Paul Simon’s 1983 album, ‘Hearts And Bones’, is easily one of my favourite elpees even if it took me many years to realise just how magnificent it is. Released in the same year as R.E.M.’s ‘Murmur’, ‘War’ by U2 and New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption And Lies’, it was certainly lost in the hail of political noise and clumsy cool that defined, for me, much of that period. But while ‘Hearts And Bones’ might not have sounded as edgy or urgent as some of the more highly-regarded issues of the time it may, in the decades since, have dated better than some of those albums we once thought were unassailable.
I began to gently obsess about ‘Hearts And Bones’ about fifteen years after I was first introduced to it: it helps, I think, if you’ve been through at least one messy break-up. It’s as significant a release in its own right as it is in the broader sweep of Paul Simon’s own considerable catalogue mapping, in no little detail, the nuances of a number of relationships, all of them in flux. I’m not sure if I still get all of its many subtleties and sides: in this regard, it bears as many hallmarks of a great painting as it does a great record.
One of my daughters recently performed Simon And Garfunkel’s ‘59th Street Bridge Song’ as part of a National Children’s Choir hooley out in Tallaght. It was just one of twenty-odd numbers the massed ranks had committed to memory as part of their excellent set and, although I’m neither a Paul or Art diehard, I found it weirdly re-assuring to hear so many Irish primary-schoolers remind their parents, guardians, teachers and ultimately themselves, of the undisputable value of just feeling groovy.
I heard that song for the first time on Simon And Garfunkel’s 1972 best-of album that we’d inherited from a neighbour and into which I’d dip my nose the odd time. Paul, in a flat cap and gurrier’s ronnie cuts a scutty enough figure on the front alongside Art, togged out like one of the trendier teachers up in The Mon. There was plenty of gold-dust on that elpee, of course, but for every one of Paul’s epic magic tricks – ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘America’, ‘Homeward Bound’ – there was a toothy hound immediately behind it, waiting to spring.
We’d already gang-murdered ‘Scarborough Fair’ as an enthusiastic but tuneless class of eight year-old tin-whistlers, and those wounds weren’t especially quick to heal. And I’d already started to associate Simon And Garfunkel – wrongly, as it happens – with the well-meaning folk mass brigade and, worse again, the continuity units among them who were dabbling with European liturgical material. This would change over time.
I’ve referred previously to Ray O’Callaghan from Poles Apart, a sinewy and unashamedly straightforward three-piece rock outfit who emerged from, of all places, Mount Farran and The Glen, during the early 1980s. And who, just by taking guitars into their hands and making a racket, showed that there was maybe another, lesser-travelled road out of Blackpool. It was Ray who first turned me onto ‘Hearts And Bones’: broadening my mind by peeling back my ears, as it were. Instinctively it just sounded planets removed from the likes of ‘Cecelia’, ‘The Boxer’ and Art’s dire 1979 chart-topper, ‘Bright Eyes’. It was as if Paul had just moved to a different job.
But I knew little or nothing of Simon and Garfunkel beyond the obvious and that best-of elpee and I knew even less about Paul’s solo career: he’d already released five solo albums. In hindsight, though, it was probably best that I found him the way I did and with the album I did, arseways and all as that might have been.
Collecting music is, to a large degree, an irrational and ultimately harmless way to pass the dark nights and I’ve written previously about this here. One of the more interesting aspects to which is retrospective discovery: it’s never too late to have one’s ears pierced and head turned by a song, record or artist that may have, for all manner of reasons, just failed to previously register.
It was because of Teenage Fanclub – or, more specifically, the strength of Steve Sutherland’s sustained case for the prosecution within the pages of Melody Maker magazine – that led me back to Big Star, for instance. And it was R.E.M. who brought me to The Byrds, and back the road ultimately to old school Bob Dylan and so on.
Paul Simon had an unlikely competitive edge, though. His girlfriend at the time of ‘Hearts And Bones’ was Carrie Fisher, better known to most of us as Princess Leia from ‘Star Wars’ and who, alongside the female leads on the television cop series, ‘Charlie’s Angels’, had long dominated some of the bawdier conversations above in the schoolyard. And I’d take a good look at Paul on the cover of that Greatest Hits elpee, with his feen’s hat and his tache and, in those moments, I’d see hope for every single one of us.
Carrie’s considerable shadow extends across ‘Hearts And Bones’ too. The record was released shortly after herself and Paul were married and shortly before they separated, even if it only dawned on me many years later that the immortal title-track could have been about her. So absolutely thick was I that I long thought the song’s opening lines – ‘One and one-half wandering Jews, free to wander wherever they chose’ – referred to Art and Paul and that Paul was enjoying an in-joke about his lack of height.
That title cut is imperious, sketching in elegant, easy detail the whimsy of love, ‘the arc of a love affair waiting to be restored’. Now, you hear an awful lot of old guff about how the great songwriters – like the great poets or painters – are often determined by an ability to find majesty in the mundane and the ordinary and to reduce wide, existential themes into vivid, but simple and usually intensely personal flourishes. Even if popular music, at its most impactful, is often just about a moment captured.
