Paul Simon at 80: 10 Greatest Solo Songs
A highlight in the American singer-songwriter legend’s catalog is incorporating styles from different parts of the world
When it comes to sheer songwriting skills, Paul Simon has always been in the top league. The very mention of his name instantly brings up memories of songs like “Sound Of Silence,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Mrs Robinson,” “El Condor Pasa” and “The Boxer,” released as part of Simon & Garfunkel, his association with singer Art Garfunkel.
Simon, who turned 80 last week, has also released some much-admired solo albums. One may argue that he hasn’t been very prolific on that front, releasing only 13 in the past 50 years, of which the last one In The Blue Light essentially comprised rearranged versions of lesser-known songs put out earlier. But there have been some outstanding albums, with Still Crazy After All These Years (1975) and Graceland (1986) taking the lead.
The singer-songwriter had reunited with Garfunkel briefly, performing at the Central Park, New York, in 1981, and subsequently releasing a hugely successful live album and video recording before falling apart again. He’s also written songs for the Broadway play The Capeman, released as a separate album, and the stage adaptation of the film The Graduate.
A highlight of Simon’s music was his use of styles from different parts of the world, from reggae and South African music to Latin American rhythms and Indian flavors. One can hear such diversions in five of the 10 songs we’ve chosen as representative of his solo career.
1) “Mother And Child Reunion” – Paul Simon (1972)
One of the earliest reggae songs recorded by a white artiste, Simon wrote this after the death of his pet dog. The title was inspired by an entrée he saw at a Chinese restaurant, but the lyrics became relevant when used to describe the bond between mothers and their children. Simon used reggae star Jimmy Cliff’s band to play alongside. The tremolo guitar intro by Lynford ‘Hux’ Brown synchronized with the tight rhythms. Interestingly, Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy was one of the back-up vocalists.
2) “Kodachrome” – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973)
The lead single from Simon’s third studio album, this song was named after Kodak’s once-popular colour reversal film brand. As such, lines like, “I got a Nikon camera, I love to take a photograph, so mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away” became a favorite for photography enthusiasts. As the song was about color photography, Simon wrote the lines “Everything looks worse in black and white” in the original recording. But at many live shows, he changed it to “everything looks better in black and white”, joking that he himself wasn’t sure what he meant.
3) “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” – Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
One of his most successful singles, charting at No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the song took a humorous look at the end of a relationship. Simon wrote it following his divorce from his first wife Peggy Harper, using lines like “I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free, there must be 50 ways to leave your lover.” A highlight was the drumming by the great Steve Gadd, one of the guests along with bassist Tony Levin and Hammond organ player Kenny Ascher.
4) “Still Crazy After All These Years” – Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
Helped by a marvelous melody backed by Fender Rhodes piano, “Still Crazy” remains a sing-along favorite after all these years. The song began, “I met my old lover on the street last night, she seemed so glad to see me, I just smiled, and we talked about some old times, and we drank ourselves some beers, still crazy after all these years.” There has been speculation whether he sang it for former wife Harper, former girlfriend Kathy Chitty or even Garfunkel, who he invited on the song “My Little Town.” Jazz saxophone maestro Michael Brecker did a cameo. The song “Slip Slidin’ Away” was considered for the album but released later in a compilation.
5) “Late In The Evening” – One Trick Pony (1980)
The song became instantly recognizable for Eric Gale’s guitar riff, Gadd’s drum groove and Dave Grusin’s horn arrangements, besides Simon’s clear vocal delivery. It talked about how music heard “late in the evening” influenced the narrator’s life from the time he was a toddler, to the time he fell in love, ending with the lines, “And it was late in the evening, and all the music seeping through.” The song was one of his solo songs performed at the famous Concert At Central Park by Simon and Garfunkel in 1981.
6) “You Can Call Me Al” – Graceland (1986)
The lead single from the Graceland album, the song was based on a party experience where French conductor Pierre Boulez kept referring to Simon as Al. Like most of the album, it was partially inspired by the singer’s visit to South Africa, and also by a bootleg cassette he heard. Here, he dealt with midlife crisis and existentialism, though the music video featuring comedian Chevy Chase had a totally comic presentation. Bakithi Kumalo’s stunning bass run was a highlight, as was the use of penny whistle. The saxophone sound was replicated on a guitar synthesizer, and the music had South African overtures over a pop sound.
7) “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” – Graceland (1986)
Graceland was Simon’s most successful album, also including the title track, “The Boy In The Bubble” and “Under African Skies,” featuring singer Linda Ronstadt. But “Diamonds” remained unique because of its typical South African sound featuring choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The song talked about a rich girl and a poor boy, with the line, “The poor boy changes clothes and puts on after-shave to compensate for his ordinary shoes.” The title was a metaphorical reference to the diamond mines in South Africa, and the group dance in the video lent an cultural flavor.
8) “The Obvious Child” – The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990)
What Graceland was to South African music, The Rhythm Of The Saints was to Latin American music. The opening track “The Obvious Child” used street rhythms by the Grupo Cultural Olodum, recorded in the streets of Salvador, Brazil, with microphones hung from windows and telephone poles. The song talked of aging and the uncertainty of life, with the lines, “I’ve been following the light across my room, I watch the night receive the room of the day.”
9) “Wartime Prayers” – Surprise (2006)
Simon collaborated with electronic music genius Brian Eno on this album. “Wartime Prayers” was one of its most intense songs, with Simon talking of the horrors of war and the helplessness of the common man. “I want to rid my heart of envy, and cleanse my soul of rage, before I’m through,” he sang. Guests included pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Gadd. Simon revealed that in some kind of premonition, the song was written before the Iraq invasion of 2003, though released much later.
10) “Dazzling Blue” – So Beautiful And So What (2011)
The unique feature of this song was its use of tabla, Indian percussion and spoken rhythm by Karaikudi R Mani. The lyrics were based on his relationship with his wife, singer Edie Brickell, and the title was inspired by her favorite color. “Dazzling blue, roses red, fine white linen, to make a marriage bed, and we’ll build a wall that nothing can break through, and dream our dreams of dazzling blue,” sang Simon. The song has a beautiful melody line.
Before “Dazzling Blue,” Simon had used Indian elements through Steve Gorn, an American bansuri player, and multi-instrumentalist Mark Stewart on the 2000 album You’re The One. As a composer, he loved experimenting with global sounds and instruments, while sticking to the broader structure of a good tune. Some of his notable work was co-produced by Phil Ramone. As a songwriter, he focused on common themes like love, relationships, social issues and spirituality, exploring them with depth and uniqueness of style. The melodies, rhythms, words and his voice were all in perfect sync, and that’s what has made him stand apart.