Review: Lyrics 1964-2008

Paul Simon lyric book a silent revelation

By Jenni Frazer, December 4, 2008
Paul Simon: master craftsman

Paul Simon: master craftsman

By Paul Simon
Simon & Schuster, £20

For more than 40 years, a short, Jewish New Yorker has been steadily turning out some of the greatest lyrics and music of our age, painting sharp and pithy word-pictures in that most ephemeral of things, the perfect pop song.

Paul Simon, together with fellow Jewish musicians Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, can arguably be described as one of the master craftsmen of his generation. In his writing, all the way from 1964’s The Sound of Silence to 2008’s Wartime Prayers, Simon — long independent of his former singing partner Art Garfunkel — has provided the musical soundtrack to our lives.

Now some bright spark at the publishers Simon (no relation?) and Schuster has decided to bring out the ultimate Paul Simon anoraks’ book, a complete volume of his lyrics from 1964 to the present day. Any one of his fans who can read these without having the music playing in their head is made of stronger stuff than this reader — although my assumption is that many of the lyrics are intended, by Simon and Schuster at least, if not necessarily Simon himself, to be read purely as poetry.

Simon’s seminal hymn to his republic, American Tune, is reproduced in his own handwriting on the scrappy piece of foolscap paper on which he first composed it: and we see that his original intention was to call the song American Tune?, wondering whether to name the anthem so definitively.

“I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered,” he writes, “I don’t have a friend who feels at ease/I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/Or driven to its knees…” That was in 1973 and the sentiments are as resonant today.

Simon’s ability to conjure up an instant story has a filmic quality, apparent from his earliest songs. Save the Life of My Child, from 1968, opens: “‘Good God! Don’t jump!’/A boy sat on the ledge/an old man who had fainted was revived/And everyone agreed ’twould be a miracle indeed/if the boy survived/ ‘Save the life of my child!’ cried the desperate mother/The woman from the supermarket/ran to call the cops…”
At such more-than-musical moments, the listener is there, in the song’s events, milling about in the crowd below.

Or try Duncan, in which Simon immediately brings you into the seedy hotel of his protagonist: “Couple in the next room/Bound to win a prize/They’ve been going at it all night long/Well these motel walls are cheap, and I’m trying to get some sleep…”

It will be the real hard-core fans who eagerly mop up the lyrics behind Paul Simon’s one failure, his musical The Capeman, which sank under a welter of its own pomposity.

But for those who might have thought that Paul Simon was restricted to “pretty boy” songs such as the straightforwardly sentimental Bridge Over Troubled Water, written to service and display Art Garfunkel’s voice, Lyrics 1964-2008 will be a revelation. These are all the words to all the songs you’ve had at the back of your head… and yes, you are Still Crazy After All These Years.

Jenni Frazer is the JC’s news editor

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011