Thursday, November 05, 2009

Rock Bottom: Paul Simon

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest com
bined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not always agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

In a mini-review of Paul Simon's 2006 album Surprise, I wrote: "Paul Simon has never made a bad album, and it doesn't seem he's about to start." I still believe that, but not all fans and critics agree with me. In fact, it was quite easy to find the consensus worst Paul Simon album.

Songs from the Capeman was released in 1997 as an advance calling card for a Broadway musical that opened the following year. The musical told the true story of Salvador Agron, a 16 year-old Puerto Rican immigrant who stabbed two white boys to death during a gang fight. It was a big story in New York the year it happened (1959), and Simon remembered it well.

The album featured some of the musical's key songs performed by Simon along with various cast members. It initially received much critical praise (Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, Rolling Stone, four stars), but the play itself was a bust, lasting only 3 months and losing lots of money. Now, in retrospect, many have designated the entire affair - including the album - to be a failure, and for some very intriguing reasons.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine over at the All Music Guide gave Songs from the Capeman 2 stars (1 full star less than anything else in Simon's oeuvre) and said, "the project is a cerebral exercise, not only in writing but also in white liberal guilt, and it's an exhausting one at that." He doesn't expand that thought, but it's a loaded statement worth delving into.

Amazon reviewers, as usual, were split. There's the five star superfan contingent that always shows up, but the naysayers are numerous enough to drag the average rating down to 3 and 1/2 stars. Their complaints can be boiled down into three main categories:

1) Paul Simon is white and shouldn't be trying to write Puerto Rican music.
An anonymous review titled "Culturally Shallow Music" states, "Simon presents a very stereotyped view of Latino people in this music. He seems to be bouncing from culture to culture, looking for something new but, in this instance, skimming the surface and failing to find it." Another anonymous reviewer (there were an inordinate amount of those for this record) says, "Frankly I didn't like Mr. Paul Simon singing salsa, mambos, etc. in English."

Okay, people who don't think white musicians should attempt music originated by other cultures should probably only listen to opera, polka, bluegrass, country, or classical music. Every other genre, from rock to blues to jazz, was appropriated from a non-white culture. Nevermind the fact that Paul Simon's later solo career has been defined by his explorations of "world music," from the South African sounds of Graceland to the Brazilian beats on Rhythm of the Saints, OR the fact that he makes it a point to use actual musicians from these countries, just as he features Puerto Rican singers and players on Songs from the Capeman (most famously, Mr.Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony).

2) The record features too much cursing.
Believe it or not, this was a deal-breaker for many listeners. Yet another anonymous reviewer titled his rant "Buyer's [sic] should be made aware of the frequent profanity used," and said "Although the music is meant to be an operetta, the theme is lost in the excessive use of profanity. Shame on Paul Simon, the record company and the critics for not warning us. If I had known, I can assure you I wouldn't have added it to my collection." Steven E. Martin echoes the complaint. He writes "We buy music our kids can listen to and enjoy...if you do this too stay far away from this CD. In fact, if you love music at all stay far away from this CD. It is, by far, the worst CD we own, and we own a lot of them, including a bunch by unsigned artists who reek." I have one word for Mr.Martin: Raffi.

In any case, the use of curse words on the CD is not pervasive. Only 4 of the album's 13 songs have any objectionable language, and of those four The Vampires is responsible for the majority of it. In total, there are 6 variations of "fuck" and 3 "shits" (most rappers have that many in one verse). So anyone truly concerned with the cursing could have just followed my mom's lead. When I was young she bought Billy Joel's Greatest Hits Volumes I and II, but when she made a tape for us to listen to in the car she didn't include Captain Jack because of the drug use and masturbation.

I'm also disturbed that these morally upright Amazon reviewers were more offended by cursing than by Simon's use of racial slurs, three toward Latinos and two toward African-Americans. One could argue (I would) that the use of the words is justifiable for novelistic and historical purposes, but it's sadly telling when people can't handle someone saying "ass" but have no problem with "spic."

