What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Paul Simon

Paul Simon is probably better known for his exquisite melodies and his excellent musicianship than for his lyrics. But he is a gifted lyricist also. However, his lyrics fall into two camps. Some are straightforward narratives (many of these he wrote in his early career); others are more experimental (something he did later in his career).

As far as the narrative songs go, what writers can learn from these goes back to something I mentioned in previous posts about sparseness and minimalism, about fitting as much into one line as possible. In the interview I did with Josh Ritter for Writing.ie, he touched on this as someone who writes both songs and novels: “The writing in both … in prose and in a song … can be surreal and wild and entertaining,” he said. “But you’re always trying to say it in the fewest amount of words.”

(I also mentioned to him one of my favourite Paul Simon-related quotes. Christy Moore says Shane McGowan said to him that melodies are floating all around us in the air and you just have to grab them before some other bastard like Paul Simon gets them! I can’t think of a higher compliment.)

The entire lyrics of the song “America” could be used as an example of this minimalism, but these two lines are a perfect example:

“‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”

These two lines convey everything we need to know about the character without actually “telling” us anything directly. Indeed, when it comes to the old adage “Show, don’t tell”, Simon is a master. This song is told from the point of view of a first-person narrator, so we learn very little about the characters beyond the fact that they “boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh”. But the characters are fleshed out by way of little snatches of action. In the beginning, the narrator tells us,

“So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies”

Later, he says to Kathy,

“Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat”

And she replies,

“We smoked the last one an hour ago”

And we see them playing little games to pass the time:

“She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said ‘Be careful his bowtie is really a camera’”

Another example of this is the song “Under African Skies”:

“Joseph’s face was black as night
The pale yellow moon shone in his eyes
His path was marked
By the stars in the southern hemisphere
And he walked his days
Under African skies”

When it comes to the experimental lyrics, Simon is similar to someone like David Bowie in that, a lot of the time we may not know what the hell he’s talking about, but the imagery is striking nonetheless. From the playful imagery of “You Can Call Me Al”:

“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”

to the striking imagery of “The Boy In The Bubble”:

“These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires”

These lyrics are less straightforward narrative, more stream-of-consciousness, similar to something “The Beats” or Joyce might have produced.

Another thing that writers can learn from Paul Simon is the use of powerful imagery that leaves an indelible mark on the mind of the listener. To illustrate that, I’ll finish with this verse from, “Sounds of Silence”:

“And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, ‘The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls’”

(Image: Click on pic for credits)

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9 thoughts on “What Can Writers Learn From Songwriters? Paul Simon

  1. Oddly, not long ago I was singing softly to myself one day and what do you suppose, it was those very lyrics from the song you mentioned. “Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping…” It’s not even my favorite song of Paul Simon’s but it’s the one I was humming. Bizarre. Makes you wonder how the collective unconscious picks and chooses which chord to strike next.

  2. Great analysis/insights. I was very young when I first ran across the lyrical masterpiece, “America”. Without a doubt it helped shape my sense of the value of poetics and the very thin line (really it’s gone) between poetry and song lyric. “And the moon rose over…” always found that piece haunting with more loneliness in that image than an entire book of short stories. Thanks as always, Kevin

  3. Excellent article! I used to write out Simon’s lyrics to inspire me with my own writing. One of my favorites comes from “Graceland”: “Losing love is like a window in your heart.”

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