In December 1971, our house acquired its first stereo. My dad had obviously planned it for a long time. He bought separates and wall furniture to rest them on, including a large record cabinet. The speakers were placed high on the wall on either side of the front window. There were half a dozen albums, including a Status Quo, Songs For Swinging Lovers and a Fats Waller greatest hits. It was a Christmas present to the household.
I saved all my pennies and in January I went to the shop for my first album, Electric Warrior. I listened to it non-stop for months, interrupted only by Telegram Sam and its B sides, Cadilac & Baby Strange. My record buying ways were set, never to change.
At the same time, my dad purchased Paul Simon's first solo LP after splitting with Art Garfunkel. I never paid any attention, lost as I was in a world of cork-screw hair, glitter, make up and boogie. Most houses I visited had a copy of Bridge Over Troubled Water, which I saw as boring music for grown ups. When my dad managed to cleave T.Rex off the turntable, I thought the album, Paul Simon, sounded like a toned down version, with fewer instruments and smaller tunes. I didn't take to it. Even its cover of a sheepish Paul Simon hiding under his parka fur-trimmed hood was no match for Bolan's glam, rock-god pose with a huge amp.
Then, something funny happened in the summer, namely Kenny Everret. I had a small battery operated radio that I took with me whenever I walked the dog. On Sundays I could listen to the whole two hour show. One day he played Papa Hobo, then Hobo's Blues. He liked them so much he played them again. If Kenny liked it, it was worthy of my attention. Besides, I heard a snatch of the words for the first time and Papa Hobo was about Detroit, the Motor City, the home of Tamla Motown and the origin of the soundtrack to my childhood. Plus the parping bass harmonica tickled my juvenile humour.
I went home and listened to the whole album for the first time. Gradually, I began to appreciate its strengths and charms. They seeped into my pores despite the constant demands from Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Roxy Music.
It has a strange start. Simon travelled to Jamaica to enlist Jimmy Cliff's backing group and a fine set of backing vocalists, including Whitney Houston's mum. He was one of the first white artists to embrace reggae. Simon loved the sounds and styles of different music from all over the world. Here, he employs a genuine reggae band to play in a reggae style but it is still a Paul Simon song sung in a Paul Simon way. The subject matter of bereavement is unusually downbeat for the music of sunshine and Simon's pure choirboy voice retains its perfect diction and its precision. Nevertheless, it all hangs together, leaving a mystery with the title, Mother And Child Reunion. Does it mean a child has died and is about to join its mother in the after life? Why is it only a motion away? Does that refer to the lowering of the coffin? Simon said it refered to an egg and rice dish but this song is nothing to do with a Chinese meal.
There are echoes of Bridge Over Troubled Water across the rest of the album. Again, Roy Halee produces, Larry Knechtel, responsible for the gospel piano on Troubled Water itself adds a variety of keyboard touches and Hal Blaine plays drums. The second track, Duncan, has many Troubled Water elements. Los Incas who played on El Condor Pasa make a reappearance. The song itself is, like The Boxer, a story of a poor boy who has a sexual awakening. The girl he meets reads the bible, which is mentioned in Keeping The Customer Satisfied. But, its similarities to Troubled Water also highlight the differences. It's a beautifully constructed, gentle song. There is none of the bombast of crashing cymbals or sweeping strings. The production is closer and more intimate. The delivery is more heartfelt. By the end, when he is lying on his back, looking at the stars thanking The Lord for the gifts bestowed upon him, the listener is lifted by the swell of the Incas cello and percussion and carried away by the melody in the flutes.
Next, we are brought crashing down by the pessimistic Everything Put Together Falls Apart. It is a microcosmic distillation of the whole album in just two minutes. It is the point at which the album becomes more than just a collection of songs. At its heart is one man, one voice, one acoustic guitar. He may be miserable but he hums and coos gorgeously. His voice is completely exposed. Yet, even in soprano, he more than matches his absent partner. The guitar playing is precise and warm. All those years practicising on the road in the UK have paid dividends. There are a couple of tasteful flickers of electric piano and an understated harmonica. The writing across the whole album is thoughtfully and economically put together. Simon had spent the previous year refining his craft, teaching others songwriting. This particular song meanders with little changes in pace in the rhythm of normal speech. From the opening, whispered, "mmm-mm, paraphernalia" the listener is invited to lean in closely in order to benefit from the worldly wisdom being dispensed. It is beautiful.
