Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Paul SIMON: Paul Simon



(#107: 18 March 1972, 1 week)

Track listing: 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

”Reality but reality grimly seen/And spoken in paradisical parlance new.”
(Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening In New Haven,” Section XII)


Or: Spiro Agnew Stole My Chinese Food.

Paul Simon’s first solo album is the ideal, mechanical twin to Harvest. He may be scooting and quietly howling around the encased claustrophobia of Manhattan rather than blowing down wildly open roads, but the story is the same. More than anything else on the record, “Paranoia Blues” gives his game away, and in it he’s on the brink of giving his city away. It helps that musically (as elsewhere on the record) he is in the same place as the recent Stones, with Stefan Grossman’s unquestionably authentic bottleneck and Hal Blaine and Simon’s deadpan Sonny Boy Williamson beats. You can love a city as much as you like, but when you turn around and someone’s run off with your Chinese food then you know it’s time to go. The dreading of the interrogations in the little room at JFK Airport assumes an equal force to the Lin’s Chow Fun abstracter. “Whose side are you on?” he keeps asking, and the overall mood (“I got some so-called friends/They’ll smile right to my face/But when my back is turned/They’d like to stick it to me”) anticipates the O’Jays’ ostensibly scarier “Backstabbers.” Simon’s “oh no”s sound like sobs, the horn section resembles an incontinent kazoo convention; there’s a quick, wriggling pause – should he stay or should he go? – before the thump picks up again and Simon wails with the forlorn brow of a man who knows, just like the protagonist of “The Boxer,” that he may never get out of here.

Most of the emotions on Paul Simon centre around the idea of things coming to an end – “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” being but the most explicit expression and aptest summation of the notion - and if the record comes over as a sophomore-level tour of New York then it speeds through its streets in the knowledge that the city as it stands in 1972 is reaching something of a nadir, as proved to be the case, and that either the city needs to get out of itself or the author does. Or at least do something else; Simon spent most of 1971 teaching songwriting (his students included the Roches and Melissa Manchester) and if the record stands as a final, queerly euphoric sneak out of the need for Art Garfunkel - without the requirement for two-part harmonies, Simon's songs manifestly speed up in both construction and delivery - there is a sense of loss and discontent that his supposed new freedom cannot quite mask.

For instance, the record begins with a death and another Chinese meal, which is what a Mother and Child Reunion actually is (fittingly, it is a combination of chicken and egg), with a song recorded in Jamaica under the supervision of the great producer Leslie Kong (who, like Paul Simon's family dog, would not live to see 1972). "No, I would not give you false hope/On this strange and mournful day," Simon immediately warns us, although the warm spirit of the music - he is accompanied by most of the Maytals (including the staccato, single-note lead guitar work of Huks Brown which makes the song sound like a mutation of early sixties Drifters), as well as the subtly indispensable piano of Larry Knetchel (he tumbles, like the singer's soul, down from the second verse towards the chorus) and a quartet of backing singers which includes Cissy Houston - gives the misleading impression of happiness. In fact the mourning was due, as intimated above, to the death of the Simon family dog (he is seen on the sleeve sitting, alternately solemnly and laughingly, with what presumably was the new dog).

Still, the song isn't just about the death of a dog and the eating of a Chinese meal to cheer up the mourner; one always has to watch out for Simon's symbols. "I know they say let it be," he mentions in a direct reference to the Beatles, but adds that "the course of a lifetime runs over and over again," and all of a sudden the song reveals itself as a quiet snub to death and impermanence, as seemingly carefree as Bolan's "Cosmic Dancer" with its unending womb/tomb cycles. "The mother and child reunion/Is only a motion away," may be in part a reference to "Hey Jude" but fundamentally the symbolism is to do with regeneration, rebirth, returning to the original source - peace like a river indeed.

