Tag Archives: Paul Simon

The place to be

Tonight, that is. Philip Larkin’s poems, read by a roster that includes Zadie Smith, Paul Simon, and other notables, with live performances of some of Larkin’s favorite jazz. If I were anywhere near Manhattan tonight, I’d be there.

Larkin’s most famous poem is probably “Annus Mirabilis,” with these opening lines:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) –

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.

I’ve written just enough poetry to know I should never write any more, but back in my bright college days I came up with what I thought was a nice Larkin semi-parody:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen seventy-three

(and was all theoretical for me)

With Pam Grier in Coffy

And the cover of Carly Simon’s third LP.

Coffy being my first blaxploitation movie, and No Secrets being second only to Playing Possum in the gallery of Carly Simon Hotcha Album Covers, at least to male music fans of a certain age. (I know the album came out late in 1972, but what can I say, 1973 was the year the photo jumped out at me from the racks of Sam Goody.) And if you’ve seen Pam Grier, no further explanation is necessary.

I wonder which poem Paul Simon will read? The cover of Still Crazy After All These Years included some lines from Ted Hughes, whose influence on Simon’s songwriting remains invisible to me. But Philip Larkin? It’s all over the place in Simon’s catalogue. Can’t believe I didn’t realize it before now.  

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Blue Monday (The Once and Future Paul Simon Anniversary Edition)

Between the release of his superb new album, So Beautiful Or So What, and the 40th anniversary re-release of Bridge Over Troubled Water, his last album as the songwriting half of Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Simon is giving us a good long look at his once and future self. Is it any surprise that he holds up quite well under the scrutiny?

Part of my problem with Bridge Over Troubled Water was that when I got around to it (sometime in the mid-Seventies)  I’d pretty much lost my taste for well-scrubbed commercial folk-pop, and the epic title track was already vying with “Imagine” for designation as Most Overplayed Inspirational Song. The screechy strings on the big finale still do unpleasant things to my fillings.

But once you get past the three hit singles that loom at the start of side one — “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “El Condor Pasa,” and “Cecilia” — Bridge Over Troubled Water is surprisingly spry and light on its feet, with a sense of humor that points to Simon’s first solo albums. Bookends has always been the S&G album I return to most often, if only because it was the first recording that allowed glints of humor and wit to break through the clenched grad-school seriousness of their first three records: before that, their idea of lightening things up was “A Simple Desultory Phillippic,” a joke as leaden as its title. But “Baby Driver” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied” kick things into higher gear while keeping their tongues firmly in cheek.

There are also three coded songs that forecast the breakup of S&G, and the best of them,  “The Only Living Boy in New York,” stands with some of the best work Paul Simon ever recorded. Even if you didn’t know “Tom” was the codeword for Art Gurfunkel (he and Simon initially performed as Tom and Jerry) you’d know you were getting a glimpse into the mixed emotions of a working friendship, with its mingling of pride in the partner’s accomplishments (in this case, Garfunkel flying to Mexico to film Catch-22 with Mike Nichols) undercut by the other partner’s faint resentment at being left out. Even the recording itself plays into the feeling: Simon singing by himself, with Garfunkel’s ethereal harmonies floating somewhere overhead, a perfect blend of style and content.

On the value-added side, the 40th anniversary edition includes a DVD with “Songs of America,” a 1969 curio that aired once in 1969. I won’t say it should have been left to the bootleggers, but its very much a Sixties antique, both in its format (traveling landscape shots intercut with glimpses of Simon and Garfunkel at work and on stage) and its content (glimpses of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as reminders of what was lost). A specially made documentary, “The Harmony Game,” has plenty of nice tidbits about the recording of Bridge Over Troubled Water — if, like me, you always wondered about the instrumental break on “The Boxer,” know that it was a blend of high trumpet and pedal steel guitar.

As for So Beautiful Or So What, it is indeed all the evidence you need of Simon’s continued creative fire. Not that there was anything wrong with You’re the One or Surprise, but if this turns out to be Paul Simon’s career valediction, we can say he went out on a high note. It isn’t as immediately accessible as, say, Simon’s first solo album, which remains one of the greatest pop records in history, but its offhanded, relaxed charms get through. If “The Only Living Boy in New York” is a great song about friendship, “Dazzling Blue” is a great one about marriage.

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Don’t mess with Kris

I confess that I haven’t been paying much attention to Kris Kristofferson or his work over the years, but thanks to this Rolling Stone article about Kristofferson I’m going to buy every note of his music I can get my hands on. What sealed the deal for me was this anecdote from Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday concert, which took place in 2003 at the Beacon Theater:

Up from the basement came one of country music’s brightest stars (who shall remain nameless). At that moment in time, the Star had a monster radio hit about bombing America’s enemies back into the Stone Age.

“Happy birthday,” the Star said to Willie, breezing by us. As he passed Kristofferson in one long, confident stride, out of the corner of his mouth came “None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.”

“What the fuck did you just say to me?” Kris growled, stepping forward.

“Oh, no,” groaned Willie under his breath. “Don’t get Kris all riled up.”

“You heard me,” the Star said, walking away in the darkness.

“Don’t turn your back to me, boy,” Kristofferson shouted, not giving a shit that basically the entire music industry seemed to be flanking him.

The Star turned around: “I don’t want any problems, Kris — I just want you to tone it down.”

“You ever worn your country’s uniform?” Kris asked rhetorically.

“What?”

“Don’t ‘What?’ me, boy! You heard the question. You just don’t like the answer.” He paused just long enough to get a full chest of air. “I asked, ‘Have you ever served your country?’ The answer is, no, you have not. Have you ever killed another man? Huh? Have you ever taken another man’s life and then cashed the check your country gave you for doing it? No, you have not. So shut the fuck up!” I could feel his body pulsing with anger next to me. “You don’t know what the hell you are talking about!”

“Whatever,” the young Star muttered.

Ray Charles stood motionless. Willie Nelson looked at me and shrugged mischievously like a kid in the back of the classroom.

Kristofferson took a deep inhale and leaned against the wall, still vibrating with adrenaline. He looked over at Willie as if to say, “Don’t say a word.” Then his eyes found me.

“You know what Waylon Jennings said about guys like him?” he whispered.

I shook my head.

“They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’.”

“One of country music’s brightest stars,” by the way, was Toby Keith — the Jonah Goldberg of country music. It was 2003, remember: Dickhead Nation was in the ascendant and Keith was whoopin’ along with the rest of the rumpus room warriors all lathered up to start bombing brown-skinned people in Iraq. He’d had a hit with “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” so Keith felt entitled to play pompous ass in the presence of Paul Simon and Ray Charles, who had recorded more classics than Toby Keith could ever hope to make, years before Toby Keith was even out of grade school.

That little encounter between Keith and Kristofferson is one of the most entertaining things I’ve read since “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” in which Gay Talese described young writer Harlan Ellison facing down Ol’ Blue Mouth during an encounter at a night club.

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