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Paul Simon “Still Crazy After All These Years” (1975)
Still Crazy After All These Years/My Little Town/I Do It For Your Love/50 Ways To Leave Your Lover/Night Game//Gone At Last/Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy/Have A Good Time/You’re Kind/Silent Eyes
“I met my old collection on the shelf last night, I was so happy to hear it I just smiled, and we talked about some old times when it brought a smile to my ears, still lovely after all these years”
‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ occupies an interesting place in my collection. It’s hardly the best album Paul Simon ever made – frankly there’ve been so many good ones it doesn’t even make the top half – and yet it’s one of the most important albums I own. This record has been unsung for far too many years despite being arguably the world’s first ‘middle aged’ rock album. Rock and roll was designed from the outset as a youthful genre, a generational rebellion filled with dissatisfaction from the adult world and most groups treat it as such long into their own middle age, perhaps never quite realising that they’ve grown up along with their music. As we’ve discussed before on this site, Paul Simon’s always been wise before his years, which is why he’s spent the past 20 years singing about old age and mortality on his new songs at a time when most rock and roll groups are only reluctantly accepting that they’ve reached middle age in their 60s and 70s. Paul was 33 when he made this record, but you wouldn’t know that from most of the songs which are full of regret, nostalgia and longing for times past. In short, a generation looked at this album and as one acknowledged it was time to grow up – an honourable principle which unfortunately in practice meant less sales for our 60s and 70s AAA legends still going and more sales for Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. Punk wouldn’t exist without this album and the idea that, against all the odds, the generation that set out a new manifesto at Monterey, made it a world movement at Woodstock and that had spent the past decade trying to get into power were now there as adults (with another younger, angrier generation coming up behind them, labelling the 60s youths as more adults to pass by).
Today people seem to neglect ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, perhaps because nowadays it’s not so strange to hear a ‘rock and roller’ singing about his past and regrets about where his life might have taken him. Heck, some singer-songwriters like KT Tunstall and Alani Morisette do little else, despite being in their 20s when they made most of their records. We hear a song like the title track nowadays and it sounds perfectly natural, especially now we’ve got used to the idea of our heroes looking like the OAPS they now are (and the fact that we’re swiftly joining their ranks ourselves). But cast your mind back to 1975: there was nothing like this record around, full of bittersweet reflection and shadowy yesterdays instead of promising tomorrows and a long line of lyrics about how great it is to be young (in fact we’re only four years on from Jefferson Starship asking the adults to ‘get out of the way’ for the new generation on ‘Blows Against The Empire’). These sentiments aren’t linked to the title song either: several of the songs here deal with the ‘full course’ of a relationship, reflected on after the fact now a few years have past. There’s rarely been a better description of what it means to carry a relationship through thick and thin, past several year’s worth of obstacles than ‘I Do It For Your Love’; ‘You’re Kind’ takes the opposite tack, scratching its head over why people break up over the stupidest, smallest thing after being together for so long; Paul bemoans ‘hanging another year on the line’ on ‘Have A Good Time’; ‘Night Game’ is a baseball game where the players die of old age (I kid you not!); ‘Silent Eyes’ then rounds out the end of the album by imagining the end of mankind – and not in some hippie stop-them-before-they-drop-the-bomb-because-we-can-still-live-in-peace-for-eternity way but in a biblical, generational ending maelstrom.
There’s even a sound about this album that’s different – it sounds middle aged. The tempos are slow, the backing is more jazz lounge quintet than ‘Twist and Shout’ and frequently wanders into jazz and crooning styles, adopting a sound that – to most listeners in the 1970s – really was the sound of their parents (read that as ‘great-grandparents’ for anyone reading this under the age of 30). There’s rarely a guitar part in sight (possibly because of Paul’s ongoing problem with painful calcium deposits in his guitar strumming hand), never mind a solo and a production sheen that sounds overly glossy, like a coat of paint has been added to each of the songs to ‘touch them up’ (in the same way that only adults in the 60s, not their youngsters, cared about the wallpaper and furnishings) . Even the packaging adds to that effect, with a tinted, sepia-toned cover of Paul sitting not in some trendy beatnik basement or underground tube station (as per the first Simon and Garfunkel cover) but on the balcony of a nice middle-income apartment, his back to the tall buildings behind him at a jaunty angle as if he owned the place. There’s even a dash of ‘proper poetry’ in the back cover in the shape of a quote from a Ted Hughes poem (and, yes, it does indeed involve crows – did Ted Hughes never write about anything else?! I spent most of my first year’s creative writing class at university getting a crow named Ted Hughes into stories in revenge for having to study the flipping things on my English course! To look at this another way, this is the first album by a participator in the 1960s rebellion movement that could, conceivably, have been made without the sounds, styles and passionate ideals of the 1960s taking place at all, an obvious leap from the 40s and 50s without the sound of being fresh and innovative, without hope, without energy.
