As important as it might be to pay respects and write tribute articles when we hear about the passing of our musical heroes isn’t it nice – also – to celebrate them, in print, while they’re alive. I tried to do that recently with Willie Nelson. Just woke up one day and felt like writing about him, telling a story about how I connected with his music. It wasn’t a milestone birthday, nor the anniversary of a special release, he wasn’t sick, he wasn’t touring New Zealand – he was just in my thoughts.
I’ve tried to do this from time to time, partly because it’s an occupational hazard when writing about music every day – you have to generate topics. But also, isn’t it nice to pay tribute to our heroes while they’re still breathing? Well, in the wake of the devastating news about Prince I thought about that a lot more. I’d like to start an occasional series: Heroes Live – and we’re going to start with Paul Simon.
Paul Simon has released one of the great albums of 2016 and his solo catalogue is impeccable.
Sure there was the great Simon & Garfunkel catalogue before he became a solo artist, but what I’m interested in here is the solo works. Over 45 years Simon has taken his time, just 12 solo albums over a long career. He takes his time. He gets things right.
There are some albums he’s made that are start-to-finish classics, near-perfect, wouldn’t skip a song, couldn’t think of anything better to replace a number – and there are albums that have suffered due to production values of the time, or because there are some dud songs – in the case of 1983’s Hearts and Bones I truly believe it contains some of the very best songs of his career, some his best writing and then easily some of his worst. Cars Are Cars – what was he thinking?
I grew up on the One Trick Pony album and it was hard to believe this record wasn’t a big deal in other homes, I couldn’t believe it. As a young kid the song, That’s Why God Made The Movies had such a huge impact, I didn’t quite understand it, but those opening lines, “When I was born, my mother died/She said ‘bye bye baby, bye bye’” and then, “I said, ‘Where you going?/I’m just born’/She said I’ll only be gone for a while/My mother loved to leave in style” – it was funny and sad all at once and it felt more like a story than a song; a story inside of a song. It was surely one of the first times I thought about lyrics, their impact, the crafting of them.
“The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar”.
Remarkably, Paul Simon has had massive radio hits and then also so much of his very best music has never been played on the radio.
Sure, Graceland is a classic, as was Still Crazy After All These Years before it, and much of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and as sure as I love those albums I’d take One Trick Pony every time, and I think The Rhythm Of The Saints is actually a better album than Graceland.
A master of melody, of strange, intoxicating rhythms – a song-sampler and genre-tourist – Paul Simon songs stay written. They’re woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.
So I’m excited about hearing a brand new album from this towering talent. His first in five years. He never rushes. Never over-eggs the omelette. For all the busyness in the bands, there’s no clutter in the arrangements.
I seem to lean on old familiar ways, admittedly. But I think Paul Simon’s discography is a masterclass in economy.
And, a couple of years back I was lucky enough to see Paul Simon live and it was every bit as amazing as I had hoped.
I could never narrow it down to just the handful of clips and links hereo so below is a five-hour playlist of my favourites – some albums in their entirety, others cherry-picked. It also just scratches the surface in a way…