An Appreciation of John Simon's Solo Career
by Lee GabitesThis article first appeared in the Band fanzine Jawbone, No. 6, spring/summer 1998. Lee Gabites is the editor of Jawbone.
Copyright © 1998,1999 Lee Gabites.
In New York he joined Columbia Records as a producer-in-training, producing acts in all areas of music, but soon having success with pop acts. His first pop record was Red Rubber Ball by The Cyrkle. He then went on to produce some of the biggest records of the 60s: Janis Joplin & Big Brother And The Holding Company's Cheap Thrills; Simon & Garfunkle's Bookends; Leonard Cohen; Blood, Sweat and Tears; and of course Music From Big Pink and The Band. He also produced The Last Waltz and albums by Steve Forbert, David Sanborn, Gil Evans, and Mama Cass Elliott, as well as working with Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Howlin' Wolf, Phoebe Snow and many others. Simon has also composed music for high wire artist Phillip Petit and two ballet scores for choreographer Twyla Tharp. He has worked on Broadway, in TV and has scored two movies.
"The first person to tell me I should be my own artist was Paul Simon, and coming from a person of that stature I began to take it seriously. So Albert Grossman got me a deal with Warner Brothers Records. And the nucleus band for that was John Hall, Harvey Brooks and Wells Kelly - who was a great drummer - with Paul Harris on organ and myself. We actually played some gigs as a band and opened up for Janis Joplin sometimes. Then I sprinkled that with Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel."
"That first record was kind of an expensive album because I was used to working with big stars who take a lot of time and spend a lot of money. When Joe Smith, who was the vice president of Warner Brothers Records called me he said, 'Look, you've spent $64.000!' So I quickly finished the album. And two years later I made another album and my goal was to do it as cheaply as possible. I went in the studio with no overdubs and recorded it all live in three days. Three sessions using mostly jazz musicians because jazz musicians can play dependably live. And I'm a jazz lover anyway. That albums called Journey. So that next album was sort of a jazz album and had David Sanborn, Randy Brecker and Howard Johnson on it. It was a lot of fun. Much longer songs. And during this time Warner Bros asked me to go on the road, but I decided I didn't want to go on the road because I had a family and I'd seen what the road did to musicians. So I decided to live the family life instead of being a rock and roll martyr."
"Right before I started work on The Band's Jericho album, some Japanese people got in touch with me, it turned out that the Warner Bros albums were released in Japan 15 years later and I had a bunch of fans in Japan who gave me a decent bankroll to do this album. I said at that point now that my kids are grown and everything, I was prepared to hit the road and be a rock and roll martyr. But ageism is a tough thing if you haven't had a fan base to begin with. So I have fans in funny places around the world. I've been to Japan twice, and I played at The Blue Note for a week with a band after the first album, and after the second album I did it solo just on piano and went to six towns in Japan. Out On The Street, the U.S. release has two songs which differ from the Japan release."
They didn't like Overpop?
"That's right! (Laughs) They didn't like Overpop and the love song was just to dark for them."
Tell us a little something about each song.
"Sure. Two Ways 0' Looking At The Same Thing is about tolerance. Specifically it talks about bickering in a love nest: 'Do you want revenge or do you want romance?' Open Wound - a few years ago Rolling Stone magazine printed a list of its best-ever records (I was happy to see a few of mine in there: a couple of Band records and Cheap Thrills). But, when I looked for some of my favourite rock classics that happened to be light-hearted, I couldn't find them. Most of their choices were songs of pain. So I said, 'Ah-ha! Whoever compiled this list thinks that rock and roll is an open wound.' I love what Garth Hudson and John Hall added to this track. Overpop - overpopulation is one of my greatest concerns. As for the lyrics in the last stanza, George James pointed out that I like to shock people a little bit. Dreamland speaks to everyone's 'sleepy side'. I'm really pleased to have two jazz greats on this cut: my friend, Ron Carter on bass and Toots Theileman's playing the harmonica solo. Lost is about how things, and people, live on in memory even though they may be long gone. That Lovesong's Gonna Have To Wait is about that very issue of: how can I write a trivial love song when the world is falling apart right before my eyes? It's great that Rick Danko and Levon Helm sang with me on Out On The Street. I wrote the song for The Band right before Richard Manuel died. It was for a TV movie on homelessness. Just A Play was written for a show I was working on with my actress/wife, C.C. Loveheart. (I mean, she's really my wife, but she's an actress too.) The message of the song is basically: 'Cheer up.' Escape is about the need we all have to run away. The Brecker Brothers, Mike and Randy, are in the horn section. Hummin' A Summersong is a paean to my favourite season. As far as I'm concerned, we could take January 1 and make a quick edit to April 1. I wouldn't miss winter at all. Summer always litfs me up, as this track does. Listen to the solo Cornelius Bumpus takes -it is of course live, not overdubbed - which brings up two things. First, I put great store in live music, I'll never use a click track or a drum machine on any project I work on. And, second, I want to voice my appreciation for the great musicians who played on this record. The band I took to The Blue Note in Tokyo consisted of players from this album. Besides Cornellus and C.C., Paul Ramsey played bass, Terry Silverlight played drums and Diane Wilson sang and played percussion. We're All In This Together was one of those songs that came to me, or 'through me', full-blown; I didn't have to labour at it at all. And its fitting that its the last song on the record because, If I had to leave listeners with any one thought, that's the one I'd choose."