Which means that ‘Still Crazy’ is often a slog to sit through. I can’t say I often turn to Paul Simon records when I’m in need of excitement and power, but there’s usually some track that inspires me and proves that Paul can write rockers with the best of them (‘Late In The Evening’ which kick-starts the next, superior album ‘One Trick Pony’ is a case in point). You’d be hard pressed to find any sign of that on this album – even the celebrated, intricate pop song ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ only sounds like a rock song because of the fabulous drum part Steve Gadd came up with while ‘Gone At Last’ – the loudest thing here – is a gospel song, not a rock song. It’s easy to see why, influential and successful as this album was (it made #1 and - along with ‘Graceland’ - it’s the only Paul Simon solo record that ever won a Grammy award), few people copied it, because hearing all these similar songs together is hard work and makes the album sound an awful lot longer than its ungenerous 36 minute playing time (the closest AAA album to this in style is John and Yoko’s insipid ‘middle aged’ record ‘Double Fantasy’ but at least that had Yoko dabbling in new wave and dance forms to break the sound up). Indeed, its hard to imagine that only 18 months – and one album – before Paul was re-inventing the rock song with his work introducing world music to the genre at muscle shoals where, comparatively speaking, he sounded young and hopeful. By the end of the album you crave to hear something else, something completely different in style and tone – and for a writer of Paul’s high standards that’s a bad sign.
However, even though this album may not work as an ‘album’, if you take these songs individually there’s much to enjoy and there’s even a handful of songs that rank amongst Simon’s all time best work. The title track made such a splash at the time that everyone knows it (despite never being released as a single) for good reason – it humbly, mutedly sums up the hopes and fears for a generation growing older than any amount of retro rock or confessional songs could. ‘My Little Town’ – the first and most successful to date reunion for Simon and Garfunkel – is one of Paul’s most powerful songs, a prison in song where everyone is trapped and, ironically given the rest of this record, one of the best songs ever written about what it means to be young. ‘I Do It For Your Love’ is a sweet and tender love song to a partner whose moved on when the narrator hasn’t, desperately clutching at memories to make her come alive and featuring one of Paul’s simplest, most touching lyrics. Even the much maligned ‘Silent Eyes’ – the only overtly religious song the Jewish Paul Simon ever wrote – is a masterpiece of timing, its sombre mood singlehandedly sweeping away the frivolity of most of the album’s second side. Even the album’s best known song, the number one hit ‘50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ is a fun, novelty pop song (albeit one that really really doesn’t fit on this album). Swap a couple of the lesser songs (‘Have A Good Time’ and ‘You’re Kind’) for the almost-period single-only ‘Slip Sliding Away’ (backed by the hard-to-find rocker ‘Stranded In A Limousine’) and you’d have one of Paul’s strongest albums, so high is the standard across his work.
