Paul Simon: Thinks Too Much
Paul Simon and Bob Dylan toured together a couple of summers ago as co-headliners. To emphasize their equal stature, they swapped the order they appeared on a nightly basis. When the tour arrived at Madison Square Garden that July, it happened that Mr. Dylan was opening for Mr. Simon.
Mr. Dylan played his usual tight, austere and gripping 90 minutes. Mr. Simon, who will be at the Beacon Theater for three nights in December, followed with a large-scale revue. He had perhaps a dozen musicians, including four percussionists and a three-man brass section, arrayed on risers behind him, all percolating global polyrhythms.
The boomer crowd at the Garden liked Mr. Dylan well enough, but they loved Mr. Simon. And Mr. Simon loved them right back, beaming from under his baseball cap like a grandfather at a family reunion. He clasped his heart and soaked in the applause. He might have been milking it a little.
There is a neediness to Mr. Simon’s laudable and substantial ambition. It makes you think that each of his many career moves–from dumping Art Garfunkel to putting on the busted Broadway musical The Capeman –was at least partially reactive or strategic. Thus, it was heartening to hear that Mr. Simon’s new album is not an ethno-musicological excursion to Brazil or South Africa, or a collection of songs from a musical, or a live album, or a movie soundtrack. It’s just a bunch of songs. Since Mr. Simon’s best dozen songs can stand with anybody’s, and since only a very few of them, from Graceland , were created in the service of a larger exercise or theme, there was reason to think the new album might contain a couple of keepers.
The last time Mr. Simon put out an album without some sort of superstructure was in 1983. His film One Trick Pony had failed, and so had his marriage to the actress Carrie Fisher. That album, Hearts and Bones , is shot through with devastation and longing, and it holds up just fine. Nobody bought it, though. A few years later, Graceland re-ignited his career.
The new album, You’re the One , contains some nice moments, but they are evanescent. Mr. Simon can take greeting-card platitudes and send them soaring on bits of melody. The songs’ titles give you a sense of where he’s heading: “That’s Where I Belong” and “Love” and “Quiet.” He seems a little embarrassed by this talent, though, and he often pulls back just when the hook starts to dig in.
The lyrics and Mr. Simon’s delivery are mostly in soft focus, without detail or color or even much feeling. Mr. Simon sometimes moves from the gauzily particular to big social issues, from the language of therapy to the language of Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn. A meditation on domestic love concludes, jarringly, with an evocation of the Third Reich: “The price that we pay / when evil walks the planet / and love is crushed like clay / the master races, the chosen peoples / the burning temples, the weeping cathedrals.”
The more accessible songs can feel inorganic. Among them are amusing-enough novelties that you won’t want to hear more than once or twice. They put a friend of mine in mind of Loudon Wainwright III’s topical songs for National Public Radio. I hear Billy Joel.
A rant about aging moves from Buddy Holly through the Cold War to recent history (“genocide still goes on,” Mr. Simon informs us) and on to the age of the universe (“God is old / we’re not old”). It called to mind a version of Mr. Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” informed by hallucinogens rather than amphetamines. A meandering life story of a relationship called “Darling Lorraine” owes something in spirit to Mr. Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
Then there is “Pigs, Sheep and Wolves,” a quite unclassifiable parable about a wolf falsely accused of a crime committed by a pig. It features court-appointed lawyers, the tabloid media and human rights protests. I expect NPR would find it charming.
The music accompanying all of these words is complicated, sophisticated, distracting and busy as hell. It shifts tempos and keys and rhythms, seemingly just for the hell of it, and people who like that sort of thing will be pleased with themselves for liking this. But this much fancy musicianship is a lot to ask of the ordinary pop fan, and it generally does a disservice to the songs.
The final tune, “Quiet,” is a companion to “Highlands,” Mr. Dylan’s 17-minute meditation on mortality from his last album, Time Out of Mind . Mr. Dylan played it at that Garden show. “Quiet” is a sort of Brian Eno tone poem accomplished without electronica (just, according to the liner notes, a pump reed organ, vihuela, 96-tone harp, whirly pipe, rubbed steel bowl, upright base and tromba doo). Mr. Simon contemplates “the hunger of ambition” and what his death will do to it, when he can “release my fists at last.”
Both Mr. Dylan and Mr. Simon turn 60 next year. The looming end has fortified Mr. Dylan. Mr. Simon seems to have released his fists prematurely.
