Paul Simon, like Paul McCartney, the late Tom Petty, Carole King and others, has written so many hit songs, that their other songs, all the non-hits, get overshadowed and underappreciated, receiving scant attention over time.
Which, as far as songwriter problems go, is a good one. Too many hits. There are more problematic problems for songwriters.
But stiill – all those other deep album cuts, songs which might be too complex or unusual to be considered to be released as a single, represent the full vision and brilliance of the songwriter.
“The songs that become hits,” Simon said, “are usually the simpler ones.”
These songs released as singles were chosen not always because they were considered the best song on the album, but the ones deemed most radio-friendly. Many great songs were not considered to be singles because they were perhaps too artistic for the mass public.
That being said, Simon had hits with many unusual, artistic, singular songs that certainly did not sound like obvious hit singles. It happened partially because of the era, when radio was in the midst of discovering the new sound of singer-songwriters, and was much more open to unusual songs.
So “Mother and Child Reunion,” and “Me and Julio,” both from his first solo album, both became hits. By the time of Graceland, though, which was the 80s, his songs didn’t fit the more narrow pop confines. “You Can Call Me Al” became famous because of the video Simon did with Chevy Chase, but it was never a major American hit, though it did well in the UK. At first it never went past 44 on the charts, until the video inspired a second-release, and rose to 23.
Whereas some of his greatest songs never get elevated to single status because they seemed not to fit. Even “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” his most famous song of all time, was not the first single off the album of the same name. Because it is a ballad – slow tempo – conventional thinking tells us ballads do not become hits.
Conventional thinking, especially when applied to the music business, is often wrong. When “Bridge” was released as a single, it became a major hit, and celebrated with Grammys for Best Song and Best Record. It even beat out “Let It Be,” by The Beatles. Which was also a ballad that became a hit single that same year, 1970.
But most of those songs deemed non-single worthy never get the kind of celebration that “Bridge” received, and have been steadily pushed farther back into the shadows by their famous sibling songs.
So in hope of loosening the shadows over these ingenious, inspired, songs, here is Volume I of our first seven favorite Overshadowed & Uncelebrated Songs by Paul Simon. |
In non-chronological order, these songs are:
1. “Cool Papa Bell,” from his most recent album, Stranger to Stranger. An exultant, upbeat, funny song, it tells the story of the real though mythic baseball player James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, who played in the Negro Baseball League from 1922 to 1946. Said to be the fastest man who ever played the game, he was known to be so fast that he could “turn off the light and be under the covers before the room got dark.”
2. “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” from his first solo album, Paul Simon. One of many songs which was written decades ago and still resonates today every bit as powerfully, if not more. Lyrically and musically. When I interviewed him in 1988, Simon said he felt the song was weakened by not using the exact title in the song. (He does use it, but with extra words: “Everything put together sooner or later falls apart.”) Till he said that, it never seemed to be a problem at all. Being that it was Simon writing, all decisions like that seemed calculated with clear intention. Never did it occur that he would be incapable of doing anything he wanted in a song. Since he already had so often, it seemed.
This song came out – remarkably – 50 years ago now, in 1970. It still sounds alive and new, a beautifully complex song musically with lyrics of complexity, candor that was timely – using the word ‘paraphernalia’ to open the song, which was much of that moment – with a gorgeous, poignant melody set against a beautiful acoustic guitar arrangement.
3. “The Cool Cool River” from The Rhythm of The Saints, 1990. A perfect example of an amazing song – a tour de force of expansive lyrics and charged, rhythmic yet yearning music – but so complex as to never be considered a single. It explodes with intensity, rage, sorrow, joy and ultimately hope. In an inverse of “Slip Sliding Away,” he sings, “I believe in the future/We may suffer no more/Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours I feel sure…”
4. “Love and Hard Times” from So Beautiful or So What, 2016. Another perfect example of a beautifully complex song in every way, and yet one of his most poignant and brilliant. Unlike almost every song he’s written since Graceland, created by writing words and music to a musical track, this was written by the old method – guitar and voice – so it is not as rhythmic as the others, but beautifully melodic. The lyric is funny, surreal and romantic, both first person and a story song at the same time. The guitar part – echoed in the piano part as well – reminds us of what an inventive guitarist he’s always been. This is so powerful that it stands as a good reason Simon should do more by this old method. After all, when it comes to writing a song with voice and guitar, few have ever done it better. I adore all the track-first songs, which are among the most joyful, even the sad ones, and remarkable work he’s ever done. But you take one guitar, one Paul Simon, and nothing else – and what comes out can be quite great. Such as “The Sound of Silence,” “Still Crazy” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” All pretty solid songs.
So one album of these songs, especially now in these turbulent times, would be glorious to receive.
This one, written for his beloved, is one of his greatest love songs.
5. “Think Too Much, B” from Hearts and Bones. Only Simon would write about the subject of thinking too much in not one but two songs with the same title, “Think Too Much.” Though this one is “Think Too Much, B” and as such might be considered the lesser of the two, it is not. In many ways, it’s the predecessor to Graceland, created against a track instead of the guitar method. One of his first track-first songs, if not the very first.
As such, it’s upbeat, with a compelling, visceral melody of some yearning, sung over only two chords, the I and VI, repeating. The lyrics are light and dark, both funny amd serious, starting with this declaration by this famous New Yorker: “The smartest people in the world are gathered in Los Angeles to analyze our love affair and finally unscramble us.”
But from the Angeleno sunshine to a New York City hospital room it shifts, ending with the singer’s father on his deathbed and the limits of our human efforts:
“And in the night, my father came to me/And held me to his chest. He said there’s not much more that you can do/
Go on and get some rest…”
6. “Groundhog,” demo. Simon, unlike many great songwriters, has written few songs that he finished but never released. This is one of a very few. Recorded during the sessions for Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends in 1966, it was not included on the album. Yet it’s an essential Simon song – making fun, as only he can do, out of ongoing depression: “I get the blues all morning, and morning is my best time of the day...”
Fortunately for the song and for Simon’s audience, it was reborn by Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary, on his That’s Enough For Me solo album of 1973. It has a full, finished lyric, unlike this demo, made while the song was till in formation. Simon plays guitar on Yarrow’s track, which was beautifully produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson, with his fellow bandmates Levon Helm on drums, and Garth Hudson on organ.
Robbie’s inclusion with two other members of The Band changes the tone of the line, “even the leader of the band gets the blues…”
Both Simon’s demo and this version by Peter Yarrow are included below.
That wraps up Volume I, named in honor of his song “Crazy Love, Vol. I,” a song from Graceland which will be included in Volume 2.