Run That Body Down kicks its shoes off and slouches on the couch. It needs to, because both Paul and Peg, his wife, are name checked specifically and pointed at by the finger of shame. They both need a long rest. It is actually a surprising personal revelation of vulnerability for a pop star but delivered in such a languid, relaxed manner it seems unremarkable. It helps that Hal Blaine and the great jazz giant, Ron Carter, are the rhythm section. There is also a vibraphone, which I always associate with a laid-back feel but it's the guitar solo by Jerry Hahn that captures the mood best. The vocal's conversational phrasing and closing falsetto are excellent. It's the third completely different band in four tracks but the musicians, including Simon himself, are so good, they gel perfectly across nearly four minutes of pure aural pleasure.
Side one closes with a cry of angst. Armistice Day starts quietly but loses patience by the end of the first verse to become a thrashing of acoustic guitar. Jerry Hahn makes another telling contribution with an aggressive, increasingly fraught electric guitar. Horns interject pointedly. Simon wants to see his congressman. We aren't told why and he doesn't get to see him. It's a perfectly realised expression of frustration that ends without resolution.
Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard starts with a peculiar, jaunty rhythm driven by a cuica, a Brazilian percussion instrument with a round, hollow feel. The song exudes wit and charm, popping with alliterations and puns. It could accompany a performance by a group of clowns. However, a crime has been committed, so heinous that it makes the cover of Newsweek and the mama pajama spits on the ground whenever it gets mentioned. But, it is such a happy singalong, even when saying 'goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona' that it's difficult not to get carried away, especially when Simon's and David Spinozza's acoustic guitars mesh conspiratorially at the end.
I honestly believe Peace Like A River is Paul Simon's best ever performance. He is backed by a bass and simple percussion. His guitar playing is incredible. The finger speed is superquick with flourishing, complicated runs until he picks out a neat melody. It sounds almost spontaneous rather than carefully planned. His voice is delicious. He is multi-tracked for backing as a host of angels, reminiscent of Only Living Boy In New York. He displays his full range, both across octaves and across moods. The song itself is wonderful. It is a celebration of success, tinged with defiance. There is finally peace after a period of hardship endured in order to get there ('You can beat us with wires, you can beat us with chains'). The simile of the title is affecting but, more importantly, is the personal effect on Simon as an individual. He wakes in the small hours and can't get back to sleep. The excitement and joy is too acute. They say that the trick of great songwriting is to render the personal universal. Peace Like A River turns that notion on its head. Simon relates a universal struggle to a personal experience and, in doing so, reaches a wider audience.
Papa Hobo is next, which turns out to be more than just about Detroit. It captures the moment of moving on, the moment when the past is left behind and the future is embraced. That scat falsetto at the close is the sound of a bird leaving its nest. Hobo's Blues has a big smile on its face. Here is Paul Simon, enjoying himself, riffing with the legendary Stéphane Grappelli for just over a minute.
Paranoia Blues is the flipside to Me And Julio. It carries a threat through Stefan Grossman's pumped up bottleneck guitar and some throaty horns. Even Simon manages a snarl, 'Whose side are you on?' plus a sideswipe against his home town, New York City. But, there is humour in the verses. The scenarios feeding the paranoia are laughably ridiculous, especially the final one when he turns round and finds that his Chow Fun has gone. This album made Lin's Garden restaraunt in Bayard Street famous.
Finally, a lullaby, in which we are bedded down by Larry Knetchel's sumptuous electric piano and organ. The voice is sweet and soothing. However, all is not well. Congratulations depicts a relationship falling apart. There is misery, there are fights, there is blame, there is soul searching and there is a yearning. It's a reminder that Paul Simon is born out of a divorce from Art Garfunkel and problems in his marriage to Peggy. Looking back now, as the final track plays out, it's easy to see how many of the songs have been touched by the feelings generated by instability. Perhaps, Armistace Day has nothing to do with waiting to see a congressman, that friends have actually betrayed him as described in Paranoia Blues, that Papa Hobo is present day desire for a fresh start rather than a past one or the insomnia in Peace Like A River has a stress-related cause.
In the end, Paul Simon is about one man, one voice, one acoustic guitar. The man's artistry was at its most refined. His songwriting was at its peak. His voice at its sweetest and its most beautiful. His guitar picking at its most dexterous. Here is a man exposed and vulnerable creating his most personal and human work. Paul Simon is a perfectly balanced album with finely judged contributions from other musicians, safely encouraged by Roy Halee. It is my favourite Paul Simon album by far. Nowadays, I'm far more likely to return to Paul Simon than I am to Electric Warrior.
Over a year later, on 13th April 1973, I bought Aladdin Sane. A couple of weeks later, my dad brought home There Goes Rhymin' Simon, triggering another battle for the record deck. Rhymin' Simon is too stodgy and over-produced for me, but, I have to admit my dad was spot on about Paul Simon. He has been dead for twenty years now. If I need to tap into his calm, assured common sense in the face of adversity, I play Paul Simon, and, straight away, he's with me. Sometimes, music transcends mere listening pleasure.