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Paul Simon: Songwriter

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 26, 2011
Category: Rock

This is a poem by a recent Poet Laureate — out of respect for the position, I won’t identify the poet:

All night each reedy whinny
from a bird no bigger than a heart
flies out of a tall black pine
and, in a breath, is taken away
by the stars. Yet, with small hope
from the center of darkness,
it calls out again and again.
Delights & Shadows.

And this is a stanza of a Paul Simon song:

There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
Oh, so this is what she means
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody feels the wind blow…

Now I ask you: Who is the real Poet Laureate?

And not just for a year — for every year since he wrote ”Sounds of Silence,” all 50 of them.

You object. And I know where you’re going: Bob Dylan.

It is true, for a six-year period, Dylan was galactic in output and quality. But no one knows better than Dylan how the angel of poetry sits on your shoulder — and then doesn’t. As he told Steve Jobs:

He said, “They [those songs from the ‘60s] just came through me, it wasn’t like I was having to compose them. That doesn’t happen anymore, I just can’t write them that way anymore.” Then he paused and said to me with his raspy voice and little smile, “But I still can sing them.”

Well, at 70+, Simon can still write them. From So Beautiful, Or So What:

Sweet July, and we drove the Montauk Highway
And walked along the cliffs above the sea
And we wondered why, and imagined it was someday
And that is how the future came to be
Dazzling blue, roses red, fine white linen
To make a marriage bed
And we’ll build a wall that nothing can break through
And dream our dreams of dazzling blue

As for singing, just revisit his performance of “Sound of Silence” at the 9/11 memorial service. (You know Springsteen had to wonder why he hadn’t been asked to sing “The Rising.”)

Is that not the very definition of mastery?

And now we have “Paul Simon: Songwriter” — two discs, 32 songs, 140 minutes of music. You know most of them. But there are alternate versions, and choices you might not have made, and, mostly, there’s a chronological sequence that starts with the teenage triumph of “Sounds of Silence” — recorded live this year — to “So Beautiful,” recorded in the studio this year. [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here. For hardcore fans, there’s a book: Lyrics: 1964-2011.]

Simon’s view is that he’s a writer first, a performer second. And despite the luscious musicality of his songs, I’m inclined to agree. Name a song, up pops a memory: “The Boxer,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Kodachrome,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and all of “Graceland,” his favorite song, his favorite album, his masterpiece.

The popular idea is that those songs stay with us because they’re short stories and character sketches. Fine. I see them as screenplays. “The Mississippi Delta was shining/ Like a National guitar” — I see that. Add the music, get a movie. Because the best writing is, it says here, visual writing.

Paul Simon, Poet Laureate.