Published at 12:00 AM on July 10, 2006

By Paste Staff

Paste's 100 Best Living Songwriters #13


“The arc of a love affair / His hands rolling down her hair / Love like lightning shaking till it moans / Hearts and bones”

Paul Simon is the best lyricist in the history of the world, which is no small thing; but I first fell in love with the tunes. On the piano at age 10, negotiating the intro to “Something So Right”—with its loungy 11th, 13th and suspended-2nd chords—was like entering some forbidden tonic-jazz universe. The payoff was feeling each silky transition ease into place. Sweet, sweet, sweet. Simon is the consummate master of the incognito-surreal lyric that sculpts its subject just enough to delineate it while simultaneously enshrouding it, leaving it mysteriously tangible and tangibly mysterious. His lyrics range from light (“I’m a citizens for boysenberry jam fan”) to heavy (“Silence like a cancer grows”), with a steady undercurrent of plainspoken mysticism (“Wash your hands in dreams and lightning / Cut off your hair and whatever is frightening”). Simon’s best songs function like conceptual performance art—songs about writing songs (“Song about the Moon”), songs about silence (“The Sound of Silence”), songs about being swallowed by songs (“Jonah”), songs about chants sung as prayers (“Rhythm of the Saints”), doo-wop refrains as incantations of remembrance (“René and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War”) and songs about color photography (“Kodachrome”). “The Late Great Johnny Ace” is a song about John Lennon’s murder. Its central metaphor is a posthumously signed glossy photograph of an R&B singer who committed suicide in 1954. During Simon’s live performance of the song in Central Park, a crazed fan rushes onstage. Simon dodges him, pauses a beat, and finishes the song: “And every song we played was for the late great Johnny Ace / Yeah yeah yeah.” Paul Klee said, “Art plays in the dark with ultimate things and yet it reaches them.” Paul Simon said, “To overcome an obstacle or an enemy / To dominate the impossible in your life / Reach in the darkness.” Curt Cloninger

GET»“I Do It For Your Love” (1975), “How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns” (1980), “René and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War” (1983)

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