Touchstones: Rhymin' Simon and Muscle Shoals

LAST NIGHT'S car journey home was a welcome reminder to me of the importance of Paul Simon in my life.

  In particular, it was a reminder of the importance of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, his 1973 solo album. I was listening to the just-released, beautifully remastered and expanded version of the album, which has come out on mid-price this week.

  I also purchased the brand new Paul Simon album, So Beautiful or So What, which is a typically sunshiny, African-influenced, percussion-drenched affair. But I’m afraid like so many of Simon’s recent releases, it is refusing to leap out of the speakers and grab me.

  There Goes... is a different proposition entirely, though – from the moment those crisply-remastered drums rat-a-tat at the start of ‘Kodachrome’, I’m hooked again. It takes me back to the late 80s, when I bought a scratchy vinyl version of this album in a charity shop and it became one of my major favourites.

  By that stage I already had Graceland, and like everyone else of my generation, I’d grown up listening to Simon & Garfunkel. And I was under no illusions about the main’s writing abilities. Even in my teens, beginning to take literature seriously, I knew that ‘America’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ were as worthy of the word ‘masterpiece’ as any epic poem or Shakespeare play.

  In a charity shop in Antrim I found Simon’s eponymous 1971 solo album and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and I bought them out of curiosity, and (I suppose) to fill in the gaps between Bridge Over Troubled Water and Graceland (I always one of those nerdy ‘fill the gaps in the collection’ kids).

  The thing about There Goes... is it’s such an uncool invitation to the listener – it has that AWFUL title, the kind of album title some granddad record company executive would have dreamed up. It also has what I believe is the worst cover of any Paul Simon album – that high-school-art-project style collage which supposedly represents each of the songs pictorially.... Ugh.

  But there are so many glorious songs on there – ‘American Tune’, which will remain one of Simon’s greatest achievements, ‘Take Me The Mardi Gras’, ‘Something So Right’, one of the best love songs ever written, ‘Loves Me Like a Rock’... But also glorious little gospel nuggets like ‘Tenderness’. It’s wonderful. Lyrically, I believe Simon is treading water a little bit here. On the next album, Still Crazy After All These Years (also out on midprice this week), he would start stretching his muscles, reaching for images that would bite deeper. And that incisive, smart writing would continue through One Trick Pony and Hearts and Bones and beyond. Here, ‘American Tune’ remains the high point for imagery – ‘the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea...’

  But I hadn’t realised how much Simon has seeped under my skin over the years. As I was listening to ‘Was A Sunny Day’, I realised how much I’ve always coveted his images and his use of language: ‘not a negative word was heard, from the people passing by’, he sings. And I realise one of my recent songs contains the line ‘people stand aside as you go walking by, negativity just dies upon their tongues’. The shared sense of a street scene, people moving, sunshine and positivity. Of course, there’s no way you’re conscious of these things happening, but it’s interesting that it enters you in 1987 and stays there without you knowing.

  And the whole thing is soaked in the soulful, groovy atmosphere of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where much of it was recorded with the famous Muscle Shoals house band – pianist Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood and Roger Hawkins on drums. If you take Simon’s vocal off ‘Take Me To the Mardi Gras’, it could easily serve as a Staple Singers track. The drum sound and the arrangement and vibe are deeply familiar.

  (If you want to know the value of remastering, listen to the sound the Dixie Hummingbirds make in the closing moments of ‘’Tenderness’ and tell me that’s not audio heaven – to be closely followed by the ravishing sound of the acoustic guitar which opens ‘Take Me To the Mardi Gras’... My ears can die happy now)

  A couple of years ago, I had the honour of visiting the building where this album was recorded. With a Sunday to kill in Nashville before we caught our flights, Ralph McLean and I had been invited on a road trip down to Alabama by David Briggs of ASCAP. Briggs is a Muscle Shoals native, who has spent a lot of time in these studios over the years.

  The site of the former Fame Studios, 3614 Jackson Hghway is the same space where the Stones recorded ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Wild Horses’ and much of the Sticky Fingers album. It’s a long, fairly featureless shoebox of a building that stands behind a patch of grass at the side of the highway. The frontage is covered in stone cladding that gives it a kind of prehistoric, snakeskin look. Across the road is an old, old cemetery. They say that if you go right down in the back of the building, you can see Mick and Keith’s names where they wrote them on the wall.

  The building is now privately owned, and on the Sunday we visited, the drapes were closed and no-one was around. So we stood where they stood, we posed for pictures in front of the building and we got back in the car and drove off, our Muscle Shoals pilgrimage ending as the light started to fade.

  About half an hour later, with my eyelids drooping in the backseat as we made our way back to Nashville, we passed a highway sign. I took out my phone and texted Andrea, back home in Ireland: ‘I just crossed the Alabama-Tennessee state line,’ I said.

  ‘I’ve always wanted to say that.’