Friday Song: Paul Simon, STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS (1975)
If ever there were a song which showed how far songwriting travelled in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is Paul Simon’s extraordinary, enigmatic ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’.
In its story, its melody, the atmosphere it evokes, its general air of mysterious confession, it is in my view one of the best songs of its type ever written.
With most first-person songs, you know where you are. The singer/narrator feels this, thinks that, and tells you how he or she got there. With this song, the very opposite is true: its whole point is ambiguity of feeling and fact.
The lyrics start with what seems like a bit of conventional nostalgia.
‘I met my old lover on the street last night
She seemed so glad to see me, I just smiled.
And we talked about some old times
And we drank ourselves some beers
Still crazy after all these years.’
Then the narrator makes a small, marking-time confession about himself.
‘I’m not the kind of man who tends to socialize
I seem to lean on old familiar ways
And I ain’t no fool for love songs
That whisper in my ears
Still crazy after all these years.’
In the middle eight, marked by a startling melodic break, we leave the story altogether.
‘Four in the morning
Crapped out, yawning,
Longing my life away.
I’ll never worry. Why should I?
It’s all gonna fade…’
Then back into the story. But now any trace of the innocent nostalgia has gone. There’s a hint of trouble ahead.
‘Now I sit by my window and I watch the cars
I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day.
But I would not be convicted
By a jury of my peers
Still crazy after all these years…’
There are websites and chatrooms devoted to what this song actually means. For some it’s a reflection on middle age; others say it’s about the dying of the Sixties. Or depression. Or suicide.
The truth is, like a few great songs, its lyrics change their meaning over time. I find it impossible to hear that last verse without picking up a scary, psychotic vibe, but that’s probably because we live in an age when hardly a week go by without someone crazy, usually in America, doing some damage one fine day.
Paul Simon likes to talk about the meaning of his songs – sometimes a little too much – and has said that the phrase occurred to me while showering and in a gloomy mood at the end of his marriage. In Robert Hilburn’s Paul Simon, he explains,
‘It was just a comment on my condition. Why is my life sop depressing?’
That phrase which occurred to him, ‘still crazy after all these years’, became a song, with a guitar-based melodic line. In a fascinating 1974 interview on the Dick Cavett Show (slightly marred by Cavett’s laboured jokiness), Paul Simon spoke about the song, which was half-written at the time. After playing the first two verses, he said,
‘Lyrically, I really don’t know what I have to say.’
He then explores the different options he has for a middle eight – none of which he finally chose.
‘I imagine the same principle is true in comedy. You establish some kind of comedic pattern, and you do it twice… and by the third time you have to change. You can’t repeat something three times … The third time you have to alter it in order for it to be fresh.’
At the time of the Cavett interview,b ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ was still a guitar song and was in the key of D. Later, when he got together with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, he decided that it would sound better on piano. He changed the key to G, and added a wailing sax solo after bridge. It became a big production number..
Personally, I wish it hadn’t. For me, this is a plaintive, private song which sounds better on a guitar. And I also prefer the D, then E, chord sequence.
Musically, it is mind-bogglingly clever: the conversational verses, the counter-intuitive change of key after the second verse with the striking Emaj7 chord opening it, the brilliantly effortless move from D to E in the final verse through the simple expedient of replacing F#minor with F#. I can’t think of a song where the tune and the story fit together more perfectly.
At some point, an easygoing reminiscence becomes something more introspective and troublesome – and yet it all fits together perfectly. It’s a wonderful, strange song.
Another mildly contentious view: I think this was Simon at his best. In the early 1970s, he was writing what Rolling Stone magazine sneeringly described as ‘epics of despair’. After that, perhaps as he became happier in his life, his sound got bigger, his words got wordier. Often, as on the Graceland album, the music was great but there was always a sense of of show in the songs, of self-consciousness. For a few years in the early 1970s, the music and words were shaped by feeling.
In interviews, Paul Simon occasionally seems to apologise for ‘Still Crazy’.
‘The song is a bit darker than people think, because the chorus and the phrase are so suggestive of a long time passing, it has a touch Auld Lang Syne. I don’ think people pay attention to the lyrics of the song, which makes me feel I wrote the wrong lyric to it.’
He didn’t . This is the perfect example of a song that slipped the leash while being written. When interviewed by Dick Cavett, he didn’t know what he had to say but, by the time it was finished, the story had taken over. As Philip Pullman once said,
‘No matter how foolish it seems, the story knows best.’
The final piano/sax version of ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ is best performed here, and I rather like James Taylor’s take on it. There’s a wild Ray Charles version for the 1993 Newport Jazz Festival. But the original guitar version was only, as far as I can see, played once by Paul Simon and then on a chat show. It’s incomplete, but great.