Thursday, September 1, 2011

Songs that left me Speechless: Paul Simon - "Song About The Moon" and "The Late Great Johnny Ace"

As with a lot of folks, I owe a lot of my passion for music to my family. From my dad and my sister Sue, I owe my love of classical music. In particular, Dad loved operatic singers, be they the established secular singers like Enrico Caruso or Richard Tauber, or the cantorial singing (chazanut) of Moshe Kosevitzky. Dad passed on his love of this music to Sue and she did everything to encourage my love of these artforms -before I was bitten by the dreaded rock and roll bug.
While it’s true I didn’t listen to rock music before I was 10 years old, I was still exposed to more modern musical expression. My other sister Mary was a huge folk music nut. Joe and Eddie, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary, and early Dylan were the ones who got her imagination firing. For me, though, the kings of them all were Simon & Garfunkel.
When Mary got married and moved out, I’d visit her and always go straight to her record collection. My favourite of her albums was Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” album. In a way, I guess my pop education started there, as this record had more in common with the pop harmonies of the Everly Brothers than a lot of the earnest folk music of the day. Simon’s music was far more personal in nature than the songs of protest or death often sung about in folk. My love of Simon’s songwriting and S & G harmonies has continued to this day.
When I was in my teens I was given a brilliant (now long out of print book) put together by George Martin called “Making Music”. The ex-Beatles and Goons producer had asked many people in the music industry to write an article about their craft (musicianship, engineering, business). Paul Simon wrote a great chapter for the book on his approach to songwriting. An article like this had the potential to spoil the pleasure of listening to his songs, as he was taking away the magic of a song simply being there to describe in some detail how it came to be “there”. On the contrary – I revelled in finding out how he approached song composition. After reading too many interviews with songwriters who flippantly describe their approach, Simon described his workmanlike approach. He wasn’t waiting for inspiration. For him, a great song had to be assembled from hundreds of useless and useful ideas. Hell, if Brill Building luminaries like Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil could approach songcraft like a day job, it was good enough for Paul Simon.
In this article I want to refer to two songs - “Song About The Moon” (written about in great detail in the book) and “The Late Great Johnny Ace”. Both of these songs featured on Paul Simon’s album Hearts and Bones. Simon had performed “The Late Great Johnny Ace” a couple of years earlier as part of the S & G reunion concert in Central Park. Bizarrely, towards the end of the song, just as Simon sang a line about the murder of John Lennon, an audience member ran onstage before being dragged away by security staff. I’ve never heard what his intention was or what happened to the guy, but it didn’t look like he was there to request Simon to play “Sounds of Silence”. I’ll return to “Johnny Ace” shortly.
Simon went into some detail about how he wrote “Song About The Moon”. Lyrically, the song serves as a masterclass for how to write a song. Ironically, while Simon infers that it’s easy to write a song if you follow some basic steps (“presto – a song about the moon”), the chapter in Martin’s book indicates anything but. He claimed that he can take months  to write a song – maybe weeks if he’s on a roll. There’s no “presto” in his approach.
Regardless of the simplicity or otherwise, his approach is definitely well thought out, and follows classic rules of song construction.
The structure of the song is three verses and a middle 8 (or AABA as Simon refers to it). Verse 1 starts off with instructing that if you want to write a song about the moon, you should use a metaphor. The potential violence of a city serves as his example:
If you want to write a song about the moon
Walk along the craters of the afternoon
Because the shadows are deep and the light is alien
And gravity leaps like a knife off the pavement

The next verse follows a similar structure but uses a different subject for a potential song – love. Of course, Simon has cleverly not ditched the original starting point either.
If you want to write a song about the heart
Think about the moon before you start
By coming back to the idea of using the moon as a metaphor for love, he’s introduced new subject matter to make things interesting for song advancement, but not to the extent where he’s lazily ditched the original purpose of the song – i.e. how to write a song about the moon.

The middle 8 seemingly goes down a different path altogether with a final line:
The laughing girl she laughed so hard, the tears roled down her face
Huh???? Where’s our continuity gone? Aaaah, look at the first line of Verse 3.
If you want to write a song about a face….
Once again, Simon has kept the verse structure and linked middle 8 back into the theme of the song. Inevitably, Simon once again will argue the case that if you really want to write a song about a face, you’re affectionate about , one you truly love ….well, write a song about the moon. Game, set and match – Mr Paul Simon. Which makes me wonder, if you want to write a song about tennis, should you just write a song about the moon?

So the structure here has been to take three distinct subjects – the moon, love and the memory of a face – and linked them to form a cohesive whole. The beautiful thing about this song is it’s clever without being too clever for its own good. No “Blonde On Blonde” Dylanesque lyrics. It’s straightforward, but no less clever for all that. It’s a lovely melody and lyric that really knocks me out whenever I hear it, but I can also appreciate the work that’s gone into it. The same holds true for the aforementioned “Late Great Johnny Ace”.

Johnny Ace was a 50s R & B singer who died as a result of playing Russian Roulette. I love his wonderful song “Never Let Me Go”, but I’m not that familiar with his music.

Structurally, this song is a little different to “Moon” . The Paul Simon song is not so much about Ace, but about Simon’s reaction to the death of three Johns:  Ace, Kennedy, and Lennon. He starts off with two verses devoted to the news of Ace’s death in 1954, and how Simon sent away for a photograph, feeling bad after hearing the news.

Simon then moves forward 10 years when he moves into the bridge. He’s recalling the time he was living in London and brings up images of the day (“it was the year of the Beatles / it was the year of the Stones / it was 1964”). How does this relate to the theme introduced at the start? A few lines further we find out – “A year after JFK “. Our second John.  JFK is mentioned here in more of a passing reference, but the lyric is very clever, because Simon has preceded this line with invoking memories of an exciting time in young people’s lives. The new music would invoke memories of how the times were changing, but then JFK is brought up, and all the grief that went with his death is recalled in one short line.

Finally, Simon moves forward 16 years to the final verse. The added bass instrumentation gives a feeling of dread and menace compared to the plain melancholy of the first two verses:

                On a cold December evening
                I was walking through the Christmas tide
                When a stranger came up and asked me
                If I’d heard John Lennon had died
                Then the two of us went to this bar and we stayed to close the place

Johnny Ace’s death was sad for Simon, who confessed he wasn’t a great fan, but John Lennon’s death takes on a much darker tone musically. Obviously Lennon’s death hit Simon and New York very hard.

There’s a coda on the recorded version of the song written by Phillip Glass for a small string section. It’s not present on the version presented at the Concert In Central Park. The coda to the Park version is lovely, but does sound like Simon didn’t know how to end the song. The Glass coda wraps up the theme of the three Johns into a bundle of a beautiful piece of musical melancholia. It’s real “hair standing on the back of the neck” stuff, probably best listened to late at night. It’s very different to “Song About The Moon”, but the idea of taking three subjects and cleverly linking them via reference to the song’s first idea is common between them.

Paul Simon has had a very popular career to be sure, but I think he’s not given his due often enough as a songwriter. His songbook doesn’t seem to be revered in the same way as Lennon/McCartney or Dylan which is a shame. His best rivals a lot of their output, and the songs don’t deserve to merely be relegated to the golden oldies pile. Paul Simon’s album of 2011 “So Beautiful So What” shows he still has incredible songwriting chops. The album’s highlight “Love and Hard Times” is one of the best songs I’ve heard all year. Maybe that’s a subject for a future article

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