But if you want to get out of New York, where else is there to go? "Duncan" is a lighter fusion of "The Boxer" (in its Band-influenced storytelling) and "El Condor Pasa" (Los Incas are back with their charango and flutes) and thus lightens up the darkish road of its tale; Lincoln Duncan is a fisherman's son in Nova Scotia, gets bored and decides to up and move down to New England. He describes being penniless and rootless, stuck in a thin-walled motel while his neighbours fuck for the Olympics ("Bound to win a prize/They've been going at it all night long"), losing his innocence to a street preacher in a tent in the woods and relishing the memory (his "oo-wee"s and "oh-oh"s) - "Just thanking the Lord/For my fingers," and he doesn't just mean the ability to play his guitar. Behind Simon's unusually expressive voice (although the rest of the record will prove that it's not that unusual), the Andeans hover in the middle distance like the suspended lights of Interstate 95.

Contrast this with "Papa Hobo," where Simon's protagonist is sufficiently desperate to quit New York that he dreams of Detroit ("It's carbon and monoxide/That ol' Detroit perfume.../Detroit, Detroit/Got a hell of a hockey team") and working on the motor assembly line. Charlie McCoy's raspberry bass harmonica is back from "The Boxer" (blowing a particularly ripe one in response to Simon's "Sweep up!"). Knetchel offers a careful continuo on harmonium and the song moves into a McCartney daydream - "And the weatherman lied" - before Simon scats out to fade; is he singing "Never go to heaven"? This leads into one of the record's few escape hatches, or perhaps it's just his ripest daydream; "Hobo's Blues" is a quick, snappy instrumental jaunt for Simon's coffeehouse guitar and Stephane Grappelli's immediately recognisable violin, almost heartbreaking in its brief revelation of the wider world concealed beneath the shell of urban stress - and we remember that the term "hobo" was originally an abbreviation of "homeward bound."

Elsewhere it's about misadventures and mishaps and what the hell is this day supposed to look like; "Run That Body Down" is a lateral meditation on the legacy, if any, of the sixties - his doctor tells him to stop the abuse, he in turn tells his then-wife Peg to do the same. At the title there are four rapid smashes of acoustic guitar chords (played by Simon and David Spinozza); Simon's "Who you foolin'?" falsetto and his "IIIIIIIIIII" sustenati go almost into the airy abstract. Jerry Hahn's seagull-like wah-wah electric moves the song into a more contemplative quarter but the message is unabated; how long can any of us go on pretending that it's still as it was five years ago - the war's still on, people we know have died; how much longer?

Ah, yes, the war that was still on, and the ineffable weariness of a nation which Simon articulates so perfectly on "Armistice Day"; he's down in Washington DC looking to speak to his Congressman but he's still waiting and getting tired. The symbolism here is clear and abject, but note the unorthodox chords which greet the revelation "She was there," backed by Airto Moreira's tick-tock percussion. Simon and the group hold on that last chord and turn the song into a modal drone, featuring the horns and Hahn's energetic electric guitar which steadily gets funkier and more inventive. Again there is an unexpected feeling of the Delta about the piece; where does that "When I needed a friend she was there/Just like an easy chair" come in? He's tired but he's also playing away ("Oh Congresswoman/Won't you tell that Congressman?") - you do what you have to do in order to live, as well as exist, while you're waiting; look, he says, how far down I have been dragged.

"Peace Like A River," however, is the closest that Simon has ever got to an explicit protest song, or as explicit as he wishes it to be; the mood is bluesy, patrolled by Joe Osborn's strolling bass, and as the song progresses the work of the three musicians (Simon on guitar, Osborn, and drummer Victor Montanez) moves more towards Timbuktu; at times we could almost be listening to Ali Farka Touré. But then Simon's guitar fills out into a background chorale for the choruses; they have been waiting, this crowd, for something to happen, or to be delivered - they are not quite free yet and expect more pain before the final freedom happens, but they will not be deterred; "You can beat us with wires/You can beat us with chains/You can run out your rules," sings Simon in the most atypical chorus he ever wrote, "But you know you can't outrun the history train." Once more, the grain of Simon's improvising voice is remarkable; his breathing "Aaaaaaah"s, his fluttering "Oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh"s, his no longer weary "four in the morning." Christgau has referred to this song as Walter Carlos Williams after the repression but to me Wallace Stevens (despite being markedly more of a political conservative than Williams, or for that matter Simon) is a more fitting comparison point; Stevens understood that reality had to form itself out of dreams before it could become real and that perspective and emotion, and the poet and reader's relationship to both, were what counted. Over and over in his work Stevens questions himself, his art, his tools of imagination, but it is all put in the service of a successful and revelatory consummation of desire and action.

