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Paul Simon, America’s Greatest Living Composer

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It's time to appreciate Paul Simon with everything I've got in my quiver. Really I shouldn't even need all those caveats up there. In fact, you could pull any one of those words out and still have the effect I am going for. I threw 'America' in there because Paul McCartney is so good that an argument could be made for him. In a songwriting death match between the two, I would still take Simon. Why?

Paul Simon has been producing phenomenal music for over 40 years. 40 fuckin' years, man! Some might say his best music was done before I was born (1972), yet… look at Graceland. I was just watching a side by side DVD session today of Live in Central Park (1981) and Old Friends (2004). The set list is nearly the same, as you can imagine. Now, while Artie can no longer hit those highs, I swear to you Paul Simon sings better than he did in 1981.

Also, remember that video for "Call me Al" he did with Chevy Chase? I submit that is the most clever and best use of video since "Thriller". His accomplishments are way too many to cover, but we should mention he bagged Princess Leia and did SNL with George Harrison. Then, that crafty old bastard stole away my teen crush Edie Brickell. Simon has my love and respect in spades.

I can not think of a single individual more influential on the musical landscape, or my personal history, than Paul Simon. His music is thoughtful, catchy, enduring, and cheerfully morose. His lyrics, while beautiful upon a closer look are stifling sad. Somehow, he and Artie take that New York feel and make it America's music. It's not a cliche to say that Paul Simon's music is America's music. Let's not forget he brought us our first taste of African Music with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you'll say Peter Gabriel did too. However, Simon made it good and that makes a difference.

Growing up playing guitar, I learned my riffs from Jimmy Page and my rhythm from Paul Simon. God bless you, indeed, Mrs. Robinson. I'll leave you with one of my favorite verses, which only exists on the live version of "The Boxer". I think it says it all perfectly.

"Now the years are rolling by me, they are rocking evenly
and I am older than I once was, but younger than I'll that's not unusual

Though it isn't strange, after changes upon changes we are more or less the same
After changes, we are more or less the same."

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About Lono

  • Mat Brewster

    I love, cherish, and adore the video to “You Can Call Me Al” it is brilliant as it is simple and having Simon only sing the bass lines is brilliant.

    But yeah, he’s a good songwriter too. The best, we could argue about, but he’s definitely right up there.

  • Carlos

    You’re all right! Paul Simon one of, if not, America’s greatest songwriter.

    Growing up listening to his music, made my life happier that it should had been.
    I remember humming to the tune of “late in the evening”, or, “fifty ways to leave your lover”. Even Paul McCartney would admit it, Simon is the Greatest!!!

  • JC Mosquito

    Hmm….. greatest – living or not? Somehow I don’t think so. I don’t know right now who I’d say offhand – Dylan, Springsteen, Zappa… Jimmy Webb – is he still alive? But not Simon. Lemme think on this one overnight….

  • http://www.iamcorrect.com Lono

    indeed, I strongly considered Dylan on this one. If you look back, I have done more writing on him than probably any other artist for BC. however, their is a 30 year window in there where Dylan just totally lost me.

    As for Zappa, he’s enjoyable… but not one of the greats to me. I would put James Taylor, the late Warren Zevon, or our Canadian friend Neil Young above Zappa.

  • David Bolter, Kuwait

    It’s about time! Mr. Simon simply has the best lyrics ever devised by man. Simply listen not only to the lyrics Graceland, but his simple poetic elegance in his Top 40 hits, is deceptively deep, clever, timeless. One only has to listen to the ‘Hearts and Bones’ CD, which I thought was much more painful, yet vastly interesting to listen to (wrote during his divorce from Carrie Fisher..). I’m still a HUGE McCartney fan, but he cannot compare to Mr. Simon’s lyrics and how it comes across in song. Mr. Simon defined the importance of album tracks long before FM radio playlists discovered them. I could go on, but remember his soothing, calm vocal contribution to ‘We Are The World’..: “When it’s time to lend a hand”. It always chokes me up. He’s an American Icon, without the acknoledged public status or hoopla. Like Johnny Cash before him, Paul Simon now stands alone and unmatched.

  • Clavos

    “Mr. Simon simply has the best lyrics ever devised by man”

    Pretty hubristic; there are folks from other lands who might argue that.

