Funny how some things work. I was recently part of a Facebook thread where a number of people complained about Paul Simon and how he relates to people he works with. One point was rather damning: How Los Lobos recorded a melody they’d been working with him that became the song “The Myth of Fingerprints” on Simon’s Graceland album. The credits had Simon’s name alone. The band never saw a penny for the session or song.
He’s known rather far and wide in the music industry for being unpleasant to work with. Or as Steve Berlin of Los Lobos says, a “jerk” and a song thief. A few people on the thread also attested to their negative encounters and experiences with him.
Learning such things about musical artists firsthand – I refer to Beach Boy Mike Love as Mike Hate after finding him, to put it lightly, not a nice man to be around – or from reliable sources can sometimes taint and all but kill my appreciation for their music. It can stab a spear of falsity into the heart of their art.
The thread put Simon on my mind and the song started playing there as well, inducing me to listen again to Graceland. Then I spotted on my cable channel listings a Hard Rock Live concert in London’s Hyde Park that Simon and others were on and clicked onto it.
His performance was superb. Not long after I did listen again to Graceland and that monumental album sounded better than ever. The musical tracks were so rich with life and imaginative arrangement touches. And then his lyrics, like this one from the title song:
“As if I’d never notice/The way she brushed her hair from her forehead and she said,/’Losing love/Is like a window in your heart/Everybody sees you’re blown apart/Everybody sees the wind blow.’” Sheer poetry that flows beautifully.
That led me to a Simon listening binge. Yeah, I may have only skimmed through albums like The Rhythm of the Saints (1990), Surprise (2006) and So Beautiful or So What for the best songs. But two albums that he recorded live in 1991 (The Concert in the Park) and last year (Live in New York City) remained in heavy rotation, atop my personal playlist.
Can’t help it. He’s a magnificent musical artist. For all the esteem he holds as such, Simon may even possibly be a bit underrated.
Even if he has nabbed a few melodies here and there, he remains a brilliant musical composer. He songs are full of smart little twist and turns, and the melodies have an irresistible allure when he’s at his best.
And then, as said above, there’s his way with words. He combines them to write phrases and lines that are unique, inspired and inventive, yet unfold with an ease that almost never belies the brilliant craftsmanship.
As a veteran performer, he sings his songs with a fluidity and rich delivery that awes me at times. Especially when he reinterprets his older material, especially that from the Simon & Garfunkel days for which he no longer has his former partner’s sweet vocal icing.
In the reconsideration that sometimes comes when one listens again to a genuinely great and gifted musical artist after not hearing them for a while, I found Simon’s finest moments more wondrous than ever. Unlike many of his singer-songwriter brethren, over the last two decades or so he has put as much accent on the rhythmic aspect of his recordings and performances as he does the songs themselves. It serves them well and adds to their enduring appeal.
So I’m thankful that Simon’s personal and business failings didn’t ruin my appreciation of his work, especially as I kept coming back to it and replaying my favorite tracks again and again. Maybe his music is just so superb that it overrides the disappointment that comes from the not very flattering inside skinny about him.
Hence I have to declare the rather obvious, and do so assertively: Paul Simon is one of the master musical talents of our day, about as good as it gets. I am certain that 20 years from now (if I’m still around), I’ll hear him and be wowed by how bracingly refreshing his work will still sound. That’s good to know in a time when few if any musical acts come along and genuinely impress me.
It would be better if he were a nicer guy, a little less apt to appropriate and more willing to give from the fortune he surely has to those who deserve it for the contributions. But his brilliance remains undeniable.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013
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