Excerpt: 'Lyrics 1964-2008'

Many of Simon's earliest songs were the songs of a very young man, full of longing and self-exploration. The best of them -- "The Sound of Silence," "Homeward Bound," "America" -- are tender, anthemic, and inventive, but there was also a quality in Simon's early work, often overlooked, of New York wit. It was not the scornful and scabrous finger-pointing style of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "It Ain't Me, Babe," but a wry, gentler species of social comedy. In "The Dangling Conversation," Simon parodies a certain kind of wised-up Manhattan conversation in rapid quotation even as he expresses his sense of lost love:

Yes, we speak of things that matter
With words that must be said
"Can analysis be worthwhile?"
"Is the theater really dead?"
And how the room has softly faded
And I only kiss your shadow
I cannot feel your hand
You're a stranger now unto me
Lost in the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs
In the borders of our lives

What a book like this neglects, unless you have a particularly acute memory and encyclopedic ear, is the musicality of the songs. The danger of such a book is that it seems to ask the reader to consider the lyrics as verse, written for the page. But even the best songs, Simon's included, are utterly linked to the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic qualities that go along with them.

Simon was always a voracious consumer of songs and varieties of music -- he would eventually combine forces with forms and players from New Orleans, Jamaica, Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere -- but he was also a reader of English verse: W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, and, of course, his collaborator on The Capeman, Derek Walcott. He does not pretend to imitate those poets, but it is clear that he learned from them -- their imagery and economy -- as surely as he did from his musical forebears.

Take a song like "Duncan." Simon constructs a complicated narrative with incredible speed. Right away we get an autoportrait of the self-pitying boy in a cheap hotel room whose misery is compounded by the insatiably athletic couple in the next room ("Bound to win a prize"). We get his backstory in a few lines: the son of a fisherman and a "a fisherman's friend" ("And I was born in the boredom/And the chowder"). Penniless and on his own, he meets a preacher-girl, and, after the service, he creeps into her tent: "And my long years of innocence ended." Now, as an older man, he remembers that awakening with pleasure and gratitude as he plays his guitar under the stars: "Just thanking the Lord/For my fingers."

Although Simon first started writing hit songs in an era that had a tendency to mistake portentousness for meaning, his songs valued patient construction and a clear-as-gin transparency. This seems to be a conscious way of working for Simon. In 1990, when he was old enough to look back on his working method, he told an interviewer, Paul Zollo, "The easier it is for people to understand, the better it is, I think. As long as you're not sacrificing intelligence or insight or feeling in order to make it easier.

"If you can capture something that you feel is real and express it in a way that a lot of people can understand, that's rare and there's something about that that makes a piece have a certain kind of life. And if it enters into popular culture and it's not just about popular culture, then from a writer's point of view, that's a satisfying achievement."

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