So why was Paul singing about loss and nostalgia in this period? Well, he reportedly did bump into an ‘old lover’ out on the street, just as he sings in the title track. Kathy Chitty may never have married Paul and they weren’t together that long (the pair split during the peak Simon and Garfunkel years) but nevertheless her name is well known to Paul Simon watchers. That’s her referenced in the title of ‘Kathy’s Song’, she’s the ‘Kathy’ that Paul sings ‘I’m lost!’ to on the classic S&G song ‘America’ and that’s a rare picture of her on the front cover of ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’. Paul’s earliest muse and the biggest single believer in Paul’s talent alongside Garfunkel. When Paul sings of meeting her accidentally and finding the two just ‘clicked’ he’s also singing for what might have been between the pair – if the romantic couple in ‘America’ had stayed together, dreaming of a better tomorrow (and, perhaps, of what might have happened had the hugeness of his success not scared the publicity-shy Kathy away). Paul was also in the process of breaking up with his first wife Peggy (namechecked in ‘Run That Body Down’ from his first album), with the pair officially splitting in 1975, the same year this album was released, and so perhaps inevitably was looking backwards rather than forwards in this period. Few songwriters had ever been quite as open about the subject as Paul is on this album however, referring to the relationship with a shrug of the shoulders on several tracks and creating several songs that span an ‘arc’ of the pair’s ‘love affair’ (to quote from an entirely different Paul Simon album). Several AAA musicians had split from their partners by this time, but most of them had married young and left without any long-lasting recriminations – this is, arguably, the first time an AAA star is truly pained that a relationship he thought was for life didn’t work out. As a result, the lyrics on this album are far more adult and sad than is usually the case and the split is a theme that’ll occupy Paul’s songwriting up to ‘Graceland’ and beyond, intermingled with an equally intense and fractious relationship with actress Carrie Fisher in the early 80s.
For possibly the only time on a Paul Simon record he’s overshadowed by his guests for the album. The reunion with Art Garfunkel was the talking point for most fans at the time, being the first point both men had been in the same space since their troubled break up at the tail end of 1969. Paul and Arty had always kept in touch, however, and had a keen interest in each other’s careers – this song was Paul’s idea to give Arty something ‘gritty’ to sing, something that’s ironic given that ‘Crazy’ is arguably the un-grittiest album Paul’s ever made (even his ‘new’ records made in his 70s feature more guitar and rock spirit than this one). The duo got round the idea of who could use the song by agreeing, for possibly the first time in rock history, that each singer could use the song on their own record of the time. Arty’s appeared with great fanfare as the start of side two on his 1975 work ‘Breakaway’; Paul’s was hidden away as this album’s second song – traditionally the point on a record when songwriters ‘hide’ what they consider to be their weaker songs when they think people are still listening to the opening song playing in their head). Interestingly, the song fits ‘Breakaway’ much more than it does this album (an album we’ve already reviewed – see the list below), an LP that features an impressive cornucopia of styles and a general vague theme of ‘obstacles’ towards happiness; on this album it always sounded out of place, both because its comparatively LOUD compared to the rest of the ‘Crazy’ record and because it’s a song about youth, not growing older.
A second guest is Phoebe Snow. A real up and coming gospel singer in 1975, she’s most famous now for giving up her career at the height of her popularity to look after her daughter who’d been born disabled and needed constant care (rather than bring in a nurse, Snow looked after her herself and only performed for charity events – a selfless act that brought her much respect in the industry until she dies last year, shortly after her daughter). It’s ironic, then, that Snow should suffer such misfortune so soon after singing joint lead with Paul on a duet about bad times being over. Ironically given how well he’s got into the head of so many cultures around the world, Paul’s always had a ‘sticking point’ when it comes to his beloved gospel music and to these ears has never quite successfully written well to the formula. As a result ‘Gone At Last’ is one of Paul’s weakest songs, one that plays with gospel rather than extending or fully understanding it and his vocal especially is something of a blot on his fine discography – even though Phoebe is a perfect fit for the record, her passionate spirit tearing through the holes in the song to deliver a career best performance (she ‘lives’ in this song so much more than Paul – and he wrote it!) Ironically, the song was originally meant by Paul to be a duet with another up and coming singer named Better Midler; thank goodness that never went ahead as Midler would have been even more of a misfit on this song than Simon is!
A third guest is session musician Steve Gadd. Few bands haven’t worked with Gadd at some point in their careers but few have been as close to the drummer as Paul Simon is – Gadd even stars in Paul’s ‘One Trick Pony’ film with him, stealing many scenes as the put-upon percussionist trying to reign in the antics of keyboardist Richard Tee! However his best known moment in musical history will always be that rattle of drums that kick-starts ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’, invented more or less on the spot after Paul admitted he was stuck for ideas to open the song. Clever, memorable, complicated and perfectly in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek nature of the song, it’s probably the best remembered moment on the album.
