Paul Simon and the Flipside of "Feelin Groovy"

This is why Paul Simon's songs of darkness, bridges, and boxers still matter in these troubling times.

Simon & Garfunkel

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Label: Columbia
Year: 1970

There’s a lot to be said for perseverance, consistency, and transformations in the life of a great singer/songwriter. Bob Dylan may have arguably created the template of what was to be known as the '60s singer/songwriter, but Paul Simon was also there, toiling away on his part of the great stage. Like Dylan, Simon adapted old English folk songs (“Scarborough Fair”) and dabbled in the morose and pompous (never more so than in the insufferable “Dangling Conversation”, where the two brooding partners read their Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost poems, probably sipping coffee, probably not talking with each other.) Add the bright cheery hopefulness of "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”, and the listener is smothered by the toxic, diabetic sweetness of '60s pop.

If Simon’s music has a reputation today it might be one of accessibility, sweet tunes and infectious beats. Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find instability. Think of the singer in 1975’s "Still Crazy After All These Years" when he concludes “I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day”. From the same album, think of the frustration beneath the nostalgia of “My Little Town”, how it builds up to “itchin’ like a finger on the trigger of a gun”. Then, there’s the stunning, full, sad life of a couple encapsulated in 1999’s “Darling Lorraine”. “I’m sick to death of you, Lorraine,” he sings, but by the end of the song, after her health fails, he pleads “Please don’t leave me, Lorraine.”

Simon has labored for over 50 years without a library of studies left in his trail. Where are the Paul Simon college courses? Where are the Paul Simon symposiums? As the 75-year-old Simon prepares for a summer tour this year and the upcoming CD/DVD release of his 2012 “Concert In Hyde Park”, an examination of the bright cheeriness and determined darkness of Simon’s live performances might help shed a fresh light on songs that still have the power to make a difference.

In the beginning…Simon and Garfunkel (AKA, Tom and Jerry)

The difficulty with fully appreciating Simon now might be the fact that he’ll always be assessed within the context of Art Garfunkel. In their early days (1957), as the decidedly non-ethnic Tom and Jerry, they scored a minor east coast hit with their Everly Brothers homage “Hey Schoolgirl”. Their friendship remained and grew, guarded and competitive, and they broke big in 1965 with “Sound of Silence”, released first as a folk song and then electrified. It was the title track to their second album. They (Simon as writer and melody singer, Garfunkel as harmony co-lead singer/duo partner) had transformed themselves from folk purists (as heard primarily in their debut, a collection of several originals but mostly covers) into something deeper, something stronger.

If the “problem” that was Garfunkel for Simon (tall, with a soaring high voice and an angelic red halo of hair) consisted of being more telegenic and commanding, it was a burden that brought Simon and Garfunkel as a duo to the summit and beyond of “voice of a generation” personalities. With “Sound of Silence” (immortalized in Mike Nichols’ 1967 film The Graduate), Simon played beautifully with contrasting ironic images (as heard in the title) and hopelessness removed only by the possibility that we come to understand “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”. When the singer sees 10,000 people in the naked light and knows they’re communing for a higher purpose, the hope rests only in future potential, not actualized reality.

From the 1981 “Concert in Central Park”:

Thirty years later, when Simon performed the song alone as part of the groundbreaking ceremonies for the 9/11 memorial, the lyrics and tone evoke greater hopelessness, deeper yearning for things that could have been but were removed on that September day in 2001. He slows it down, removes the layers. Absent the beauty of Garfunkel’s accompaniment, Simon has more time and opportunity to accompany his listeners into the darkness. Get used to it, he tells us in those final three strums of his guitar. There’s nothing else we can do but listen, try to sing along, and take comfort in the fact that we’re not alone.

At its surface, Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 song “The Boxer” was a simple story of a man who battles demons in and out of the ring. It may also be the first top-selling pop hit where the lonely first-person singer cures his isolation by visiting “the whores on Seventh Avenue”. Rumors circulated that the song was a thinly-veiled tribute to/criticism of Bob Dylan, who at the date of recording was a few years into his brief life as a recluse. The Boxer was a poor boy, a fighter by his trade, and though he’s leaving he wants us to know that “the fighter still remains”. This was also one of the most beautifully poetic, evocative ballads whose wordless chorus (“Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie/Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie”) says more simply by saying less. By 1974, deep into performing it on his own, Simon added the verse indicating that “after changes upon changes/we are more or less the same.”

Twenty years later, as he opened the first post-9/11 episode of Saturday Night Live, the resonance of this song’s lyrics were a true gut punch for all of us still reeling in those weeks and months after that day. Where were we going? What have we done? Though this clip is sullied now in retrospect (with the appearance of the now thoroughly discredited then Mayor Rudy Giuliani), it’s no fault of Simon’s. Look at this in context and understand that everything seemed to rest in that trumpet solo, even though we knew not all our problems would be assuaged.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” was based, apparently, on a single line from a Gospel hymn, the melody echoed a Bach chorale. With this song, Simon adapted and interpolated, drew from Gospel, classical, and created a forum in which Garfunkel could soar free with his powerful voice. It was the title track to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 album, the swan song for their initial six year run as a recording/performing duo, and probably the albatross around Simon’s neck during the initial years of the '70s.

Who would sing it in concert? Garfunkel was up to the task during the sporadic reunion concerts and tours, but Simon couldn’t reach the crashing crescendos of the final verse. It’s a true Gospel song (with the wonderful late Richard Tee on keyboards) of redemption through hope and trust in a higher power, a greater power, surrendering to somebody else the responsibility of moving through darkness into light:

In a heartbreaking, slow version, with cello, soft keyboards, quiet bass, subtle guitar accents, and percussion, Simon reclaimed the song as his own for the televised 2001 9/11 benefit. The song builds not on the strength of Simon’s voice (which has always been reedy and suitable for his material) but on the determination of the arrangement. You have been crushed. We have all been crushed. We move on.

In the here and now… Paul Simon in twilight time.

The difficulty of living and performing and writing long enough is that you run the risk of driving too many times around the same scenery. It’s a comfortable route, especially for those who may be considered “legacy” artists. The greatest thrill in exploring Simon is understanding the dark, peculiar underpinnings, like the title track to 2011’s “So Beautiful, So What”. In the second verse, he’s going to tell his kids a story and he doesn’t know if it will have a happy ending. In the fifth verse, four men are on the balcony and Dr. King has just been shot: “And the siren’s long melody/ Singing Savior pass me not”. Simon may in fact be a legacy act, but he brings new life and strange wonder to songs that have been in the fabric of America too long to ever be dismissed. He may be in the twilight of his life and career, but he does not reel and he does not stumble. Like the title character in 1980’s "One Trick Pony", he knows the score:

“He either fails or he succeeds/ he gives his testimony/ Then he relaxes in the weeds.”

The beauty of this song is that the singer is not the one-trick pony but rather somebody observing him from offstage, admiring how he makes it all look so easy and clean. “He moves like God’s immaculate machine,” the singer notes, and that’s as good a way as any to describe the way Simon keeps his work alive.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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