Many words have been written about Paul Simon’s reunion with Art Garfunkel in the early 80s, that started with the Concert at Central Park in 1981 and lasted two years. As juicy as it is with details that popular media loves to devour, this is not the topic of this post. Instead I will focus on the album that remained when the dust settled after the duo parted ways in 1983, the often neglected Hearts and Bones. I must admit that in my opinion, likely shared with many, the album as a whole is not one of Paul Simon’s best. So why do I dedicate an article to it and not to Still Crazy After All These Years or Graceland? Because Hearts and Bones, as uneven as it is being recorded over two years in six recording studios with four producers, includes three songs that rank among Simon’s best writing, words and music. I think that Paul Simon also has a soft spot for them, as these are the three songs from the album that he sang on his short acoustic solo tour in 1984 after the album’s release and then included in the box set 1964/1993.
The title song Hearts and Bones is an autobiographical journey through real events that took place during his on-again off-again affair with Carrie Fisher. Enough has been written about the turmoils of that relationship so in my tendency to avoid dramas of the soapy type I will not expand on that either. Suffice it to say that at least a great song emerged from that affaire de coeur. Years later Fisher said in Rolling Stone magazine: “I like the songs he wrote about our relationship. Even when he’s insulting me, I like it very much.” Summing it up well in her memoir she wrote: “If you can get Paul Simon to write a song about you, do it, because he is so brilliant at it.”
Hearts And Bones started its life on a yellow notepad as “Into the Liquid Unknown”. Simon toyed with different variations of the opening line, including Two Wanderings Jews and Almost Two Wanderings Jews, until he reached just the right amount of One and One Half. Simon found it humorous, but it is also true, Fisher being half Jewish. In the Cinemax TV special Album Flash on Hearts and Bones that aired on January 10th 1984, Simon said: “I try in the first line of a song to say something that is true. Not an emotional truth but a fact. You are less likely to get mired in cliches if you start off with some statement of truth.” The song is a great marriage of words and music with beautiful passages such as “the arc of a love affair”, which Simon saw as the essence of the song. There is something about the lyrics and the mood in which they are sang that put you in an imaginary place that you can visualize. Simon practiced new writing techniques here: “That device in lyrics writing, repeating a line that is not the title, shows up all over Graceland. I learned that lyric trick writing Hearts and Bones.”
The polarity between great songs such as Hearts and Bones and the lesser songs on the album did not escape Simon. In an interview with Paul Zollo, included in the recommended book Songwriters on Songwriting, Simon said: “Thats one of my best songs. It took a long time to write it and its very true. It was about things that happened. And I like it, I like the record. I should have put it as the first track. I should never have put ‘Allergies’ as the first track. I was beginning to understand about writing on that album. How to do it, when to use ordinary language and when to use enriched language. Of course, that’s a story song and my story songs tend to be a more natural form for me. It’s the companion song to Graceland.”
All musicians are in top form here. Dean Parks, famous for the Talkbox guitar on Steely Dan’s Haitian Divorce, plays the delicate acoustic guitar line at the beginning of the song. Airto Moreira is on percussion, and his beat on the triangle, along with Steve Gadd’s hand drumming on the drum set, propels the song forward. Mike Mainieri, who had a stellar year in 1983, releasing the fantastic second Steps Ahead album, is on marimba and vibes. The most notable contribution is from Anthony Jackson, playing the riff during the verse on a six string bass guitar, the contrabass guitar.
All three songs covered here feature great examples of song structures that shift exquisitely and unexpectedly between different moods, as in the following passage:
Whoa whoa whoa
She said why?
Why don’t we drive through the night
We’ll wake up down in Mexico
I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’
And tell me why
Why won’t you love me
For who I am
Where I am
He said ’cause that’s not the way the world is baby
This is how I love you baby
This is how I love you baby
Hearts and Bones:
Paul Simon loves going back to his childhood to find material for his songs. Kodachrome, Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, My Little Town all invoke memories from days past. The Late Great Johnny Ace goes back to 1954 and moves forward in time to 1980, recalling the tragic deaths of three Johns: Johnny Ace, John Kennedy and John Lennon. Interestingly they all died from gun shot wounds. Johnny Ace, a successful rhythm n’ blues singer in the early 50s died on December 25th 1954 from an accidental self-inflicted gun shot to his head, playing Russian roulette. His biggest hit Pledging My Love was released posthumously and went to number 1 on the R&B charts, where it stayed for ten weeks. Paul Simon covered the song on his tour of Europe and North America in 2000 right before singing The Late Great Johnny Ace.
Simon, who first performed the song at the Concert in Central Park in 1981, said of the song: “I had the idea to do a song called The Late Great Johnny Ace for a long time, and I wrote part of it revolving around those two open chords, which I liked. And I had that fragment of a song for a long time when John Lennon was killed. I connected the final verse about Lennon with the beginning section by writing the bridge. And the bridge was about the time in my life before Simon and Garfunkel, in 1964. The bridge was really about JFK, the other late great Johnny Ace.”
Paul Simon often expressed his love and appreciation for 1950s music. Talking to Paul Zollo: “Early fifties music had a different kind of melody, more melodic. But then you’re closer to the age of melody. Because the big band era and post-war, what was still all about melody. The days of Irving Berlin and all those great songwriters was about melody. Nobody comes close to writing melodies like they did. Nobody.” To Playboy magazine in a 1984 interview: “Actually, I’m a rock-‘n’-roll kid. I grew up with rock’n’roll. My main influences in early music were Fifties R&B, Fifties doo-wop groups, Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. But Simon and Garfunkel was a folkie act. I liked the blend of our voices, but a significant part of me just wasn’t a folkie. What we were doing was too sweet. I was too serious. When I began making my own albums, the songs became funkier. They were more about the streets.”