Overall then, how does ‘Still Crazy’ stand up now that it’s some 37 years old? Parts of it have aged better than others, with some tracks among the greatest things Paul has ever produced. Even the worst parts aren’t that bad – just a little shallow, really, compared to Paul’s best work and with noticeably more filler here than appeared on his first two albums (and that’s despite the ‘Paulo Simon’ record containing a three minute violin –guitar jam titled ‘Hobo’s Blues’!) What really grates is the surface sound that’s irritatingly sombre and MOR, especially for fans used to the psychedelic brilliance of ‘Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme’ or the energy found in ‘Rhymin’ Simon’ – it all comes in one colour and that colour is a muddy brown, like the sepia tinted cardboard the record came in. But it would be unfair to dismiss this album out of hand simply for that – this record is worth buying for the title track and ‘My Little Town’ alone and has several nuggets of great ideas along the way, even if you have to dig a bit harder for them than on most PS records. More than that, this album is important, a huge milestone in terms of the 60s/70s musical generation that never ever seems to get the kudos it deserves for ripping up the one great final taboo subject of the era that talked about everything openly; the idea of growing older and turning into the very same adults you’ve just spent a decade trying to overthrow. ‘Still Crazy’ is a brave, timely, impressive record that no one but Paul Simon would ever have dreamed of releasing as ‘early’ in a career as this – and yet, impressive as its greatest achievements are, there’s something about it that’s hollow compared to Paul’s other fine records of the 70s. Anyone whose ever seen a relationship fizzle out and die will still find great comfort from this record, however, which is as honest and autobiographical as they come, albeit in a more comfortable, pleasantly decorated environment Paul Simon way than a truly no-holds-barred ‘Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ way.
Side one of the album is clearly the stronger side and there are few Paul Simon songs more polished and developed than the title track of the album. That’s interesting because Paul took longer to write this song than almost any other (he uses this song as an example of his songwriting on the Dick Cavett show in 1974 and tries to get the audience to think up ideas for the third verse – he never actually used any of Cavett’s ‘helpful’ suggestions and ended up writing a middle eight instead!) As we’ve discussed, the idea of being ‘old’ enough to meet a lover from the past in an unsatisfying present and wondering how things might have turned out is a gloriously new idea. Paul doesn’t press the point, saying how much they still love each other and all of that nonsense – her quiet smile on meeting him tells the whole story. The title phrase, which is now popular enough to be used in everyday conversation, came to Paul while in the shower trying to think up a hook line for the song and it perfectly sums up the song: slightly ragged and slightly worn by time, but acknowledging that people’s characters never truly change and the things that made you fall for someone never really die. Interestingly the second verse seeks to tell the opposite story from the first: this narrator is a loner, he hates meeting people and he ‘ain’t no fool for love songs’ which makes the bond he shared with the first love of his life all that much sweeter. The laidback melody and the jazz lounge backing (pinged synthesised keyboards and sweetener strings) suggest he isn’t all that bothered – but the middle eight, which switches unexpectedly into a minor key, suggests a different story. The narrator isn’t as confident lying awake at 4am as he pretends to be in the day and he spends his days longing my life away’, unsure how to do anything about it. This section then ends awkwardly on the line ‘it’s all gonna fade...’, as if every day spent without true love and happiness brings him a step further away from his ‘real’ self. On the surface this is a song about two lovers passing each other in the night, but at its soul its about identity and about how we can only really be our true selves with someone else who really believes in us. The last verse switches back to a major key, but it’s hardly any happier – the narrator is at the window imagining that ‘I’ll do some damage one fine day’ and clearly with suicide on his mind. Paul’s hapless narrator invokes one last thought that he might not be so alone however, turning wearily to the listener and adding how ‘his’ whole generation are going through the same thing and that ‘ I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers’. Paul hasn’t written a song about a generation since ‘America’, which was also in fact his last song about first love Kathy – it sends a shiver down your spine when you realise that he’s talking here about a generation falling down a hole, making all the mistakes they always vowed not to and that all the searching liberty-loving youngsters are turning out messed up middle aged losers like him. A brave, compelling song that ranks among Paul Simon’s finest and points towards how badly he really was affected by the break-up of his marriage to Peggy. By the way the song happened again for real when Kathy met up with Paul backstage at a S&G ‘Old Friends’ concert in 2001 for the first time in decades, discussing old times and inspiring a particularly vivid performance of this song the next night.
