After 1973’s uncharacteristically upbeat There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Paul Simon’s next release was the enjoyable but inessential single live album Live Rhymin’ (1974). But his subsequent studio album stands among his very best work — an anthology of ten very different songs that nevertheless cohere around Simon’s underlying theme: a growing concern that, at the age of 34, he had passed his creative peak, couldn’t successfully settle in a relationship, and had tied himself into decisions that he might now make differently.
As I write this at age 46, Simon has just released Stranger to Stranger at age 74. The idea that he was once 34 seems impossibly distant; and the idea that he could have worried then about being past his prime nothing short of absurd. Yet that concern, treated in Simon’s distinctively whimsical and self-deprecatory manner, gave rise to a masterpiece.
The album opens with the title track, Still Crazy After All These Years. Harmomically, this song is effortlessly sophisticated; lyrically, it is economical and evocative. The opening couplet, “I met my old lover on the street last night / She seemed so glad to see me; I just smiled” contains a world of backstory, and a truckload of ambiguity. Is “on the street” a simple geographical setting, or does it imply prostitution? What do his and the lover’s differing degrees on enthusiasm indicate? Is “old lover” merely chronologically descriptive, as in “former lover”, or does the phrase indicate that Simon is also feeling his own age? The delivery, too, is enigmetic: “I just smiled” sung in a way that encompasses a world of potential interpretations, worthy of the Mona Lisa.
“And we talked about some old times, and we drank ourselves some beers”, Simon tells us — the relationship still cordial, at least, but certainly not intimate. And so we arrive for the first time at the title phrase, which this time around we take at face value: we can still have some fun, Simon tells us.
The second verse, a bridge and Michael Brecker’s saxophone solo bring us to the third and final verse, and this time there’s a subtle change. Musically, there’s a gorgeously inevitable-seeming modulation at the end of the second line; and lyrically we’re told a story of someone who has now receded from participating in life and become an observer:
So I sit by my window and I watch the cars
I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day
But I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers
Still crazy after all these years
The meaning of the title line has shifted. Now we’re seeing a man not so much asserting his own youth as pleading for it — trying to persuade himself that he’s still in the game, not just on the sidelines.
It’s about as perfect as a three-minute song can be.
In October 2000, I saw Paul Simon playing live at Hammersmith Odeon, in support of his then-new album You’re the One. To my absolute delight, the very last song he played — the second encore — was Still Crazy. At Hammersmith, a quarter-century after the original recording, it took on a new and very different beauty. I’d always read the album version as a song of denial, of self-deception: the words are those of someone careering headlong towards middle age and protesting too much, trying to convince himself as much as anyone else that he’s still young at heart. But in 2000, the meaning of song flipped through a full 180 degrees, and became a legitimate celebration of longevity. Maybe I was imagining it, but it seemed to me that this interpretation was saying, “Yes OK, so I’m nearly sixty; but I’ve got a new album out and I’m touring and I’m still having fun!” It felt like a gentle, shared in-joke – if you can share an in-joke between four thousand audience members. Great song selection: it was a wholly appropriate and profoundly beautiful end to a wonderful evening.
Next up is My Little Town, the new “Simon and Garfunkel” song — and I think perhaps the last time an Art Garfunkel vocal appeared on a Paul Simon recording. The same track also appears on Garfunkel’s 1975 solo album Breakaway (which is why that is the only Garfunkel solo album I have. It’s pretty good.)
And to be fair, while I generally prefer Simon’s solo material to S&G, this is a rather wonderful song. It begins very gently, sounding wistful: “In my little town, I grew up believing / God keeps his eye on us all”. But as the song progresses, the arrangement becomes fuller, and the lyrics becomes more bitter until in the final verse we hear: “In my little town, I never meant nothing / I was just my father’s son”. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it’s become an angry song. The faded-out closing repeated line expresses contempt: “Leaving nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.” What makes it work is the dynamic quality: it’s not just someone expressing their frustration, but discovering it.
Simon has said the song is not autobiographical; Garfunkel has said that it is. I think we can only conclude that Garfunkel was unhappier with his upbringing than Simon was with his.
