (in the end Nixon was re-elected with a colossal majority, only to be impeached within two years). Like most of the album, there’s much to applaud on these three tracks even if some of the songs and especially the recordings sometimes fall short. By and large, though, ‘Paul Simon’ is a forgotten gem that sparkles much more than supposedly superior Paul Simon albums like ‘Still Crazy’ ‘Graceland’ and this year’s poor excuse for an album ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’
‘Mother and Child Reunion’ has an interesting history. So profound are the lyrics and so moving is the mood that this is perhaps the most speculated upon Paul Simon song of all. For such a poignant song about bereavement and possible reconciliation in heaven, it doesn’t half have a curious inspiration. When asked where he got the title from, Paul said that it was the name of a chicken and egg dish he was served in a restaurant and that he’d been playing with the name in his mind for some time. The song only came together, though, with the death of the family dog, who was run over by a car (that’s him on this album’s back cover and his presence here speaks volumes, as you’ll see...) Most fans shake their heads in credulity at those two facts, but what Paul does is build on the feelings that sudden death gave him, coming to terms with the shock that something or someone so alive can suddenly be gone in an instant and speculating how he’d feel if that death had happened to someone even closer to him. The result is one of his all-time best songs, a song that finds hope and solace in the fact that all loved ones might be reunited one day and want to be together, free from the earthly battles and guilt that trap us on earth. Paul admitted at the time that no one close to him had died by 1972 and that this one event jolted him not just for the loss of his dog but the fact that he would have to face this feeling many times in the future. Death has become a key subject matter of Paul’s solo career, to the point where its dominated his last two albums, 2005’s ‘Surprise’ and this year’s ‘So Beautiful Or So What?’, so it’s fitting that it’s a subject that kicks off the first track of his solo career (and a song chosen as the first single to boot). Fans assumed at the time it was about Paul’s mother – in fact that part only comes from the title, which as we’ve seen was inspired by food not relationships, and the main song could be about anybody. Most likely, though, it’s a song about the problems Paul was having with wife Peggy and that only by thinking of a ‘bigger subject’ can he put his petty grievances into some sort of context and think of a ‘bigger’ picture, that he really would be mortified to lose her.
What makes this song stand out amongst the crowd is the reggae style backing, the first time the mainstream Western public would ever have heard it barring a few pioneers who’d visited Jamaica or the Caribbean. By using only the ‘real’ players on this recording (Paul even abandoned his intended acoustic part because he couldn’t play with enough swing), this gives the song a ‘universal’ feel and a more relaxed feel than a song about death had ever been given before. That’s not to say Paul doesn’t take the sentiments seriously: he clearly does, especially with the moving second verse about how ‘the course of a lifetime runs over and over again’, with people making the same mistakes and putting up barriers between each other that fade away when faced with something as big and final as death. But past songs about death had been either jokes or tragedies, not both at the same time and it’s the homespun philosophy at the heart of this song that’s so charming and make it the well loved track it is today. Although death seems to leave us no room to manoeuvre, actually its the great healer, ending all issues, healing rifts and overshadowing personal faults – traditionally no one speaks ill of the dead (though we have laid into Michael Jackson a few times on this site), meaning this sad, mournful song has some hope in there somewhere too. Curiously, though, the central image of the song is the speed at which death can fall, that whatever we try to do to prevent it could only be a ‘motion’ away (and perhaps that reconciliation is only an emotion away). Odd, too, for such a hopeful, upbeat song that the narrator himself is far from certain about what happens after death (Paul’s still asking that question now, on songs like ‘The Afterlife’ where Heaven is full of form-filling and bureaucracy), promising not to give us ‘false hope’ and adding that he doesn’t really know. Catchy enough to be a hit single but deep and complex enough to talk about big subjects in a meaningful and un-patronising way, ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ is a career highlight, as deep or as fun as the listener wants to make it.