‘My Little Town’ continues the bleak theme even though it dates from much earlier. I’d love to know whether Paul wrote this deliberately for the reunion with Garfunkel or whether he already had the song in his pocket when the pair talked about working together again. What we do know is that this song was originally meant to appear just on Arty’s album but Paul loved the result so much the duo made a pact that they could both use the song how they wanted. This song is so different from the upbeat, hopeful pop songs Arty had been singing that it sounds a real jolt when heard in the middle of ‘Breakaway’, but it does work well as a song by two old friends remembering their childhood. The narrator of ‘Little Town’ is a teenager stuck in his hometown where nothing happens. Nobody dreams any more, everyone is stuck in their own tiny industrial world that’s covered black with more than just the soot of the factory chimneys and the boy dreams of escape, of making a ‘contribution’ rather than being seen as ‘just my father’s son’. The song shuffles forwards timidly and grows in stature bit by bit in perhaps the best example of why Paul Simon is such a great songwriter when it comes to dynamics. The song carries on steadily forward, even though it’s obvious from the slow tempo and sombre mood it would rather be anywhere than on this conveyor belt taking it forward. There are delightful dashes of colour added throughout – like the yelled chorus of ‘nothing but the dead and dying in my little town’ and the lovely rolling verse where the narrator saves his money, dreaming of glory’ and – in perhaps the best line about teenage life ever written – ‘twitching like the finger on the trigger of a fun’, ready to burst into full flower at a moment’s notice. Heard in 1975, at a time of comparative prosperity and the end of glam and beginning of disco, this song must have sounded off, with its bleak monochrome sound and its mournful piano lick. It must have sounded odd, too, to the millions of fans who’d been waiting for a follow-up to S&G’s amazing run of albums which – generally speaking – are merely thoughtful rather than bleak like this. But in 2012, with the Coalition in charge teenage unemployment at record levels and a recession on it sounds note-perfect, the soundtrack to another generation ‘twitching like the finger n the trigger of a gun’. It’s also the perfect track for the pair to sing together, remembering how life might have been had ‘Tom and Jerry’ not had a hit with ‘Hey Schoolgirl’ in 1956 and escaped the rat race so perfectly described here. The undisputed highlight of the album.
‘I Do It For Your Love’ is another heartbreaking song, with Paul remembering how he met Peggy and how perfect their live used to be. This couple used to share everything – even a cold – because everything was done for the sake of the marriage, including buttoning your lip when things go wrong. However the signs were there from the beginning (the song starts ‘we were married on a rainy day’) and even the kind gestures the narrator tries, such as buying a rug he’ll think she likes from a junk shop, are doomed to failure (the rain causes the colours to run on the way home in one of Paul’s most poetic phrases, summing up the ‘artificial’ front of the marriage as well as the rug and how even the ‘good’ things the narrator does drown in the tears of the relationship. By the end of the first verse the couple are signing divorce papers because that’s the best thing they can do for each other – they don’t hate each other; indeed, its because they still love each other they don’t want to see each other hurt. The melody to this song is gorgeous, among the best on the album, melancholic and anguished but in a muted, frustrated, confused way and with a production shine and mix that makes Paul sound like he’s singing in a fog. There’s even a delightful brass solo which really fits the song’s melancholic air and sounds like a funeral march, while Steve Gadd’s inventive struck-percussion accompaniment must surely be a reference to Brian Wilson’s similr song of loss ‘Caroline, No’, the last song on ‘Pet Sounds’. ‘The sting of reason, the splash of tears...love emerges and it disappears’ is one of Paul’s best lines hidden away right at the end of the song, but even in the midst of tears there’s hope, with the narrator imagining that love ‘emerges and it disappears’, hinting than in the future he and his beloved might still meet to ‘talk about some old times’ as he did in the first song on the album. A sensitive vocal, which would have floored lesser singers, is the icing on the cake on a gorgeous love song with a difference and easily the ‘best’ track on the album that fans might not necessarily know.