Vasquez, Levan: Paradise Glossed
Whether diving headfirst into techno music or testing the waters with your big toe, you’ve no doubt noticed the aisles marked “electronica” or “dance music” in your local record store. These aisles seem to grow every day, bulging with the wares of today’s techno D.J.’s from throughout the world. You’ve also no doubt had at least one encounter with a dance-music naysayer who contends that this music is mindless; that “remixes” of tracks by other artists are ultra-simplified and repetitious, even downright rip-offs; or that dance clubs offer little more than shallow promiscuity, naïve trips on hallucinogens, and D.J.’s with a penchant for promoting
Well, in fairness, a pair of recent releases of the electronica variety– Junior Vasquez: Twilo Vol. 1 (Virgin) and Larry Levan: Live at the Paradise Garage (Strut/West End)–can’t possibly quell all of the naysayers and rave-bashers, but they do make significant strides toward educating us all as to what this music is about. For those of us already versed in this topic, these two colorfully packaged (the Levan even glows in the dark) double-CD sets represent a New York-centric D.J. D-Day.
For more than a decade, Mr. Vasquez has led what is still referred to as the “underground” here in New York: a multi-
cultural tribal dance community for both gay and straight orientations. From 1989 to 1995, he worked his dance-floor voodoo at the legendary Sound Factory on West 27th Street. When the space re-opened under a new name, Twilo, Mr. Vasquez was both in the D.J.’s booth and behind the club’s reincarnation, and he continues to mix and remix his techno operas there every Saturday night from his own special booth–a mad-scientist laboratory complete with microwave oven for tofu burgers.
Touted in press releases as Twilo’s “debut” album, Mr. Vasquez’s latest project is indeed much more than club P.R. Disc one is a presentation of recent techno gems with a few Vasquez remixes tossed in, while disc two consists entirely of Vasquez remixes. Together, they emulate a typical set at Twilo in the wee hours of any given Saturday. Listeners can make what they will of each of the various international artists, who represent the U.S., United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Germany and Benelux countries, but they should pay attention to the way in which Mr. Vasquez juxtaposes the tracks together to create a sort of narrative–in this instance, an erotic nightmare.
Often grouping songs according to the gender of the vocalist, Mr. Vasquez presents the female persona of his story in various scary settings: as overwhelmed by life (Donna De Lory’s “On & On”), confused while falling in love (System F’s “Cry”), hearing voices in the night (Aurora’s “Hear You Calling”), even haunted by ghosts (World of Shoes’ “I Am Strong”).
The male persona is a steely, unfeeling Count Dracula, as depicted by several bizarre tracks by the likes of And-E & Mac Lane, DJ Darkzone, Mind Trap, Kult of Krameria and an Australian didgeridoo player named Nomad. The set ends with a coda of three upbeat mixes about personal courage–the last, “Believe” by Ministers De La Funk featuring Jocelyn Brown–that imparts a happy ending to Mr. Vasquez’s otherwise dark fantasy.
In the liner notes, Mr. Vasquez pays respect to the D.J. whose shoes he aspires to fill: the late Larry Levan (1954-1992), whose claim to fame, the renowned club Paradise Garage, ran out of 84 King Street from 1977 to 1987. Levan proves that if the D.J. has a talent, it isn’t tweaking knobs so much as being a sort of folk musician– someone whose musical instincts are unpretentiously pure and, when inspired, can guide dancers on the dance floor in and out of frenzy and even epiphany. This is true for Mr. Vasquez as well, since samplers, drum machines and loop machines require no extensive expertise to operate, and turntables have been user-friendly devices since Thomas Edison invented them.
For the Paradise Garage mix, recorded live in 1979, Levan uses only turntables–more concisely and less spookily than Mr. Vasquez. His female and male personas in turn sing about the joy of music (Damon Harris’ “It’s Music” and Stephanie Mills’ “Put Your Body in It”), a woman swept off her feet (Shalamar’s “Right in the Socket,” Cher’s “Take Me Home” and Melba Moore’s “Pick Me Up, I’ll Dance”), steamy sex (“Get on the Funk Train” by Giorgio Moroder’s Munich Machine), angry rejection (Change’s “Angel in My Pocket” for the woman and the Chi-Lites’ “My First Mistake” for the man), and a final instrumental entitled “Erucu” (attributed to Jermaine Jackson), which ends with the voices of children waxing philosophical about the difference between good and bad people.
Chicago may have the Warehouse where “house” music originated; Berlin has the Love Parade; but New York has Twilo, and memories of Paradise Garage. All good New Yorkers should avail themselves of this 25-year legacy. Here’s your chance.
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