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Paul Simon’s solo career in 12 songs: A concert playlist

UPDATED: Thu., June 22, 2017

Paul Simon will play the Spokane Arena on Friday night. (MaryEllen Matthews)
Paul Simon will play the Spokane Arena on Friday night. (MaryEllen Matthews)

A conversation with a twenty-something colleague in the newsroom about Friday’s Paul Simon concert at the Spokane Arena elicited this unexpected response from my young co-worker.

“I’m really not familiar with his music.”

Thunk. That was the sound of my head hitting my desk.

Obviously my young friend, who is otherwise engaged in the world and very bright, has heard Paul Simon’s music, even if she couldn’t match a song title to his name. But the conversation got me thinking: If you were to reply to such a remark with a song title, what would you say?

“You know ‘Graceland,’ right?”

“Surely you’ve heard ‘Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.’ ”

“ ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’? ‘You Can Call Me Al’?”

That last one struck a chord with my co-worker, and I shook my head. Of all the songs on “Graceland” to recognize, it’s my least favorite.

In the old days, I would have made her a mixtape of my favorite Simon tunes. Instead, I opted to go the Spotify playlist route. I created a list of 12 songs – although it could easily be double that. I tried not to include more than two songs from any one album. (That’s hard to do with “Graceland,” so I picked three from it). And I kept it to Simon’s solo catalog – no “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “America” or “The Boxer,” songs he recorded with Art Garfunkel. (Simon & Garfunkel fans will be happy to know that Simon has been playing some of those songs on this latest tour, including “America,” “The Boxer,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Homeward Bound.”)

The list is available on Spotify (search for “Carolyn Lamberson”). Use it as a starting point to build your own list – or check out “Paul Simon – The Concert in Hyde Park,” released earlier this month – and get ready for Friday’s show.

1. “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” (“Paul Simon,” 1972) This jaunty little number, with its Brazilian percussion, does a really great job of evoking place. I listen and I imagine myself on a street corner in New York City watching this cast of characters go about their lives. We may not know exactly what the mama pajama saw, but it really doesn’t matter. Because this song is simply fun.

2. “The Obvious Child” (“The Rhythm of the Saints,” 1990) After delving into the sounds of South Africa for “Graceland,” Simon headed to Brazil for “The Rhythm of the Saints.” The lead single puts those Brazilian percussion instruments on full display. Simon also continues some of the middle age themes he explored on “Graceland” – and on “You Can Call Me Al,” especially. With that propulsive beat, “The Obvious Child” is sure to get your toes tapping.

3. “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (“Graceland,” 1986) Oh, that opening. The a capella voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo – singing in Zulu – tell us we’re in for something unusual. This song simply grooves. It’s upbeat and fun. And you’ll be singing “ta na na ta na na na” for the rest of the day.

4. “Graceland” (“Graceland,” 1986) If I had to pick a favorite song off “Graceland,” it would be the title track. Inspired by a road trip – real or imagined, no one knows for sure – to Elvis Presley’s famous home after Simon’s marriage to Carrie Fisher ended, the song is full of wistful longing that contradicts its upbeat nature. Take this refrain: “And she said losing love/Is like a window in your heart/Everybody sees you’re blown apart/Everybody sees the wind blow.” With its memorable guitar work and backing vocals by the Everly Brothers, and more than 30 years after its release, “Graceland” remains a go-to track.

5. “Hearts and Bones” (“Hearts and Bones,” 1983) The album “Hearts and Bones” bombed, but I have always loved this song. Simon is one of the great lyricists of the rock era, and that shows in this song, inspired by his marriage to Fisher. I mean, I don’t think there’s a statement about Fisher that’s more perfect than this: “Two people were married/The act was outrageous/ The bride was contagious/She burned like a bride/These events may have had some effect/On the man with the girl by his side/The arc of a love affair/His hands rolling down her hair.” The song is rhythmically interesting, gentle but with a strong percussive underpinning. Gorgeous.

6. “Late in the Evening” (“One Trick Pony,” 1980) The movie is forgettable, but its soundtrack gave us this happy little tune. Flush with Latin rhythms, the song is about finding joy in music. And unlike most horn parts recorded in the 1980s, the one in “Late in the Evening” still sounds good.

7. “Still Crazy After All These Years” (“Still Crazy After All These Years,” 1975) It’s a song made for high school reunions. It’s jazzy and bittersweet and a little cynical, but full of great lyrical moments, like this one: “And I ain’t no fool for love songs/That whisper in my ears/ Still crazy after all these years.”

8. “Kodachrome” (“There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” 1973) Sorry, Paul. Mama did take your Kodachrome away, or at least Kodak did when the company stopped producing its signature color film in 2009. Still, that little anachronism doesn’t detract from this classic tune, which Rolling Stone readers last year picked as the best song of Simon’s solo career. Sadly, it doesn’t look like Simon’s playing this one on his current tour.

9. “Loves Me Like a Rock” (“There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” 1973) With its gospel vibe – aided immeasurably by the Dixie Hummingbirds on backing vocals – this song swings. It’s simple and straightforward – his mama loves him, and we’re OK with that.

10. “Mother and Child Reunion” (“Paul Simon,” 1972) Simon has a long history of exploring musical styles from across the globe. While “Graceland” is the most famous example of this, there are songs throughout his discography that bear this out. “Mother and Child Reunion” is another early one. Recorded in Jamaica with Jimmy Cliff’s band and members of Toots and the Maytals, this reggae-influenced track is surprisingly upbeat for a song about death.

11. “Slip Sliding Away” (“Greatest Hits, Etc.” 1977) One of two previously unreleased tracks included on his first greatest hits compilation, “Slip Sliding Away” is solemn and beautiful and full of heartbreak. A father longs to explain himself to his son, and instead “He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping/Then he turned around and headed home again.” A woman “became a wife” and on bad days she thinks “of things that might have been.” It’s sadness all wrapped up in a lovely pop song.

12. “Boy in the Bubble” (“Graceland,” 1986) “These are the days of miracle and wonder.” Indeed. The opening track on “Graceland” with that funky accordion taking the lead, is a treatise on modern life that feels as vital today as it did 30 years ago. And for all the bad stuff the song touches up, the lasers in the jungle, that distant constellation dying in the corner of the sky, “Boy in the Bubble” feels optimistic. “Don’t cry baby, don’t cry.”

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