Paul Simon: One Trick Pony (1980)

Paul Simon’s fourth post-Garfunkel solo album, One Trick Pony, is the soundtrack to the movie of the same name. The film was pretty much ignored on release, both by audiences and by critics — its IMDB entry has only four critic reviews. But one of those is by Roger Ebert, who to my mind stands alone among movie critics, and he rightly recognised it as “a wonderful movie, an affectionate character study with a lot of good music in it”.

Anyway, I’ll try to ignore the movie in this post, and look only at the soundtrack album.

The album opens with Late in the Evening, an uncharacteristically straightforward and joyful rock and roll song about the viewpoint character’s early life — “The first thing I remember I was lying in my bed / Couldn’t have been no more than one or two”. The music is effortlessly propulsive, and as a result the song was a modest hit as a single, reaching number 6 on the US chart. What’s not clear is whose story this song is telling. Ostensibly, it’s by the film’s lead character Jonah Levin, but Levin consistently floats in an ambiguous zone where we don’t really know how much he represents a direct autobiography. Certainly lines like “down along the avenue some guys were shooting pool / And I heard the sound of a-cappella groups” and ” I learned to play some lead guitar / I was underage in this funky bar” invite us to read the song as Simon’s own childhood and adolescence. But however you read it, the song is a strong and accessible opening to an album that will go on to feature much more difficult songs.

Next up is That’s Why God Made the Movies, which is much more the kind of song I think about when I think of Paul Simon. His songs are all about contradictions. Sometimes these are surfaced in lyrics that contradict themselves; more often, though, the conflict is between the emotion expressed by the lyrics and what the music is telling us. That’s Why God Made the Movies is perfect example. Taken at face value, the lyric is desolate — a story of a boy whose mother died at birth and who was raised by (we assume not literal wolves but) uncaring foster-parents, or in an institution. But the whole song is delivered with a wry grin that tells a completely different story — one of a man who is not only resigned to but actively appreciative of his own independence. “I laid around in my swaddling clothes / Until the doctor came and turned out the lights / Then I packed my bag, and my name tag / I stole away into the night, hoping things would work out right.” It’s a cheerful kind of self-dependence with only a side-order of what-if.

The title track, One-Trick Pony, similarly offers upbeat music that gives the lie to a downbeat lyric. Although it’s sung in the third person — “He‘s a one-trick pony / one trick is all that horse can do” — we are clearly invited to read it as Jonah Levin’s (or Paul Simon’s) dispiriting analysis of his own life. “He does one trick only / It’s the principle source of his revenue.” In the film, Levin’s marriage is quietly falling apart, as Simon’s own first marriage had done not long before (and as his second was shortly to do). It’s easy to imagine him looking at his musicality, and concluding in a low moment that it was the only thing he had going for him. In the context of the film, it refers to Jonah Levin’s much worse situation: he had one hit, fourteen years earlier, and his career remains defined by it.

What lifts the song above the merely morose is the soaring moment in the chorus where the song takes off, where a third party is imagined watching or hearing the one-trick pony at work: “He makes it look so easy, look so clean / He moves like God’s immaculate machine / He makes me think about all of these extra moves I make / And all of this herky-jerky motion, and the bag of tricks it takes”. I always find those lines strangely resonant: it’s how I always feel when I see someone supremely competent at work, whether it’s a musician, a footballer, a painter or what have you. I look at my own efforts, and realise how much more work I am doing to achieve so much less. (Have you ever noticed how little movement the best guitarists make? It’s an education to watch.)

One Trick Pony (like Ace in the Hole, see below) was recorded live, and that was the right decision. The song in its recorded form has a flexibility and playfulness that could never have been achieved in a studio, and it helps bring out the sense of delight in the chorus. It’s fun seeing a master at work, and the live recording captures that.

How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns is very different: the first of several songs on the album that is meditative, thoughtful, introspective. Those are not qualities that would necessarily incline one to love a song; but HTHAWIY works because it’s not expressed in generalities, but invites the listener to infer the universal from hard, grounded specifics. “In a phone booth, in some local bar and grill / Rehearsing what I’ll say, my coin returns.” It’s a perfectly painted picture.

But there’s more: as with the title track, there is a soaring release — and this time it’s an unashamedly romantic memory that’s virtually projected onto a canvas for us: “dream we are lying on the top of a hill, headlights slide past the moon / I roll in your arms and your voice is the heat of the night / I’m on fire.” It’s about as evocative as music gets, but rather then being schmaltzy it’s lent a piquant quality by the framing which implies the memory is of an experience that is not liable to be repeated. In short, the song is just about perfect. Just as a great beer balances sweetness and bitterness, so HTHAWIY balances nostalgia with loss, sweet happiness with bitter realism.

