Paul Simon’s lyrics

I love Paul Simon lyrics. His “poetry to song” ranges from erudite to simply witty, often within the same tune. He understands language and its nuances, and uses words not only for their meaning per se, but for their sounds, and for their relation to other words.

I offer a few verses as example:

From “Oh, Marion” (One-Trick Pony, 1980):

The boy’s got brains
He just don’t use ’em that’s all
The boy’s got brains
He just refuse to use ’em and that’s all
He said “The more I got to thinkin’
The less I tend to laugh”
The boy’s got brains
He just abstains

A common theme (perhaps) of intellect versus lightheartedness, done especially well, complete with casual contractions (‘em instead of them; thinkin’ with g dropped). Then, the a/a scheme with brains/abstains. Nice!

The boy’s got a heart
But it beats on the opposite side
It’s a strange phenomenon
The laws of nature defied
He said “It’s a chance I had to take
So I shifted my heart for its safety sake”
The boy’s got a heart but it beats on
His opposite side

The second verse again addresses a fairly common theme of the risk of showing emotion (e.g., love), but does so with a great anatomical, literal image. And what a great idea: put your heart where no one will come looking for it! Then it won’t be hurt.

And from “You Can Call Me Al” (Graceland, 1986):

A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard

And, later in the same song:

A man walks down the street
He says why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention
And whoa, my nights are so long

These verses are notable because of Simon’s nice juxtaposition of adjectives: soft/hard and short/long. Pretty sweet see-saw effect, I’d say, and the connection the words create hint at other truths. If he weren’t so soft in the middle, if he had more chutzpah, maybe his life wouldn’t be so hard? If he could just focus, maybe he could get some sleep, instead of tossing and turning, thoughts bouncing in his head.

–John Conway