‘Duncan’ is a second album highlight, a fascinating story-song that tells a coming-of-age story to the accompaniment of the South American group Los Incas. Having worked together so successfully on ‘El Condor Pasa’ (a Los Incas recording Paul loved and wrote words to, contacting the band by phone to ask if it was OK to use), the two sides got together fdrom the beginning this time for another poignant and moving tale of trust, betrayal and what it means to be alive. Duncan is one of Paul’s most fully formed characters, believable and lovable right from the opening verse when he sardonically notes his neighbours have a better love life than he does. In fact, this whole song could have been a comedy one – Paul’s humour has never been funnier and his delivery is just the right side of sarcastic- but the mournful tune (especially the main riff played on multiple flutes), the minor key and the slow, cautious riff makes it sound a much deeper song than it appears if you just read the lyrics. Despite the jokes about being the offspring of a ‘fisherman’ and a ‘fisherman’s friend’, this is a song about loneliness and finding your way in the world, with a character left to fend for himself in a part of the world he doesn’t know (shades of both the character in ‘The Boxer’ and Paul’s own experiences as a penniless American in London and later Paris) getting by on his wits alone. When Paul adds the line ‘holes in my confidence, holes in the knees of my jeans’ he’s telling us everything he needs to about this character and this world, before a ‘girl in a parking lot’ ‘finds’ him.
The tale in the song is that she rescues him by ‘reading pages from the bible’, but Paul makes it clear that salvation comes not from the Lord’s words but from her words, offering him a hope and comfort and belief when he needed it most. When he loses her virginity to her in the last verse, it isn’t the act that he’s so grateful for that he thanks God for living, its the fact that someone thought he was worth ‘saving’ and giving up that time and emotion for. In fact its not the act of making love that causes him to grow up into a man, but the fact that someone else thinks he’s worthy of becoming one that gives him his confidence. While the last verse clouds things, I’m tempted to see this as Paul re-writing ‘The Boxer’ and adding the tale of how he was rescued as a songwriter by Judith Piepe, the figure who got him a much coveted slot on radio’s prestigious ‘prayer for the day’ (a staggering achievement for what was 99% of the time a slot for monologues and prayers). It’s not God himself who saved Paul from a life of drudgery, but someone doing ‘God’s work’ who saved him by believing in him. Paul’s never talked much about this song but, as we’ve seen, its close to his heart (he nearly titled the record after this one track). In fact one – probably apocryphal – report has him planning his first tour of 1973 with opening this song, having the MC announce the crowd that Paul couldn’t appear and have Paul, in costume, leap from the front row to perform this song ‘in character’ before whipping off his coat to reveal it was him all along (naturally he got talked out of it because most of the crowd would have left, however good this ‘new guy’ was). A staggering achievement, both genuinely funny and deeply moving, often at the same time, ‘Duncan’ beats even ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ by giving us a believable character in a believable world we can all relate to. We’ve given a few CSNY comparisons already on this site but here’s another one: Stephen Stills’ ‘Panama’ from the 1994 album ‘After The Storm’ is very similar to this, Stills telling a semi-autobiographical tale of how he became ‘a man’ after meeting an exotic elder girl in what was, to him, a foreign and exotic country.
‘Everything Put Together Falls Apart’ is a world-weary song about getting older, watching relationships crumble and belief systems fail, which sounds like a pessimistic take on ‘All Things Must Pass’. Most fans don’t like this song much, which is really just three minutes of Paul Simon moaning, but I like the chance of hearing his deeper, older voice heard full on, without anything in the mix to mask its faults (unlike the S&G days). Many see this as an anti-drug song, which makes sense of the last verse where the person finding your broken body is a policeman and the lines about ‘uppers’ and downers’, but chances are Paul is using the image of a drug addict as a metaphor for any person experiencing life’s ups and downs. Far more austere and black and white than the opening pair of songs, this song’s spirit is close in style to ‘Overs’, the maudlin, fed up song that cut the hope and innocence of ‘America’ in two on the ‘Bookends’ album. It’s not a song that’s built to be liked and that in itself is why I admire it, for its sheer bravery and guts, although I would have liked more than just the two verses. The most notable lines here are the ones about what it is to be ‘mad, that some folks are genuinely crazy and others are ‘borderline’ – this phrase, which crops up on many a Paul Simon album, will mutate into ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ in a few years’ time. Another weary song about growing older, it beats this early template hands down, but ‘Everything’ is not without its good points.