Side one of the LP closes with Oh, Marion, arguably the key song in delineating the character of Jonah Levin. Once more, the third person is used, but as with One Trick Pony it’s a transparent displacement ploy, and there is little doubt that Levin/Simon is describing himself — someone who is simultaneously right in the centre of society and outside looking in. The three verses all describe a failing, a weakness, an eccentricity. First, “The boy’s got brains / He just don’t use ’em, that’s all”. Second, “The boy’s got a heart / But it beats on the opposite side” (followed with one of Simon’s neatest rhymes, “It’s a strange phenomenon / The laws of nature defied”). Finally, “The boy’s got a voice / But the voice is his natural disguise”. What could be less authentic, or more contradictory, than a confessional singer-songwriter whose voice is disguising, rather than revealing, him?

Oh, Marion is yet another song where the shift away from the verse lifts the music and takes into different emotional territory. While the verses share the ironic, distanced quality of That’s Why God Made the Movies, all the defences fall away in the release, when Levin directly addresses his wife Marion: “The only time love is an easy game / Is when two other people are playing it”. There is a warmth to this section that is distinctly absent from the verses, a humanising quality that gives us someone to feel for. The cool detachment of the verses is shown to be a facade, a defence. Beneath that exoskeleton is a leaving, breathing man, painfully aware of his failures and inadequacies.

The first side of the LP ends on this note — as so often with Simon, a contradictory note, with the musical complexities mirrored in the lyrics an expression of the internal confusion that is portrayed as Levin’s, but might just as well be Simon’s. In 1980, Rolling Stone wrote “Because Levin’s personality is so closely patterned after Simon’s, it’s tempting to think that One-Trick Pony is autobiography. It isn’t, but it is revealing of its creator’s personality”. I would love to know what Simon has to say about this film and album now, in 2017, and how autobiographical he is prepared to admit to it being, 37 years on.

Side two opens with one of the album’s few straight-up fun songs, Ace in the Hole. It’s an immediately likeable song with an infectious pulse, and you can see why in the movie it was the one chosen to be worked on as the Jonah Levin Band’s single (even if that work ruins the song by slathering it with unnecessary and inappropriate string parts and gospel choirs). Each of the four verses offers something that can be someone’s ace in the hole, their hidden trump card in tough times: Jesus, $200 for drugs, insanity, and finally music itself: “Just your ordinary rhythm and blues, and your basic rock and roll”. As Levin and keyboardist Clarence Franklin (played Richard Tee) say: “You can sit on the top of the beat / You can lean on the side of the beat / You can hang from the bottom of the beat”.

Yet again, as with at least three of the side-one tracks, Ace in the Hole is transformed and deepened by a middle section that seems to have flown in from a completely different musical space. In the “Riding on this rolling bus” section, Simon sounds distant from his own problems, and indeed his own solutions — more an observer than a participant, like some watcher of the skies when a new gig swims into his ken. It is this section that gets the full, ethereal strings-and-gospel treatment in the film, and you can understand why: although it’s musically very different, thematically it recalls the “And I dreamed I was flying” release in American Tune, where strings were introduced to very good effect.

The sequencing of songs on the album is very different from that in the film: as a result, the narrative arc feels rather different, too. Side 1 of One Trick Pony is largely sardonic, playful even when as in Oh, Marion it’s also forlorn. With Ace in the Hole, the album really opens up for the last time: with the rolling-bus bridge, we start the process of drifting away from the fun and fellowship of being in a bad, and Jonah Levin begins to turn in on himself, to become increasingly introspective and meditative. Or, since Jonah Levin is a character from a film and we’re discussing the Paul Simon album, maybe we should interpret it rather as Simon slipping back from conviviality into introversion.

