Monday, May 29, 2023

Flashback, May 1973: ‘Rhymin’ Simon’ Continues to Propel Paul’s Post-Artie Career

The 50th anniversary this month of the release of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon would have been reason enough to write about this LP that cemented the commercial strength of Paul Simon apart from longtime partner Art Garfunkel.

But two bits of news about the singer-songwriter over the last week may well bring to a close his remarkable pop career.

First, Simon released Seven Psalms, a CD that is, by all accounts, not a pop recording at all. With his continual quest to experiment with musical textures (including from outside North America), there is a real question if he cares to return to the rock ‘n’ roll or folk genres that inspired him in the first place.

The second bit of news is the report that, during studio sessions for Seven Psalms, he “quite suddenly” and mysteriously lost most of the hearing in his right ear. After nursing for several weeks the unsuccessful hope that his condition would soon improve, he now wonders if he will be able to perform live ever again.

Certainly other singers and musicians have dealt for years with hearing impairment (indeed, I was astonished to discover, from this 2018 AARP article, just how extensive that list is—everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Barbra Streisand).

But, at 81 years of age and following a nasty bout of COVID-19 as well, Simon’s opportunities to take the stage will diminish, while his periodic bouts of insecurity and depression may very well increase. In that case, even the creative energy needed to compose a song may well ebb. So it becomes an open question whether we will hear from him in any creative forum.

The Wall Street Journal review that first alerted me to the release of Seven Psalms noted that it was only the 15th studio album of Simon’s six-decade career. If it turns out to be an unexpected career valedictory, it makes it all the more worthwhile to retrace his artistic evolution--including There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, the second album in his solo career.

In a post from last year, I expressed my abiding enthusiasm for “American Tune” as a powerful lyrical statement on the state of the country, both at the time of its composition (the divisive Vietnam-Watergate era) and today.

I did not realize until further researching the song now, however, that it was based on the 18th-century J.S. Bach chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (translated, appropriately enough, as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded"). The mood is one of resignation amid “the age’s most uncertain hour.”

It is a distinct outlier for an album otherwise brimming with looseness, optimism, and humor, reflecting Simon’s joy as a husband (“Something So Right”) and new father (“St. Judy’s Comet”).

In contrast, the album’s first single, “Kodachrome,” is a rollicking retrospective just before the onset of middle age, with the narrator recalling his school days and life as a bachelor. Its jaunty, carefree tone would have been one that other Americans who, like Simon, came of age in the Fifties would have identified with, as the nation indulged in a nostalgia craze that saw the Broadway premiere of Grease, the movie premiere of American Graffiti, and, on TV, the first episode of Happy Days.

“Going Home” was the original title of the song, but it was only a temporary phrase. As he told veteran deejay Scott Muni in a 1988 interview, "I was thinking as I was doing it, 'Well, I'm certainly not going to call the song 'Going Home,' there must be 250 songs called 'Going Home.' That's not going to do anything. 

Knowing his ambivalence about any association with his days with Garfunkel, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he also resisted any comparison with their hit “Homeward Bound.”

“Kodachrome” turned out to be a felicitous replacement, at least lyrically. (The use of a branded name led the song to be banned from the BBC.) From it emerged those “nice bright colors” in the refrain, and “everything looks worse in black and white” as a wry comment on the women he knew when he was single.

A couple of years after “Kodachrome’s” release, at an assembly at my high school, the opening line—“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school”—provoked many students to leap to their feet, undoubtedly to the discomfort of the administration and faculty.

There Goes Rhymin’ Simon represented something of a studio departure for Simon, both in the number of multiple producers (not just Simon and his longtime producer from the albums with Garfunkel, Roy Halee, but also Phil Ramone, Paul Samwell-Smith, and even the accomplished Alabama studio musicians, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) and the number of multiple voices (also including the New Jersey folk music duo Maggie and Terre Roche, as well as the gospel quintet, the Dixie Hummingbirds).

In general, I prefer Simon’s songs from his collaboration with Garfunkel to his solo work. But his penchant for trying out new sounds and musical directions (demonstrated even more dramatically with Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints) is something to be respected, and the results in these cases, as with the best of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, are entirely admirable.

The public certainly embraced it. “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” each shot to #2 on the singles chart, and the album as a whole sold two million copies in its first year alone. A late friend of mine said she regarded Bob Dylan as America’s pop poet and Simon as its pop psychologist. By that standard, Simon was expressing the mood of a generation transitioning from youthful protest to something approaching private happiness—still tentative, but hopeful.

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