Trouble Songs, Paul Simon
With Brexit once again throwing the question of the irish border into stark relief, Stuart Baillie’s terrific Trouble Songs arrives with a dubious currency, its themes more potent than at any period in the past two decades. Deftly negotiating religious and political battle lines, the ex-NME staffer and broadcaster unravels the story of music’s connection with 30 years of turmoil in Northern ireland. Starting with the American Civil Rights anthems adapted for use during the Derry marches of 1968, moving through punk, pop, indie, folk and Orbital’s haunting “Belfast” (inspired by an “electrifying” visit to the city in 1992), the tone is human, humorous and educational. We learn that Loyalist paramilitary Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair was once the bass player in far-right punks Offensive Weapon, and that there exists a song called “No More Sectarian Shit” by a band called Pink turds in Space.
the book’s recurring riff concerns the validity and efficacy of writing directly about the conflict. Opposing views are personified by Stiff Little Fingers – middle-class boys happy to reflect (or even exploit) local tensions in their music – and the Undertones, workingclass Catholics from Derry who seek only escapism. into the vast grey area separating their approaches stumble clued-up natives and well-meaning outsiders. the Clash make a symbolic and shambolic visit to Belfast in October 1977, posing for photos with tooled-up squaddies, though they don’t actually play a note. the tragedy of the Miami Showband, murdered on the roadside by Loyalist paramilitaries in 1975, illustrates just how high the stakes became.
Christy Moore is refreshingly honest about his journey from amiable “Paddywhackery” to radical Republicanism to the more measured stance he takes today. Bono is more opaque, though he does admit that “i’m not sure [‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’] is a very good lyric if i’m still having to explain it”. Trouble Songs climaxes in May 1998, with Bono uniting opposing politicians John hume and David trimble at a concert on the eve of the referendum to ratify the Good Friday Agreement. U2 and Ash headline. One of the songs they discuss performing is Rolf harris’s “two Little Boys”. As i said, educational. Paul Simon: The Life, by the Los Angeles Times’ long-serving music critic Robert hilburn, is crafted in the image of its subject: low-key, measured, a little guarded. it was written with direct access to Simon, which proves a mixed blessing. Simon’s line-by-line critiques of some of his greatest songs are fascinating, and he permits a little light to fall on his private motivations, yet the through line is undeniably partisan. the ferocity of his scrap with the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement over Graceland is downplayed by hilburn, while Art Garfunkel – notable by his absence in the list of interviewees – is portrayed throughout as selfish, insecure, unreliable and painfully pedantic. he writes his partner pleading letters referencing decades-old hurts; Simon responds with superior coolness, occasionally throwing some crumbs. Now beyond reconciliation, the final break in their relationship comes when Garfunkel is less than candid about the extent of his vocal problems when the pair tour in 2010. “he let us all down,” says Simon. “i was tired of all the drama. i didn’t feel i could trust him any more.”
hilburn takes Simon’s part a little too readily, but he’s capable of objectivity where warranted. Noting the propensity for his subject to appear aloof, he includes a memorable description of Simon by the late Walter Yetnikoff, former head of CBS Records, as “a little Lord Byron… stretched out on a couch, smoking a joint, pontificating about the nature of poetics”. Likewise, the catastrophe of
The Capeman, Simon’s 1997 Broadway show about a notorious teenage PuertoRican murderer, is covered in all its gory horror. Described in the NYT as “a sad, benumbed spectacle”, it closes after only 68 shows. Simon admits its failure lay in his high-handed dismissal of the rules of Broadway: “i wasn’t paying attention to what the neighbourhood politics were.”
hilburn’s access bears little fruit in relation to Simon’s private life, though he does reveal a later-life fascination with the hallucinogenic ayahuasca, which for a spell helps lighten his mood and massage the muse. he quits the drug in 2000 after a series of “frightening” episodes. “i started taking it more frequently to help my songwriting, and it eventually turned against me,” he says. “i had this voice inside me that said, ‘You’re a liar, you’re a fake.’” Seeking professional help, he is advised to imagine that the negative voices sound like Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck.
Ultimately Simon emerges much as imagined. A boy in a bubble, precious and self-contained, not readily disposed to happiness, and liable to ruffle feathers. he also appears as a loyal, generous friend, a man of conviction, and a songwriter of true genius who, in the words of Wynton Marsalis, has strived always to “serve the right master”. Even poor Artie, you imagine, couldn’t argue with that.
The Clash visit Belfast... but don’t actually play a note
Posing but not playing: The Clash visit Belfast in 1977