Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Concord Music Group, 2011)
David Brooks, Wall Street journalist columnist and weekly commentator on the PBS News Hour, once wrote an appreciative essay on John Stott. One of his readers was impressed enough to seek out a meeting with Stott. The Christian scholar declined the reader's dinner invitation, proffering tea and biscuits at his flat as an alternative. And so, Paul Simon had a long conversation with John Stott, leaving unpersuaded of Christianity, but very much taken with his host.*
Christianity comes up repeatedly in Simon's So Beautiful or So What, but it is off kilter and irreverent, crafted with tongue in cheek, in stark contrast to the work of John Stott. In “Love and Hard Times,” the first two members of the Trinity "make a courtesy call" in a setting that is a send up of religious cliche; it's springtime and the birds are singing. Father and Son decide to check out early because the people are "slobs" and they don't want to make a scene. Not only that, but there is always more work to do, another galaxy to create. And, it is easy to be misunderstood. The Big Bang was supposed to be a big joke, but folks don't get God's humor (“Love is Eternal Sacred Light”).
The second song on the CD, "The Afterlife," is Simon's biggest joke. When the mortician's makeup has dried, the deceased hears "a sugar-coated voice" beckoning. He then begins navigating the heavenly bureaucracy ("you got to fill out a form"), is temporarily sidelined by a blonde who has caught his eye, and then steps in line to meet the divine. When that moment comes and he is "swimming in an ocean of love," all he can think to say is "Lord, is it Be Bop a Lu La or ooh Papa Doo?" Simon once said that he would like to hear the sounds of Elvis' "Mystery Train" or Bo Diddley at the pearly gates. Perhaps then the separation between the sheep and the goats would be transmogrified into rival fan clubs for Elvis and Eddie Cochran.
Sometimes Simon’s sobering insights outweigh his lightheartedness. In "Love is Eternal Sacred Light" God is contrasted with "a demon that feeds on the mind," a parasitic poisoning that leads to a bomb blast. This ushering into the afterlife is no joke. Neither is the shooting of Martin Luther King referenced in the title track. In that song a father tells his children a bedtime story, a tale without plot or ending, and lets them know it is up to them whether it will be "so beautiful" or "so what." Eschewing poetic lyrics for prose, one could substitute post-modern slogans for the parent's make-your-own-adventure advice: there is no universal meta-narrative; there are no privileged stories or endings.
One can assert "saying so, makes it so" but no one can live that way. "Love and Hard Times," the tune that makes light of the Trinity, ends with a lover earnestly and achingly expressing his deepest feelings, "Thank God, I found you in time; Thank God, I found you; Thank God, I found you." There are some aspects of our experience that resist reshaping into "so what" accounts. They are "so beautiful" they exclude the banality of "so what." Among them are the rhythms, rhymes and melodies of Paul Simon's music, recapitulated on this recording, a standout from one of our best songwriters.