When I was a kid one of my favourite albums was One Trick Pony by Paul Simon. It’s still the case. Hardwired. The album must have been released when I was four or five and snatched up by my folks, fans of Simon’s solo career and of course the mega-hits from the duo Simon & Garfunkel. A few years on from this I can remember it being a big deal when we bought a copy of Graceland on vinyl to give to my mum – probably a birthday present. The whole family gathered around together to listen to it. Mum and dad owned most of the Paul Simon albums – at first on vinyl and then the shift to the compact disc.
It’s a finite catalogue – I’m a huge fan of Paul Simon’s work – and I consider myself very lucky to have seen Simon & Garfunkel (twice) and an amazing Paul Simon solo show. I love that you can have your head wrapped around the material quite easily. There are a small handful of S&G albums and it’s fair enough if you just summarise that with one of the many compilations on the market. And when it comes to Simon solo there are just 14 studio albums. That’s not a great deal when you consider there’s a 50-year span – his first solo album was released in the middle of the Simon & Garfunkel run and features some solo versions of the duo material. Then since 1972 there are 12 more albums of original tunes and his swansong was 2018’s In The Blue Light where he produced all new arrangements and renditions of deep cuts from the earlier records. (I thought it was brilliant).
There are dozens of compilations – but as with artists like Paul McCartney and Neil Young (and even Bob Dylan, come to think of it) the compilations never properly tell the story. I know a lot of people that think of Paul Simon as a radio cheesebucket only – Mother and Child, Me and Julio, Kodachrome, Loves Me Like A Rock, 50 Ways and then Graceland tunes like You Can Call Me Al. Judged on just that material (and I like all of those songs by the way) I can see how a few toes might curl.
With Paul Simon it’s about the album tracks, it’s about the gospel tribute Gone At Last (featuring Phoebe Snow and the Jessy Dixon Singers). It’s about Still Crazy After All These Years, which is almost Randy Newman-esque and in its way would have made a great Frank Sinatra song. It’s about Artie and him reuniting for that nasty, wondrous ode to the poisoned feeling of conflict that occurs when you go back to the small place where you grew up, My Little Town. It’s about American Tune and Something So Right and Have A Good Time and Hearts and Bones and Train In The Distance – and it’s about the albums that arrived on the back of the really big records. So, The Rhythm of The Saints, arriving four years after Graceland. And One Trick Pony which turned up a half-decade on from Still Crazy After All These Years, at that point marking the end of the longest hiatus from one of popular music’s most successful songwriters.
What I didn’t know when I was absorbing One Trick Pony – its hit is Late In The Evening (and that’s probably the only “Greatest Hit” you’d know from the album) – was that it was also a soundtrack. To a movie of the same name. A movie starring Paul Simon. A movie written by Paul Simon.
One Trick Pony didn’t get great reviews. The movie was a dud. (I kinda like it – finding it on video tape back in the day seemed like such a treat. It’s got cameos from Lou Reed and The B-52’s, Tiny Tim, The Lovin’ Spoonful and Sam & Dave; Simon’s band of the time all appear as fictionalised versions of themselves. They might as well have been carved from wood, such are the performances). I should point out that I’m a sucker for a music-related film. Docos and biopics, of course. But the star-vehicle where a real musician plays a thinly veiled version of themselves or another industry figure…I’m so on board. Those ropey films starring Britney Spears and Maria Carey? Lapped them up. And so, yeah, One Trick Pony was on the list for a while, hard to find. Then, when I got a job in a video store back in the 90s…BOOM! I love a good bad-movie. Painful acting, lazy tropes, great songs. That’s just utterly perfect.
So I can acknowledge that the film is not great – I mean take a look at the trailer! – but I still liked it; thrill was in the chase. And marking off those cameos, plus I was so in love with the album that I had to process it as an actual soundtrack.
But I still struggle with the idea that the album is something of a dud in Paul Simon’s catalogue. I think it’s his best work. And I also reckon it’s all things to all Paul Simon people: A gem for the fans. And the one to turn the people that have written him off as some cheesy-hack on account of the millions earned from so much radio airplay.
When One Trick Pony was eventually reissued on CD I imported a copy from Germany (a big deal at the time) to gift to mum and dad, replacing their vinyl LP (which just happened to fit nicely in my record collection). It’s funny how, thinking back, I seemed to move jobs from a video store to a music store like a detective on a One Trick Pony long-game stakeout. (If only I’d known there was a published script available, I’d have ordered that when I took up behind the counter at one of the book store jobs – and you know I’m now going to be on the implausible hunt for an elusive second-hand copy, right?)
To this day, I hear the scratch in That’s Why God Made The Movies in my head when I listen to the clean, digital version. That scratch on the LP I grew up with speaks to the hardwiring of this album. Ten thousand hours spent listening to this. And then ten thousand more.
Beyond geeking out on the performances – Eric Gale’s guitar glows and bends and morphs like lava lamp light, and has the same hot-liquid feel, Steve Gadd on drums – HELLO! – Tony Levin on bass and Richard Tee mellifluous at the electric piano – I think it’s some of Paul Simon’s best lyric-writing. And he’s the master of little throwaway lines that won’t scan as poetry on a page but feel like great street-philosophy when you hear them in song (“he says ah, when I sing I can hear the truth auditioning” / “The only time that love is an easy game is when two other people are playing it”). But I also know that my love for this album is my own. It’s about me and my parents bonding. It’s about my brother being in on it too – and having his own memories of the record. It’s about being in Hawke’s Bay in the 1980s – and through into the 1990s – and loving this music regardless of fashion, irrespective of the season.
So I’m linking you to the album – on the off-chance you’ve never heard it as an album.
And I’m also going to give you a playlist of Paul Simon Album Track Deep Cuts; My Favourites.
A couple of years ago I interviewed Steve Gadd live on RNZ – a thrill. Of course. Gadd is a master, the drummer on the One Trick Pony record, the drummer on some other Paul Simon songs too. That’s his signature groove on 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, his slinky vibe on Have A Good Time. We talked on air and then we talked even more deeply about drums when off-air. And I asked him to sign some of my records. He obliged. I didn’t take my copy of One Trick Pony – but only because the cover is black and I didn’t have time to get a silver pen. So instead, I took my single of Late In The Evening, got him to sign the plain white sleeve (along with a Bob James album and Paul Simon’s Still Crazy LP).
When I stood with Gadd in the cramped wee alcove outside the studio up at Radio New Zealand, and he was hunched over vinyl and scribbling his name, I told him if it had been my call and my show we’d have just talked about the One Trick Pony album in its entirety since he was on every track. He laughed. In that way where he was also speeding up his signature with each record and hoping to get the hell out of there a.s.a.f.p.
But I’m still glad I told Gadd.