The first step on that inward-leading path is Nobody, a low, thoughtful, and to be honest self-pitying song. Self-pity is never an attractive quality, but — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — the song is transformed by a chorus or bridge that re-imagines the “nobody” loneliness (“Who is my heart, who is my door? Nobody.”) into an altogether more positive reading: “Nobody but you“. While the verses have a curiously ambulatory, questing quality to them, the bridge slips into a simpler time signature, warmer harmonies and richer instrumentation, so that we feel as well as hear the transformation. So far, so clever. But as with many of the songs on Still Crazy After All These Years, there’s yet another layer of meaning in Simon’s delivery. The way he sings it, the “nobody but you” section is not really the comforting conclusion that it initially appears to be, but more of a desperate appeal. It’s not “I have nobody but you”, it’s “Unless you save me, I’ll have nobody” — and it’s sung in a spirit of meek acceptance that that’s not going to happen, with just a sprinkling of wilful self-delusion. Simon is such a great songwriter that it’s often easy to overlook the quality of his singing. As an interpreter of his own material, he really stands alone: have you ever noticed how few covers (especially how few successful covers) there are of Paul Simon’s songs?

On, then, to perhaps my favourite song on the whole album: Jonah. Named of course after the lead character in the film, but also with reference to the Bible character of the same name, the song is a rueful but affectionate look at the routine of touring:

Half an hour, change your strings and tune up
Sizing the room up
Checking the bar
Local girls, unspoken conversation
Misinformation
Plays guitar

And then the song breaks straight into a lovely understated chorus, where speculation meets metaphysics meets cold, hard reality:

They say Jonah, he was swallowed by a whale
But I say there’s no truth to that tale
I know Jonah, he was swallowed by a song

Like so many of Simon’s songs, the chord changes flow so naturally that you assume they must be pretty simple — until you try to play the song. Only then does his sophisticated harmonic literacy become apparent; but of course you can feel the richness of it without understanding it.

One more verse and chorus, then we’re into an elegant little coda, a variant of the chorus, that sums up the transitory nature of the music business by painting it lightly, as if in watercolours:

Here’s to all the boys who came along
Carrying soft guitars in cardboard cases
All night long
And do you wonder where those boys have gone?

It’s as close to perfect as such a modest song can be.

We come into the finishing straight with God Bless the Absentee, another song about life as a touring musician. It’s a little more upbeat than Jonah, and has more to say about the music itself: “Lord, I am a surgeon and music is my knife / It cuts away my sorrow and purifies my life.” But at heart it’s even less enamoured of life on the road than Jonah was, with none of the comforting familiarity of routine: just hours, days and weeks away from home. The second release gives us a classic piece of Simon denial:

My son don’t need me yet, his bones are soft
He flies a silver airplane, he wears a golden cross

It’s sung with a sense of freedom, but of course a son old enough to be flying model airplanes desperately needs his father — and Simon/Levin knows it. He can’t swallow his own falsehoods. The known-false claim that his absence is not such a big deal amounts to an admission of defeat as a father. It’s fascinating, and rather disturbing, to compare this bleak portrait with the simple and straightforward delight in fatherhood seven years earlier in songs like Saint Judy’s Comet on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. On that album, Simon was unabashedly singing autobiographically; on this one, he is inhabiting a character. But it’s hard to not suspect that we’re also seeing an admission of Simon’s own failures as a father.

Finally, we land on Long, Long Day, one of the most gorgeous album closers I know — a song not only of resignation but also of some kind of acceptance. At bottom, it’s an extended sigh of weariness:

I’ve sure been on this road
Done almost fourteen years
Can’t say my name’s well known
You don’t see my face in Rolling Stone

But the warmth and intimacy of the delivery undercuts what would otherwise be a downright depressing song. Simon’s half-smile, the electronic piano touches, and the short single-verse duet with Patti Austin all contrive to overlay the weariness with an unexpected sense of contentment, or at least of a decision to take the good with the bad and appreciate it for what it is. There is a sense of resolution to it that makes it a perfect closer, and (if I may) rather a better ending that the film gets.

One of the most striking qualities of One Trick Pony as an album is how understated everything is. There are no big, heart-on-sleeve emotions, no vocal histrionics. Many of the songs have a stumbling quality, and almost all of them feel gentle. Every time a song starts to seem like it has a clear emotional shading, something undercuts it — whether it’s Simon’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery, a flash of colour from the band (and all of them are superb), or a switch in direction in a bridge or chorus. What this means is that even the most cheerful songs (with the exception of the opener Late in the Evening) have undertones of melancholy; and even the most morose have an undertone of warmth or even optimism. As a result, not a single song is openly demonstrative or emotionally straightforward.