3) The story glorifies and creates sympathy for a murderer.
Another unidentified reviewer said, "I am puzzled by the critics' praise for this CD, and their use of adjectives like 'sweetness' when describing it. I find nothing 'sweet' about murder, profanity, and gang violence, especially when it is depicted sentimentally as it is here."
James Morello wrote: "Aside from glorifying a murderer, what's really insulting is the attempt to seduce the listener with talented singers, nice arrangements and seemingly harmless 50's doo-wop harmonies." Damn those secretly sinister doo-wop harmonies and their "seemingly harmless" facade! Elle Sanchez sums up this contingent's ultimate fear: "Paul Simon's tale will inspire the young and many others to believe that murder is cool." Yes, because there are so many youngsters out there looking to Paul Simon records for moral direction.

The real question is, does Songs from the Capeman really glorify Salvador Argon? Well, here's a better question: Can you handle some moral ambiguity in your entertainment? Does rooting for Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity make you a psychopath? What if, once or twice while watching the Sopranos, I actually identified with what Tony Soprano was feeling? If your son wants to dress up as Darth Vader for Halloween, does that mean he's headed for a life of telekinetically strangling his inferiors?

Glorify is a strong word. Sure, Songs from the Capeman tackles things from Argon and his family's point of view, and presents a somewhat sympathetic look at a boy who was illiterate, living in poverty, and joined a gang as a matter of safety, national pride, and youthful misdirection. Very few of these songs discuss the actual murders, it's more about what led to them and the aftermath of them. One device Simon uses regularly is having the older, imprisoned Argon engage in dialogue with his younger self. Time Is An Ocean is basically a duet between the two, and it tackles some questions those who were outraged might want to consider: Do you believe in redemption and rehabilitation? Should a person's life be ruined because of stupid decisions made when they were 16? Do you want to be held accountable for your actions when you were 16?

And that's not to mention the fact that Simon devotes many songs to other points of view. Virgil's narrator is a racist prison guard. Killer Wants To Go To College represents those who didn't like the national attention Salvador got for pursuing an education and writing poetry. And then there's Can I Forgive Him?, which presents the situation from the perspective of three different mothers: Salvador's and his two victims'. They all ask themselves the titular question, each coming up with different answers. So, those who dismissed the songs as glorification should have probably listened a little more closely.

Finally, let's take a look at Mr. Erlewine's loaded statement. Is Songs from the Capeman Simon's attempt to alleviate his "white liberal guilt"? That phrase has become somewhat of an epithet, seen as an ill-considered need to apologize for benefiting from being part of the dominant culture and wanting to see non-dominant cultures receive equitable treatment. Many conservatives get hung up on rehashing the past (well, when that past doesn't make them look good, otherwise they love it). There's a "what's done is done" attitude toward the racist past of our country. You might even run into some of these same people who'll tell you that Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Barack Obama solved racism.

Did racism and white privilege play a part in Salvador Agron's story and how it was portrayed and reacted to? Hell, yeah. Is Simon saying that absolves him somehow? I don't see any evidence of that in the songs, nor do I care if Simon's "liberal guilt" was a motivation for writing the musical. One can argue that guilt is a vital part of morality. If I felt no guilt over anything (or rather, had no conscience about my actions), what would stop me from doing heinous things? Some would have you believe the threat of punishment would do that trick, but history has consistently proven otherwise.

Anyway, you might think that from all of the combativeness that Songs From the Capeman is one of my favorite albums. It's not. In fact, I pretty much agree that it's Simon's Rock Bottom (it's that or the mostly-forgettable One Trick Pony). While some of the individual songs are great (especially Bernadette, Quality, Satin Summer Nights, Adios Hermanos, and Trailways Bus) and the performances are stellar, I don't really like the hybrid nature of the record. I'd rather hear a full-on cast album or Simon-only renditions of the songs.

Also, you can tell just from these 13 songs why the musical failed. Granted it's an abbreviated version of the full musical with no visuals, but there are too many characters and no focused narrative. The songs, while good, have little of the mainstream appeal required for Broadway success.

That said, I still find it to be a very intriguing addition to Simon's catalog, one most artists would be lucky to call their worst.

Author's note: This is album review #242.

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