I Do It For Your Love is one of a kind: a lovely, doleful little song about a wedding and honeymoon taking place in wretched circumstance. The open couplet is vintage Simon: “We were married on a rainy day / The sky was yellow and the grass was grey”. That is brilliant: any other songwriter would have gone with “The grass was yellow and the sky was grey”; by switching the colours, Simon veers into magical realism and gives us a truly striking image.
The song progresses in what can only be described as a lighthearted trudge, lifting off only for the oddly Parisian-sounding harmonica solo. And as the vocal returns for the final verse, we get one of the most beautiful and surreal images I’ve ever heard in a song:
Sting of reason, splash of tears
The northern and the southern hemispheres
Love emerges and it disappears
I do it for your love.
For the third time in as many songs, we end the song in a very different mood from where we started. Where Still Crazy moved from ambivalent self-reassurance to deluded self-persuasian, and My Little Town from nostalgia to anger, I Do It For Your Love starts endearingly and ends up with a sense of resignation to the inevitability of a failed relationship. It’s this sense of emotional journey the lifts the album, and especially this opening triptych, into the realms of art: we’re not just getting snapshots, but seeing processes.
At this point, the album could become suffocating, especially as all three songs’ emotional transitions have been from more positive to more negative positions — perhaps reflecting Simon’s divorce from Peggy Harper in the year the album was released.
Instead, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover brings a lighter touch (though of course the subject is equally downbeat, once more mediating on possible ends to a relationship). Simon says he wrote this mostly to teach his young son rhyming (“Slip out the back, Jack; make a new plan, Stan”) — if that’s true, it seems like singularly inappropriate subject matter, but there it is. The lyric is frivolous but perfectly crafted: “She said it’s really not by habit to intrude / Furthermore, I hope my meaning won’t be lost or misconstrued”.
What really makes the song work is its texture: the very distinctive semi-military drum pattern by Steve Gadd, complemented by sparse guitar chords and minimal bass provide the backdrop for the vocal, which is joined with harmonies for the chorus. The whole song is crystal clear from start to end. It is, to be honest, a slight contribution; but a perfectly constructed one.
(We are promised 50 ways to leave a lover; in fact, we are given only six — and that is being generous, and including “Don’t need to be coy, Roy” and “No need to discuss much”. Toss those out and the only four ways are “Slip out the back, Jack”, “Make a new plan, Stan”, and “Hop on the bus, Gus” and “Drop off the key, Lee”.)
Side one ends with an oddity in Night Game. Ostensibly an account of a baseball game, I assume it has some symbolic meaning that is lost to me because of my being British and a football fan. It is one of the gentlest songs I know, resolutely refusing to build from its subdued opening and remaining thoughful and withdrawn throughout. There is emotion there, but it is not worn on the sleeve. I only wish I knew what it was about.
Side 2 opens with Gone at Last, a gospel-flavoured rock and roller about finding fragments of happiness wherever they are. Simon sings the first verse, guest Phoebe Snow sings the second, and they share the third. The effect is interesting: by standard metrics, Snow is a much better singer than Simon — a proper diva with huge range and great power. Even allowing for some clever producing, it’s impressive that Simon keeps up with her, and performs as an equal partner. Although he’s usually thought of as a gentle and meditative singer, it turns out that he can operate on the same level as Snow, not by the power of his voice but by the sheer conviction of the performance.
I used to think of Gone at Last as the weak point of the album, and it’s certainly true that it doesn’t touch anything like the same depths as the Still Crazy, I Do It For Your Love, Have a Good Time and so on. But I’ve come to feel that that evaluation is unnecessarily puritanical: the album does need lighter moments. And the solo voice that opens Some Folks’ Lives after the fade of Gone at Last is one of the album’s finest moments of contrast.
And Some Folks’ Live Roll Easy is simply beautiful: on paper, the words look like an outpouring of resentment at the ease of others’ lives compared with the singer’s; but the easy, warm delivery undercuts the sourness of the ostensible message, and leaves instead an inexplicably blissful meditation that seems set to land on some kind of contentment until the final stanza: “Some folks’ lives never roll at all / They just fall.”
Harmonically, this is one of those Simon songs that is deceptively complex. It sings so easily that the exotic chordal movements can be overlooked — and, arguably, should be: they leave a subliminal impression, and that is probably as Simon intended. But the harmonic richness is brought to the surface by an improbable but successful close-harmony cover version by the King’s Singers. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it does.