’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ is the best known song on the album – it’s still, to this day, the only #1 of Paul Simon’s solo career. Lighter than all the other songs on the album, it’s a more playful take on the same theme and treats divorce as a joke. The song famously started life when Paul was playing with his then-toddler son Harper (now a singer-songwriter in his own right) and features tight rhyming couplets based on a series of men’s names (‘Make a new plan, Stan, hop on the bus, Gus’, etc). Paul doesn’t get anywhere close to 50 names by the way (it’s actually five). The song actually starts out quite seriously however – not for the first or last time on a Paul Simon song the narrator seems to be talking to a psychiatrist who glibly mentions that there are plenty of ways to ‘leave’ if he really wants to (and – to keep with the rhyming theme of the song - Paul seems to want to use them all). We do mean ‘talking’ by the way – uniquely in Paul’s canon he speaks rather than sings the verses which gives them a casual, irreverent feel. The best part of the song is undoubtedly Steve Gadd’s fun-come-menacing drum pattern which is such an integral part of the song it surprised many when we learnt that it was added to the song late on in the sessions when Paul thought that he needed a better opening and asked Gadd if he could think of anything. Gadd arguably deserves a co-credit for creating one of the most popular elements of the song pretty much on the spot. However, fun as it is, there’s something slightly hollow about this song which always prevented it becoming one of Paul’s finest, a slight fudge in the lyrics (‘much’ and ‘Gus’ is a poor rhyme, even for a comedy lyric) and Paul is less than convincing with his sly vocal.
If ’50 Ways’ is the joker in the pack then ‘Night Game’ is the most solemn (what is the most solemn card in a deck by the way – the Queen of Spades perhaps?!) Paul has always been a big fan of baseball (its the ‘bond’ between estranged father and son in the ‘One Trick Pony film too) and it’s perhaps a surprise that he waited this long into his career before turning the sport into art. Few baseball fans probably expected a song like this one, however, especially coming after the last jokey track. ‘Night Game’ is actually about death and how everyone – even legends – have to lay down their baseball bats at some point in their lives. The pitcher ‘dies’ in the first verse – at first we think Paul means ‘he messed up’ but no, they’re burying him by the second verse. The details of what happens in the event are all recorded by the narrator, unsure which of them are relevant and which aren’t – the torn uniform lying on the ground, the team number left flying in the breeze, the sudden chill in the air. By the third verse the game is carrying on as normal, but with the team ‘three men down’ (presumably three legendary heroes, who count even though they’re too old to play) and the tarpaulin rolled over the pitch, turned black like a grave. Back in 1968 on ‘Mrs Robinson’ the player Joe Di Maggio was used as a metaphor for how a generation was disappearing and heroes were absent from America – here Paul uses the metaphor of baseball to show that death hits everyone, even heroes. The sombre and bleak lyrics are sung by a double tracked Paul barely at a whisper, while the melody is as bleak and unrelenting as the subject matter, barely there at all. A curious song, ‘Night Game’ is a strong idea that doesn’t quite come off – the images are too vague to tell a full story and the melody a little too shapeless to be memorable. However it’s still a worthy attempt at trying to do something different.
Side two starts with the only true rocker on the album in ‘Gone At Last’, a noisy gospel piece that doesn’t quite come off. After a full quarter hour of melancholy its odd to hear Paul seemingly letting loose and singing about his ‘bad luck’ turning, but his delivery sounds false and hollow when set against Phoebe Snow’s show-stealing vocal. A rollicking piano track and some more fine percussion do their best to add bounce to the song, but sadly its just not that interesting: Paul’s always a much more interesting writer when he’s talking about the bad rather than good in his life and the best part of this song is the opening verse, with Paul a weary driver on a road to nowhere covered with ice (now there’s a metaphor for you!) The narrator shrieks to the heavens about how he hopes his bad luck has ‘gone at last’, like a preacher looking for deliverance, but there’s no proof that his luck really had changed and there’s no attempt to reconcile this with a ‘higher’ entity’ as the song’s backing suggests. Paul had been trying to write a gospel song ever since ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was ‘hijacked’ by the session musos into a full blown pop song (to my ears it still sounds better as a gospel demo sung by Paul in falsetto); sadly this song isn’t worth the wait and the fade, especially (a shrill high pitched shriek from Phoebe and pianist Richard Tee uncharacteristically losing his way, is an unusual lapse from the usually perfectionist Paul. I have to admit I actually prefer the slower, looser demo included on the CD re-issue as a bonus track, as long and slow as it is there is at least a fascinating percussion riff and the slower tempo gives the listener the feeling that the narrator is reaching to salvation from his weariness, not his certainty in something changing, making for a much more interesting song.
