Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy – Paul Simon
…some folks lives roll easy, some folks lives…never roll at all…
…most folks never catch their stars…
It’s a slight, unshowy track on Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon’s masterpiece. It’s a magnificent album chock-full of hits and flashy songs, the title track alone is the work of a genius, but then there’s My Little Town, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Have A Good Time – for me this is the perfect LP. Look at it this way – you’ve written the song. You have wonderful chords, searching lyrics, you’ve done well, you’ve chosen only the creme de la creme of your work. And then : you arrange them.
I’m a sucker for a great arrangement, something with a bit of thought, a bit of TLC. Paul Simon shares this arranging fetish with Bob Marley – rarely is a song a straight guitar strum 4×4 and drum beat with a few bvs. No – there is a careful consideration of how to tell the story of the song musically – and this means instruments dropping out, only appearing for the turnarounds, treating pop music a little more like a classical composition. Brian Wilson went there with Pet Sounds, Kate Bush lives there. There is something about jazz musicians playing pop arrangements that delivers delicious music (he generalised : eg Motown) – the line-up of A-list session players on Still Crazy After All These Years is long and distinguished and includes the celebrated Steve Gadd on drums and Mike Brecker on saxophone.
This is probably the most compassionate song I know. The concept of the piece – that some folks’ lives roll easy, while others don’t, is relatively simple, and yet not commonplace in pop at all. There are songs which celebrate, defiantly, being working-class – Dead-End Street by The Kinks, most of The Streets output, The Clash – and there are songs celebrating or lamenting the easy life – large chunks of hip hop, Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks, disturbingly large amounts of Bryan Ferry – but there are very few songs it seems to me which put these two universes together in the same song.
The narrator – Mr Paul Simon – contemplates the fact that “most folks never catch their stars” – this alone is an astounding line in a pop song and the truth of it stabs you unexpectedly with its clear-eyed compassion. Then we’re in the middle eight and the narrator suddenly becomes the self-confessed supplicant speaking directly to his “Lord” – at his place of business, despite having “no business here”. He speaks directly to his God :
“You said if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted?”
The music around this repeated middle eight is tremendously affecting. first time around a simple string section supports and leads us away from this humble prayer, then it repeats :
“here I am Lord, knocking at your place of business, and I know, I got no business here
but you said, if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted…”
and this time the horns punch us back to the first verse “Some folks’ lives roll easy, some folks never roll at all, they just fall, they just fall…” but this time with a soaring three-part harmony which tears your heart open. If you have one, naturally.
There is no chorus in this song which is unusual, but what is more unusual is the narrative that it offers. We think we know this story, but when we hear the song, we hear it all over again on another level. It’s pretty damn special.
I didn’t buy solo Paul Simon until the 90s, but this song quickly became one of my wife’s favourites. I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, I had singles and greatest hits as a very young teen. They were the sound of my youth. I thought, and still think, they were totally amazing. But I never did bother to follow up and get into Paul Simon until I was deep into my thirties. This LP, his 4th, came out in 1975 and is perfect, as described above. Of course there is Graceland which broke the boycott but helped make Ladysmith Black Mambazo into international stars, Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon, ah look, there’s a kind of endless tapestry of brilliant songs and LPs to be honest, right up to the present day (2011’s So Beautiful or So What), consistency applied – he never appears to write a bad song, and his taste in musicians and arrangements is impeccable.
Jenny and I went to Liverpool for the year of culture in 2008 and had an absolutely brilliant long weekend – again a subject for another post (!) but we did see Paul Simon at the new Echo Arena on the River Mersey, with his incredible band which includes South African Bakithi Kumalo (pictured right) on bass (with Simon since Graceland in 1986), and Cameroonian Vincent Nguini on guitar. He didn’t play this song, but did sing Sound Of Silence, The Boxer, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Gumboots, Boy In The Bubble, Duncan, Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard, Mrs Robinson, Still Crazy, Slip Slidin’ Away and You Can Call Me Al. Among others. An amazing night.
So, cut to : at some point in 2010 I’m basically giving up every Saturday morning, sometimes the whole day to canvas on behalf of Caroline Lucas of The Green Party in the Brighton Pavilion constituency for the 2010 election. A Party which I’d recently joined, partly due to renewed political optimism engendered by Barack Obama‘s first election victory (white Americans voted for a black man – there is hope). The Green Party understands that some folks lives roll easy, some don’t. Many former Labour supporters joined the Greens, myself included, depressed by the right turn of Blairism, and the pusillanimous surrender of the Labour Left to the City – see the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) for the NHS if you doubt my words. So: I’m meeting Green volunteers who’ve taken the train down from all across the UK to Brighton to support the big push, and they’re getting into my 4×4 Jeep Cherokee (converted to LPG!!) and being taken out to places like Withdean and Hollingbury. To leaflet every household. And Radio 3 has a show being presented by Richard Curtis, with whom I’d worked the previous year on “The Boat That Rocked” his film about Radio Caroline (yes yes there will be posts about that obviously !) and really enjoyed his humourous positivity. He’s actually not particularly English, probably because he grew up in diplomatic surroundings in dozens of different countries. And maybe that gives him a slightly dewy-eyed view of England. Anyway enough Freud, he was on Radio 3 this very day in 2010. And he was playing his six most personal favourite songs. And one of them was this one : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy by Paul Simon. It made me love him even more. The UK public are as hard on Richard as they are on Paul McCartney – big soppy rich so-and-so they appear to mutter under their breath – we prefer snarling mean people, like us. Well sod you all, mean people. Richard Curtis is one of the sweetest people I know, generous, funny, loves music and is genuinely supportive. You may not like his films, or Blackadder, or Comic Relief, but if that is the case, have you actually sat down and asked yourself what is wrong with you ?
Compassion is not to be sneered at. It’s what makes us grow. The best bit of ourselves. Let’s nurture it.