Wednesday, April 20, 2011

By Hank Phillippi Ryan

I’m a little starstruck.

Back in the um, sixties, when I was just learning about the world and about writing and about how we’re all connected, I of course fell in love. With Paul Simon.

I don’t remember the first “record” (remember records?) I ever bought—it might have been Let's Twist Again. (Which I should have realized was a precursor to being a mystery author—“the twist” being such a critical part of any such novel. But I, as usual, digress. ).

And of course I remember the Beatles—those of us from a certain era can certainly bring back the memory of that first earful of the Beatles.

But I do remember the first song lyrics that really bowled me over. It was Sounds of Silence. I was a bookish kid, always reading and hyper-thoughtful and all that. And Sounds of Silence—wow. “Hello, darkness, my old friend?” Yikes. Paul Simon got me. And didn’t let go. And the idea of lyrics as literature, lyrics as poetry, lyrics as just as gorgeous and complicated and compelling as any good novel—began to evolve in my head.

Remember Paul Simon’s American Tune?

Many’s the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And “America”?
Let us be lovers,
we'll marry our fortunes together

(I promise this has a point.)

Even though my career took a different path, I always wanted to be a mystery author. And when you think about it –being an investigative journalist—as I’ve been for the past thirty-plus years and being a mystery author are actually similar.

Because they’re all about tell the story. Right? With compelling characters, and important conflicts, and in the end, there’s change and if you’re lucky, justice. Whether its fact, or fiction, we try to tell the story. In the most efficient, most succinct way. In the sparest possible way. The most power in the fewest words. And Paul Simon’s lyrics, always seemed to do that.

In The Obvious Child, on a man’s life journey:
Sonny sits by his window and thinks to himself
How it's strange that some rooms are like cages

Boy in the Bubble-where the universe and our place in it are put into perspective

The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky

So you can imagine my delight, as a fan of Paul Simon’s for so many years, to be invited to a very exclusive PEN/NewEngland discussion-seminar he was giving in Lyrics as Literature.

The other panelist—the Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon.

About two hundred people, at the most, were individually escorted into a smallish room at the JFK Library, and I must say, I was nervous. Would I be able to ask him a question? What would I ask? Maybe about--The Boxer? Where does a story-song like that come from, and how is it crafted?

I am just a poor boy.
Though my story's seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises

But most important, what could I learn about lyrics as literature? I knew, I just knew, that Paul Simon would have something I could take away and use. (I know, it would be ironic here if it turned out that didn’t happen, and he was boring and pompous and selfish. But for once, irony does not win. He was brilliant and thoughtful and astonishing.)

Remember Kathy’s Song?
And as a song I was writing is left undone
I don't know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can't believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.

So out he comes, all kind of shabby-in-a-cute-way looking, and smiling, and with a fleece and a battered old hat, and I’m fumbling in my purse for my camera thinking—I’m going to do it, I don’t care I’m going to get a photo! And my husband is poking me with an elbow—shush, don’t take a picture. I couldn't resist taking one or two quick shots but then, took notes.

Paul Simon first quoted Coleridge—that writing is “trying to put the best words in the best order.”

He talked about being in the zone—“As a writer, I’ve experienced that a few times. And that’s the beauty, isn’t it? When you’re starting from scratch, that’s the start of something interesting. If I knew what I was doing, what’s the point?”

How do you know if a song will be good? “You can’t know. It’s a mystery. That’s what’s so great about it. But you can access bliss. If you’re lucky, you can find it. That’s WHY you do it. Just to catch a glimpse of it.”

He was asked—is there anything you wish you could take back? He thought about it, smiled, then said, “I’d prefer not to tell you. Anyone can be bad. So why should I be ashamed?”

Do you know when you’re good? He smiled, and admitted—“You start to recognize it.” He said when he wrote in Graceland ‘And I see losing love Is like a window in your heart’: “I had to sit down.” And when he wrote ‘Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down,’ he said to himself, “Well, that’s better than you usually do.”

