Paul Simon

SONGWRITER



Project: write the song “Love and Hard Times”



Special Report: How Genius Works Twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and celebrated as one of America's most renowned lyricists, Simon released his 12th studio album, So Beautiful or So What, earlier this spring. Here he shares the lyric notebook—as well as the routine—he used to compose the song “Love and Hard Times.”

By
God and His only Son
Paid a courtesy call on Earth
One Sunday mornin'
Orange blossoms opened their fragrant lips
Songbirds sang from the tips of cottonwoods
Old folks wept for His love in these hard
    times
  
"Well, we got to get going," said the restless
    Lord to the Son
"There are galaxies yet to be born
Creation is never done
Anyway, these people are slobs here
If we stay it's bound to be a mob scene
But, disappear, and it's love and hard times"
  
I loved her the first time I saw her
I know that's an old songwriting cliché
Loved you the first time I saw you
Can't describe it any other way
Any other way
The light of her beauty was warm as a
    summer day
Clouds of antelope rolled by
No hint of rain to come
In the prairie sky
Just love, love, love, love, love
  
When the rains came, the tears burned,
    windows rattled, locks turned
It's easy to be generous when you're on a
    roll
It's hard to be grateful when you're out of
    control
And love is gone
  
The light at the edge of the curtain
Is the quiet dawn
The bedroom breathes
In clicks and clacks
Uneasy heartbeat, can't relax
But then your hand takes mine
Thank God, I found you in time
Thank God, I found you
Thank God, I found you

"The first verse is this vivid line about God and his only son in this Disneyfied setting of orange blossoms and birds singing a very sweet depiction."

"In the second verse, God's unimpressed with the way we've tidied up or not tidied up the planet. I mean, these people are slobs. Once I'd finished with that verse, my instinct said the rest of the song is a love song. I've finished with my quotient of cynicism. Now it has to be a love song."

"'Thank God I found you' is an expression of profound love, but it also turns the song and connects it to God, who in the second verse called these people a bunch of slobs. So, as well as being an expression of a deeply felt love, the line is ironic in the context of the first two verses."

"Many of the songs start very bleakly, and then they turn. Why would I do that? Well, I don't really know. I just notice that that happens. It's the first thing that comes out of me. Obviously I'm not of the "first thought, best thought" school of thinking."

This is the first time in 20 years that I sat down in a room and wrote songs the way I used to—like with, say, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” or any of those songs from the ’70s. I was really out of practice in just sitting with the guitar. I was really starting with a blank page.

So when I begin, I usually improvise a melody and sing words—and often those words are just clichés. If it is an old songwriting cliché, most of the time I throw it away, but sometimes I keep it, because they’re nice to have. They’re familiar. They’re like a breather for the listener. You can stop wondering or thinking for a little while and just float along with the music.

I may come to a point in the song where I realize I don’t really have to come up with a great line here. I can let the music speak. What I need is a hooky melody. You’re going back and forth, words and music. If they come together—your best words with your best melody—well, that’s something. That’s rare.

You know, I haven’t spoken to any of the other guys of my generation about how they do it. I’ve known Bob Dylan for a long time and I’ve known Paul McCartney for a long time, but we’ve never talked about songwriting. Poets seem more inclined to reveal how they work. Friends of mine like Billy Collins, for instance—he gets an idea and he writes it down and if he doesn’t finish it in that first burst of energy, he lets it go. With me, if it’s a good idea and I don’t have it right, I stay with it. You have to be patient, just keep erasing what you don’t like. At a certain point it becomes alive, and you know the problems are solvable with solutions you may have used before. That’s my songwriting process.

—As told to Alex Hoyt


Simon sat down in the New York studio of his friend, portraitist Chuck Close, for a conversation about inspiration and the creative process.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/05/paul-simon/308464/