The Creative Process with Paul Simon

Songfacts.com is a cool site for music geeks like me, and they have a section of interviews with songwriters that are worth reading. 

I find the creative process fascinating, especially the process of creating music and lyrics. You have to start with one or the other, first of all. Do you think up a chunk of melody and then some words to go with it, and then keep building on that? 

Or the opposite, start with some words that resonate and then build a melody for them? Each songwriter does things a little differently, and even from song to song they may change that process around. It’s about as pure a creative process as you will find. 

Or maybe you just do one or the other, like Elton John (music only) and Bernie Taupin (lyrics only) — Tapuin would hand fully formed lyrics to Elton who would then create the melody on piano.  

Then there’s this:  you sit down at the piano or with your guitar and then an hour later — or sometimes ten minutes later — you have this totally new thing that you created, with a tune and lyrics, and it’s destined to be part of history now. It did not exist until you created it. Now it’s forever. How cool is that? I’m not sure how non-creative people can even begin to understand what that feeling is like.

Here’s Paul Simon on music crtics and their weird obsession with lyrics:

Most of the time, what I'm writing is about music, not about lyrics, and critics pay scant attention to the music. I mean, if you're saying something with music and words - if you're saying one thing with words and the opposite with music and you're creating a sense of irony - that's lost. Or if the idea of a song is a musical idea, how to write a song in 7/4 time and make it feel natural, let's say, it's beyond them. I never heard anybody say, Now that was a clever way of doing 7/4 time. Instead, most critics are basically analyzing words. It's English Lit all over again.

My thoughts exactly. Analyzing and focusing on lyrics is okay up to a point, but pulling them out of the music they were explicitly created for, and intended to be consumed with, is just an attempt to call attention to yourself as a critic and the “English Lit” nerd inside you. I’ve got news for you:  hardly anyone cares.  Lyrics are meant to be heard backed by music, sung by singers, not recited at poetry slams populated by 4 people including your family. 

The music is the thing. The music is always the thing. Lyrics are usually just sounds that happen to be words that work with the meter and the tone of the song. You might be overthinking it.  

Before Simon & Garfunkel made it big, Paul Simon had already been semi-successful as a songwriter with Carole King. The two of them would write songs together, and create demo tapes with Carole playing drums and piano, and Paul playing guitar and bass, and both singing, obviously. Simon: 

The game was to make a demo at demo prices and then try to sell it to a record company. Maybe you'd wind up investing $300 for musicians and studio time, but if you did something really good, you could get as much as $1,000 for it. I never wanted to be in groups - I was only after that $700 profit. I always tried to get my money up front, because you were never sure of getting your royalties if they put the record out. You were dealing with a lot of thieves in those days.
Quite an array of talent on those demo tapes: Paul Simon and Carole King. The two of them had about 30-40 classic songs in their future, just waiting to come out.

Paul Simon really upped his songwriting game around 1969, and it’s obvious from listening to his work before and after that time. Here’s his take on that:

For me the significant change occurred around 1969, after I wrote 'The Boxer,'" he said. "At that point I stopped smoking grass and I never went back. I told a friend of mine, a really good musician, that I had writer's block. And he said, 'When are you going to stop playing this folkie stuff, all the time the same G to C chords? You could be a really good songwriter, but you don't know enough, you don't have enough tools. Forget about having hits - go learn your ax.' I started to study theory. I began listening to other kinds of music - gospel, Jamaican ska, Antonio Carlos Jobim. 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' was a gospel-influenced song. It was very easy for me to feel at home with gospel, because it sounded like the rock 'n' roll I grew up with in the early '50s.

He definitely took that advice to heart, because his 70s output has amazing breadth and depth. Start with “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” (Spotify) which has heavy gospel, ska, and jazz influences, plus one of biggest (and best) hits “Kodachrome”. Gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds appear on several songs and make an amazing difference in the tone and depth of those songs, starting with “Tenderness” and the other big hit “Loves Me Like a Rock”. Simply one of the best popular music albums of the 70s. 


“Everything is Beautiful” and Other Reasons I Miss the Early 70s

Ray Stevens - “Everything is Beautiful”

There were a lot of classic songs in the early to mid 70s, like this one, and sometimes I really miss that era. Those years were good for me. And for some reason, 1972 sticks in my head more than the other years.

1972 . . . somehow deep down inside where emotions reside, I get a good warm feeling just from thinking about that year. Whatever the reasons might be, including pure nostalgia for when we were young and life was simple, I know that part of the reason I like 1972 and his friends 1971 and 1973, plus their cousins 1970 and 1974, is because of the music of the era. Music exactly like this.

