The whirring daiquiri blender and the brunken request for "Wipeout," the battered suitcase and the endless white line, the agents, the groupies and the blurry ocean of faces. The homesickness vague but persistent like an insipid migraine.
They're all givens in the touring musicin's equation.And on "One Trick Pony," Paul Simon's first collection of new songs since 1977, he joins the swelling ranks of modern-day troubadors who have sought to communicate some of these images to their audience. Trouble is, where Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" made us coriders on the tour bus, Simon's view of himself as musical ace in the touring hole just keeps us in the wings.
"One Trick Pony" is the soundtrack for Simon's yet-to-be-released movie, and it may be sufficient as background music, but that doesn't explain the lapse in lyrical and musical force that plagues this album. On "Paul Simon," we were presented with humor-infused insights such as this; Love is not a game Love is not a toy Love's no romance
On the new LP, we have to settle for lines like "I hate to abuse an old cliche /But it's been a long, long day." Yawn.
To be fair, the album has its high points, most of them brought about by filling in the lyrical gaps with an intelligent, playful use of rhythm. "Late in the Evening" is a no-fail canny-shaker, a celebration of Chicano percussive energy that almost carries over to the music itself. And "Oh, Marion" uses a syncopated, pseudo-jump style to coincide with lyrics about a heart that "beats on the opposite side."
But even the rhythms don't always succeed: The five, four bars of "How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns" evoke an awkward, slew-footed waltz, only to be stifflegged by the song's pedestrian bridge.
Throughout the album, Simon takes the A-Team of New York sessionmen (Steve Gadd on drums, Eric Gale on electric guitar, horns arranged by Dave Grusin) and proceeds to derail it with an ersatz amateurism presumably intended to heighten the illusion of Musician as Noble Savage.
On the title cut, Gadd and Simon fight it out at the chorus in a duel of decibels that reaches alarming proportions, "Ace in the Hole," done in a light gospel style, takes off in the second verse, sung with righteous conviction by Richard Tee. Simon picks up the tune with the spirit intact for about four bars, then lets his voice go limp and agnostic, hitting the notes at random and throwing in specious, Beatlesque "Oh yeahs" where the motion should go.
Of course, "Ace" is done "live." Wer can tell that from the adulatory crowd noises that fade out the track. But for a fellow with a voice so resonant and precise that he never needed a microphone to pick up its timbre or the consonants slapping against his teeth, these vocal atrocities are as unbelievable as they are unforgivable.
The problem is that sentiment suitable for celuloid is not necessarily transferable to vinyl, or vice versa -- the recent spate of movies based on songs is a good argument against such transplants. The result is always emotion once removed, and on "Pony", whatever real feeling does emerge tends to resemble the self-absorption of the chronic drunk lost in the euphoria of his "special pain."
In songs like "God Bless the Absentee" and the title track, Simon presents a vision of the special homesickness which is the musician's lot. But roadie me no roadies. In an age where your average Joe is likely to have done time in a garage band or two, this twice-told tale calls for a believable, unique point of view, for feeling based on personal experience.
All of which is difficult to achieve if, as in Simon's case, you haven't embarked on a major tour in five years.
There are hints throughout "One Trick Pony" that Simon knows his failings, particularly on "Oh, Marion": Yes the boy's got a voice But his words don't connect to his eyes He says, 'Oh, but when I sing I can hear the truth auditioning."
Precisely the problem here. Or as Simon himself put it on "There Goes Rhymin' Simon:" "Everybody got the runs for glory/Nobody stop and scrutinize the plan."
Possibly Simon's movie will focus in on what the album has left fuzzy. If not, maybe someone who remembers his pre-auteur contributions will have the presence of mind to take his Kodachrome away.