‘Run That Body Down’ is a tad more ordinary, with a tune that starts well but fizzles out, ending with an uncomfortable falsetto that suggests this song may have been written with Garfunkel in mind. Like the song says, it was inspired by doctor’s advice to slow life down, to avoid taking cigarettes and light drugs and late nights. Another song about growing older, then, its notable for how little Paul tries to disguise that it was him being given the advice – he even passes his ideas on to wife Peggy by name in the second verse and then, presumably, to us in the third verse. The backing is suitably relaxed, as if Paul really has turned over a new life and agreed to stop worrying over things (hmm, it didn’t work in the long term, then, if the lyrics to the ‘Hearts and Bones’ record for one aster to be believed). But alas the laidback backing rather robs this song of any drama, leaving it to sound less like a warning and more like a caution we needn’t listen to. Even so, it’s impressive to hear a fourth song in a row which really wouldn’t have worked at all well on a Simon and Garfunkel album.
Most fans don’t like ‘Armistice Day’ either, which is a shame because – in its first incarnation from 1968 at least – its one of the bravest and most complex of Paul’s songs. The song was inspired by the curious decision the Nixon Government made to re-name ‘Armistice Day’ as ‘Veteran’s Day’, thus putting the emphasis not on the achievement of peace but on the soldiers themselves. Back when the Vietnam war was still big news, this smacked many leading thinkers of the day as hypocrisy, given the much publicised struggles of Vietnam Vets invalided out of the law, left to their own devices fighting for jobs their disabilities prevented them getting and being attacked in the street by hippies who saw them as ‘murderers’ for their part in an unpopular and unwarranted war. Paul’s first version of the song is as damning as he’d been up to that time in song, and all the more impressive given how few musicians had woken up to the dangers of Nixon back in 1968, but this second diluted version is only slightly less fierce. Written in an unusual ‘D’ tuning, which gives this song a jarring, brash feel, this is a song about how sad it is that man cannot find peace with each other. Like many a song on this album, its starts in the third-person, with peace as a universal goal sought by all sensible mortals, before Paul adds himself in the first-person, ‘weary from waiting’ to see his congressman, wondering why ordinary people like him who want peace are being denied their voice by the minority in power. To boot, Paul wonders why we keep electing the same ‘mistakes’ over and over, rather than nice reliable friendly people who are there ‘just like an easy chair’, instead of out to make a quick buck on the side. A very 60s kind of a song, because of both the ‘protest’ lyrics’ and the folk guitar feel, this song seemed out of place in 1972 and yet the sentiments made more sense than ever with Vietnam turning from an evil and wrong ‘short’ war into a long-term war of attrition, backed up by each successive Government in turn. When Paul sings in the first person, his vocal really comes alive, burning with an anger and fury we don’t often get to hear – and that is itself enough of a reason to rate this song, even in watered down form and with a peculiar backing that ranges from spiky acoustic guitar to glowing, pulsating , flowering synthesisers.
‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’ is forever ruined for me now after buying the ‘Sesame Street Golden Years Vol 2’ DVD, where a guesting Paul is upstaged by a five-year-old who starts inventing her own words to Paul’s opening guitar riff much to his delight. Before I became unable to hear this song as anything other than ‘You can dance along’, though, this was another clever catchy song that mixes tragedy and humour without sacrificing commerciality or depth. At the time everyone had their own version of what Julio and the un-named narrator were up to (‘something sexual I’d imagine, but I never bothered to find out’ said Paul in Rolling Stone at the time). Rather than committing a specific crime, this is just a great song about juvenile delinquency, delivered with a quickfire patter that makes the whole thing seem like great fun and making you wonder what the adults are making such a fuss about. There’s even a whistling solo, for the first and only time on a Paul Simon record to make the whole thing seem even more silly. As ever with Paul, though, there’s something deeper at work here: the key them on this record might as well be ‘its against the law’: who decides what’s against the law? And is it to protect the vulnerable? Or simply to protect the conservative values of middle America? Assuming that Paul’s narrator is male (he’s never mentioned by name but Paul is male so that would make sense by sound alone) then this is actually a very daring song for its day about homosexuality. Still a subject of much debate now, persecution against practising homosexuals had only just been dropped from American law in the late 60s and few if any writers were writing about the subject (Ray Davies being another AAA exception). Listen out too for the key words ‘I’m on my way – I don’t know where I’m going’, another key line for this album about lost and lonely souls struggling for survival, which harks back to the optimistic couple in ‘America’, not quite sure why they’re travelling to the Statue of Liberty or what it means to them, but making the journey all the same. Catchy but deep, ‘Me and Julio’ is another song as deep or as funny as you want to make it, delivered with another classic Paul Simon vocal delivered with tongue firmly in cheek.
