Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Paul Simon's Most Personal Album

I don't think there was a song on Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," which hit the music stores on this date in 1975, that I didn't like.

I haven't been able to say that about many albums in my life, but I can say it about that one.

I don't know if the songs on it were great, but I know they were unique. I haven't heard all of Paul Simon's albums, but "Still Crazy After All These Years" was the most personal album of his that I have heard.

One, "My Little Town," musically reunited Simon with his old partner, Art Garfunkel, for the first time since their well–publicized breakup five years earlier. There would be several actual reunion attempts in the future, but this was the first thing they had done together since 1970 — even though a song from their 1968 "Bookends" album was released as a single in 1972 to promote a greatest hits album — and would qualify technically as the duo's most recent hit.

"My Little Town" was a substantial hit as well, climbing to #9 on the charts — fueled, no doubt, by the rather rampant speculation that this was a sign that Simon and Garfunkel were getting back together. I suppose it didn't hurt sales that the song was on both Simon's album and Garfunkel's "Breakaway" album, but the truth is that it was never a prelude to a reunion. Well, not an impending one, anyway.

Of course, Simon and Garfunkel did nothing to dispel such talk. Less than two weeks after Simon released his "Still Crazy After All These Years" album, he and Garfunkel appeared together on the second–ever episode of Saturday Night Live and performed three songs together, two hits from the '60s and a rendition of their latest recording, "My Little Town."

I always related to the lyrics. I was the son of a college professor in what was then a small Arkansas town: "In my little town," Simon wrote, "I never meant nothin', I was just my father's son." I know that feeling well.

Simon said he wrote the song with Garfunkel specifically in mind. So I suppose, in hindsight, the fact that they recorded the song together really had no significance, but the rather half–hearted denials that it was a reunion in the making largely fell on deaf ears.

I have always liked Simon's solo work, but he always seems to sound better when he performs with someone — like Art Garfunkel or, in one of my favorites from this album, the late, great Phoebe Snow singing "Gone at Last." It made it to #23 on the charts.

Once described as "a contralto grounded in a bluesy growl and capable of sweeping over four octaves on the slightest provocation into a gospel–charged upper range," Snow's voice was perfect for the song. It sounded like the kind of music I heard in black churches in the South when I was growing up and my father, a religion professor, took my brother and me to various church services in central Arkansas. It had an energy unlike anything I had ever heard on a Paul Simon album, and I have to believe it never would have achieved the success that it did without Snow's vocal contribution.

She was that good. She was sort of like a bolt from the blue. Her appearance with Simon was about a year after her debut hit, "Poetry Man." I've seen her listed as a background vocalist on the song, but that really isn't true. It was a duet, and, if anything, Snow's vocals eclipsed Simon's.

Listen to it, and you'll see what I mean.

There was one song from the album that was the public's clear favorite — "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." With its all–star lineup — Snow provided background vocals, as did Patti Austin and Valerie Simpson — it went all the way to #1 on the charts.

I liked it at first, but it became trendy to play around with lyrics and produce parodies. The Muppets covered it, and the Jacksons (previously the Jackson 5) parodied it, but those were legitimate. The ones that bugged me were the ones that made obvious and unamusing plays on words:
"You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don't need to be coy, Roy
Just listen to me
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don't need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free"

Before long, there were more parodies than you could shake a stick at. It became something of a cliche.

It was a great album, though, probably my favorite Simon solo album. Except, as I have pointed out, it was far from a solo achievement.