Everybody Thinks That I Left Town
Touch Your Heart
Nobody Knows Her Like I Know Her
If At First (Just One Lucky Break)
Uh-0h, Here Comes The Blues
The Good Samaritan
Little Acts of Faith
Piano Playing Fool
Harmony Farm is another essential album from Simon. Strong songs, great lyrics, fine melodies and wonderful musicality. This album is spending a lot of time in my CD player. Nobody Knows Her Like I Know Her has the most achingly beautiful piano introduction, whilst Rural Rhythms is a tour-de-force of harmony from featured vocalists Jackie Cain and Roy Kral.
Last Summer was released in 1970, a movie starring Barbara Hershey about four young people during the course of a summer on Fire Island, and what happens to them. Reviews said it was the best picture on the subject of youth. The soundtrack opens with an instrumental, Last Summer Theme, a beautiful loping cut that has strings mixed with a trilled mandolin. Plenty of finely played mandolin and drums are included on Temptation, Lust & Laziness, a great country-romp-duet between Levon Helm and John Simon. Drivin' Daisy has Cyrus Faryar on vocals, singer, instrumentalist and producer who was with the Modern Folk Quintet and Whiskyhill Singers, and prominent session musician. Cordelia and Sonuvagun are sung by Buddy Bruno, who was discovered by Simon. Cordelia is sung in falsetto and was rerecorded by Simon for his Journey album in 1972. The transient Subtle Evanescence Of Now is an instrumental composed and performed by Colin Walcott on sitar (a disciple of Ravi Shankar) which takes you straight back to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Lay Your Love On Me is an Otis Redding sounding r&b thumper with Ray Draper (jazz tuba player and vocalist with Red, Beans & Rice) on vocals. The heavy Magnectic Mama has Simon singing. Safari Blues, "Safari Mary, won't you come back to me?" has banjoist/singer, formerly with the Modern Folk Quintet and respected session musician and photographer Henry Diltz on vocals. A slightly unsettling sounding cut that has you shifting in your chair. As does Hal, The Handyman. Firehouse Blues is a very appealing instrumental. A sleazy sax plays over a backing of guitar, bass and drums that is very reminiscent of The Band. Laughter and shouts of joy can be heard throughout the cut as if its a rehearsal or private performance for friends who have dipped at the sauce. The liner notes to the album say:
It was decided that Simon's music should be more than just sweeping strings playing tuneless background themes or occasional sound effects on some soulless electronic wonder. The music should be, in fact, another member of the cast. With that in mind, several separate and distinct songs were written, to be performed by a number of talented individuals under Simon's supervision. The result is a highly memorable score, and one that holds up remarkably well when separated from the film for which it was created. While some of the musicians, for contractual reasons must remain anonymous, their music speaks for itself. Last Summer is an uncommen film. This is an uncommonly fine soundtrack album.The album was recorded in New York at The Hit Factory and Sound Recorders.
John's albums are an indispensable and valuable part of my music collection. If you don't have them, they should be a part of yours too. I managed to find mint copies of the soundtracks from a specialist dealer, but John recently told me that they are available on CD in Japan. I heartily recommend that you find them.