- Paul Simon: An American Tune by Cornel Bonca
Paul Simon has written some of the most enduring pop songs of the twentieth century, incorporating an impressive variety of styles into his music during a nearly six-decade career. Though less popular than it once was, his music remains relevant for listeners spanning generations. Simon has earned his share of accolades from popular critics as well as the academy. In Paul Simon: An American Tune (part of Tempo: A Rowman & Littlefield Series on Rock, Pop, and Culture), Cornel Bonca offers an overview of Simon’s output, situating each major album in its cultural and political context.
Bonca tells us early on that the first Paul Simon song to move him, “Mother and Child Reunion,” touched upon his profound feeling of longing as a teenager separated from his own mother. Already in the introduction, then, we get an example of the book’s greatest strength: Bonca’s personal—often deeply perceptive—readings of some of Simon’s masterpieces. Alas, this preliminary discussion also highlights a significant downside for the music scholar: the at-best-superficial attention to musical detail.
The book’s six chapters consist of a career overview (chapter 1) followed by a chronological survey that divides Simon’s career into five periods ranging in length from five to sixteen years. Each “period” chapter opens with a briefer overview in which Bonca reviews politics, culture, and Simon’s life during that time, after which he examines the albums of the period individually. The only exception to the individual album treatment is the pre-Simon and Garfunkel music, which was typically released as singles (if at all), and which Bonca considers briefly under the heading “1957–1962 recordings.” Each of Simon’s multimedia endeavors—a television special, a feature film, and a Broadway musical—is studied in the relevant chapter. The quantity of material covered in this small volume makes it an appropriate introduction to Simon in his cultural sphere, although Bonca’s enthusiasm occasionally causes him to overwhelm the reader with detail.
Chapter 2 (“The Struggle for Originality: 1957–1970”) treats all of Simon’s early music and the entire Simon and Garfunkel career, including the duo’s 1969 television special “Songs of America.” Here and elsewhere, Bonca enriches his readings by comparing songs from different periods. For example, as he evaluates Christian references in folk cover songs on the first Simon and Garfunkel album (p. 23), Bonca draws comparisons with several later Simon originals, including “Blessed” (1966), “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970), and the entire albums The Rhythm of the Saints and So Beautiful or So What (1990 and 2011 respectively). The most valuable aspect of this chapter is Bonca’s obviously thorough understanding of the poetic and cultural influences that the young Simon had not yet learned to conceal. Of the five Simon and Garfunkel albums, Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water—inarguably the strongest—receive Bonca’s most thorough investigations. His discussion of the pre-Simon and Garfunkel music borders on dismissive. [End Page 524]
The chapter that covers the author’s own early teenage years (“In the Age’s Most Uncertain Hours: 1970–1977”) opens with the most significant discussion of societal context. Then Bonca examines Simon’s first three solo albums in detail; in these albums the songwriter continued the move away from folk that began in earnest with the Bookends album. The songs of these years receive some of the book’s most trenchant analyses. Bonca’s readings of “American Tune” and “Slip Sliding Away” deserve particular note. He skips over only a few songs characterized as “genre pieces” (p. 69).
One-Trick Pony, Simon’s 1980 dramatic film about a less successful version of himself, marked his first commercial failure since the early Simon and Garfunkel years. Chapter 4 (“Mistakes On Top of Mistakes On Top of Mistakes: 1978–1983”) investigates the film, the soundtrack album, and...