Rant ‘N’ Roll: America’s Greatest Living Songwriter

Paul Simon personally picked the 32 songs that are heard in chronological order on the new two-CD Songwriter set (Columbia/Legacy) as indicative of his career. Obviously, he’s been startlingly consistent having written opener “The Sound Of Silence” (represented here by a previously unreleased—and totally haunting—live solo version at Webster Hall in New York City last June) in 1964 when he was 21. The final song, “So Beautiful Or So What,” was written earlier this year at age 68. Despite being written 47 years apart, both are poignant reminders of our human frailty. (Plus, they rhyme, and are easily hummable.) Back then, Paul Simon was a dead serious poet with a voice like an angel. At 25, he admits to taking “some comfort” “from the whores on 7th Avenue” in “The Boxer.” He writes “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at 28 (sung here by Aretha Franklin). He’s not so serious anymore. He’s humorous, in fact. Even when writing about “Love And Hard Times” or his own mortality.

Once freed from writing for two intertwining voices as he did in Simon & Garfunkel, he explores genres like Reggae (“Mother And Child Reunion”), Gospel (“Tenderness”), African Worldbeat (“Graceland”), Brazilian Samba (“Spirit Voices”) and Latin Salsa (“Born In Puerto Rico”).

Through it all, his guitar playing is exemplary. In fact, he’s such an incredibly good guitarist that you can believe him when he sings in such joyous fashion during “Late In The Evening,” after he steps outside “to smoke myself a J,” that “I turned my amp up loud and began to play… and I blew that room away!” He’s still blowing ‘em away after all these years. And he still sings like an angel. Or, even more to the point, like an old friend. There’s a sweet whiteboy soul lilt to his voice that’s positively comforting (similar to McCartney). And most of the characters in his songs are believable, the type of people you’d want to meet and swap a story with over a cold beer.

Compilations of this ilk usually have the gems up top and halfway through the second disc, things get wearisome. It’s to Simon’s unending virtuosity and deeeeeeep well of creativity that the second half of Songwriter is so damn genius that it’s almost unfair one man could house such talent. Sorta like ex-Yankee Bernie Williams. Think about it. Bernie Williams, in 1998, hit .339 and became the first player ever to win a batting title, Gold Glove and World Series ring in the same year. Then, after he retires, he signs a recording contract as a guitarist. Paul Simon is the Bernie Williams of pop music: Too much talent for any one human.

“Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” is deceptively simple, lyrical, evocative, sung so sweet and with such empathy for the two immigrant protagonists. But the heart and soul and message of the song is Simon’s own love of doo-wop as he sings over and over of “The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles and The 5 Satins, the deep forbidden music they’d been longing for.” Their love of doo-wop music is his also, and for those of us who grew up with those 1950s groups, ours too. By the third time he sings those names of those long ago and far-away vocal groups, the profound nature of that love is palpable. In that one light’n’breezy tribute to a sub-genre of early rock’n’roll, the hopes and dreams of an immigrant couple are made manifest. Such is the genius of this kid from the Bronx. Then, eight songs later, Simon’s own doo-wop song, “Quality,” from his criminally underrated The Capeman, has the songwriter actually become that which he originally emulated. Of course, Paul Simon is greater than any of those aforementioned doo-wop groups, but that which we loved as kids seems to stay with us all our lives.

Finally, listening to the universal sentiment of “Father And Daughter” is as close as I’m ever going to come to a religious experience. There’s only a handful of songwriters like this alive on the planet. We could debate it all day. Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and Randy Newman come to mind off the top of my head. But none of ‘em can sing and play guitar like this.