As the great rock and pop songwriters are nearing 80 and selling catalogs, it’s time to look back at what became the canon in our culture. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, Carole King, the Motown gang (HDH, Ashford and Simpson) and so on.
I’m thinking about how smart part of NBCNews.com let a writer named Jeff Slate slag off Paul Simon this week on their website. He called him a “footnote” to Dylan. It was just extraordinarily stupid, and earned this person the ire of every music and culture writer who heard about it. I imagine this guy is enjoying his notoriety.
Paul Simon doesn’t need any help from me. He’s rich, and I think, happy. Plus he knows his place in history. I do recall, though, that Rolling Stone, reviewing Simon’s self titled first album, said something like: “If Paul Simon was worried about his place in history, with this album he no longer has to.”
Much has been written in Simon’s defense using “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as his masterpiece, which is probably right. But his catalog is much deeper than that, and that’s like saying “Like a Rolling Stone” is Dylan’s one stand out. There are few lyricists at Simon’s level, whether it’s “The Boxer” or “American Tune” or the songs from “Graceland.” I have a few favorites like “Rewrite,” from a recent album, or “Fathers and Daughters,” or “Rene and Georgette Magritte With their Dog After the War.”
Simon is far more acerbic than Dylan in his wording. In his compositions, he finds the hook more easily, and invokes jazz and Tin Pan Alley in ways that recall Gershwin and Porter. Billy Joel is definitely his descendant. Go back to the album “Still Crazy After All These Years,” from 1975. It’s a watershed moment, even for Simon, who’d just had two or three groundbreaking collections precede it. There’s a reason he and Stevie Wonder were locked in a fight for the first half of that decade. And Dylan — with the exception of “Forever Young” and “Blood on the Tracks” — wasn’t. They were in an unparalleled zone of creativity.
So “footnote”? Not quite. They’ll be singing “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, tenement halls” long after we’re gone.
Meantime, I found this Dick Cavett Show clip in which Simon explains how he wrote “Bridge,” sort of lifting it from a bunch of different ideas that came from gospel. (Much the same way he adapted gospel for “Love Me Like a Rock.”) It’s fascinating and also instructive because when Aretha Franklin heard it, she knew it was gospel. She reinvented the song, had a huge hit with it just one year after Simon & Garfunkel, and kept playing it and working it right up until her very last show. When I mentioned this to Simon once, he told me to tell her that once he heard her version, he started playing it. This just about as high a compliment as two artists of their caliber could pay to each other. Nothing else matters.
(And don’t tell it’s cultural appropriation. Dylan wouldn’t have existed without Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and so on. Every artist of value builds on his or her influences.)
NBC News, Think again.