To those who think all good singing has to be of the spectacular Whitney Houston variety, or even that all good songwriting has to be of the heart-on-sleeve A Case of You variety, all of this may seem like rather weak sauce. The flavours are subtle; but then, so are the flavours of lobster, of sushi, of avocado, and of many other wonderful things. Sometimes I want a burn-your-throat curry, or a Dream Theater album. Other times, I want nigiri, or One Trick Pony. This is, most of all, a grown up album, made by adults for adults. Not everyone will get it: even many of Paul Simon’s fans don’t particularly like it. But for me, it may be the best of all his albums, for its narrative richness, tonal consistency, emotional ambivalence, and for the fact that there is not a single song on it that I don’t love.

Appendix: thoughts on the movie

ONE-TRICK PONY, Blair Brown, Paul Simon, 1980, (c) Warner Brothers

I’ve heard the album One Trick Pony more times than I can count — at a conservative estimate, 50 times. I’ve only seen the movie twice. So my reading of the film should be taken with a pinch of salt. With that in mind, while I like it a lot and am likely to watch it again, I don’t think it’s as good as the album. The songs come in a very different order in the film:

  1. Late in the Evening
  2. One-Trick Pony
  3. The B-52s — Rock Lobster
  4. How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns
  5. God Bless the Absentee
  6. Nobody
  7. Ace in the Hole (acoustic solo)
  8. Long Long Day (acoustic solo)
  9. Ace in the Hole
  10. Long Long Day
  11. Jonah
  12. How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns
  13. Oh, Marion
  14. Sam & Dave — Soul Man
  15. The Lovin’ Spoonful — Do You Believe in Magic?
  16. Soft Parachutes (Jonah Levin’s big 1960s hit)
  17. That’s Why God Made the Movies
  18. Jonah

Ironically, given that film is essentially a narrative medium, I feel that the sequencing of the music means that it tells a less compelling story than the album does. Simon himself has said that “it’s really more a character study than it is a plot, or adventure story”. After an hour of atmospheric scene-setting, most of the film’s narrative arc is compressed into its last 30 minutes: Levin’s landing a recording deal on the basis of his relationship with the A&R man’s wife, the producer’s progressive violation of his song, and his own theft and destruction of the tapes. By contrast the album tells a story that unfolds at its own gentle but inexorable pace, and which ends not with a grand and futile gesture, but with a reconciliation to the reality of what the life of a professional musician is.

One Trick Pony came along a full five years after Simon’s previous album, the wildly successful Still Crazy After All These Years — much longer than the gaps before any of his previous albums, and longer than any subsequent gap until Songs From the Capeman (which we will get to eventually). No doubt this was because of the enormous amount of work involved in putting the film together — writing it, preparing to act the leading role, gathering funding, and so on (although his initial plan was just to write the music for someone else’s film). We might feel that Simon would have done better to write and record two regular albums in that time, and not attempt the film. But I think that would be a regressive stance: I can only applaud Simon’s ambition in attempting to master medium that was alien to him. I am glad that his reach exceded his grasp, rather than being sad that his grasp did not match his reach. Simon’s career has been wildly eclectic, and there is something pleasantly inevitable about his having attempted film as part of it.

Critics and audiences disagreed, though, and film was a commercial failure, unloved or unnoticed by most critics (with Roger Ebert a notable exception, as noted above). Why did it crash so hard? I can’t help but suspect professional jealousy. People in the movie business probably did not appreciate being gatecrashed by a musician; and people in the music business possibly though Simon was getting above himself in writing and starring in his own film.

At any rate, while admittedly flawed, the movie is an overlooked gem and I highly recommend it. It might not quite work, but in the words of Andrew Rilstone, it’s the sort of failure one would like to see rather more of.

[One-Trick Pony (1980) is available at ludicrously low prices at amazon.com and at amazon.co.uk]

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5 responses to “Paul Simon: One Trick Pony (1980)

  1. Pingback: What I’ve been listening to in 2017 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  2. Really enjoying these reviews. Keep them coming. As an aside, your review of Hejira says everything I feel about the album and more, it’s stupendous.

  3. Thank you — I really appreciate that! It often seems to me that the writing I care most about gets the least reaction, so it makes a big difference when someone responds!

  4. Thanks for the post Mike, really enjoyed reading your thoughts, and I gained more insights into just how great this album is. I, along with some other musicians in Melbourne, adore this album and so decided to perform it live last year. One of my favourite gigs ever..and it has more life left in it, at least 3 new bookings this year.

  5. Thank you, Brett, that really means a lot to me! I’d love to see your OTP gig, but sadly the 24,000-mile round-trip is not really feasible :-)

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