Thursday, June 03, 2010

today : I don't deny the obvious

Songs aren't poetry. Of course, they can be poetic, but there is something about a song that means that without rhythm, melody and intonation, the lyrics alone always appear shrunken.

I was watching the news the other evening. I think it was ABC CBS or CNN or something. They showed a montage of famous people giving commencement speeches at US Universities. One of them was Paul Simon, singing with a guitar. He looked like an old man. It made me realise that the last time I remember seeing him was when he was promoting his 2000 album You're The One - which makes it ten years ago. Can't blame him for ageing in ten years. Or for looking like a grandfather. He is almost 70.

Then, on something on TV promoting the World Cup I heard a snippet of 'Homeless'. It made me go and listen to Graceland again. It's been a couple of years since I heard it.

It took me until I was 40 to start appreciating Joni Mitchell - who is roughly Simon's contemporary and could be put in a similar genre category. Until then I was always aware of her. She, like he, just exists in musical culture. Even people who don't know it's her know Big Yellow Taxi or Clouds. Even people who don't know it's him know Sounds of Silence or Bridge over Troubled Water or Diamonds on The Soles of Her Shoes.

That's what great about music. There's loads of it, and you can start to explore different areas at any time. My current favourite track is Ventura Highway by America. I'd heard it plenty but suddenly, a couple of weeks ago I really listened to it. Can't stop playing it in the car. It sounds like California.

I'm glad in a way that I left Joni until I was already steeped in jazz and older folk music. I can appreciate the fact that she moved away from peoples' taste towards the late 70s as she herself began writing and singing looser - influenced by post be-bop and other non-mainstream fare. It meant that I could see where she was going. Some people find her unbearable, and I can get that, but I love her music more and more.

It took me until even after Joni to really get to Paul Simon. What I liked about Graceland was that it did mark a change in his writing. He too, took a musical detour and it led him to write in a looser and more interesting way.

I never really listened to it when it came out. I was at college and it was kind of the soundtrack of the times. I did hear You Can Call Me Al on the radio and was struck by it's fantastic bassline, but I was following Loyd Cole, Paddy MaCaloon and others more obscure and now forgotten. In fact I felt the kind of distaste that young people can feel for anything that is too popular and mainstream, so turned my nose up at fellow students who listened to Sting's solo album and Graceland. The times meant that Simon was pilloried for breaking sanctions, and I stayed out of that one too. I was (and am still) generally all for sanctions, provided that they are properly done and targeted at the richest parts of a regime and its supporters who will feel them in the pocket most. I bought Little Steven's Sun City album and thought that such an embargo was okay. After all, Sun City was a resort for rich, white South Africans. Graceland seemed slightly different. It never really appeared to be exploitative. Without it perhaps Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makebe and lots of township music would not have been so popular worldwide. On its simplest level, Simon gave work to some black South African musicians who toured with him and built careers outside their home country.

It wasn't until years later that I listened to Boy In The Bubble on someone else's car stereo. It's fantastic. I listened to it today, then flicked the CD back and listened to it again.

It is extremely rare for any artist to last so long. Simon has been going for almost 50 years. It's even rarer for them to not burn out artistically and then continuously repeat themselves. Ironically, I think that because he was such an icon of the 60s and could have retired in 1970 leaving behind a pretty peerless greatest hits album, people have under-appreciated him. He doesn't have the obsessive literature and analysis that someone like Dylan, or even Mitchell attracts. Maybe he is too easy on the ear and just too damn popular amongst people who aren't generally obsessive or snobbish about their music.

What changed for me when I really started listening to the whole output from Tom and Jerry onwards (somehow I missed his last album Surprise) was that always thought of him as a great songwriter. But I never quite appreciated what a great musician and singer he is. I don't think I am the onnly one guilty of this.

I could write all about the songs. The art and the craft. How he somehow manages to use language that is both meaningful and meaningless at the same, how he has a gift for the bon mot, or ligne mot that sticks in the mind - 'angels in the architecture, negotiations and love songs, the words of the prophet are written on the subway walls and tenement halls, like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay me down, when they wake up they will find all their personal belongings are intertwined, everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, home - where my love lies waiting silently for me, the Mississippi delta was shining like a National guitar.' How he manipulates the rhymes and rhythms of language so musically, constructs songs so carefully and precisely and throws in complex melodic twists whilst creating eminently hummable and deceptively simple tunes.

But what I really wanted to do was to just pay tribute to his endless musical journeying and his precise but relaxed singing, his detailed and skilled guitar work and his ability to conjure up musical frames for his lyrics that enhance their poetic nature. He is pretty much a genius.
As an example, the S&G setting of Scarborough Fayre. The music that soundtracks dreams.

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