– By Sam Hendrian –
Music always has and always will have the power to lift up our souls towards the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. The songs of legendary musician Paul Simon have achieved this noble purpose multiple times throughout the years. Fueled by poignant spiritual pondering and immense emotional honesty, much of Simon’s music speaks to the deep desire we all have as human beings to find true meaning and happiness in our lives. Within his enormous, decades-long songbook, some of his most transcendental songs are “The Sounds of Silence,” “American Tune,” “Wristband,” “The Boxer,” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.”
“Hello, darkness, my old friend/I’ve come to talk with you again.”
So go the haunting words that open one of Paul Simon’s most beloved compositions, “The Sounds of Silence.” Beautifully sung with Art Garfunkel, it is a timeless masterpiece of the modern musical world. While countless speculations have been made about what the rather cryptic lyrics of this song mean, it is undeniable that it speaks to the profound human desire for love and connection in this lost world. Perhaps the most haunting lyrics of the song are the following:
“And in the naked light I saw/Ten thousand people, maybe more/People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening/People writing songs that voices never share/And no one dared disturb the sounds of silence.”
These lyrics speak to one of the saddest truths about the human condition: it is quite easy to be alone in a crowd. “People talking without speaking:” how many times do we meet somber-looking people who are clearly crying out for help but who cannot find the courage to ask for it? “People hearing without listening:” how many times do we actually listen to what others have to say, not merely hear them? “People writing songs that voices never share:” how many times are we too timid to share our talents with the world? We all desire to connect with each other and have truly loving relationships; sadly, this is a hard desire to satisfy in a world that is filled with troubling, paradoxical sounds of silence.
Another poignant Paul Simon tune that was written after the Simon & Garfunkel days is “American Tune.” It opens with these relatable lyrics:
“Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken/And many times confused/Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken/And certainly misused.”
Paul Simon may be an international superstar, but he is more human than anything else. Like all of us, there are many times when he has made mistakes and felt utterly confused about his place in the world. The human condition is far from a perfect one; Simon acknowledges this beautifully and succinctly. He goes on to sing,
“I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease/I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/Or driven to its knees.”
There is so much truth in these simple but powerful words: we all have had dark spots in our lives where dreams have been shattered and sadness has reigned. While Simon’s song does not end with a clear solution for these human problems, it does not have to; acknowledging them is enough to ignite fruitful self-reflection within our souls.
One of Paul Simon’s most recent and thought-provoking tunes is “Wristband,” featured on his 2016 album Stranger to Stranger. It tells the story of a musician who leaves the stage during a concert to take a smoke and is not let back in when the guard does not recognize him.
“Wristband, my man/You got to have a wristband,” the guard sternly informs him. “If you don’t have a wristband/You can’t get through the door.”
While this is all rather funny, the song turns quite serious and meaningful as Simon goes on to sing metaphorically,
“The riots started slowly/With the homeless and the lowly/Then they spread into the heartland/Towns that never get a wristband/Kids that can’t afford the cool brand/Whose anger is a shorthand/For you’ll never get a wristband/And if you don’t have a wristband/Then you can’t get through the door.”
There are so many underprivileged kids in this world who have big dreams and goals just like everyone else but who struggle to pursue them successfully because of their poor backgrounds. Paul Simon wishes strongly to raise awareness of this social issue, and he does so quite successfully through the concluding lyrics of “Wristband.”
One of Paul Simon’s biggest hits from his Simon & Garfunkel days is “The Boxer,” a moving ballad about a boy who leaves his home and family to find materialistic success in the real world but who ultimately only experiences much loneliness and failure. The song begins,
“I am just a poor boy/Though my story’s seldom told/I have squandered my resistance/For a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises/All lies and jests/Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
Like the Prodigal Son of the Bible, the young man in this song has decided to impatiently squander all that his family has given him and move away to seek a life of worldly success and endless pleasure. He knows that the promises of happiness-inducing success and pleasure are “all lies and jests,” but like we all do from time to time, he decides to only “hear what he wants to hear and disregard the rest.” Somewhere along his journey, he becomes disillusioned about his worldly dreams and begins to consort with prostitutes in an attempt to numb his loneliness, also like the Prodigal Son:
“Asking only workman’s wages/I go looking for a job/But I get no offers/Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue/I do declare/There were times when I was so lonesome/I took some comfort there.”
Fortunately, this young man learns from his mistakes and decides to go home, emotionally battered but a much stronger and wiser man than he ever was before:
“In the clearing stands a boxer/And a fighter by his trade/And he carries the reminders/Of ev’ry glove that laid him down/Or cut him till he cried out/In his anger and his shame/I am leaving, I am leaving/But the fighter still remains.”
Paul Simon’s ability to tell such a moving transformation story through song is clearly a divine gift, and this song in particular can serve as a reminder to all young people that they are not alone in feeling lost and confused on their first journey away from the comforts of hearth and home.
While the list of meaningful Paul Simon songs could go on and on for a long time, the last song of his that we shall examine for now is “Slip Slidin’ Away.” A beautiful commentary on the fleetingness of life, it specifically explores the Sisyphean nature of achieving lasting success on this Earth. The song opens with the chorus:
“Slip slidin’ away/Slip slidin’ away/You know the nearer your destination/The more you’re slip slidin’ away.”
How many times have we completed a significant task only to be suddenly overwhelmed by how many more tasks we now have to complete? There will always be something more to do as long as we live on this Earth; only when we die will we finally stop slip slidin’ away from lasting peace and contentment. The good news is that God is in control and wants us to be eternally happy with Him. As Simon goes on to sing later in the song,
“God only knows/God makes His plan/The information’s unavailable/To the mortal man/We work our jobs/Collect our pay/Believe we’re glidin’ down the highway/When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.”
We may feel successful because we are working a good job and making good money, but this success will not last forever. Luckily, God does not view success the same way the world does, and while we will often stumble on the path to true and lasting happiness, He will always be here to help us regain our footing.
Music can be a powerful transmitter of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, and Paul Simon has used it to this effect on countless occasions. While he struggles with religion himself and does not always intend for his songs to be as spiritually meaningful as they are, he once shared in an interview, “Quite often, people read or hear things in my songs that I think are more true than what I wrote. I feel I’m like a vessel, and it passed through me, and I’m glad.” God has been using Paul Simon as a vessel of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty over the years just like He wants to use each and every one of us; we need only have the humility to be receptive to Him.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.