A Poem on the Underground Wall

Would you look at those nerds. Their harmonies are angelic; their haircuts, terrible. In fact, looking at them now, I wonder if they weren’t the inspiration for Beavis & Butthead. Well, Simon & Garfunkel may have looked like bozos, but there’s no arguing with those harmonies, those melodies or that writing. Those two were both the kind of guy who seduces you by being the smartest person in the room, and wins you over completely by being the most sensitive too. How does this song, for example, not sink under its own verbosity? It has the confidence of its own cleverness, of course, but it also has heart. Paul Simon may be flexing his English Lit muscle with what may be the most pretentious closing couplet of all time, but he’s also turning a sympathetic eye on the unseen figure of the lowly subway vandal. Guys who spray paint subway cars have inner lives too! Maybe the hooligan has poetry inside him, poetry that only takes the form of gutter slang. Maybe that dick carved onto the hard plastic of the seat really meant the world to the person to took the time to chisel it there.

Pledging My Time

Here is an only moderately crappy video of late 90’s Bob Dylan performance. What’s interesting about it is this; has this always been a blues song and I just didn’t notice? Either way it works really well, although most blues songs don’t have quite as many words. It does show that too often, the persona of “Bob Dylan” has overshadowed the musicianship of Bob Dylan. Because the experience of hearing Blonde on Blonde as an album is all about the psychedelic intellectual journey, not the drier exercise of picking apart the musical structure of the songs. Of course, I’m coming at it as a non-musician, and for professional listeners I’m sure the experience is much more complex. But it is odd that on an album as familiar as this, I never actually noticed the musical styles and influences of the individual songs. It’s different to think of it as ‘Bob Dylan playing a blues song’ rather than a ‘Bob Dylan song that sounds like the blues.’ It’s a fine distinction.

Pay the Price

A non-Neil Buffalo Springfield standout. I’m not an audiophile who usually notices such things, but the remastering on this is great. It really brings out the guitar jangle like I’ve never heard it before. And it rocks pretty hard, actually. I kind of mentally file Buffalo Springfield as folky and relaxing, but this is somewhat up the road from folksy and halfway to country rock. Very wakey-wakey, which I needed this morning.

Patterns

Simon & Garfunkel put a particularly bleak spin on the outlines of your life. Thanks, Simon & Garfunkel. Life is, indeed, a maze of blind corners and dead ends which we scramble through like frightened rats, pausing only to enjoy a nice cheese. Also, lonely nights spend alone in cramped walk-up apartments. Also, angst and self doubt. Also, Paul Simon needs a hug. Honestly, there’s few things that appeal to me more that the combination of beautifully refined musicianship and dysfunctional emotional flailing. Simon & Garfunkel mastered that balance like none other, with their chamber pop harmonies, and Garfunkel’s Sunday choir vocals, and Simon’s disgruntled-nerd songwriting. Paul Simon is known as a mellow fellow, thanks to his melodic gifts, soothing voice, and nonthreatening stature, but he wrote some of the darkest hit pop songs in the pop canon. This is a song I’d like to hear in the hands of some Bad Seeds, so it can’t sneak by disguised as pretty.

Paperback Writer

This is the song people point to as the exact moment when The Beatles stopped being a pop group and started being something more. That may be overly simplistic, but it’s definitely a game-changing song. It was the first Beatles single with a harmony too complex to easily play live or mime to on TV. It’s not that it couldn’t be recreated live – Paul McCartney regularly plays it today – but that with the screaming and chaos, it just wasn’t worth it. It was also an adventures new step forward lyrically, McCartney’s response to critics who accused him of only writing about love. McCartney does have an affinity for only writing about love, to this day, but at the time, so did everyone else. The Beatles quickly proved that they could whip up a brilliant pop song about literally any random thing, and other songwriters followed suit, thus making the pop charts one hell of a lot less thematically monotonous.

Paint It Black

Truly, one of the best hit singles about suicidal depression. The Rolling Stones paint a picture of a man who sees nothing but darkness after his lover has died. Musically, however, they’ve done the opposite; they’ve swung open a door of color, depth and texture that was news for rock music. We may have some hit single fatigue towards The Rolling Stones all of these many years later, but to sit down and watch clips from their earliest heyday is to say to yourself “how was that even real?” In 1966, on television variety shows, there was a revolution unfolding; you can literally see, as befuddled hosts in suits are shoved aside by convulsing throngs of young people, a new set of values taking hold. The Rolling Stones may have objected to being called ‘role models’ but they offered themselves as such just the same. Mick Jagger was 23, a childlike demon presiding over a generational sea change. It’s more than a pop song with a sitar, though that was its own small revolution; it’s the sound of collective consciousness changing.

Out of My Mind

Oh, Neil! So young and already lamenting your celebrity fate. Because if there’s one thing celebrities love to do, it’s lamenting the hardship of their lives. We get it, rock star life is pretty surreal. Typical song matter. What I actually find interesting about this song is, as someone recently pointed out, it’s an example of the insecure young Young attempting to sing ‘better’. Young has one of the most recognizable voices in the pantheon; it’s hard to imagine that he was once considered a lousy singer. But as he recounts in his autobiography, what was meant to be the debut single of one of his early bands (The Squires? The Mynah Birds? I forget) was released as an instrumental because management deemed his singing subpar. Young was understandably a little traumatized, and spent the next few years trying to sing deeper, or allowing his bandmates to sing over him, or even going so far as to have his vocals mixed down on his own solo album. Here, he seems to be trying to stay in a lower register, and the backup vocals are a little too forefront. Of course, today Neil Young is notorious for giving no fucks and doing just what he wants with no regard for expectations, so it’s really kind of endearing to remember that he used to be too shy to shine on his own songs.