Music, on the radio, heard by everybody because radio was not the balkanized wasteland that it is today. If a station played music at all, it was generally Top 40. On AM radio. And did we like it anyway? Yes we did. Damn right we did. Instead of walking around looking like dorks with little white things in our ears, grooving to our own sounds, shutting out everything else, we listened in our cars and bedrooms and kitchens, on AM radios played through 3″ speakers, with other people. Hard to picture now, I know, unless you were there. 

Music was far more communal back then. It was a cultural bond. It’s not like we sat around and thought about it, but looking back, yeah, that’s what happens when popular music caters to a mass market. Songwriters wrote songs and singers and bands recorded them with the hope that it would become a hit and thereby a small piece of the soundtrack of the lives of millions of people. 

Sometimes, like this one, it was even a little bit spiritual, and that wasn’t unusual either (“Put Your Hand in the Hand”, “Day by Day” from Godspell, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, among other examples) —  but that trend also stopped around the mid-70s.

Can you even imagine a song like this today, being written, recorded, and released, and becoming a hit? It just doesn’t seem very likely to me.

There was something different about the early 1970s, when the patchouli haze of the 60s had finally dissipated, but before Watergate would invade our minds and rudely demand all our attention, and during the time when we were slowly pulling out of Vietnam, assuming everything would be all peaches and sunshine when we left. Smiley face stickers and t-shirts were everywhere. People looked for reasons to be happy and positive, it seemed.

Looking back now, the early 70s seemed like an island in a vast sea, a port in a storm. The ugliness of the late 60s, the riots, the demonstrations, the assassinations (two historic figures were assassinated within two months of each other, Martin Luther King in April 1968, and Robert F. Kennedy, who was on track to be elected president, in June), all of that seemed so last-decade, probably because we so desperately wanted it to be.

But of course, soon enough, everything changed. By 1975, Watergate had forced Nixon to resign in disgrace and portrayed Washington as a national punchline, and we had to turn tail in South Vietnam which had been overrun by the Communists to the north, so as a result, public confidence in our country and in our future took a nosedive that we didn’t pull out of until the mid-80s and the economic boom and optimism of the Reagan years. Those of us who lived through the 60’s and 70’s think of it through two filters: Vietnam and Watergate.

But in between, there was a little respite, and 1972 was the year that defined that respite, at least to me and my then-13-year-old ears. Within a couple of years, other pop music trends started to dominate, like disco, art rock, punk, new wave, all sorts of influences that chased out the sense of pure unabashed naivete and childlike joy from our popular music, and therefore, to a degree, from popular culture. But pop music never recovered its 1972-ish halo.

The point here — besides my obvious nostalgia for my formative years — is that we have chosen (been forced into?) a much different way of doing all this today, due to cable TV and then internet streaming of music and video and then smartphones — and it has had entirely predictable consequences and some of them are not on the positive side of the ledger. 


A Tuesday Link

Rick Beato “This Song Changed My Life”:

He was bored with his leg in a cast all summer long after 7th grade, and decided to learn this song by America “Never Found the Time” (Spotify) which includes about 15 different chord shapes, many of which he had to figure out on his own because the music book had them wrong. 

That is a lot of chord shapes for one song — most songs only use 4 or 5, max. More chord shapes means more complex and challenging to play, and using minor 7ths, add-9,  suspended chords, etc.

Picking a song like this as your very first song to learn all the way through is a challenge, to say the least. 

It was also played on a 12 string, not a 6 string, which he also had to figure out himself by going to a guitar store and playing the chords on that 12 string, many weeks later. He got that 12 string, by promising his mom not to tell his dad how much it cost ($120 in 1975 was a pretty substantial sum). 

Watch the video to learn the rest.


Streaming Updates and Other News

We finished watching a good short series yesterday, “Manhunt: Deadly Games” (Netflix, possibly others) about the pursuit of the Atlanta ‘96 Olympic Games bomber Eric Rudolph, and the incompetence and hubris of the FBI and the media in portraying the man who alerted law enforcement to the bomb, Richard Jewell, first as the hero he actually was and then as the primary suspect who was tried and convicted in the media for months. 

The phrase they keep coming back to in the show is “don’t judge by appearances”, and this whole case is Exhibit A. 

It’s far from a 100% factual account nor should we expect it to be. Never ever assume that you know exactly what happened down to the last detail from one TV show, movie, documentary, or news article. But getting every detail right is unimportant, if the big picture is correct, and the big picture here is the mendactiy, hubris, and incompetence of the FBI and the media, and then refusal to admit mistakes even when it was beyond obvious that they had started down the wrong road by working together to destroy Richard Jewell.

It’s 10 parts but we easily watched over 3 mights in less than a week. Good performances by all, and I particularly liked Arliss Howard as the grizzled old veteran ATF bomb detective that first uncovers the bombing signature connection to the later bombings which rule out Jewell as the suspect in the Atlanta bombing. Highly recommended. 

