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What Do You Do When You’e Not a Kid Anymore And You Still Want to Rock and Roll

Not quite an old dog, the singer and songwriter tries something new with his first rock movie “One-Trick Pony”

Paul Simon

Paul Simon plays guitar during a 1980 recording session on the set of the film "One Trick Pony" in New York City, New York.

George Rose/Getty

There’s nothing chic about the block of West Fifty-fourth Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Studio 54 used to be there, but it’s been shuttered, and the block’s film-cutting rooms, rehearsal studios and the like are on high floors of faceless buildings. Out in the street, there’s only traffic and loose trash blowing around. But on one night last August, there was light and bustle till all hours as Paul Simon completed the last details of his first feature movie, One-Trick Pony. A couple of floors below him, Phil Ramone was finishing synching the soundtrack.

Perched on a stool before a Moviola, a beer in one hand, Paul Simon looked like a refugee from a Woody Allen film, improbably younger than his thirty-nine years and not a little bleak. He is clearly concerned about the fate of One-Trick Pony — which he wrote, scored and stars in, and which his business manager produced — but he is definitely collected. Awkwardness and vulnerability belong to his public persona, not his private one.

The movie was brought in several weeks later, at about $1 million over budget (which was in the $6 million to $7 million range), but still close enough to the mark that Simon retained control of the final cut, a privilege few filmmakers are ever granted.

Additionally, “Late in the Evening,” the first single from his new album and, not coincidentally, the song that plays over the movie’s title sequence, jumped onto a record number of Top Forty radio stations in its first week. Despite the five years that have elapsed since Still Crazy after All These Years, he has obviously lost none of his hitmaking touch.

Still, One-Trick Pony, the movie, is a chancy proposition. It is a rock-oriented film in a season when such projects are generally on the wane. More important, the story of a one-hit journeyman rocker named Jonah Levin, his broken marriage and traveling band (Stuff — Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Tony Levin and Steve Gadd) is a low-key and dispassionate look at the least glamorous aspects of rock: the seamy center of a career when it’s been a long time since your last hit and the trends have started to pass you by.

In this way, the immediate success of “Late in the Evening” is ironic. Jonah Levin never had it so good (which is one thing that’s presented a problem for many who’ve seen the picture). But Simon wanted Jonah Levin to be typical in a way that his creator never was.

“Not since I was a kid have I played in a band,” he says a few days later, over coffee in Rockefeller Center. “It’s odd to have been in rock & roll all this time and never really been part of a band. I was part of a duo — a vocal duo — and I played with studio musicians. So I was never part of that life in that way, and that is an essential part of rock & roll. I only know it by being with people who are in it. But I never lived it.”

But One-Trick Pony doesn’t really try to capture Levin’s life on the road, even though the sequences with the band (onstage and off) are among the movie’s best. What it’s really about is what Paul Simon’s life (or the life of someone like him) might have been like had “The Sound of Silence” been a one-shot hit, rather than the beginning of a successful career. Because Levin’s personality is so closely patterned after Simon’s, it’s tempting to think that One-Trick Pony is autobiography. It isn’t, but it is revealing of its creator’s personality.

That night in the mixing room. Phil Ramone was working on the film’s original ending, which differed drastically from what Simon wound up with. In that first version, Levin apparently reconciles with his wife. Quoting some memorably corny lines from the monologue in “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” the old Presley hit, he tells her that the band has broken up. But that scene immediately jumps to Jonah and the band onstage, playing “Ace in the Hole.” Sneak-preview audiences in Denver and New Haven apparently found this ambiguity thoroughly confusing, but a little reflection spells out the message easily enough: Jonah Levin will never quit. What happens in the release print is more certain — and less satisfying.

That desire to have it both ways ties into something Simon said to Ramone that night during a discussion of Billy Joel’s Glass Houses. “Well,” Paul said in that dry, deadpan tone, “I’ve tried to scream. But, you know…it’s just not in my body to do it.”

