Paul Simon’s 70th Birthday – His 10 Greatest Songs

I’ve been listening to Paul Simon pretty much from day one, so being that he turned 70, I thought I’d compile a list of my 10 favourite songs from one of America’s greatest songwriters and in particular, lyricists. As a kid I remember the family driving around Kuala Lumpur in our big yellow Datsun van listening to all sorts of tapes, including Bruce Springsteen, John Denver, Cliff Richard and Vangelis as well as three or four by either Simon & Garfunkel or Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel solo. Just don’t leave those cassette-tapes on the dashboard! Melted tapes were devastating reality of my childhood in Malaysia.

Moving back to New Zealand in the early 90s tapes gave way to CDs and I discoverd vinyl too and by my mid-teens I had every album Paul Simon had ever released, both solo and with Garfunkel. So with a lifetime of listening and a lifetime of songs to choose from, here are my 10 favourite Paul Simon songs:

10: Spirit Voices (Rhythm Of The Saints – 1990)
9: So Long Frank Lloyd Wright (Bridge Over Troubled Water – 1970)
8: Under African Skies (Graceland  – 1986)
7) The Boxer (Bridge Over Troubled Water – 1970)
6) Bridge Over Troubled Water (Bridge Over Troubled Water – 1970)
5) Slip Slidin’ Away (Greatest Hits Etc 1977)
4) Something So Right (There Goes Rhymin’ Simon – 1973)
3) American Tune (There Goes Rhymin’ Simon – 1973)
2) The Boy In The Bubble (Graceland – 1986)
1) The Only Living Boy In New York (Bridge Over Troubled Water – 1970)

As far as American popular lyricists go, Paul Simon is right up there with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen for me, with Stevie Wonder and Hal David not far behind. But while Dylan is the most analysed and most revered of the bunch, Paul Simon’s beautiful vocals and harmonies, his greater melodic sense and courage in venturing from rock ‘n’ roll to folk to pop to gospel to doo-wop to jazz to reggae to Latin to South African to Brazilian and back again and everything in between….well, let’s just say as much as I love Dylan I’ve never been in any doubt who wins out of the two.

As far as lyrics go, all the songs in my top 10 are masterpieces. Slip Slidin’ Away so concisely and elegantly tells a whole story of an absent father who loves his son and would dearly love to explain to him the reasons for the painful decisions he’s made in life:

“I know a father who had a son /
He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he’d done /
He came a long way, just to explain /
he kissed his boy as he laid sleeping and he turned around and heading home again.”

American Tune, written through the lense of Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate is probably his finest lyrical achievement and even though a solo song, Art Garfunkel has often covered it in his solo concerts explaining the timeless message in the words:

“And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered /
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease /
I don’t know a dream that not been shattered /
Or driven to its knees /
But it’s alright, it’s alright /
We’ve lived so well so long /
Still, when I think of the road we’re travelling on /
I wonder what’s gone wrong /
I can’t help but I wonder /
What’s gone wrong.”

The song that snuck the top spot combines the three things I love the most about Paul Simon: beautiful vocals and harmonies, a stunning melody and intelligent lyrics that reveal more the more you listen. Written as an ode to his best-mate who he couldn’t stand half the time, The Only Living Boy In New York addresses Simon’s loneliness as he worked on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album while Art Garfunkel pursued his acting career in Mexico (the film Catch 22). Some accounts suggest Garfunkel was wary of the public viewing Simon & Garfunkel as 75% Simon, being that Simon wrote all the lyrics. As such, a side-career as an actor seemed like a obvious string for Garfunkel to add to his bow. This separation led to tension and the album was the final studio album the duo would ever release, but if you study the lyrics, it’s a fond farewell, not an angry one.

The “Tom” in the song is Art and is a reference to their pre-Simon & Garfunkel days when they called themselves Tom & Jerry. Paul sings:

“Tom get your plane ride on time /
I know your part will go fine /
Fly down to Mexico /
Da na da, da na na dah /
And here I am /
The only living boy in New York.”

The true majesty of the song is when Garfunkel joins Simon to sing the “here I am” line towards the end of the song. This song and So Long Frank Lloyd Wright are two of the most moving, but also most clever, farewell songs in popular music.

 

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