Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Influential Albums from My Misspent Youth
1. Paul Simon, The Rhythm of the Saints (1990)

If I had to pick one album that had the most profound impact on me in my formative years, this may very well be the one. Many of the things about music that have made me want to collect it and write about it, I first found in this record.

I cracked open The Rhythm of the Saints at the height of my unfortunate classic-rock days (Floyd, Yes, even Genesis, although, in my defense, also Beatles, Stones, Who and, of course, Kinks). In fact, since I wasn’t much of a disposable income kind of guy, being 13 and all, I have classic-rock radio to thank for my ownership of this album. Hard to believe now, but not only would 94.1 WYSP play six whole albums in their entirety on late Sunday nights back then, but Paul Simon was the kind of artist whose new album could be included among the six. Fortunately, I had a blank tape all ready that night

I didn’t like this album much at first -- apart from the great first track and hit single “The Obvious Child” -- and barely listened to it. It didn’t have the immediately catchy melodies that Simon and Garfunkel and even Graceland had. Being Simon’s foray into Brazillian music, it just seemed to have a lot of marimbas.

Two or three years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I pulled the tape out on a whim during a day home sick. By then I think I owned the live album that had some of the Rhythm songs, and was piqued about the studio counterparts. Or maybe I was just inspired having watched The Graduate for the first time.

This moment was a seminal one all on its own: I learned that I could not dismiss an album after the first few listens, that it might be worth waiting a few months -- or a few years in this case -- to figure out the record.

What had once seemed formless suddenly became beguiling, full of vulnerable melodies. Most of all though, I discovered the words. Conversational yet artful, they scanned effortlessly as most pop lyrics rarely do, and they were articulate in a fresh way: “And in remembering a road sign, I am remembering a girl when I was young.” “I know the reason I feel so blessed, my heart still splashes inside my chest.” “I had a dream about us in the bottles and the bones of the night.” “Me and my buddies, we are traveling people. We like to go to restaurant row.”

With these lyrics, I understood just how much literary form -- shifting perspectives, poetic imagery, metaphor -- could be applied to pop music, and how much richness could result. They made what sounded like a mid-life crisis for Paul Simon something I could comprehend as a 13-year-old. Maybe that wasn’t such a good thing. But while a lot of what we’re supposed to appreciate about rock ’n’ roll is its supposed immediacy, there’s a real value in music like this, one that crafted to capture an emotion as precisely as possible. There’s a conciseness, an economy here that’s admirable.

The album became my favorite to listen to while waiting for sleep at night. Sometimes, once the album ended, I’d rewind to the beginning and play it again.

Now, listening to this album frequently for the first spell in many years, it has lost some luster for me, perhaps inevitably. Much of this is neither my fault nor that of the music. What we have here is something I think will come into play pretty often in this series of essays. I have termed it The Maxell Conundrum.

Basically, this is it: If you become deeply familiar with an album via cassette tape, the inherent limits of that medium will meld more and more with your understanding of the album. So much so that when the cassette tape medium is removed from the equation, something is lost. In the time since my initial love affair with this album and now, I acquired it on CD, and it just doesn’t sound the same as I remembered it. The state-of-the-art synthesizers and new-age touches are more apparent now. I heard them the first time, but thanks to cassette tape, there was a rough barrier placed in front of them that turned out to be part of the album’s charm for me.

Nevertheless, The Rhythm of the Saints still yields numerous pleasures: the yearning tone of Simon’s voice, not at all the sound of a complacent millionaire; unexpected textures like the presence of blues guitarist J.J. Cale on two tracks; the gently galloping percussion, endlessly pushing a life on the move further.

That the album no longer holds the importance it once did for me in no way diminishes that initial importance. And whenever someone tells me that Paul Simon is a jerk (probably) or an imperialist (uhhh...), I just think to myself, yeah, but you don’t understand...

Next in this series: Tom Waits’ Bone Machine.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great, Mike. I especially like the Maxell Conundrum theory. After all these years I'm still surprised at how much I like this album (I was never a Simon & Garfunkel fan and still can tolerate only 4 or 5 songs before wanted to do a Bluto and smash Paul's acoustic guitar against the wall leading down the frat's basement).

4:00 PM  

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