There is a moment in ‘Kathy’s Song’ where Paul Simon croons, “I don’t know why I spend my time writing songs I can’t believe / With words that tear and strain to rhyme.” The song, however, like most of his work, is so perfectly crafted that the mournful proclamation almost seems like a meta-irony acknowledging his prowess and command over lyrics whisked up seamlessly in their filigreed sonic sequence. When it comes to music it would seem that Paul Simon hasn’t strained a day in his life (with the odd humanising exception, ahem, ‘Cars Are Cars’).
Recently we spoke with fellow songwriter, Jack Savoretti, who seemed to agree. He explained: “Well, for me Elvis is the king of rock, Sam Cooke is the king of soul, James Brown is the king of funk, but when it comes to songwriting I think Paul Simon is the king,” he says. “Bookends is just a masterclass. The simplicity of it is like a conversation with an old friend.”
Adding: “There is such nostalgia to it. It’s very beautiful too and beauty is not always put on records these days, it’s not as marketable as other things, but there’s a lot of beauty on it, it’s like looking through an old photo album, and for me, it has that same lovely effect as doing that.”
Further adulation for the diminutive musical master came from Flyte’s Will Taylor, who also told us how Bookends is one of the greatest records ever written. “From the back of a lesson, I would put one headphone through the sleeve of my blazer, lean on my palm and listen secretly to ‘America’ with my eyes half-closed,” he reminisced. “Visually manifesting a tour bus driving across wide, open country, something that years later would come good.”
Before eulogising: “With interviews from inside an old people’s home and lines like “‘Kathy I’m lost’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping”, it’s a prematurely middle-aged masterpiece.”
All that being said, Simon has retained a humble lack of self-assuredness when it comes to his craft over the years. On paper, this might have a bittersweet tinge to it, but it is also probably a central tenet to his triumph over the difficult artform. Hubris is shouldered out of the way, and sincerity sings through when it comes to his succinct odes.
Ten years ago, Mojo magazine asked him about this level of self-doubt and his glowing appraisal of other artists. They posed the question: “You recently said you didn’t consider yourself to be at the top when considering the pantheon of popular songwriters. Who is at the top in your view?”
To which Paul Simon replied after a lengthy deliberation: “I’d put it at [George] Gershwin, [Irving] Berlin and Hank Williams. I’d probably put Paul McCartney in there too. Then I’d have Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.” Before adding a second sub-Mount Rushmore list of notables: “Then, in the second tier, [John] Lennon is there, [Bob] Dylan is there, Bob Marley and Stephen Sondheim are there, and maybe I’m there too. It’s about whose songs last.”
Naturally, his tiered list gained a lot of attention after its publication because of the fact that Macca stood above his bandmate Lennon on the podium. Whether that was due to Lennon once referring to him as “the singing dwarf, Mr Simon” and clubbing his latter records along with McCartney, Dylan’s and Mick Jagger’s as “a load of shit” in a bitter outburst, is anyone’s guess.
Elsewhere, his love of Gershwin has long been renowned. In fact, Simon even received the first annual Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by Library of Congress. Upon receipt of the honour, Simon said: “I am grateful to be the recipient of the Gershwin Prize and doubly honoured to be the first. I look forward to spending an evening in the company of artists I admire at the award ceremony in May. I can think of a few who have expressed my words and music far better than I. I’m excited at the prospect of that happening again. It’s a songwriter’s dream come true.”
Hopefully, this went some way to boosting his musical self-esteem.
Paul Simon’s favourite songwriters:
- George Gershwin
- Irving Berlin
- Hank Williams
- Paul McCartney
- Richard Rodgers
- Lorenz Hart
- John Lennon
- Bob Dylan
- Bob Marley
- Stephen Sondheim
- (Maybe) Paul Simon