Thus it doesn't really matter what the (imprisoned? About to be released?) audience of "Peace Like A River" are waiting for, just as it doesn't matter what misdemeanours have caused him and Julio to make a run for it; Airto's whooping percussion on "Schoolyard" remains a delight, but this song (even with its whistling) is not free of grenades; the "radical priest" who gets the kids out of jail and onto the cover of Newsweek has to be one of the Berrigans, two of the most vocal opposers of Vietnam and of Nixon (remember Daniel Ellsberg and that Ray Conniff concert?). "Well I'm on my way," sings Simon. "I don't know where I'm going.../I'm taking my time." Are we all ready for the country, in either sense?

But then there is "Everything Put Together Falls Apart," the record's equivalent to "The Needle And The Damage Done" and musically as stark, even if Knetchel's harmonium and Fender Rhodes express alienation in a language that the Manhattan wine bar would understand; the song strolls cautiously through myriad chambers of unexpected chord changes as Simon effortlessly repositions Young's howls in the city. "Taking downs to get off to sleep/And ups to start you on your way/After a while they'll change your ways," he warns, before breaking into an inexpressible falsetto ("Ooo-oo-oo-ooh") on the heels of the starkest last couplet of any songs upon which this tale has thus far stumbled: "But when it's done and the police come, and they lay you down for dead/Just remember what I said," following which Simon's acoustic stings and Knetchel takes the song out on a horrifically ironic barrelhouse of keyboards. This is not the reason why we did and believed all that stuff, you remember...or do you?

The record itself closes with "Congratulations"; Knetchel's electric piano shivers like a trapped eel through the centre of the song's bridge (all those bridges, all this trouble) before switching to stately, spiritual organ. Hal Blaine's drums are a literal heartbeat, meeting Osborn's rising bass. Meanwhile Simon has had enough; he takes his world and the immediate past to pieces ("Ohhhhhhh, and I don't know when" - the exhausted cry of a defeated urbanite); what did those sixties, that supposed love, get for us, or where did it get us? "I notice so many people/Slipping away" - their numbers get fewer by the day - "And many more waiting in the lines/In the courthouse today...in the courthouse today"; the unions divorcing, the splits rendered. "Love is not a game, love is not a toy," he says, exasperated, and finally, as all of the lights go out, Simon concludes, alone and utterly apart, with a final, exhausted question: "Can a man and woman/Live together in peace?" before issuing a last plea, the simplest of all pleas - "Oh, live together in peace." Knechtel's piano escorts us from the scene.

There were of course other accounts of collapsing society to account for at the time - not least, There's A Riot Goin' On - and although Simon is less obviously in pain than Sly Stone, the aura of imminent extinction remains high, and this album sets Simon's lines against as unapologetically real a background and environment as they ever found; it is hardly surprising that Simon never quite managed to stare reality this starkly in its face again - the following year's There Goes Rhymin' Simon was necessarily a happier affair, but his attitude towards what was real and not became more equivocal ("Kodachrome"); and despite many fine records of variable popularity in the interim, it isn't until the rueful maturity of 1983's Hearts And Bones that Simon really gets back to this territory and speak to it as directly as he does here ("The Late Great Johnny Ace" remains the wisest and calmest response to Lennon's passing expressed by anyone in popular music). As 1972 moved into its uncertain spring, Simon tells it as he thinks it is - and the world was as near to his thoughts as it dared, or could bear, to get.

1 comment:

david said...

Another post that makes me want to rush back to the record. Paul Simon has been rather unfashionable in the UK for a long time and it's great to see him given his due. Oh, and glad too see you single out one of the songs from 'Hearts and Bones, too, a much underrated album that I've always considered a masterpiece.