‘Peace Like A River’ is my other favourite song on the album, another unique song in Paul’s canon, with a dream where two ‘believers’ find the world is at peace and nobody wants for anything any more but know that it is a dream. No other lines in Paul’s catalogue is ever as brutal as this song’s second verse, where a persecuted minority (never mentioned in song) put up with being beaten and forced to follow harsh rules safe in the knowledge that the future will judge them ‘right’ and their jailers ‘wrong’. A quick look through the S&G TV special will tell you just how ‘liberal’ the pair were in the late 60s and this song sounds to me like the musical equivalent of the late great Martin Luther King’s speeches. Dr King famously had a ‘dream’ about whites and blacks living together in harmony and Paul’s narrator shares in that dream here and – even though he feels powerless to make it happen any time soon – he still feels ‘reconciled’ by the visions of it he gets in his sleep. I love this track, which sounds so different to anything else ever made; a shadowy, shimmering world where even the ‘ordinary’ sounds like guitars and pianos are subverted and made to sound ghostly and other-worldly in a way they often don’t (Paul’s guitar is tuned to another exotic key and the ghostly effect in the last verse is the sound of a piano’s bass keys thumped heavily and played back in half-time – though to be fair you might have trouble hearing it because it’s not that effect itself you hear but what it causes the other instruments around it to sound like). This is a lost world where anything can happen and anything and everything could become an enemy – but equally stranger things have happened in the world than peace. To top it all, Paul delivers perhaps the greatest vocal of his long career (well, give or take ‘The Boxer’), singing from the heart here, reaching up for notes he shouldn’t reach in some parts and dropping into his lower ranges so we can hear the gravel and seriousness in his voice at others. A real gem of a song, and even more a recording, this is Paul at his ‘protest’ best.
Anything would sound like an anti-climax after ‘River’ and ‘Papa Hobo’ isn’t even trying. A song about escape and being trapped, most fans assume that the narrator is himself the ‘Papa Hobo’ of the title but he isn’t, he’s a young buck half-believing and half-dismissing the advice his elder gives him. Now, we discussed at length on our review for ‘So Beautiful’(news and views 107) how much Paul’s Jewish background affected him, despite his expressed atheism in adulthood. This song is pretty much the only full on glimpse we get of Jewish music in his work, with a sound that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Fiddler On The Roof’; that said, the lyrics are clearly about the American Dream and the people it enticed with promises of fortune, and then let down. A song about immigrants, this is the world seen through fresh eyes, where car fume pollution is a ‘perfume’, where the school dress code makes outsiders feel like ‘clowns’ and where the people are as unstable and unpredictable as the weather (one of Paul’s career best lines is in this song: ‘It’s just after breakfast, I’m in the road – and the weathermen lied’; for an outsider used to weather that stays the same most of the year round the very idea of weathermen is a joke, not to mention the fact that they earn their livings by getting things wrong most of the time). ‘Papa Hobo’ isn’t a bad song, it says much about ways of life and what people come to expect because of what they’re born into, but its hard to get a feel on this song and who these characters are.
‘Hobo Blues’ is a disappointingly lazy jam, with Paul Simon’s jazzy acoustic guitar-work grappling with the violin of our old friend Stephane Grapelli on a midway version of the two men’s styles that neither seems that comfortable with. The only instrumental on a Paul Simon album until this year, it sounds even odder hearing just music on a Paul Simon album than it does on most artist’s catalogue, given how most Paul Simon songs are all about the words and images (see a list of 10 instrumentals below for where this idea pays off, however). At least this jam is well played, I suppose – and a lot more enjoyable than Grapelli’s attempts to out squawk Yoko Ono at the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus – but really, this song is pointless.
