SONG TITLE: THE LATE GREAT JOHNNY ACE
PERFORMER: PAUL SIMON
SONGWRITER: PAUL SIMON
YEAR OF RELEASE: 1983
Generally speaking, the wistful laments of singer/songwriters don't much impress me. Notice the paucity of James Taylor and Jackson Browne songs on my website. Nobody really needs one more contemplative musical sigh about how it's kinda sad when your woman leaves you or you realize you just don't fit into society or you're getting old. Ah, geez, shut up already, damn.
Broadly speaking, this song might fit that general category, but there are some important differences. The principal points of distinction are that this record is unusually complex emotionally, and that it is unusual in the songwriting structure. Paul Simon has made records as good as anybody in the modern era, and he is well past making generic folkie laments.
This song explores Simon's maturing reaction and attitude toward death. Johnny Ace was a third string r&b singer who blew his brains out playing Russian roulette when Paul was about 12 years old. "I really wasn't such a Johnny Ace fan but I felt bad all the same, so I sent away for his picture." This part of the song comes out as something of a wistful ballad, but more interesting than most. This singer didn't mean much to him, but he's torn up by the idea of death itself.
Then he takes a different turn. It turns into a nice light r&b shuffle as he shares a bit of the joyous memory of being a highly successful young professional musician during the heady days of the '60's. You can feel the blissful years of carefree youth rolling by.
Suddenly he's back to the more contemplative tone of the opening. He has found himself moving gently into a more subdued middle age. He's walking down the street one night when a stranger stops him to share the news of John Lennon's assassination.
Simon manages to imply whole whirling masses of emotional upheaval in but a few words and lines of melody. Lennon was a colleague and symbolic leader of their generation. He suddenly hears the mortality clock ticking. This ticking comes courtesy of a concluding instrumental section by Philip Glass.
He ends up, then, with a weird but accessible art song. It is structurally quite unusual, and carries lots of subtle emotional twists. Yet it is melodically catchy, and the lyrics make perfectly simple straightforward sense.