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Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Paul Simon - Like Water on Stone

Paul Simon - Like Water on Stone

(Also published on


Small Town Railway Stations, City Streetlamps, and synchronicity before the internet age.

The recent news that Paul Simon’s April tour will be his last made me stop in my tracks for quite a while — certainly for longer than I would have imagined, thirty or forty years ago. It was an unexpectedly poignant moment; unexpected, and yet not unexpected, really, because despite my best efforts his music found its way into my life and became significant to me. Other musical tastes have waxed and waned. His music has remained.

From the late sixties onwards it was there, and not there. Never sought out, never physically owned in album, cassette, or CD form, but Heard, rather, as a gentle background presence in cafes and from jukeboxes and on buses and in bars. Often accompanied by the smell of snow on a duffel coat brushing past you in a bookshop doorway — a stranger you’ll never meet, books you’ll never share. Fresh coffee or bread or sweet tobacco on a dusty city street during a lull in the afternoon. A sandwich wrapper, and a magazine, abandoned in a park. Other people’s lives, other people’s choices, other people’s music. Songs drifting from upstairs windows on chilly autumn afternoons, floating through darkening small town streets like a mist, and the mist condensing into a stream and trickling quietly on through stones and boulders, inexorably wearing away at a pebbly resistance to liking his work.

And yet who could not like it? Some of it, at any rate. I can’t say I like it all, certainly I don’t. I don’t, for example, like Graceland, despite it being his best-selling album, apparently. It’s the earlier stuff that resonates. When I really think about it I can say for sure that from his entire back catalogue, half a dozen songs are so outstanding and emotionally true and evocative of certain times and places that they have become part of the literal soundtrack of my life. The alternative soundtrack of my life, that is — because they had to battle against a deep teenage fear of liking the naff, or rather, of being seen to like the so-called ‘naff’, rather than ‘acceptable’ bands such as Led Zeppelin and late 60s-era Rolling Stones, and a pathetically immature and cowardly fear of being identified as a ‘nerdy’ type. The fact that they aced this battle with shame testifies to the strength and quality of these few songs. They are absolutely outstanding, lasting pieces of work.

Had the word ‘nerd’ been in use in my neck of the woods when I first heard Paul Simon I’m ashamed to say it’s certainly how I might have described him, and his fans, ‘back in the day’. Simon and Garfunkel weren’t proper folk and they certainly weren’t rock or even the type of decent mainstream pop you might enjoy blaring from your portable transistor radio in its dinky leather case with the neatly-cut holes for the speakers, the volume control and the tuner. Their songs were learned by earnest teenagers and twanged on plastic-stringed guitars when they were doing music as a hobby round at the English teacher’s house on the evenings when they weren’t doing Maths homework or attending Scripture Union. Or so it seemed to me at the time. Looking back from where I am now — and I think I knew it too, deep down, back in the day — I can see that there was nothing wrong with that and that these people were good and decent and most likely made a deserved success of their lives through application and earnest effort. Secure, thriving lives. Not like me, a nasty wastrel, with a faux decent taste in music.

All this occurred of course before you could find a song online in seconds; when it meant something to hear a random melody, a brief snapshot of another country, other lives, other, potential versions of you. A kingfisher flash of colour, a brief parting of the clouds on a drab day. What was that song again? Where did I hear it? Where can I find it? You had to wait, to find it. You found it by looking through record shops, asking friends, or listening out for it on the radio. If it wasn’t in the charts, sometimes, it would take weeks.

I remember crowding with other girls into the gym doorway to watch our usually stern and terrifying P.E. teacher dancing alone and beautifully, or so it seemed to us, to Bridge over Troubled Water. It was Number One at the time, and a monster hit that was soon to become tiresomely ubiquitous. Its ethereal quality allowed it to transcend the rule that you did not get to play pop music in school. Ever. We were silent, astonished, dazzled. She became transformed for those few minutes, she became the silver girl, sailing on by, and I never forgot it.

Bridge Over Troubled Water, the entire album played on a loop through loudspeakers on a coach travelling across Europe during a school trip to Austria because it was the only cassette anyone had. An earnest fourth year played along on her acoustic guitar, and joined in with the harmonies. I wanted to hate it, and her, but I couldn’t.

Same album four years later, played on a loop in a Scottish Highland hotel bar, regularly frequented. Still I couldn’t hate it. Water on stone. It had won me over.

My Little Town. Who, having grown up in a small town, anywhere in the world, cannot relate to that song, those lyrics, that yearning for freedom from stifling small town life? Or was it just Scotland in the 70s? Are lives different now — do people still save their money, dreaming of glory, twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun, or has the internet made everything different? I don’t know.

I Am a Rock. Starlight on snow, seen from a bedroom window. I have my books, and my poetry to protect me. A Winter’s day, in a deep and dark December. Every December those words come back to me and I honour the song and the hurting spirit of my book-and poetry-loving teenaged self.

The Only Living Boy in New York. I listened to that song endlessly in my car as I drove the twenty miles home from an exhausting job. Here I am…

Homeward Bound. Brown leaves blown along a grey city pavement. I turn my collar to the cold and damp. Winter dusk. A New York City I’ve never known, never will know. Cafes, basements. Rain, slanting rain beneath an Edinburgh streetlight. A striped muffler, double-wrapped, beads of rain on a woollen coat, huddled into. A deserted railway station on a winter’s night, a feeling of home that I can never now reach, a home long gone. Waiting, going somewhere, going nowhere.

America. Cathy I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. My life, right there, although I’m three thousand miles and an ocean away, passing through Fife on the way to doesn’t-matter-where. And the Moon rose over an open field…

American hitch-hikers from another galaxy, another possible, impossible world, heading up the old A9, heading North, saying howdy to me and my ten year old friend, small-town kids on our bikes on an August afternoon, because they heard us say, shy and giggling, they’re Americans, I wonder if they’ll say ‘howdy’. Reaching, reaching, to a world beyond glass. Dreams.

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