Lots of songs please me without having the least similarity to my own style. It’s a big part of their value that they give me something I can’t give myself. Once in a while, though, part of the rush of hearing a great song is a sense that it nails something I myself was after, or must have been after, or eventually would have been after. In one sense the feeling of creative affinity is totally spurious, of course—I never would have produced a real equivalent of the song in question—but in another sense inarguable: it’s just part of my great experience.
I’ve deeply affiliated with Paul Simon (whether I’m appropriating him, or he’s appropriating me) more than once. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” had just the sort of supercool Brazilian chord changes that I wanted to write. “Kodachrome” made exactly the right use of a thumping bass line for my upright grand piano at the same time that it made perfect sense jumping enthusiastically and metaphorically into photography.
But I feel our supreme conjunction came in “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” Not for the great drum part Steve Gadd contributed—I’d never had that in my dreams (nor had Simon, apparently). Not for the chords, though they appeal to me a lot and they’re in my guitar-writing wheelhouse. Not for the fun rhyming game in the chorus. No, what Simon delivered as my messenger is the filtered, mitigated, ironically semi-ironized irony, a precise mixture of playing mockingly on the surface of ditzy lover-switching and driving it full speed ahead.
Once I wanted to talk about levels of irony with a college Aesthetics class and played “50 Ways” to get the discussion started. Train wreck: my students didn’t hear any irony in the song at all. It’s possible that the very idea of irony in a song was foreign to them, or repugnant.
Why should we be thinking about levels of irony, you ask? Let me remind you that we live in an absurd and unacceptable world in which it would nevertheless be intolerable to live as a disenchanted, self-righteous outsider. We have to participate; but we have to know the score, too. For this tricky task we badly need the resources of art. A well-calibrated song like “Fifty Ways” can position you right where you need to be, authentically wallowing in your screwed-up humanity while sticking one arm out to scratch your head about it—a scratching that turns into a happy rhythmic patting when you drop off the key, Lee, and make a new plan, Stan. It’s really multiple levels of irony, I think, and not just one fine shade of it that we experience here: the incongruity of the military drum part with the jazz love song is one, the incongruity of the jazzy verse and its pseudointelligent lyrics with the poppy chorus and kiddie rhyming is another, the sage counsel by the singer’s friend leading up to her greedy kiss is another. Brooding over it all is the mad incongruity of wanting to be a lover and wanting to be free at the same time. This complexity makes the song a world map, as spiritually big as a Tolstoy novel. Nearly.
I love Randy Newman’s character songs (they’re all character songs) and his irony, too. He gets that queasy zest in inhabiting humanity. But he’s more theatrical or more a comedian than I could be. I marvel at his capacity to be savage. I sometimes strike out in that direction but can’t get that far. Paul Simon, on the other hand, is in a calmer place, serenely askance—as I can see myself.