Few albums in recent years have been more masterful than Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful Or So What”. The elderly Simon is back at the height of his powers as an artist. Simon is not one for exaggeration so when he says, “It’s the best work I’ve done in 20 years” that’s saying a lot.
Behind the scenes of the recording were the following fascinating anecdotes:
1) “Getting Ready For Christmas Day”is about an uncle concerned about his nephew, who is on tour in Iraq. Interspersed with the music are multiple snippets of the last sermon by pre-war American Christian preacher and gospel singer, Reverend J.M. Gates, recorded in 1941 prior to our entry into World War II. This song is musically bold, having percussion in the background, but no bass. Sample lyric: “With the luck of a beginner he’ll be eating turkey dinner on some mountain top in Pakistan.”
2) “Rewrite”. Listen to this song carefully. In an interview with Mojo magazine Simon explained why: “In that song ‘Rewrite,’ the ‘doom’ sound on the end of the ‘doodle-e-doom’ part throughout the track is a wildebeest we recorded on a family holiday. In the studio it was all ‘More wildebeest!’ ‘Too much wildebeest!'” OK, show of hands. How many rock songs have wildebeests in them? Sample lyric: “Everybody says the old guy working at the car wash hasn’t got a brain cell left since Vietnam.”
3) “So Beautiful Or So What”. The title track says it all. That’s life, folks. It’s either too beautiful for words or you end up like Ecclesiastes, saying over and over again, “All is vanity and a striving after wind.”, or as Simon put it in the same interview with Mojo Magazine, “‘So beautiful or so what’ is a valid question when you’re facing the enormity of the infinite. Or pure Love.” This song almost became a first time duet between Simon and Bob Dylan. Simon had recorded songs with others before (and I’m not referring to Art Garfunkel) but this is the first time he had raised the possibility of a Simon/Dylan combination. It wasn’t meant to be, however. Again, from Mojo Magazine, “I’d written the title track ‘So Beautiful Or So What,’ and there were two verses that I thought would be good for Bob… I sent a message via our mutual manager asking if Bob would like to sing on the song. The first word I got back was that he liked it and he wanted to do it, but then I never heard anything more. I had a deadline and I needed to get the album finished… It was no big deal.” Maybe not to you, sir, but to the rest of us, well… Sample lyric: “I’m just a raindrop in a bucket, a coin dropped in a slot.”