Like Hearts and Bones, The Late Great Johnny Ace offers interesting twists in the song structure. The part that starts with “and the music was flowing” is unexpected and adds additional drama to the lyrics. But even more unexpected is the coda at the end of the song written by Philip Glass and performed by a small ensemble conducted by Michael Reisman. Glass completed his soundtrack to Godfrey’s Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi not long before The Late Great Johnny Ace was recored, and you can hear similarities between the coda and Pruit Igoe, one of the tracks in the film. Paul Simon: “His use of what he calls an “end piece” — a short coda which does not recapitulate the melodic lines of the larger preceding piece — is an idea that he used beautifully to conclude my song “The Late Great Johnny Ace.” That end piece concept has found its way into my arrangements for live shows, as the band plays a related but original addition to a song, allowing me to shape endings to sequences of songs, or to set the environment for the next tune.”. A few years later the two would collaborate again on Philip Glass’s album Songs From Liquid Days, Simon contributing lyrics to the track Changing Opinion. After a while the coda becomes such a part of the song that you feel its absence in the demo version Simon recorded while working on the album:
If you stuck with my post thus far you reached the best part, for my favorite song on the album and in all of Paul Simon’s rich catalog of wonderful songs, is Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After The War. Simon is at the top of his game here with lyrics as surrealistic as Magritte’s paintings. When asked if his lyrics can stand alone, Simon told Playboy in 1984: “Maybe on this new album, where the lyrics are my best.” In the Cinemax 1984 TV special Simon talked about the song: “That was unusual for me in the way the song was formed. I was at a friend’s house, actually it was Joan Baez. We were rehearsing at her house and she had to take a phone call, and while she was on the phone I was leafing through this book on Magritte. There was a photo of Magritte and his wife Georgette and the caption of the photo said Georgette and Rene Magritte With Their Dog During The War. And I thought that is a very interesting title for a song. A few days later I was driving along in Montana and I was singing the title except I remembered it as Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War. I began to sing a melody that fit the syllabification.” A similar story in which a song title jumped at him is famously recalled in a Rolling Stone interview, where he sat in a Chinese restaurant and a menu item titled a chicken-and-egg dish as “Mother and Child Reunion”.
Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After The War may be the best example of the new quality and direction Simon took with his lyrics around that time. In a 1990 interview with SongTalk magazine he said: “The language starts to get more interesting in Hearts and Bones. The imagery started to get a little interesting. What I was trying to learn to do was to be able to write vernacular speech and then intersperse it with enriched language. And then go back to vernacular. So the thing would go along smoothly and then some image would come out that was interesting and then it would go back to this very smooth, conversational thing. By the time I got to Graceland, I was trying to let that kind of enriched language flow naturally, so that you wouldn’t really notice it as much. I think in Hearts and Bones you could feel it, that it was coming.” In the booklet that accompanies the box set 1964/1993 Simon mentions some of the lines from the song: “I consciously came up with the part about “all their personal belongings” becoming intertwined. But the line in the bridge, “decades gliding by like Indians,” just emerged from nowhere while I was running in Central Park.”
Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War is an endearing song, recalling the music Paul Simon loved to listen to as a teenager: “My first introduction to Rock n Roll was vocal groups in the mid fifties. I’ve always considered that to be the essential vocabulary of my songwriting. Even though I used more sophisticated forms, I always go back to that sound.” Doo wop bands ruled the airwaves and Paul Simon, like many young adults at the time, was captivated by the melodies and the vocal harmonies. The song is at its core a tribute to these bands, but the specific bands mentioned in the song were selected for a reason: “The groups like the Penguins and the Moonglows, the Five Satins and the Orioles, they were very popular at the time. They were not necessarily my favorites. I used them because the sound of the names, there was a surreal quality to them. The Penguins, The Moonglows, the Orioles. The Five Satins – until I put it in that context you really don’t know if I’m talking about birds or rhythm and blues groups of the fifties.”
But who were these bands? What songs made them famous? The Orioles were one of the earliest in the genre, forming in the late 40s in Maryland. They had a hit in 1948 with (It’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas. Naming themselves after the state bird, they started a trend of bird groups that included The Cardinals, The Crows, The Flamingos, The Larks, The Ravens, The Wrens and – The Penguins, who’s biggest hit was Earth Angel, a 1954 B-side that made it to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart. The same year the Moonglows, signed to Chess records, released the hit single Sincerely that also made it to #1, this time on the lucrative pop chart. The Five Satins’ biggest hit was In the Still of the Night which was a modest hit on its release in 1956, but became a popular cover song for many in later years.
Paul Simon added authenticity to the song by inviting the doo wop group The Harptones, who formed in Manhattan in 1953. Unlike the four groups listed in the song, The Harptones never had a top forty pop hit or a record on the US Billboard R&B chart. I love their singing behind Simon when he recites those 50s bands. The simple but tasteful 8th-note piano accompaniment in the doo wop sections are played by Rob Sabino, was made a name for himself playing on some of the Disco era biggest hits such as Dance Dance Dance and Le Freak by Chic, Sister Sledge’s We Are Family and playing keyboard and synth on Madonna’s Like a Virgin album. I never realized until recently that the lush string arrangements were orchestrated by Georges Delerue, one of my favorite film composers. I dedicated a blog post to his collaborations with film director Francois Truffaut, including the timeless Jules and Jim.
Here is the demo version of the song:
and the album version:
Still feeling unfulfilled due to lack of Art Garfunkel mentions in this article? Here is a uniquely good article: Think Too Much: The S&G Album That Wasn’t.
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