    Even narrowing it just to America, I’d give that title to Cole Porter.

  • Clavos

    PS:

    I DO think the author’s title is dead on.

    Nobody still living and in America is better than Simon…

  • http://pleasestopstampingonmyhead.blogspot.com/ Colin Ricketts

    I certainly think his lyric writing is absolutely underappreciated and underrated, I think the lyrics to America are up there with anything by Crazy Uncle Bob. Good shout Mr Lono.

  • http://timgonzogordon.com Tim ‘Gonzo’ Gordon

    Hard to argue with your stance. Paul Simon is one of America’s treasures, even though awarding an arbitrary title of “America’s Best Songwriter” is a always going to create disputes!

    One detail which I found out about earlier this year: credit should go to reggae author and collector Roger Steffens, who introduced Paul Simon to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which resulted in the Grammy-winning “Graceland.”

  • Jack Quillen

    Rather than “Though it isn’t strange, after changes upon changes…………”, I hear that line on the live Boxer recording as “Nor is it strange, after changes upon changes……..”

  • zingzing

    malarkey. the man never even put out a solid album. he had some nice singles, some of which prove him to be a very GOOD songwriter.

    out of all of the great rock n roll to come out over the last 50 years… paul simon? pssh.

    i don’t know if i’d be so bold as to suggest anyone else (lou reed), but that’s because there are so many great rock songwriters out there… paul simon wouldn’t warrant much of a mention. maybe as an after thought. kinda like, “oh yeah, paul simon… forgot about him. yeah he was okay. the boxer was nice. that bookends lp was pretty good.”

    needless to say, a lot of people have to be foreign or dead for you to be serious.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I suspect even Simon would tell you he’s not better than Dylan. There isn’t a Simon song better than “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Memphis Blues Again,” or a Simon album better than Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited.

    And God knows Simon most assuredly did NOT bring us “our first taste of African Music” — or at least he didn’t bring it to me. I give that credit to Talking Heads’ Remain in Light from 1980, a full six years before Simon was even thinking about Africa.

    Having said that, Paul Simon is, nonetheless, a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful songwriter whom I hold in very high esteem. Who doesn’t?

  • http://whereaminowwhenineedme.blogspot.com Steven Axelrod

    It’s strange to think of Paul Simon as sixty four years old; no doubt it will be
    even more ‘terribly strange’ to be seventy. I trail him by ten years, leading a far less accomplished life. But the two lives do seem to intersect from time to time. The most critical occasion happened fourteen years ago, as I was lurching through the first months of an ugly divorce. There’s a line from Maugham’s THE CONSTANT WIFE, where the heroine comments that she and her husband had a lucky marriage because they happened to fall out of love with each other at exactly the same moment.

    I had no such luck. I was unceremoniously dumped and it took a while to appreciate my good fortune. At first I was miserable. I experienced authentic insomnia for the only time in my life during those cold autumn nights. Reading didn’t help; talking to people didn’t help (I was talked out and they were bored senseless by the same old primal whimper). TV grated on me. I tried long walks but the small island where I live seemed more than deserted on a midnight in November. It had an interrupted, concluded quality — a town after the evacuation, but before the bombs start falling. The silence felt like a preview of annihilation; or maybe it was just my mood.

    The only thing that helped was the moment when the guitars and drums kicked in on DIAMONDS ON THE SOLES OF HER SHOES. Some reviewer said that the song ‘lilted to the stars’ and I couldn’t agree more. The charge of sheer energy and joy as that song took off never failed to quiet my jangling nerves and release my clenched spirit. By the time the time the characters in the song were ‘sleeping in a doorway /by the bodegas and the lights of upper Broadway’, I was fast asleep, also.

    I often speculated about what the song might mean. Paul Simon said in numerous interviews that he wasn’t sure himself and in any case, lyrics were less important than the ‘track’ — the beat and the melody. That may be; certainly this song makes a stirring case for the primacy of rhythm and music over the word. But I couldn’t help pondering it anyway, and it occurred to me one morning after a startlingly good night’s sleep, that the diamonds represented a state of grace, an incalculable wealth that didn’t need to be flaunted, that turned walking into a mystery and made a kind of secret society out of everyone who understood that sorrow is incidental and joy is within your grasp.