I didn’t get to ask a question, but I didn’t care. He said he “…wasn’t sure he believed in the muse, but what the heck. Can’t hurt.” And here’s the point of the whole thing: “If you believe in the Muse,” Paul Simon said, “the Muse may believe in you.” And let me just say—I left the room, clutching my camera. Thinking about my new book. Believing. And humming:

Still crazy
Still crazy
Still crazy after all these years…

So--what's your favorite Paul Simon song? Do you think of lyrics as literature?

PS--Any of you coming to the Malice Domestic Conference? My DRIVE TIME is nominated for the Agatha for Best Mystery of 2010!


  1. What a magnificent post, Hank! Paul Simon is a national treasure. These lines have always killed me:

    Cathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
    I'm empty and I'm aching and I don't know why
    Countin' the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
    They've all come to look for America, all come to look for America

    Congrats on the Best Mystery nom!!!!!!


  2. Hank, Love the post! What inspiration!

    I remember clearly back in the 5th grade in the midst of the Vietnam War, our teacher (Miss Ferland) bringing out her guitar and teaching us to sing Sounds of Silence and I am a Rock. She was the quite the hippy and I remember us kids were all a little in awe of her. The nuns (I went to a strict Catholic school run by the Sisters of Mercy) just smiled and put up with her. She's one of the teachers that I still remember fondly with a smile.

  3. Oh yes, and congratulations on your Agatha nomination!

  4. Congrats, Hank, and what a marvelous post! In so many ways, I feel like Paul and I are old friends . . . so many of his lines make me gasp in recognition. I remember listening over and over and over to my 45 of "I am a Rock" when I was in junior high.

    And then this song, that has grown with me through the years:

    Can you imagine us years from today,
    Sharing a park bench quietly?
    How terribly strange to be seventy

    Old friends, memory brushes the same years,
    Silently sharing the same fears

    Time it was and what a time it was,
    A time of innocence,
    A time of confidences,
    Long ago it must be,
    I have a photograph,
    Preserve your memories,
    They're all that's left you...

  5. Enjoyed the post, Hank! I keep hearing--Bridge Over Troubled Water--(his duo)my mother used to crank up that record. Congrats on the Agatha nomination!

  6. Oh, thanks..yes, I was very very lucky to be able to hear all that. And so amazing, how those songs hold up, and change. The Only Living Boy in New York. America, yeah, kills me every time.

    I'm now having to cut 20 thousand words from my new ms!!(It's makig it much stronger, so hurray.) ANd I think--WWPD?

  7. Like Dorothy in Kansas, I'm chanting. "I believe! I believe!"

    Great post Hank and congrats on your nomination!

  8. Huge congrats on the Agatha nom, Hank, and thank you for this wonderful post! Yes, yes -- I believe lyrics are literature. And, frequently, packed with wisdom about human nature. ("All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." ;) I especially love "The Boxer," "The Sound of Silence" and "Kodachrome."

  9. What a timely post! I just saw him in concert last night here in L.A.!!! I honestly can't pick a favorite - all have had me either dancing or crying. And all have inspired my own writing, too. Congrats on your nomination!!

  10. Oh Melissa, SO terrific! How was the concert?

  11. Congrats on the Agatha nom, Hank! Loved your post (and thanks for taking notes to share with the rest of us!). I think I'll have to say my favorite Simon & Garfunkel tune is "Mrs. Robinson," because I was called that a time or two after I married a younger guy! ;-)

  12. Oh,Susan, that's hilarious! (I hope.) Yeah, Lauren, The Boxer is haunting. I still can't get over--how he thinks of that stuff.I mean--yes, we write, and we create things out of nothing--imagine how it must feel to come up with something that perfect.

  13. Oh, how I loved this post. And how I wished I could have been in that room. I love Paul Simon. Some of the greatest stories ever told have been in lyrics. Well, I love Bridge Over Troubled Water, of course. But I would be pressed to settle on one Paul Simon. Kodachrome. St. Judy's Comet... This post is going in my Friday Finds on the Feed tomorrow. Congratulations on your Agatha nomination!

  14. Hank, the concert was beyond outstanding. His lyrics are certainly literature, along with Leonard Cohen's, don't you think?

  15. It's online.