So Beautiful or So What
It appears that Paul Simon has been thinking about going somewhere unlike all of the many lands around the globe that he has visited over the years in search of musical inspiration. He is giving thought to the final expedition, the big trip across the divide to the only place that even he cannot plunder.
Simon will turn seventy in the same year as both Art Garfunkel, the creamy-voiced journeyman who stood placidly at Simon’s right side for years, and Bob Dylan, the peer of Simon’s whose towering specter has always hovered near Simon’s other side. With age and its consequences clearly in mind, Simon has made a new album called So Beautiful or So What, which deals squarely if not exclusively with the theme of mortality. It is essentially a suite of songs about the approach and the imagined arrival of death.
Simon deals with this subject matter in the terms most familiar to him: geosocial terms, the terms of culture and place. Nearly all of the ten songs in the project touch on cosmic questions about the nature of life and God, and most of them do so in the language of travel. Simon portrays the most profound kind of dislocation—an encounter with the metaphysical—in the imagery of physical location. With So Beautiful or So What, the culmination of his lifelong obsession with place as a source of opportunity and transcendence, Simon plays tour guide to the ultimate Graceland.
In the opening strains of the first track on the album, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” Simon establishes the theme of mortality through a sample from the final homily recorded by the Reverend J.M. Gates, the Baptist pastor who once ministered to Black America by Victrola, releasing hundreds of sermons as 78-rpm singles during the first half of the twentieth century. We hear a sample of Gates preaching in roaring tones mixed neatly under Simon’s lithe crooning:
Done made it up in your mind that I’m going, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago. I’m going on a trip, getting ready for Christmas Day. But when Christmas come, nobody knows where you’ll be. You might ask me. I may be layin’ in some lonesome grave, getting ready for Christmas Day.
Simon presents this parable of preparedness for death as a change in travel plans to a bouncy tune almost identical the melody “Taking Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Presuming the allusion is intentional, it is perversely, atypically funny for Simon, who has always been more clever than humorous.
From there, he amps up the cleverness as well as the literalness of his anthropological conception of the spiritual domain. The album’s second song, titled simply “The Afterlife,” is an imagined first-person account of ascension to eternity as an indoctrination session on the customs of a kingdom straight out of one of those old celestial mix-up movies like Stairway to Heaven and Heaven Can Wait. Simon’s protagonist bounces around the dry-ice bureaucracy, dutifully waiting in line and filling out forms while he flirts with a pretty female initiate, also recently deceased. The afterlife in this jokey little drama is the kind of afterplace easy to navigate by learning the local codes.
Scenes of life moving toward death recur throughout the album. In “Rewrite,” the character singing recalls his own story with regret and petitions God for another draft of his life, one eliminating the pages that have him abandoning his family and substituting scenes of movie-hero valor. “Help me, help me, help me, help me,” he sings, and “Thank you, for listening to my prayer.” There is a great deal of prayer in So Beautiful or So What—talk to God, talk of God, even some talk by God, and nearly all of it is situated somehow in relation to place. In one song, “Love and Hard Times,” Simon reverses the scheme of “Afterlife” and has God, accompanied by Jesus, making a visit to our world—“a courtesy call on Earth one Sunday morning,” Simon sings:
“Well, we got to get going,” said the
restless Lord to the Son
“There are galaxies to be born,
creation is never done
Anyway, these people are slobs here
If we stay, it’s bound to be a mob scene”
At first, the references to Jesus in the song, along with the Lord’s casual dissing of humankind as a species of slobs, seem satirical—attempts by Simon to poke fun at Christians through the same sort of divine sock-puppetry that Randy Newman started employing in songs years ago. After all, we know that Paul Simon is Jewish. Why would he be murmuring about “God and His only son”? As “Love and Hard Times” progresses—episodically, unpredictably—it takes its full form as a strange and gorgeous love song, a prayer of thanks for the sacred gift of romance. Jesus is there, no doubt, for allusive function—just as he was in “Mrs. Robinson”—to evoke the gospel music that is only one of the many traditions that Simon began drawing from decades ago, primarily because they were not his own—until he made them so.