    I still feel that way when I hear the song — despite my ordinary shoes — remembering how it floated me over a shallow patch by a rocky shore during the lowest tide of my life.

  • http://www.iamcorrect.com Lono

    I remember first hearing ‘Diamonds’ when Graceland came out and thinking how terribly uncofortable having diamonds on the soles of ones’ shoes.

    I realized it was a metaphor, but couldn’t shake the thought of the terrible scratching sound that would make with every step.

    Speaking of that song also, if you get a chance to hear/watch is SNL performance of that song on a great stereo it will amaze you. I have the SNL 25 Music DVD set, and it is recorded in digital surround. When I stand in my living room I can literally hear Ladysmith surrounding me.

  • Yoko Ono

    Paul McCartney is the greatest living singer/songwriter in the world.

  • thehud

    your right, McCartney is the greatest ever , period.

  • http://myspace.com/cukoobajube Johnny Logan

    I found this via a google alert for “yoko ono”.
    Paul Simon is great.
    Paul McCartney has a knack for making great sounding songs from meaningless phrases but he can also write meaningful great tunes as well.
    Yoko..hmmm..thats funny.

  • Cin

    Paul McCartney wins this one hands down…
    Cin

  • Dan

    “My looove wiiiill tuuuuurn youuuu on.”

    “Cathy, I said, as we boarded the greyhound in Pittsburg.”— that’s what should have been sent out to alien beings on Voyager 2.

    They’re not going to understand johnny be good.

    I only got to see Paul Simon in concert once.
    I think it might have been the diamonds on the sole’s tour.

    He was way too concerned with ending apartheid in Africa.

    I hate when artist’s become activist’s.

  • Rodney Welch

    Yeah — if you see injustice, turn a blind eye, dammit.

  • joe guerriero

    McCartney by a Secretariat-like 31+ lengths…

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Right on, Brother Lono. Paul Simon is rock rulin’ For starters, he’s WAY more accomplished a musician than Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Jebus Crikey, but those two have played the same handful of chords and written the same damn simplistic songs 1000 times. Nor do most of their lyrics amount to anything. Any knowledgeable listener can readily tell how little thought and effort have gone into most of Dylan or Young’s compositions.

    Whereas Paul Simon is still actually learning more about music, constantly learning and making new sounds. Can Dylan or Young even read sheet music? Paul Simon isn’t particularly much of a “rock star,” but he’s a serious musician. Paul Simon put more serious thought into just the first song off his last album, “How Can You Live in the Northeast?” than Dylan and Young between them have put into their last half dozen albums.

    Simon and Garfunkel were great, but Paul didn’t really start peaking until Graceland. Rhythm of the Saints was just about as good, though it lacked the hype of political controversy. And props must certainly be payed to the 2006 Surprise album.

    Dan, I appreciate your point about not digging on political activism in your pop singers – fair enough. However, Simon’s never been real preachy, and he’s not just looking for cheap self-aggrandizement like some Sean Penn. He’d just spent time in South Africa, intimately involved with the local musicians, and touring with them in the states. Consider his statements about apartheid more a personal connection than typical celebrity grandstanding.

    Paul Simon is King of the Jews!

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    As always, Al, you are your own best critic.

  • Micky

    I couldn’t agree more about Paul Simon. Much of what he has done was before I was born, but my parents had taste and I have great memories of listening to Bridge and the Greatest Hits Album of S&G.

    In my opinion Paul Simons music and songwriting is better than McCartney’s…God, did I say that.

    McCartney’s was great during the Beatles, but as a solo artist I think it has grown stale and not real progressed THAT much. He’s writing, though it has produced some good work has also produced a hell of a lot of plonkers…Ebony & Ivory is one I can think of and oh…the frog song…yikes!!!

    Yep Paul S has had some flops, but the music has still been brilliant, just created at the wrong time. Look at Hearts & Bones. Brilliant album, but at the wrong time!

    I think that will do…lol

  • JC Mosquito

    Oh, well, I’m due for some dirt…. does it seem like artistic growth when you adopt a musical genre in which you have no roots? I’ve always been puzzled by Simon’s Graceland and how he just… went out there and pulled African music into his own. But he did that with the El Condor Pasa tune too – maybe that’s how he “grows” artistically. But it never sat well with me – I don’t think any artist should be rewriting the same tune over & over, but… I dunno. Here was Paul Simon, singer songwriter, and then he was Paul Simon, the man who brought Africa to America musically. I though that had already been done.