What a Coalition-friendly song ‘Some Folks Lives Roll Easy’ is, acknowledging how unjust the world can be sometimes. There are nasty, scheming, conniving people out there out for every penny they can get and they don’t care who they tread on to get it – and yet its the kind, gentle, helpful people who seem to suffer all kinds of disasters. It’s easy to hear Paul writing (and indeed singing) this piece after a melancholic night on the brandy, bemoaning the bad luck seemingly dispelled forever on ‘Gone At Last’ and looking for real heartfelt intervention from the Lord. Alas this strong idea for a song never really develops past the title of the song – there’s just two proper verses here and most of those discuss whether the narrator should be reaching out to God at all instead of the key theme of a better life for some compared to others. The sleepy tune also rambles rather than pounces, admittedly reflecting the sodden drunken heap of a narrator but not that interesting as Paul Simon melodies go. ‘Most folks never catch their stars’ is a good line, though and with a bit of work this song could really have been something, but then some songs they stumble, lord, and they fall – through no fault of their own.
‘Have A Good Time’ is a curious song indeed. It breaks the ultimate taboo of rock music (referring to growing older) and openly admits ‘I should be depressed – my life’s a mess’. Yet the narrator is quite genuinely upbeat and looking for good times in his life, dismissing those who (like the narrator of this album’s first three songs) are in the pit of despair. The song is slow and lazy, again, and seems to drift along rather aimlessly despite a quite noisy and unusually aggressive vocal from Paul trying to force his life into turning around. Paul even ends with possibly his only non-ambiguous sentiment about the greatness of America, blessing ‘our standard of living – let’s keep it that way’ and sounding quite genuine while singing (listen to this song back to back with, say, ‘American Tune’ and the difference is striking). Hearing someone with the depth of feeling, empathy and intelligence of Paul Simon writing ‘maybe I’m blind to the fate of mankind’ is deeply troubling too - there’s no way the person who wrote the likes of ‘The Boxer’ can ever truly switch off and have a ‘good time’, oblivious to the fate of the world (as a later PS song has it, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much...’) However, there’s a sense on this song of something not quite being right – the tension between the aggressive vocal and the laidback tune is usually a sign of something deeper lurking and the closing eccentric trumpet solo is curiously out of place, perhaps hinting at the pent up emotions of the narrator he’s been keeping hidden. A real curio this song – it’s hard to like on face value, basically telling everyone unhappy to get lost and turn a blind eye to the sins of the world, but maybe it’s a sign of how tired Paul was getting with having to come up with soul-searching weariness all the time. Even as escapism, however, this song fails, being too troubled and two-faced for us to truly believe what the narrator is saying to us.
‘You’re Kind’ is a more successful take on the same theme. Paul’s latest narrator has been deeply in love, he’s met the most wonderful girl he’s ever met and she overwhelms him with her kindness. However by the last verse they’re parting – not because he or she has changed but because the pair can’t agree on practical measures (‘I like to keep the window open and you like to keep it closed – so goodbye, goodbye goodbye’ sings Paul, in one of his career best lines. To the audience and perhaps even the narrator himself this all sounds awfully petty: if everything else is perfect then why break up over such a small point? But the real theme of the song is how love is so fragile it can break over the slightest thing and no matter how much there seems to be going for a relationship that’s no guarantee of it working. While not the best song on the album, there’s a lot going for ‘You’re Kind’; the opening rattle of percussion sounds like a rattlesnake waiting to pounce and its actually the optimism of the opening lines that takes us by surprise after hearing it for one; the sweet and lovely middle eight for another, the narrator that paranoid that he can’t except why one person whould be nice to him when everyone else in his life is so unkind. There’s another curious fade on this song too, where the horn part get their own solo and we seem to be heading for a final verse (perhaps even one of redemption with the pair getting back together after recognising their greater love for each other?) – but no, the song rambles on for 30 seconds or so for no apparent reason (it’s a good horn part, though, caught somewhere between genuine hurt and knowing sarcasm). The song rather loses something when you’ve learnt the joke and the ‘goodbye’ twist in the last verse, but it’s still a clever, impressive song.