‘Hearts And Bones’ blends both strains seamlessly and a couple of familiar local voices were quick to highlight this. Both Mark Cagney and Dave Fanning played some of its core tracks off the air on Radio 2FM and, one night, Fanning very helpfully deconstructed ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’ like he was leading a class of seventeen year-old English honours students into the mocks.
It’s an incredible piece of work by any stretch: deceptively simple at the top before veering off-course mid-way and closing with a one-minute instrumental coda written by Philip Glass. I’ve certainly heard better songs during my many years going deaf as a hanger-on but, particularly now, given the funeral cycle we all eventually fall into, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more emotionally charged one. It’s fair to say that its relevance and numerous resonances just take off as the years carry us on.
‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’ is the most structurally interesting of the ten tracks on ‘Hearts And Bones’ and references the deaths of three high- profile figures, all of them called John and all of whom were killed by gun-shots. The song shares numerous stylistic traits with The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’ and begins in 1954 with the death of Johnny Ace, an R and B singer who accidentally shot himself in the head. It later refers to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and John Lennon in 1980.
On hearing the death of Johnny Ace announced on the radio, the writer sends off to a Texas mailing address for a photograph, which duly arrives: ‘the sad and simple face’ is signed on the bottom ‘From the late, great Johnny Ace’. And it is there, in that very moment, that Simon captures the primary lyrical essence of that entire album: the grand impact of the simple gesture, for good and bad, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.
The song also serves as a remarkable tribute to Lennon. Simon changes gears as he slips into a dream sequence half-way through in which, ten years after hearing of the death of Johnny Ace, he’s in London, larging it in female company, his mind warped by the possibilities of rock and roll. Until his peace is disturbed when, on the streets of New York City in December, 1980, a stranger stops to tell him that John Lennon has been shot dead. By any standards, it is quite the requiem.
By virtue of the scale of his popularity and the extent of his back catalogue
across fifty odd years in the public eye, Paul Simon is routinely pitched as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation and, who knows, maybe he is ? But he’s also one of his own most perceptive critics and, in a series of telling contributions to various biographies and documentaries, has consistently parsed his own material better than anyone.
He certainly rates ‘Hearts And Bones’, or at least some of the key cuts on it, although I’m certainly not alone in thinking it seldom gets the credit it deserves. The record flaunts numerous imperfections throughout but suffers most, I think, from the circumstances in which it was recorded. It was written around the time of Simon And Garfunkel’s high-profile reunion during the autumn of 1981 when the pair, then barely even on nodding terms, played a memorable benefit concert in New York’s Central Park. During which Paul performed ‘The Great, Late Johnny Ace’ for the first time as one of three solo numbers and was manhandled by a stage invader for his troubles.
Indeed ‘Hearts And Bones’ was initially intended as a Simon And Garfunkel
comeback album until the tensions that had long under-pinned their relationship just rendered that impractical. The record took an eternity to complete and the credits list reads like the voting register in a small Dublin Council ward. Commercially, it died on its hoop.
But even at its most trite and uneven – ‘When Numbers Get Serious’ and ‘Cars Are Cars’, on which Paul dabbles unsteadily with technology and programmed patterns – there’s still a terrific sense of wonder running right through the record. The ubiquitous Nile Rogers, who’s done more special guest turns over the years than even Marty Morrissey, turns up on a couple of tracks, alongside a directory of high-profile session musicians, musos and aficionados. And this, I think, is how and where the album becomes uneven and unsteady on its feet.
But still ‘Hearts And Bones’ contains four of Simon’s most magnificent and, in my view, significant, solo numbers: the title cut and ‘Johnny Ace’ apart, the album also features the immortal ‘Train In The Distance’, about the break-up of his first marriage and ‘Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’, an epic and ambitious ballad that depicts the Belgian surrealist painter and his wife as fans of, among other things, American doo-wop groups of the 1950s.
And when Paul, into the chorus, namechecks ‘The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles and The Five Satins’ – and when The Harptones, a vintage New York outfit join him before the end of the song to add vocal harmony magic and a spiritual balm to the closing sequence – you’d wonder if popular music ever sounded better ?
Much of which was washed away, three years later, when ‘Graceland’ came from nowhere to become Paul Simon’s biggest selling and most successful record ever and, with our hero acting the goat on film with Chevy Chase, re-determined and re-invented him forever through the offices of MTV. ‘Hearts And Bones’ may well be the best support album in the history of contemporary popular music: in volleyball, they’d call it a setter.
Whatever about the merits of ‘Graceland’, though – and it has many – its worth recalling too the album that pre-dates ‘Hearts And Bones’, a 1980 issue called ‘One-Trick Pony’ that was released to accompany a film of the same name in which Paul Simon starred. I rescued a second-hand cassette copy of it way back from one of Cork’s terrific second-hand shops and, with hope in my heart, couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
That album is probably best remembered for the single, ‘Late In The Evening’ and, sadly, not a whole lot else besides. Try as I did – and I went in hard looking for clues – I just couldn’t find a decent connection with it, and certainly nothing, the title apart, perhaps ?, that even hinted at what was about to transpire next. ‘One-Trick Pony’ lives up to its billing and is, by any stretch, a turkey.
Which, on another level again, makes ‘Hearts And Bones’, coming so strongly out of the curve without warning, all the more exceptional. Losing to win, some call it.