Excerpt: 'Lyrics 1964-2008'

Even as Simon's musical and rhythmical goals became increasingly complex, particularly with the Graceland album, his lyrical strategy retained its determined patience. "You Can Call Me Al" begins like a "three-guys-walk-into-a-bar" gambit: "A man walks down the street." And he begins to ask himself why he is "soft in the middle" when the rest of his life is so hard. Simple as that: a man in the throes. "You have to be a good host to people's attention span," Simon explained. "They're not going to come in there and work real hard right away. Too many things are coming: the music is coming, the rhythm is coming, all kinds of information that the brain is sorting out."

In this song and many others, the more abstract or ornate images come later, but the listener is prepared because by now "those abstract images, they will just come down and fall into one of the slots that the mind has already made up about the structure of the song." A similar thing, with a different tactic, happens in the title song, "Graceland," which opens with a clear simile: "The Mississippi Delta/Was shining like a National guitar." A National guitar, of course, is a steel-topped instrument that gleams like water. Two quick lines and we have entered a new world.

With time, many songs and their performers grow dated, as faintly ridiculous as an old fashion, a preposterous hat. We wonder, How could we have ever loved that? Simon's restless searching into himself, into forms of music undreamed of by the Everly Brothers, has been ambitious but always honest and unprepossessing. Maybe that is why Simon's best songs, whether sung by himself or by his most distinguished interpreters (think of Aretha Franklin on "Bridge Over Troubled Water"), do not date.

In the last pages of this book, you will encounter the songs of a writer no longer young, no longer at the top of the Billboard charts, but whose capacity for feeling and thought compressed into song has only deepened. In his maturity, he considers even the hardest thing with the serenity of the psalm writers. In "Quiet," Paul Simon is decades past youth, yet eager for the next chapter:

I am heading for a time of quiet
When my restlessness is past
And I can lie down on my blanket
And release my fists at last...
And I am heading for a place of quiet
Where the sage and sweet grass grow
By a lake of sacred water
From the mountain's melted snow.

-- David Remnick

Introduction copyright © 2008 by David Remnick

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