Some Folks’ Lives ties into the same narrative as Still Crazy and I Do It For Your Love; but maybe more importantly, it conveys the same atmosphere. It’s a difficult one to describe in words, which is why you’ll do better to listen to the album than to read this descriptions. But if I had to take a stab, I would call it a the wry, gently cynical perspective of a person who’s able to find amusement in his own imperfections and misfortunes. And it’s that half-concealed quality of amusement that lifts this album above the merely morose or self-pitying.
And that quality finds it clearest statement in Have a Good Time, a song that has its tongue firmly in its cheek from start to finish. A wide open arrangement leaves lots of space for Simon’s voice, backed only by sparse drums, bass and prominent work from a mournful slide guitar. An inventory taken on the day after a birthday — “I hung one more year on the line” — it sticks doggedly to the conclusion that, whatever disapointments life might have dished out, we may as well enjoy what we have.
Maybe I’m laughing my way to disaster
Maybe my race has been run
Maybe I’m blind to the fate of mankind
But what can be done?
It’s a surprisingly cheerful message, and a practical one — but maybe a little too practical, a little on the cynical side? At any rate, the laissez-faire attitude is undercut by the frantic unaccompanied sax solo that closes out the song. As with Still Crazy itself, Have a Good Time positively reeks of self-deception. It’s the song of someone who doesn’t really understand how he himself feels.
You’re Kind is more straightforward, but just as conflicted: a doleful trudge with cheerful words, which analyses a relationship that might be perfect or might be suffocating. Throughout, Simon has nothing but good things to say about his partner — until in the final verse, apropos of nothing, he declares:
I’m gonna leave you now, and here’s the reason why
You like to sleep with the window open
And I sleep with the window closed
It’s perfectly clear that even if Simon knows 50 ways to leave his lover, he has no good reason to do so — so he makes do with a bad reason. It’s an abdication of responsibility, an admission of defeat, an acquiescence to the inability to commit. It its undemonstrative way, You’re Kind may be the saddest song on the album — because it suggests that the seeds of Simon’s relationship problems lie not in circumstances that might someday change, but in himself.
The album closes with Silent Eyes, a sombre meditation infused with biblical imagery that could mean anything or nothing. “Silent eyes watching Jerusalem” might be the eyes of God. But the eyes that watch Jerusalem watch her “make her bed of stone” — so it’s a cold, unfeeling God. “No-one will comfort her; Jerusalem weeps alone”. We might interpret the song as figuratively depicting a sense of abandonment by God, by society, even by the music industry; but perhaps it’s a mistake to search too hard for an interpretation.
Harmonically, it’s a classic example of how Simon can produce something that sounds natural but, when analysed, turns out to have all kinds of tricks going on: notably, for example, the simple instrumental passage in the middle of the song somehow returns us to the final verse a semitone higher than we started out.
The consistently mournful quality of Silent Eyes sets it apart from the rest of the album, where the melancholy is always alloyed with optimisism, self-deprecation or simple goofiness. Only in this final song is a single emotion allowed to win out. That makes Silent Eyes in some sense contradictory to the rest of the album; but perhaps it is better to see it as a consummation — or if you prefer, a resignation, a throwing in of the towel. After all the protest-too-much of Still Crazy and Have a Good Time, we finish on a definitively downbeat note. The game is up.
Still Crazy After All These Years is not a long album: its ten songs are pretty much all in the three-to-four minute range, for a total running time of 35 minutes. But in that short time it walks a rich and complex line, surveying numerous different responses to aging and relationship breakdown. In retrospect, the startling thing is that Simon produced so literate, insightful and wise an album at such a young age as 34.
Choosing favourites is invidious, but there is a strong case to be made for Still Crazy After All These Years as the finest album of Simon’s career. Certainly it’s the only one to have made it to number one on the Billboard chart, and it won the 1975 grammy awards for Album of the Year and Best Vocal Performance (Male). As we’ll see later in this series, Simon’s subsequent albums have included plenty of outstanding works; but arguably none of them have struck quite so rich an emotional chord as Still Crazy.
I write this a couple of days after Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, yet I can’t think of anything Dylan ever created that is even half as evocative, and ultimately as powerful, as Still Crazy.