‘Paranoia Blues’ is another uncomfortable if catchy song, with Paul’s worries coming to the fore on another song that, like ‘Peace Like A River’, seems unusually provocative (most Paul Simon songs are about finding some form of shared experience or character traits between parties, however far apart but this song has the chorus ‘whose side are you on?’) With a tune that mimics ‘Mrs Robinson’ done as a comedy song, this song is all about the fake back-stabbers in the world, the ‘friends’ who ‘smile right to my face’ and then ‘stick it to me’ when ‘my back is turned’ (was Pete Townshend a big fan of this album? Both ‘The Who By Numbers’ in 1975 and his own ‘Empty Glass’ of 1980 owe much to this one song) and the customs officers who assume he’s breaking the law because he’s a ‘musician’ and yet leave the crooked politicians alone despite their reputations. Paul ends the song with an uncomfortable spoof on American propaganda, trapped inside a restaurant in China when the owner ‘disappears’ like some bad spy novel but, by and large, this is another brave attack on American policy, with New Yorker Paul ironically finding himself accepted round the world but viewed with suspicion, along with every other human being, in NYC where ‘they roll you for a nickel and stick you for an extra dime’. The music is clumsy, the playing all over the place (there’s even an unwanted coda played on a slide guitar, which comes in a fraction earlier than the other players) and the vocal is, by contrast to the above songs, one of Paul’s worst – but then that’s the point of this track, where the then-modern world makes it hard to be yourself and you’re left always feeling uncomfortable. It’s hard not to feel for Paul when he turns sick in his stomach at the thought of being searched for drugs, again, when all he’s doing is bringing joy to people round the world and the line-drawing of that oft-discussed chorus is as gritty and counter-culture a statement as he ever made. It’s just a shame there isn’t a better ‘song’ to go with all these distinctive images and that the melody had to be as uncomfortable a ride as the lyrics.
The album ends not on upbeat note, as is usual on both solo and S&G records (barring ‘Still Crazy’ and ‘Silent Eyes’ anyway), but on the grimmest, blackest note of all with ‘Congratulations’. The last verse makes it clear this is at least partly another song about a disintegrating marriage (with the narrator ‘congratulating’ his partner on the fact that she knows just how to hurt him), but there may be a bit of residue bitterness about Art Garfunkel here too. This is, notably, the closest Paul came to writing another ‘gospel’ tinged song in the wake of ‘Bridge’ with notably similar chords (and Larry Knechtel on piano once more) and in many ways its that song’s polar opposite: far from standing by her man no matter what, his partner sticks the knife in whatever he does, however often he apologises. This song is full of lines like ‘I’ve never known such misery since I don’t know when’ and like many a song on those lines its hard to take on usual everyday listening, though it makes perfect sense when everyone is treating you the way people do Paul Simon’s narrator in this song. Unlike the other songs on this album, Paul starts off in the first person and then pulls away to reveal the wider picture, with lost more broken hearted people in the second verse, some driven to suicide because they can’t take the pain. By the time Paul gets to the middle eight and his latest non-romantic saying ‘Love is not a game, love is not a toy...’ you don’t need to hear it because you already know from the first verse what hardship and misery love can cause when it goes badly. An uncomfortable end to what is at times an uncomfortable album, this is another track that would never have fit on a S&G album (although ironically enough, it’s not too far removed from the love-lost ballads Arty will go on to do on ‘Angel Clare’).
A topsy-turvy world where everything falls apart and nothing is stable, it seems odd that the whole mood of this album, pretty much, was caused by the death of a pet. And yet a bleak and miserable album with the odd upbeat twinges and two catchy singles was exactly right for the world in 1972, with Watergate beginning to appear on the news and the last great moments of a youth generation who finally admitted after this that they had no control over events anymore and instead turned to the ‘innocence’ of glam rock. Although most albums of 1972 are shallow, Paul Simon’s albums are never shallow (even the ones I don’t like) and this first record is better than most at conjuring up that scattered, dislocated atmosphere of America in the early 70s. Not every song here is up to Paul’s usual high standards but those that are – namely ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ ‘Duncan’ ‘Me and Julio’ and ‘Peace Like A River’ are particularly rich pickings from a seam most fans and record company men assumed had run dry. ‘Paul Simon’ the record surprised its biggest critics then, going on to match the sales of all S&G records except ‘Bridge’ and compilations – and it still continues to surprise fans today, who assume it’s all going to sound like the two happy-go-lucky songs they know from it. An excellent, over-looked record that deserves to be re-evaluated and appreciated, especially now that Paul seems to be getting ecstatic reviews for even his ‘trading water’ albums.