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“The Late Great Johnny Ace” Paul Simon

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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.

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  • 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.

    like hell i don’t. it fits snugly right into my commie, pinko liberal wheelhouse.


    dang, i had no idea mr. glass was on that record. i may have to check it out.

  • Eric Olsen

    It’s a good, sad song, but not as tuneful as some of my PS faves.

  • uao

    It had an effect on me, but mostly by circumstance.

    I grew up in NYC, and as an early teen became obsessed with the Beatles. John Lennon was killed in 1980 when I was 15 (my mother was in hospital dying of cancer; it was a rough winter).

    1981 was a better year, and one of the highpoints was teh Concert in Central Park by Simon and Garfunkel, hometown heroes from Queens, who were reuniting for the first time since the 60’s. I was there; it think of it as my personal Woodstock experience.

    “The Late Great Johnny Ace” was unveiled for the very first time at that show. A hush fell across the New York crowd as they listened to a stark, naked song andout stark, naked emotion, and stark naked sadness we all shared.

    Then, mid song, a guy rushed the stage and went right for Simon, shouting “I need to talk to you, man”. Simon paused, looking shaken, for a second, but resumed the song and played it to the silent crowd.

    A week later, Simon played it on Letterman. As he got to the same part where the guy rushed the stage, the string broke. “Something always happens when I play that” he said to Letterman.

    The one on Hearts and Bones gets that philip Glass treatment, which is appropriate, and while I prefer the scary Central Park version, I do like the studio one.

    It is I think, a song with a real “you had to be there” caveat attached. Hearts and Bones (which was supposed to be Simon and Garfunkel, till Simon erased all of Garfunkels vocals) is Simon’s most difficult album. It’s spare, chilly, dreary, depressing. I never played it much myself.

    So if you don’t dig the tune, I can see why. But it means something to me.

  • Beautiful song.
    Nelson Marzullo Tangerini,
    Brazilian writer.
    [personal contact info deleted]