Talking of impressive, most fans hate ‘Silent Eyes’ with a passion but it’s hard not to admire it’s icy tale of damnation and lack of any real emotion. This is a truly unique song in Paul’s canon, the only song that talks about his Jewish upbringing as anything more than a joke and seemingly telling how each of us is doomed to damnation when the end of the world arrives. The verses sound like a haiku but aren’t (each line is nine syllables long, not seven) and despite being from the wrong religion sound biblical, as an unseeing (uncaring?) God fails to intervene when his people need him most. ‘Jerusalem weeps alone’ seems to place this song in the present day, although the 1970s were a – comparatively – quite time, making the timing of this song curious (If there’d have been a Paulo Simon song like this circa ‘Graceland’ it wpould have made more sense; Israel being perhaps the most fought over country in modern times; she’s at war again as I write this and scarily close to Nostrodamus’ predictions of World War Three and the Bible Code ‘end of days’). Interestingly, I’ve just learnt researching this article that Jerusalem is twinned with New York, which might make even more sense why Paul seems so attached to it in this song. Most fans can’t make the bridge because this song throws out so many of the traditional Paul Simon elements: the religion isn’t ambiguous, the end of the world isn’t feared it’s really happening and with only a piano and drums for backing this simply doesn’t sound like a Paul Simon song. However, I’ve always been impressed by it for its sincerity and its sombre tone, Paul calling all his listeners up ‘before the eyes of God to speak of what we’ve done’. Interestingly, the only time Paul ever spoke about this song he claimed ‘it’s about the jews, but not about religion as such’ - that sounds like a contradiction but actually it isn’t; I can just imagine Paul reading about or watching a documentary about the persecution of the jews and the burning injustice of people being attacked for being different spilling over into this song. If you are a writer with as much depth and soul as Paul Simon then you can’t help but look back on the persecution of an entire people throughout history and not want to write on their behalf; being half-Jewish gave Paul a closer link to them than most, despite his ongoing 50 year discussion of religion and his doubts over who to believe. He clearly means this song too – the passion with which he flies in to the line ‘stand before the eyes of God and speak what was done’ is electrifying, an angry, demanding side to Paul’s character we’ve never heard on record before. The arrangement for this song is lovely too, the female chorus who join in on the line ‘She burns like a flame and she calls my name’ a perfect example of Paul’s attention to detail and far more impressive than the Christian ‘gospel’ choir on ‘Gone At Last’. Above all, the tune to this song is gorgeous, bleak as it is, and would have made for a lovely instrumental. Even if you can’t love this song, you have to admire it for its passion and its solemnity and it’s a great pity that, to date, Paul’s never written a song like it since.
Both sides of ‘Still Crazy’ end strangely, on the bleakest notes of any Paul Simon album. ’50 Ways’ ‘Gone At Last’ and ‘Good Time’ aside, this is easily the darkest of all of Paul’s albums. Usually I love the darkest records of my AAA artists the most: they’re the points when the songs are more personal, the choices more stark and the ephemeral have all been stripped away to leave the cold, bare truth. However ‘Still Crazy’ is only like this in lyrical terms: the arrangements to these songs are – if anything – busier than normal and suggest that Paul hadn’t quite realised the depth of what he’d written on this album and wanted to dress it up a little. It’s a shame that he did because it’s the stark and bare elements of this record that work the best: the mournful cry of ‘My Little Town’, the sighing suicidalness of ‘Still Crazy’ and ‘I Do It For Your Love’ and the pained hymn of ‘Silent Eyes’. There is much to admire on this record and like all Paul Simon records it goes without saying that its an essential purchase, but I can’t help feeling that it could have been better still, with a handful of ‘filler’ tracks removed and that awful cod jazz lounge sound kept to a minimum instead of dominating the album the way it does. I’ve always been surprised that this album still overshadows ‘One Trick Pony’ and ‘Hearts and Bones’, the best examples of Paul’s bare emotional confession side that never seem to get a mention these days (‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ is still his best work, however, with its exotic rhythms and elliptic surreal lyrics, even though its less personal than almost all the others). Perhaps this album’s greatest claim to fame, though, is that it made it fashionable to be ‘old’ (or at least middle aged) at a time when everyone thought the only decent rock music had to be made by the young; for that alone ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ is a milestone in music that deserves it’s crown.