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Sunday, October 13, 2013

No ordinary player - Paul Simon turns 72

Maybe Paul Simon has Impostor's Syndrome, too. In the song "Outrageous" on his 2006 CD Surprise, he asks:
Who's gonna love ya when your looks are gone?
God will,
Like he waters the flowers on your windowsill.
Take me.
I'm an ordinary player in the key of C.
And my will was broken by my pride and my vanity.

Maybe he's being dissembling or ironic, I guess, but the music doesn't sound ironic. Not that there's not plenty of irony and smiles in Surprise, which is full of provocative lyrics that refuse to be considered metaphysical. Simon is reflective, but he seems to be reflective only on his experience of life-as-it-is, and not on any religious or simplistic nostalgia. He seems to really mean here that grace, whatever that means, surprised him in spite of his perceived shortcomings, and at this point in his life he finds himself to be what he is. It's pretty remarkable, I think.  In his songwriting he's always been serious about his experience, in a sense, sometimes wistfully, regretfully, sometimes with his tongue in his cheek, sometimes with a force that only the economy of a poet and art of a songwriter can achieve.

Surprise seems related to me to his previous collection, You're the One, which I thought was under-appreciated. "Old" and "Outrageous" are cut from the same cloth, or as Simon might ask, "why deny the obvious child?" Hardly any other songwriter can mix emotions with such tenderness and humor as Simon, a quality that comes through in "Darling Lorraine" from the earlier CD, as well as in songs like "How Can You Live in the Northeast" and "Father and Daughter."

Who but Paul Simon (and maybe Joni Mitchell) would be able to write and sing a couplet like this one?
A teardrop consists of electrolytes and salt.
The chemistry of crying is not concerned with blame or fault.

But the Surprise is full of moments like that which stop me in my tracks and leave me shaking my head with admiration. And the songs have plenty of mystical, spiritual moments that are more honest than most religious songs you'll hear on Christian radio or in the church:
All about hard times, the thing is, what are you gonna do?
Well, you cry and try to muscle through.
Try to rearrange your stuff,
But when the wounds are deep enough
And it's all that we can bear,
We wrap ourselves in prayer.

Lest we think that he's too religious, there's the amazing lyric of "I Don't Believe," which contains some lines like this:
Acts of kindness, like breadcrumbs in a fairy tale forest,
Lead us past dangers as light melts the darkness.
But I don't believe, and I'm not consoled.
I lean closer to the fire, but I'm cold....

All these lyrics are copyright © 2006 by Paul Simon

I was going to write a lot more about all that Simon's music has meant to me over the years, but it's Sunday and I have other work to do. But like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, he's a songwriter with whom I've literally grown up. I remember playing "The Sound of Silence" and "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme" in high school, and every couple of years it was some new song or songs that became part of the repertoire. No one else that I know of has that humorous irony in his lyrics. Joni and Zimm are surely as reflective and poetic, but Simon's gift is the half-smile he wears as he dances with the ordinary, the sense that "sometimes even music is no substitute for tears," and the hope that underlies his vision of humanity, hope that he mines from his experience of the goodness of ordinary people and what he perceives to be a mostly benevolent universe.

For today, consider auditioning Surprise. If nothing else, it's truth in packaging.