Paul Simon’s One-Trick Pony is a morose little art film about a minor Sixties pop star, Jonah Levin, who blows his only chance for a comeback by refusing to let a hack producer (played knowingly by Lou Reed) “commercialize” him. Jonah’s fading career is based on a fluke antiwar hit, “Soft Parachutes,” that’s similar in tone to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” Indeed, the character of Jonah is clearly Simon’s image of himself as he might have ended up had “The Sound of Silence” been his lone hit (the movie’s title is a sardonic euphemism for a one-hit wonder). This moody, downbeat film is part road movie and part tribute to the Woody Allen school of Manhattan angst. Yet at its center is a question that Allen wouldn’t dream of asking: Is the pop life just for kids? After Jonah’s estranged wife contemptuously suggests that he’s too old at thirty-four to want to be Elvis Presley, the singer meekly defends his commitment to music by retorting, “It’s what I do.”
One-Trick Pony‘s soundtrack album explains exactly what Jonah Levin-Paul Simon does, and its ten songs carefully weigh the pros and cons of taking rock & roll seriously when one’s well on the way to middle age. But Simon offers no definite conclusions. At the end of the film, Jonah gives up music to become a full-time provider for his family, and we sense he’s giving up the only work that will ever mean anything to him. Throughout the movie, Simon keeps the emotional lid screwed on tight. His anger at the artist-hating boobs and barracudas who run the radio stations and record companies is carefully muted. Instead of expressing bitterness at realizing that he’ll never be another Elvis, Simon accepts his disappointment with sorrow and resignation.
The soundtrack’s two major songs, “Ace in the Hole” and “Late in the Evening,” illustrate what Jonah is leaving behind by “growing up” — i.e., what he can’t bring himself to express when he states, “It’s what I do.” These guitar-based, uptempo numbers (that hark back to early Simon hits) both go for the essence of the pop mystique.
“Ace in the Hole” is a sly rock-gospel composition that combines the martial drumming of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” with the gospel exuberance of “Gone at Last.” Lyrically and musically, the song describes a journey toward salvation, with each verse suggesting a possible answer — Jesus, money, rationalism — before hitting the bull’s-eye with rock & roll. Along the way, Paul Simon and his hot band (including members of Stuff) present an abbreviated dictionary of soul, touching several distinct R&B grooves, each looser than the last. Trading lead vocals with keyboardist Richard Tee, Simon gradually “learns” soul, so that by the end of the tune, his hip argot has lost its self-consciousness. You can hear him find his salvation in rock.
In “Late in the Evening,” Simon compiles flashbacks of the moments that made him fall in love with pop music: remembering his mother listening to the radio, his harmonizing on a street corner, and getting high in a club and blowing away the audience. Like Federico Fellini in Amarcord, Paul Simon compresses time so that such moments become simultaneous, and we glimpse the child inside the man. The music that links these memories is joyous salsa, and “Late in the Evening” has the same surreal lilt as Simon’s beautiful folk-reggae hit, “Mother and Child Reunion.”
One-Trick Pony‘s title track, a live folk-funk production like “Ace in the Hole,” is almost as powerful. Here, Simon works the “one-trick pony” metaphor into a double image: the hapless performer toiling on tour and the spirit of rock & roll incarnate.
If the aforementioned compositions evoke Simon’s spiritual commitment to rock, the LP’s seven pop-slanted songs display a more mundane viewpoint. “Jonah,” “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns” and “Long, Long Day” are bittersweet “adult” numbers that flirt with a Middle European modality as they further refine the shimmering, angst-under-glass folk-pop of Still Crazy after All These Years. Such tunes wistfully describe the rigors of a musician’s life on the road — the loneliness, the physical exhaustion, the sense of futility and fear of obsolescence — all the reasons, in other words, for hanging up one’s guitar and getting a “real” job. Simon sings these ballads, which are weary to the point of effeteness, in a soft, whimpering croon.
“That’s Why God Made the Movies” and “Oh, Marion” are lighter exercises in the hip-jive style of Michael Franks. A traditional spiritual, “Nobody,” and the bluesy “God Bless the Absentee” boast spare folk-pop arrangements and sophisticated wordplay. Except for the bad grammar of “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns” (an otherwise exquisite mood piece), these seven compositions are models of contemporary songwriting craft: the pop-tune equivalents of New Yorker vignettes.
One-Trick Pony may be the subtlest Paul Simon album yet. but it’s not the easiest one to like. Its questions about music and the performing life aren’t nearly as accessible as the themes of love, family and imagination that dominated the artist’s earlier records — and you really do have to see the movie to appreciate the songs. Even the LP’s two masterpieces don’t reveal themselves readily, because Simon’s so busy analyzing his spiritual commitment to music that we sense this commitment only sporadically. And I think that’s the way he prefers it: it’d be out of character for Simon to lose control. Intellectually, he presents a very persuasive case for approaching the pop song with academic “seriousness.” On his own urbane terms, only Stephen Sondheim and Randy Newman can outwit him.
Emotionally, however, Simon is always equivocating, substituting pathos for anger, whimsy for humor, tenderness for passion, analysis for revelation. He’s too polite — or maybe too scared — to admit demons or angels into his art. This is where he and Woody Allen part company as filmmakers, since Allen faces his demons head-on (as do such musical peers as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young). But Simon isn’t willing to risk any emotion other than an ultracivilized, all-knowing nostalgia. One-Trick Pony looks back in sadness and wonders what it all was worth. Simply by raising the question of whether the rock & roll life is just for kids, Paul Simon admits that he’s already on the outside looking in.