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An Appreciation of John Simon's Solo Career

by Lee Gabites

This 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.

All four of John Simon's solo albums are available from the States on CD. For a catalogue and price list please contact:
Sundown Sound
Box 150
Blauvelt, NY
10913 USA
John Simon was born in Norwalk, Connecticut on August 11, 1941. His father, a country doctor and violinist, taught him the fiddle and piano at age 4. The first song he wrote was for his Cub Scout den. By high school he was leading and writing for several bands and also wrote 2 original musicals, At Princeton he wrote 3 more shows and wrote for and performed in several bands, including leading a band to the finals of the 1st Georgetown Jazz Festival.

[John Simon]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."

[cover art]
John Simons Album
Cover - Back cover
John Simon's Album arrived in 1970, and like the music of The Band is hard to put under any given banner or title. From the opening psychedelic nursery rhyme of The Song Of The Elves, which features Leon Russell and Jean Millington, to dream-like confessionals on Nobody Knows and Rain Song. Three of the strongest songs on the album hit you one after the other: Tannenbaum is all energy with Garth Hudson's soprano sax singing along with John Hall's wonderful dancing guitar lines; Davey's On The Road Again was co-written with Robbie Robertson and is the sad tale of a man who has been abandoned and cannot return home to his loved one, with forlorn backup from Muscle Shoals sidemen Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins; Motorcycle Man is the story of Frilly Fay watching her life slip away in a little roadside cafe. So many characters and too many lost dreams. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel play on this number with tenor from Bobby Keys. The remaining numbers all contain strong lyrics and characters that Simon really seems to understand in his songs, "Well, I can write a so called serious song or a lighter song but either way it doesn't come alive for me unless I get inside the person singing it, or the person whom its about. I really care about the big problems of humanity too, but to write a song that's socially responsible and still entertaining is hard. And sometimes people don't want to hear about the big problems, they'd rather have art be their escape." Other tracks include Don't Forget What I Told You, Annie Looks Down and Did You See? Railroad Train Runnin' Up My Back has friends Rita Coolidge, Bobby Whitlock, Delany Bramlett and Carl Radle along for the ride.

"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."

[cover art]
Cover - Back cover
Journey was recorded Aug. 8-10, 1972 at A&R Studios, NY with engineer Phil Ramone. Seven horns, drums and standup bass are part of the ensemble. As Simon says, the songs are much longer. The songwriting is still of a high quality as is the musicianship. The songs on Journey don't only show Simon's love of jazz but also his passion for the standards set by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Livin' In A Land 0' Sunshine is a ten minute plus opus that explains summertime in Woodstock and has Simon singing in a deeper voice, Dave Holland's bass and David Sanborn's alto sax alongside Simon's piano. Slim Pickens In The Kitchen Don't Make It At All is Minnie The Moocher gone mad. The Real Woodstock Rag is exactly that. A flurry of piano keys a la Fats Waller, returning to a time when the hat was worn to the side with a half chewed cigar in a cloud of smoke. Poems To Eat is a beautiful cut ("Dine on a poem/Take one home') which features Amos Garrett's guitar and merges into ... Big City Traffic Jam all heat, dust and New York City. Joy To The World is the finale of this three-parter - Christmas carolers singing the blues. King Lear`s Blues (Cordelia) is a lament. Journey ends with Short Visit ("I1t was a short visit from the cave to the city"), and reveals ("Upstream from here, there's a nuclear reactor and the man that approved it is some bad actor, hiding the truth from his family.")

[cover art]
Out on the Street
Cover - Back cover
In the early '90s Simon returned with Out On The Street. The musicians on this album proved to be a great mix of jazz and rock greats. Commissioned by Pioneer/LDC Records it was released in Japan in 1992 where it was selected by the HMV music store chain as 1 of the 3 best records of that year (along with Eric Clapton and Peter Gabriel). In 1994 the album was released in the US by Vanguard.

"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."

[cover art]
Harmony Farm
Cover - Back cover
In 1995, Pioneer/LDC Records released Harmony Farm, Simon's latest album which was recorded in his home. The CD sleeve includes sketches by John of his living quarters before and during the recording. John gives us some thoughts on these songs in the liner notes:

Everybody Thinks That I Left Town
"I sunk back into my hole..." I was thinking of a poem by Robert Frost ("Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening") while writing the last verse.

Touch Your Heart
This song is 100% true.

Nobody Knows Her Like I Know Her
This song was written for a musical called "Billionaire Embryos". Larry Mclary sang it about his girlfriend, Mary.

Rural Rhythms
There is an old fable about a City Mouse and a Country Mouse. No matter how many times I visit or live in the city, I'll always be a Country Mouse!

If At First (Just One Lucky Break)
I wrote the chorus of this song 20 years ago for a radio musical called "The Big Snooze". I wrote the verse in '94.

Psalm 91
These words are 3000 years old, written around 1000 B.C. by King David in Israel. They were translated into beautiful, poetic English by religious scholars working for King James I in England in 1611.

Uh-0h, Here Comes The Blues
I wrote this song for The Band and first performed it at The Blue Note in Tokyo with these same players: Comelius (Bumpus), Paul (Ramsey) and Terry (Silverlight).

The Good Samaritan
This is actually a combination of 2 stories from the King James Bible: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and Mary Magdalene (Luke 7:38). Mother Theresa, when asked how she could work with lepers and other desperately miserable people, said that she simply saw them as embodiments of God, in all God's "distressing disguises".

This song is also 100% true.

Little Acts of Faith
"...keeps the water wheel turnin' and the seeds in place..."

Piano Playing Fool
The musical phrase on the up-beats that separates most verses came from playing with Taj Mahal and I've never forgotten how good it feels to play it. The particular piano this "piano playing fool" plays on this album is a Mason and Hamlin BB, serial 29527, built in 1912. This album was recorded in my living room. My personal guarantee: no click tracks, no drum machines.

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.


[cover art]
You Are What You Eat
Worth mentioning are the two soundtrack albums Simon composed and performed for. You Are What You Eat was more or less a documentary about the sixties put together by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary) and Barry Feinstein. Simon was asked to compose and produce for the film through a meeting with Peter Yarrow. "I met Peter Yarrow in the first-class lounge of United Airlines in San Francisco during the Monterey Pop Festival. He stuck me and Howard Alk in this house with two movieolas, which was the old editing machine, with reels and reels of film to make a movie. Out of that came My Name Is Jack which was a hit for Manfred Mann, I think." Yarrow sings three songs on the album, Paul Butterfield sings the title track and The Electric Flag perform Freakout with Simon. The most telling contribution to this soundtrack must come from Tiny Tim's versions of Be My Baby and I Got You Babe. I Got You Babe is a duet with the unknown Eleanor Baruchian, the backing musicians were The Hawks. Also recorded by Tiny Tim and The Hawks were Chuck Berry's Memphis, Tennessee and a horrendous version of Sonny Boy. These tracks are available on bootleg albums/cds regarding Dylan/Band period Basement Tapes. Simon's songs are full of experimentation. The lovely folk sounding Moments Of Soft Persuasion and Don't Remind Me Now Of Time to the esoteric The Wabe and Freakout. More on this album will be included in my lengthy interview with John in a future issue [of Jawbone.]

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.
-- Todd Everett.
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.

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