When I was a teenage guitar player, a Hungarian-Italian kid in blue-collar New Jersey, I saw nothing but the dead and dying in my little town, and I wanted to be like Paul Simon, because he mentioned Emily Dickinson in a song and talked about Jerome Kern on The Dick Cavett Show. He was a limited provincial music nerd’s idea of a New York intellectual. When Simon was the same age, about twenty years before me, he was living in a middle-class neighborhood of Queens, New York—his father, a bookish dance-band musician, got a Ph.D. in linguistics from NYU and became a professor at City College. Simon longed to be like the Puerto Rican, Italian, and African American boys he heard singing doo-wop on the city streets.
To emulate others in envy of one’s own fantasy conception of their otherness is a defining act of American adolescence, of course—one of the ways in which we remake ourselves in the name of finding ourselves. It is by no means exceptional for a teenager such as Paul Simon to have been drawn to music from spheres he thought of as exotic, and to have absorbed them into his youthful efforts at art. What is extraordinary, even in a culture long conceived of as a melting pot, is the unremitting fervor of Simon’s pursuit of exotica as a resource long after he established his own personality as an artist. The adolescent fantasy survived beyond his adolescence. Emulation became one of the defining methods of his creative life.
“I’m always searching for the same thing, which is a sound that I heard in my childhood when I first became interested in music, at the age of twelve, thirteen, when I first heard rock and roll,” Simon explained in an interview several years ago. “The sound of rock and roll in the Fifties, when it first began, I assure you, was as exotic and as strange to me as the sound of Brazilian drums or South African guitars. I assure you, it was a cultural leap that was as great or greater than the ones that I’m making now.” In his first decade as a songwriter, starting in 1955 (when he copyrighted his first songs, a few of them written with Garfunkel after their high-school classes), Simon leapt all around the musical terrain of the early rock era, seeing where he would land if he tried to do a sock-hop number (“Dancin’ Wild”), a teary ballad (“Play Me a Sad Song”), or a novelty tune (“The Lone Teen Ranger”).
Working sometimes with Garfunkel (with whom, as “Tom and Jerry,” Simon had his first hit, “Hey, Schoolgirl”), sometimes as a solo singer, and sometimes as a songwriter for hire by other acts, Simon wrote more than a dozen songs recorded before Simon and Garfunkel became Simon and Garfunkel. The material ranges from forgettable (“I’m Lonely”) to embarrassing (“Get Up and Do the Wobble”), as it should: good works of apprenticeship are free to be bad. Tellingly, though, the most appealing songs in this repertoire are a few tunes that Simon recorded with a band he called Tico & the Triumphs, which sounds like a name Arthur Laurents rejected for the Puerto Rican gang in West Side Story; and the loveliest of these songs is a somber ballad called “Carlos Dominguez,” which Simon, recording under his onetime stage name Paul Kane, sang with a soft Latin accent. “I searched for a truth,” Simon sings as the character Dominguez. “All I found was a lie/I looked for eternity/But I find all men die.”
With the rise of the folk craze in the early 1960s, Simon wanted to distance himself from the teen-pop material he came to see as “fodder for eunuchs,” and he succeeded through literal distancing, by moving to England. He needed a new sound and he went searching for it. He commandeered the London coffeehouses, where local singers such as Ian Campbell and Ed McCurdy were tapping the centuries-old traditions of Gallic balladry and minstrel song, strains of music historically related to but clearly distinct from the Dust Bowl ballads and country blues that American folksingers were performing at the same time on MacDougal Street. Simon soaked up the bleak mellifluence and tweedy poeticism of olde English, Scots, and Irish songs such as “The Bonnie Lass o’Fyvie” and “Scarborough Fair,” and he started writing tunes of his own in the same vein. With the meticulous, even compulsive care that soon came to distinguish his work, Simon crafted lyrics mingling images of the Old and New Worlds—streets of cobblestone and neon signs—and began to find a compositional voice recognizable as his own. He learned to subsume his influences, to draw discriminately from them, and to transcend mere emulation.