Other News 

My highly debilitating vertigo episode of last week suddenly disappeared Friday evening within 20 minutes of taking the first sip of Friday night Guinness. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. I do feel a lot better, although I have noticed the spins when I am lying down and move my eyes quickly, so something is still not quite right in there. Still, much much better. 

Weather this weekend was still very cool, highs in the 50s and breezy, and it’s 42° F right now at 7:30 am, with a high today of only 50 expected. Highs in the 60 all week it appears. But that’s ok with me — I like cooler weather in Spring and Fall. Keep the 80+ and  high humidity days for June, July and August where they belong.

Enjoy Natalie Cole with a good version of the jazz standard “It’s Only a Paper Moon”:

Contact Hitters and Why We Need Them

Accepted wisdom in baseball has changed through the years — due to the ascension of advanced metrics like launch angle— causing many teams to demote the value of the contact hitter in their hierarchy of lineup needs. 

This was a mistake. 

I’ve written on this before, several times, and will do so again, but for now let’s just watch this hit to drive in the game-winning run in the 8th inning on Saturday by Matt Duffy:

Click here to watch if above does not work.

Here he is right after hitting the ball:

Note the orientation of his left foot and his entire left leg, his head, shoulders, and hips — to right field. Physics and common sense tell us this is the _only_ sensible orientation of your body with a pitch on the outer third of the plate, as this one is. Trying to hit such a pitch anywhere *but* right field is giving away an out, and in this case, would have stranded the go-ahead run at second base going into the ninth inning.

Look how far his hips — the center of rotation that creates most of the energy in the swing — are from the ball. Probably 5 feet or more? If he tries to hit that pitch to the left side of the diamond, he almost certainly strikes out, or hits a weak grounder to an infielder. The physics of swinging a bat to hit a ball hard won’t allow you to hit that pitch to the left side and hit it hard enough to get on base. Which is, after all, the whole point of swinging the bat.

The Cubs, along with many other teams I would guess, have in recent years typically had only one guy on the entire roster who can do this consistently. There’s an epidemic across the league of this — mostly due to over-measuring and over-analyzing whatever we decide to measure and anaylze, launch angle in particular — which causes an increase in 3 outcomes (strikeeout, walk, home run) and a decrease in all others. 

The list of ways that this changes the game is long and varied but a primary change is fewer baserunners with the aforementioned increase in walks, strikeouts, and home runs, and therefore far fewer exciting baserunning plays, because on those rarer occasions when there are baserunners, there are fewer hits like Duffy’s that advance (or drive in) those runners. The effect is exponential, not additive. There is also a huge increase in use of defensive shifts, overloading the zones on the field where hitters have shown they almost always hit the ball. 

Far, far less action in the game, in other words. It’s become boring, or more boring, depending on your patience. The league is tinkering with rules changes to increase excitement and shorten games, but it seems to me the simplest and most important change is the one they cannot mandate:  the way hitters swing the bat. 

This “hit it where it’s pitched” approach that Duffy employs — and most players used to employ, 20 or more years ago — is the main reason Duffy made the team out of spring trainng, and Cubs manager David Ross is quoted as saying that. 

Duffy delivering that hit in that spot is the key reason they won the game Saturday. 


Useful Recommendations

Wisdom passed down through the ages plus our own empirical experience combine to teach us many things, including:

  • Don’t run with scissors
  • Stop, drop, and roll
  • Don’t pet the dog with sticky hands
  • Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker
  • Righty tighty lefty loosey - unless you’re on the other side of the bolt or it’s a propane tank valve
  • Don’t get vertigo
  • If you do get vertigo, don’t get the kind that stays with you for days
  • If you do get vertigo, and you do get the kind that stays with you for days, don’t also get a tooth pulled during that same time period
  • If you do get vertigo, and you do get the kind that stays with you for days, and you also get a tooth pulled during that same time period, plan on being dizzy and uncomfortable and having difficulty eating which then of course in addition to feeling nauseous and unsteady makes you weak and cranky too

I hopt that’s clear. 

I discovered a new radio show last night with great Americana roots music, it’s called American Routes and it’s out of New Orleans. It features “blues and jazz, gospel and soul, rockabilly and country, Cajun and swamp pop, Tejano, Latin… and beyond” and I like *all* of those styles of music. Thanks to my friend Rich who texted me the link while the show was on last night. Highly recommended.

This podcast is worth a listen too, about Lance Armstrong and his doping and PED scandal, it’s called “American Scandal” and it involves a lot of cycling community drama between Armstrong, Greg LeMond, and Floyd Landis. I listen on Spotify but it’s available on various platforms. Also highly recommended.