So Beautiful Or So What by Paul Simon


Reverend J.M. Gates was an American preacher from Georgia who recorded over 200 sermons, monologues, and songs between 1926 and 1941. His second record, “I’m Gonna Die with the Staff in My Hand”, released in October 1926, sold over 50,000 copies. In 1941, he recorded a sermon called “Getting Ready For Christmas Day”, which included the following. “Getting ready for Christmas Day. And let me tell you, namely, the undertaker, he’s getting ready for your body. Not only that, the jailer he’s getting ready for you. Christmas day. Hmm? And not only the jailer, but the lawyer, the police force.

When Paul Simon heard this sermon, he was particularly taken with the rhythm of the call and response between the pastor and the congregation. For an opening song on his first album since “Surprise”, five years beforehand, it had a very dark message. Paul Simon explained that “Everybody’s thinking that Christmas is going to be a joyous occurrence, but what is also going on is that you may not even make it to Christmas Day. Don’t plan on this, because there are all kinds of dangers that surround Christmas Day.” Paul Simon’s nephew had been serving in Iraq and dark thoughts surrounding his possible future crept into the song. “I got a nephew in Iraq, it’s his third time back but it’s ending up the way it began. With the luck of a beginner he’ll be eating turkey dinner, on some mountaintop in Pakistan.” As with many of his songs, Paul Simon took the opportunity to write lyrics which described the dialogue between world events and internal thoughts.

Getting Ready For Christmas Day” was originally recorded live, with Paul Simon playing acoustic guitar, Vincent Nguini on electric guitar and Jim Oblon playing drums. Foot-stomps were added afterwards. The next day, Paul Simon came into the studio with the sermon and added it randomly. The musicians were astonished to find that, by luck, the sermon was in rhythm with the backing track. They edited Reverend J.M. Gates’ sermon so that the cheering of the congregation fitted between Paul Simon’s vocals. It’s an astonishing song which sounds like a joyous celebration, in anticipation of a wonderful Christmas, but unless you only listen to the hook line, is anything but.

Saunders Terrell was better known as Sonny Terry. He was a blues musician who was known for his energetic harmonica playing which he often interspersed with vocal whoops, hollers and imitations of trains and fox hunts. Jimmy Rogers was a blues musician singer, guitarist and harmonica player, best known for his work as a member of Muddy Waters’s band in the early 1950s. He wrote many songs, especially train songs and his “Train Whistle Blues” was recorded by Sonny Terry in 1940.

Paul Simon’s song “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” is another stupendous highlight on “So Beautiful And So What”. The song was originally called “Brand New Pre-Owned Automobile” because, in the last verse, the singer is flying down a highway towards Lake Michigan, in a brand-new pre-owned ’96 Ford and is feeling “free as a bird”. Paul Simon said that he loved the phrase “brand-new, pre-owned”: “It’s just a bullshit line that salespeople use.” At the last minute, he decided that the song should be called “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” for reasons that he couldn’t explain. He said “You tend to give credence to these voices that come from within.” In the second verse, Paul Simon sings a very quick description of evolution. “Earth becomes a farm, farmer takes a wife. Wife becomes a river and the giver of life. Man becomes machine, oil runs down his face. Machine becomes a man with a bomb in the marketplace.” Paul Simon sings the bridge of the song in a deep voice which, it transpires, is the voice of God. “Big Bang, that’s a joke that I made up once when I had eons to kill. You know, most folks, they don’t get when I’m joking.” A sample of Sonny Terry’s “Train Whistle Blues” is used during the solo after two minutes – in the live version, Paul Simon plays the solo himself.

On “Rewrite,” Steve Shehan plays a West African kora harp and djembe drum. He made his contribution, in Paris, having no direct contact with Paul Simon and without hearing the vocals. Deep down in the mix, it’s possible to hear the bleets of a wildebeest and other night sounds recorded in Kenya. Like most songs on the album, there is no bass guitar. “Rewrite” is a beautiful depiction of a returning Vietnam vet who has experienced trauma which has caused him to leave his wife and family. He is now working in a car wash and hoping to rewrite history. “I’ll eliminate the pages where the father has a breakdown and he has to leave the family, but he really meant no harm. I’m gonna substitute a car chase and a race across the rooftops where the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms.” The “New Yorker” published the lyrics to this song as a poem. When Paul Simon toured to promote the album, “Rewrite” was the new song that received most positive feedback from his audience.

The first line of “Afterlife” is “After I died and the makeup had dried I went back to my place” which was the starting point for the song. Paul Simon said “I didn’t know what that song would be about. I thought it was a good first line but not really good. It was a little too complicated for a really good first line. The first time you hear that, it’s not like you really grasp it. It’s a concept and it has a little bit of a joke in it, all that stuff, all coming in that line. But anyway I didn’t find anything else, so I stuck with that. I like that track a lot.” The singers experience of the afterlife is not quite what he imagined: he has to join a queue and fill out forms; he fails to chat up a homecoming queen; he has to stand in line to get a glimpse of Moses and Buddha and when he finally gets to meet God, he is tongue tied. “And you feel like swimming in an ocean of love and the current is strong. But all that remains when you try to explain is a fragment of song. Lord is it, Be Bop A Lu La or Ooh Poppa Do?”

James Johnson is an American blues musician, based in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and is normally known as “Super Chikan”. He is proficient at playing an edgier, electrified version of raw, uncut Delta blues. He sold Paul Simon a cigar box guitar, which is played extensively on the album. A cigar box guitar uses an empty cigar box as a resonator. The style of playing on many songs draws inspiration from West African blues music, as perfected by Ali Farke Toure, Baba Maal and Taj Mahal. An excellent example of this is the hypnotic title track, which contains the epitaph “Life is what you make of it. So beautiful or so what. In an interview after the album was released, Paul Simon was asked how he uses rhymes in a way that don’t call attention to themselves. He replied “Well, the more you do it, as I say, the better you get. I really never had any other job since I was 15. I made my first record at 15. It’s really all I ever did. I went to school, but all I’ve ever done is write songs and make records. Now it’s a long time, and I’ve had a lot of experience at it.”

Six of the songs on the album make reference to Christianity or God. “Love in Hard Times” begins with God and his son visiting earth. Paul Simon explained I felt that to begin with a sentence that is the foundation of Christianity is going to be interesting. Now what am I going to say about a subject that I certainly didn’t study’?” The song starts as a satire on Christianity and ends as a love song to his wife, Edie Brickell. “There was enough cynicism in the first two verses and now I didn’t really need to go any further, and now the rest had to be pure love song. It started with God and God leaving and then it ended with “Thank God I found you.” That was really the pay-off to the whole thing. Because He left.” When he first recorded the song, he only used an acoustic guitar but he decided that he preferred a piano. However, in the end, he used both to produce a stunningly beautiful song which has different parts and several key changes.

I love this album. There is a variety of musical styles and influences, with some serious commentary on the human condition, interspersed with humour. It’s too easy to forget that Paul Simon is a very funny man, who has a talent that very few possess. “Parents tell me that their 3-year-olds love Graceland, and when it comes on, they get up and dance. So that has happened to me twice in my career—with Bridge Over Troubled Water and Graceland. It’s very unusual, and I’m grateful for it, but to a certain degree I don’t really feel like I own it. If there’s such a thing as immortality, then maybe there’s a little bit of immortality attached to that, but I don’t know what it actually means after you’re dead that your song is immortal. It’s like Woody Allen said: ‘I appreciate living on in the hearts of my fans, but I would rather live on in my apartment‘.”

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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