My Pop Life #89 : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy – Paul Simon

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

Featured imageJenny 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.

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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 ?

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Compassion is not to be sneered at.  It’s what makes us grow.  The best bit of ourselves.  Let’s nurture it.

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My Pop Life #53 : My Girls – Animal Collective

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My Girls   –   Animal Collective

…I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things

like my social status

I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls…

Just a beautiful song – from Animal Collective’s 8th LP Merriweather Post Pavilion (named after a real place in Maryland) which has many fine moments, and was for me, the best album of 2009, although looking back at my music, it wasn’t a vintage year by any means.  Funny how that happens.  We had Cesaria Evora (see my pop life #14), Drake, Laura Marling and Duckworth Lewis Method, we had Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State Of Mind’ and Dizzy Rascal’s ‘Bonkers’, we had Fever Ray, Dirty Projectors, Tinariwen and critical darlings the XX who did nothing for me.  I have got other stuff from 2009 to post, but it was thin stuff on the whole, or to be diplomatic…it was a transitional period shall we say…

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Animal Collective in 2008-9 comprised of Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Avey Tare (David Portner), and Geologist (Brian Weitz), all on keyboards and eletronica.  Guitarist Deakin (Josh Dibb) had taken a sabbatical from the band at this point, and there is no guitar on the LP.

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This song would have stood out in any year –  the strange time signature, soulful vocals, unusual melody and honest lyrics – about the reasonable ambition of providing your family with a home .   The way the economies of America and Europe are at the moment, the way the music business has shrunk since the internet stole the music, musicians can no longer earn enough money to pay a mortgage sadly.  I’m talking about established musicians like Animal Collective or Everything Everything, people who’ve been doing it for years, been in magazines, on TV, released LPs.  They can’t afford to buy a house.

I was a part-time musician while I lived in Brighton and all the musicians I know there work really hard for very little financial reward.  I’ve sat in a pub and played piano for £40, belting out your favourite songs while the hubbub vibrates around you.  Background music for midweek drinkers.  It’s one of the best things about Brighton, the amount of free live music there, reminding me of Boulder, Colorado or Austin, Texas, live music pouring from every bar door.  Even when my band, the mighty Brighton Beach Boys, played a “proper gig”, eg Shoreham Ropetackle or Worthing Pier, we’d get £100 each max.  That’s just how it is.  When I saw the Mingus Big Band in New York the other week and got chatting to the alto player, they were on the same money too.  A hit single used to be a way to supplement all the live income, but not any more.  It’s just not enough.  3 hit singles, 4 and 5 and an album – well maybe.   Even David Bowie’s last album only sold 700,000 copies, apparently.  The record companies ripped us off for so long though.  The CD era was the worst, they only cost $2 to make maximum, they were charging £17 at one point.  There’s a guy in the North Laine selling CDs for £5 each, clearly he’s making a profit, why were we paying so much in the 1990s?

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But plus ca change.  People don’t decide to play music, or become actors for the huge earnings.  But think twice before you rip that next song?

2009 was also the year I started to participate in Readers Recommend, part of the GuardianMusic online community.  This has been running since 2005 and was initiated by journalist and writer Dorian Lynskey.  There is a new topic every week – the first week was Songs About Change.  The idea is that readers of the column suggest songs they like for a final playlist to be compiled and printed a week later.   Dorian’s first playlist included Sam Cooke, Notorious BIG, The Who and Muse.  The column has now been running for over 14 years.  I joined in that January in 2009 when I stumbled across it online, as I guess most people do.  Songs about Anti-Love was the topic and I suggested Bessie Smith’s version of Careless Love.  By that point Maddy Costa had taken the chair and she chose Bessie for her playlist.  I was hooked.

I’ve been playing it off and on for the last six years.  The playlist compiler has become known as the “Guru” and I have taken the chair myself on a number of occasions, now that the community is democratic and volunteers from the readership are encouraged to put their names forward.  It’s quite a task, to listen to everyone’s songs, and choose a dozen that will illuminate the topic.  I have begun to prefer the more musical topics (such as songs with great middle eights, or songs with falsetto singing), over the plainly lyrical topics.  The game isn’t just about scoring A-listers, although it is competitive.  It’s about discovering new music, and being diplomatic about other people’s taste in music.  Very rare on the internet!  Which is why we keep coming back I guess.  All the information is available at The Marconium, a compendium of all of the Readers Recommend columns and playlists in handy format, compiled by one of our brethren Marconius7, who resides in British Columbia.  It’s pretty addictive, people flounce off every now and again, sometimes with no fanfare, I’ve done it myself quite a few times, but I’ve always come back, because, well I’m addicted to music, and it’s generally good fun.

This last weekend I have been the Guru again – for the seventh time I think – the topic set by Peter Kimpton, our current Guru of Gurus (ie a paid writer at The Guardian!) was Songs About Ambition.  Many many great songs were suggested, and as ever, I had to whittle them down to 12 A-listers.   My Girls made it, naturally.  The final column can be found here : Ambition Playlist!

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January 2009 was also when Barack Obama was elected President Of The USA for the first time.   A true landmark moment.    Why?   Because white Americans had voted for a black American, that’s why.   It was the start of a healing process which is going to take longer than two terms.  As I write Baltimore is going up in flames for all the usual reasons – neglect, loss of jobs, marginalisation, leave the cops to sort it out.

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And now I find, sitting in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn on Wednesday April 29th 2015 with my two cats Boy and Roxy, that I am missing My Girls.  My #1 girl is in Dublin tonight.  My wife has gone to see our dear friend Catherine Walker in Hedda Gabler at the Abbey Theatre before celebrating her sister Lucy’s birthday and seeing her parents.  My #2 girl Skye, daughter of Tom and Scarlett has just turned 9 months old, Jenny will get to see her on this trip but I’m missing her baby year.  My #3 girl Delilah-Rose, daughter of Millie is my god-daughter and aged 7, also lives in Brighton and I miss baby-sitting her, picking her up from school, taking her to school and everything else.  Here I am in Denver, sipping California wine, and I’ve got all night to remember them, I’m in a Lone Star state of mind.  Kind of thing.

My Girls  –  Animal Collective: