Excerpt: 'Lyrics 1964-2008'

Read the introduction to Paul Simon's collection of generation-defining lyrics.

Nov. 7, 2008 — -- Paul Simon's music has helped to define nearly half a century of American life.

From his 1960s-era folk hits like "The Sound of Silence" to his more recent "You're the One," Simon's music grew and evolved with the country and reflected the beauty and complexity of it all.

"Lyrics 1964-2008" is exactly what the title implies: a book of words from an incredible musical career that has spanned more than 40 years.

Read the introduction to "Lyrics 1964-2008" by David Remnick and click here to see more from the "GMA" library.

Introduction by David Remnick

Even at the peak of his popular stardom, Paul Simon was armed purely with his talent for the American song. He played arenas and stadiums, he had platinum records and made his fortune, but he was never magnificently cool like Lennon, darkly beautiful like Elvis, implacably enigmatic like Dylan, or three-quarters crazy like a hundred others. Style, roguishness, bad behavior, self-conscious unpredictability were never his tools. Modest in manner, he did not boast a mysterious background or invent one for himself.

He came with less rock and roll packaging and tiresome self-invention than anyone in the business. And one effect of time has been to show how little the absence of theatricality mattered. Paul Simon's songs have become a part of life's fabric, an inner walking-around music. You stroll around New York and hear the echoes of his loneliness, his comedy, his passion, his ache, and his growing older.

Even now, as he writes new songs and immerses himself in yet another song form and rhythmic realm, he has secured his place in musical history. Simon stands with both the unpretentious masters of his own youth -- the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson -- and his greatest predecessors: Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, and Cole Porter. As you browse through this book, the enormous (and unfinished) catalog of Paul Simon's art, you will see just how many songs he's written that rate with "How Deep Is the Ocean" and "Stormy Weather."

You undoubtedly know the story: Simon was born in Newark in 1941. He was raised in Kew Garden Hills, a middle-class area of Queens. His mother was an English teacher. His father was a professional bassist, but for a long time Paul had a limited interest in music. At a school production of Alice in Wonderland he became friends with Art Garfunkel -- Paul was the White Rabbit, Art the Cheshire Cat -- and, together with two sisters, Angel and Ida Pelligrini, they formed an a cappella group and sang doo-wop songs.

Dispensing with the Pelligrinis, the two boys performed as Tom & Jerry and wrote an ebullient pop song called "Hey Schoolgirl," which became a hit in 1957 for Big Records. As teenagers they were famous, appearing on a bill with Jerry Lee Lewis on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. In 1964, with Dylan and The Beatles now in full flower, and with college and years of apprentice work now behind them, the two young men re formed in full ethnic name (a rarity at the time) as Simon & Garfunkel, with Paul providing the songs and melodies and Art the harmonies. Their first LP, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. featured "The Sound of Silence," a number one hit on the American charts.

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."

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