  • http://www.iamcorrect.com Lono

    JC,

    I have to say I find your comments totally puzzling. According to you, artists should never change, never grow, and never incorporate new influences into their music.

    Why then be an artist?

  • JC Mosquito

    Lono – no, you’re dead right – I guess it’s my perception as to how he incorporated African music into his own.

    For instance, when you watch a kid grow, or a tree, it’s incremental, with maybe some growth spurts. But when a kid walks in with a fake moustache and his Dad’s workboots and declares he’s a cowboy, that’s a different thing.

    And every TV appearance I saw he was introduced as Paul Simon, not PS and… many of those African musicians are well respected in their own cultures. Whose name is on the album cover?

    Like I said, I’m ambivalent… I love Boy in the Bubble, Al, Diamonds, but the process whereby these came into play escape me. Maybe Simon just had a great big quantum growth spurt. But is that the same as when Madonna went Hindi, then Qaballah, or whatever?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Simon would have to rate pretty high for “Sounds Of Silence” or “Mrs. Robinson” alone. The thing is, that he has also been very spotty over the past few years. The experimentation with african rhythms was also very trendy at the time that he was doing that — just ask David Byrne or Peter Gabriel.

    Everybody here knows that I’m a pretty major Springsteen mark, but I’d still to have to go with Dylan as the overall best American songwriter. As Lono notes, Dylan did have a spotty period in the eighties and nineties, but the stuff he’s been doing for the last few years rates as high as anybody I can think of who has been at it for as long as him, and is still active. “Modern Times” would rank highly on any list of Dylan’s best.

    As for his work from say, “Bringing It All Back Home” up through “Blood On The Tracks” — can you honestly find a comparable body of songwriting?

    I do respect Mr. Simon though. Nice article too.

    -Glen

  • Micky

    JC you seem to be doing exactly what the press did at the time of Graceland. Most of those artists that appeared on Graceland had not been heard of in the west because of Africa and those artsist have the hugest respect for Paul as does Paul for them. BEACUSE of Graceland we all know Ladysmith and I will be for ever greatful to Paul for that. And ALL artists are influenced by others music be it African, American or what ever. There’s an awful lot of the UK music that is VERY American. There is no such thing as new music, doesn’t exist. What can be done has been done.

    Now I need to goto work…byee

  • zingzing

    ok. this has gotten off of the AMERICA’s best songwriter thing. and if all you have from the rest of the world is macca, then this just isn’t even funny.

    paul mccartney and paul simon, two pauls! in a death match of who is the better living composer… composers! whip out your quills…
    whatever.

    ever heard of scott walker? robert wyatt? you want serious artistic COMPOSITION skills? how about those two?

    i don’t see you adding “POP” into the equation, so why is it there? paul simon and paul mccartney stopped making serious art a long time ago. they settled into their respective grooves. fuck me, i love pop, but don’t go mistaking it for the “greatest” of anything. pop is a construct, a set of rules… if you are going to make it and sell it at starbucks on a major label, you are going to have to play by those rules and our two pauls certainly do.

    greatest living american songwriter… hmm… ever heard of phil elvrum? (goes by the name microphones or mt eerie.) the man is the lo-fi brian wilson with dylanesque lyrical abilities on top. want pure songwriting? how about will oldham (palace/bonnie prince billy)? the man could bore you to tears with his consistency. then he’ll fuck you up with two lines.

    my god. if you want to find the greatest living songwriter, don’t look to the sixties. them fucks is dead. have been for years. there’s so much out there.

    there was a band named songs:ohia not too long ago. his stuff was so brutal you could see the light by which he wrote his songs. he could describe anything. they’re gone now… he’s changed the name and gone all neil young (a great songwriter, but not american, and its not the 1970s) and lost his way.

    people don’t hold on to genius for long. there’s a moment, which may last for years, a decade at most, it seems, but it’s fleeting. paul simon is a hack. a hash of his former self, which was possibly just a hack to begin with. his time is gone. paul mccartney… same thing doubled.

    mmm. new computer. fresh keyboard. bottle of scotch. yes.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Aw calm down zing, yer liable to pop a blood vessel or something…lol…

    The scotch sounds like a good idea to me…

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    you don’t think i know that? zingzing=very fragile, right now…

  • troll

    Simon might make the liberal elite happy but here’s a musician’s song writer

  • Clavos

    Yeah, troll. Wonderful piece. Always puts a lump in my throat.