The theme of place was present from the first Simon and Garfunkel albums through all of Simon’s solo recordings. Who is Paul Simon, in his songs? A rock, an island, homeward bound, a bridge over troubled water, the only living boy in New York, going to Graceland. To my ears, the most affecting song Simon ever wrote is “America,” from the Simon and Garfunkel album Bookends in 1968, and it is a rumination on identity in the form of a chat between two lovers on a bus trip across the country. (The lyrics, simple and conversational, never rhyme.) To find himself as a songwriter, Simon looked for America.
Over time, he ventured further and further from his native territory, and came back with more real estate in his bag. It is more than forty years now since he took an instrumental recording by a Peruvian group, Los Incas, wrote a set of original English lyrics that sound like a translation from Spanish, and overdubbed them with Garfunkel to make “El Condor Pasa”—a lovely song that has been overplayed for so long that hearing that lyric about the hammer makes me want to find one and start smashing. To his credit, Simon acknowledged and compensated the Peruvian originators of the tune, took Los Incas on tour with him, produced an album for them, and hired the group for a track on his first solo album, “Duncan.” (“Couple in the next room”.... Cue Peruvian flutes.) In the process, he established the pattern of discovery, appropriation, and benevolent advocacy that he would employ on a large scale with his much celebrated and much debated collaborations with South African pop musicians (and others from around the world) on Graceland, in 1986, and its follow-up adventure with Brazilian percussionists, Rhythm of the Saints, in 1990.
Twenty-five years after the fact, there is little point in reviving the arguments over Graceland. Where one sees carpetbagging, another sees championship, and the casual acceptance today of Vampire Weekend—world music from a group of white boys from Columbia (not the country, the college)—makes clear that pop music has landed in a non-ownership zone, in which everyone lays equal claim to everything. I have never been outraged by the proposition that Paul Simon exploited Ladysmith Black Mambazo or Joseph Shabalala to make Graceland. Ladysmith has drawn steady crowds all over the western world since Graceland, and Simon shared the songwriting credit on (and royalties for) “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” with Shabalala. Still, I cannot listen to Graceland—or The Rhythm of the Saints, or the songs for The Capeman, Simon’s disaster as a Broadway musical composer (which I saw on stage and hated almost as much as every other critic did), or, for that matter, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” I don’t find them objectionable on legalistic grounds for sound-stealing; I find them unbearable for the smugness in Simon’s singing, the self-satisfaction that is palpable in his voice, and for the noble-savage voyeurism of all those lyrics about men with faces black as night and little brown babies born along the river. Arrogance is the food of imperialism, yes; but it is the arrogance, not the imperialism, that poisons Simon’s music—and it does so to much more of his work than the overtly derivative albums. The same arrogance taints There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, where it takes the form of slick Grammy-mongering.
I was recently talking about Simon with a good friend, a session guitar player in New York, and he said, “The word among musicians is, if Paul Simon calls, you don’t take the gig—it isn’t worth the money.” The truth cannot be that simple; plenty of fine musicians have taken work with Simon, and my friend may be envious of them. Still, I understand what he means when he talks about the oppressiveness of Simon’s ego, because I can hear it in a great deal of the music he has made until recently. There is an almost poignant irony in the fact that all his travels over the years have rarely taken him far from himself.
The accomplishment of So Beautiful or So What is the humility that infuses it, musically and lyrically. It is elegiac, from beginning to end, with welcome digressions of offhanded fun. Paul Simon has looked at life from the brink of age seventy to find it terribly strange after all. He has said “so what” not with a smirk, but with a shrug of resignation.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the June 9, 2011, issue of the magazine.
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