    This the first version I heard of it.

    I love this lady…

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    I’m working on your link problem, Clavos, and hope to have a solution soon.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    Clavos, it’s fixed now!

  • Clavos

    Thanks, Chris!

  • http://joeblinn@aol.com jo blinn

    Paul Simon is in a class all by himself, there is no doubt about it. But, Bob Dylan is the greatest singer/songwriter from America, hands down. Now, Paul McCartney is the greatest singer/songwriter this world has ever seen or ever will see, and that is a fact. The Guiness Book of World Records acknowledges Paul as the the most successfull singer/songwrter in the world. Paul McCartney has sold more records than anybody on Earth which makes him the best, period, end of disscussion.
    joe blinn

  • zingzing

    “Paul McCartney has sold more records than anybody on Earth which makes him the best, period, end of disscussion.”

    ha! oh my. that’s a good one. so because, i dunno, mcdonalds has sold the most hamburgers, does that make mcdonalds hamburgers the best? i guess so! what a world you live in! it’s so easy to find the right answer to everything!

    i’m going to go get a dell, sign up for aol, drink starbucks coffee… wait, wait, wait… i’m going to buy all chinese products. after all, they sell the best–so they must be… THE BEST!

  • NORTHSAM

    GOOD ARTICLE BUT I ALWAYS FIND PAUL SIMON BORING. MAYBE IT IS BECAUSE I’M ONLY 32.

  • Not Anyone Special

    It’s interesting, I think there are a number of clearly unapproachable issues in this idea as it is presented. A fellow earlier stated that Paul McCartney is mechanically ‘the greatest’ songwriter of our time because his success rate measurably outpaces anyone else in the world. The idea seems ludicrous, but then at the same there is a distinction that Paul McCartney, as (apparently) the world’s leading success, holds more individual influence than anyone else by the numbers. Paul McCartney can do something, and Paul Simon can do something, and your neighbor John Smith III can do something, and the McCartney tune will almost always move and shake more than either of the other two by simple saturation. I think in this way the issue of what “greatest” even means isn’t clearly defined in this article or the responses.

    Do we mean that Simon is greatest because he is simply a stronger composer than anyone else? If that’s the case, then it’s a hard point to maintain because as someone else pointed out, Simon really isn’t a “composer”; as a composition student, I can tell you that there is in fact very little composition in any Simon work. A series of chord progressions, two or three sections that almost always lay out in the same song forms—really, where Simon shines is as an orchestrator for small ensembles. We can’t say whether or not he’s a good composer, because he doesn’t really use compositional concepts at all. In that regard, there are a great many American composers, both in the popular, progressive, and classical world, who’s ideas are both much more groundbreaking and solid, but who are also admittedly less known or influential by sheer numbers.

    On the other side, it seems that we are also trying to say that Simon is ‘the greatest’ because of the level of weight he carries with him. While not always being the first into new territory, he has a bit of an ethnomusicoligist’s approach, and presents something as it is and not what our audience might like it to be, much like Bob Brosman or Ry Cooder. He does this, and we perceive that things are no longer what they were. This must be greatness. However, if we take that account to be accurate, then it goes back to saying that McCartney MUST be “greater” because the data of it shows that McCartney has in fact been responsible for more influence and change (in the long run) than Simon. This definition of “greatness” also means that McDonald’s is the greatest food chain because it did, in fact, change things more than any other restaurant establishment in history.

    In all, I really like Simon, and McCartney, and I’m not sure I’d say that one’s any better than the other. I do, however, think that if an argument were to take place, going back and forth between these two definitions of “greatness” to defend one’s point sort of deconstructs the fidelity of that argument.

  • Ryan

    BRIAN WILSON

  • anita

    paul simon, bob dylan, bruce springsteen, leonard cohen, joni mitchell, van morrison … how can these songwriters, anywhere, have any peer?? i am not a huge fan of mccartney but he should be included though i’d never sit down and listen to him.