Back at Rockefeller Center, Simon amplifies this. He has been speaking of his musical roots, and why he approaches his music so eclectically, when out of the blue he flashes back to the very beginning. “One of the earliest thoughts I had concerning music — I was about fourteen, and I loved Elvis Presley. And I said to myself, ‘I can never, never be Elvis Presley. I’ll never be as good as Elvis Presley. So I’m never gonna do what Elvis Presley does. I’m gonna go and find somethin’ else to do.’ And always, what I’ve worked with is trying to step back and look at the limitations of…my brain, my voice, my size, my guitar playing. And given those limitations — which I can try and push, but given what they are — I try to express myself.”

It’s hard not to be stunned by this. Is Paul Simon the only person who learned from Elvis Presley the opposite of the common lesson: that life was about extravagance, that there were no limitations? And yet, the odd shape of Simon’s version of Every Rocker’s Elvis Obsession seems to be the key to One-Trick Pony. Certainly, it explains the character of Jonah Levin better than anything in the film.

The film makes three references to Elvis. Once, Marion (Blair Brown), Jonah’s soon-to-be ex-wife, reminds him in the course of an argument that though he’s wanted to be Elvis Presley since he was fourteen, it’s time to grow up. Later, while the band is traveling in their van, they play a game called Rock & Roll Deaths, the object of which is to name as many dead rock stars as possible. The game ends when Jonah names Elvis, then adds wistfully, “Yup. He’s dead all right.” And finally, there is that anomalous final scene in which a tearful Jonah recites to Marion what were surely the most hokey lines of Presley’s memorably maudlin career: “Honey, you lied when you said you loved me. But I’d rather go on hearing your lies than to go on living without you.” Those scenes are clearly meant to suggest Jonah Levin as some sort of Elvis analogue — but one buried under so many levels of qualification and restraint (he’s East Coast, Jewish and intellectual) that the source is no longer discernible.

To say that One-Trick Pony is a movie without much emotional heat is to speak in the idiom of the film itself; understatement. Sparks fly from time to time, but the characters are too damn polite to ignite them. So, the conflicts that surface — between Jonah’s rock & roll dream and his wife’s insistence that he give up or grow up; between Levin as a working musician and having to deal with his band as an employer; between Jonah as someone driven to make music and the kind of people who market that music; between the concept of artistry and the concept of work in general — are continually kept in check. They are vital questions, but they aren’t treated that way.

This makes One-Trick Pony an interesting rock movie, since it is the only one (give or take Godard’s One Plus One) that eschews flamboyance altogether. And it’s nothing if not revealing of Paul Simon’s personality. Remember the night he was guest host on Saturday Night Live, and he came out for the opening bit wearing a turkey suit? The joke was that though Simon might make any number of rational arguments about why a turkey costume was inappropriate, he would not simply rip it off and stomp away.

One-Trick Pony is a movie filled with people who would rather wear the turkey suit than make too much fuss. The picture has some very humorous and moving scenes–the live footage of “Ace in the Hole”; the flashbacks of “Late in the Evening” (which escapes embarrassment due to the sassy Latin brass, which knocks nostalgia into a cocked hat); the ludicrous scenes of Lou Reed, as a hack record producer, screwing up Jonah’s music with wrongheaded overdubs; and of industry hotshots trying to explain the intangibles that make hits. Throughout, it’s as though a radio is playing songs in Jonah’s head, music that he can’t play or maybe just doesn’t want to, because it’s too private or doesn’t fit with the joints he’s stuck in. Partly, this explains the muted, languid music that makes up the bulk of One-Trick Pony‘s score, which is divided between songs Levin performs (“One-Trick Pony,” “Ace in the Hole”) and those that describe his thoughts and feelings (“Late in the Evening,” “That’s Why God Made the Movies”). The twain don’t meet.

Several critics, however, have suggested another reason why so much of Simon’s music is this way: his real masters are not rock & roll and rhythm & blues greats but the Tin Pan Alley songwriters. Simon strenuously disagrees. “Pre-rock & roll pop music is the element that has had the least effect on me. There’s none of the Tin Pan Alley people that I emulate. My music is recording-studio music.

“What I feel is, you take basic rock & roll as your primary vocabulary,” he says. “Now, when I say basic rock & roll, I don’t mean heavy metal, I mean the Fifties —doo-wop, Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Drifters — that kind of urban R&B and rockabilly.

“Now, from there I expand to other textures and rhythms. I expand the harmonic concept, and in that sense I’m influenced a lot by the Brazilians. Jobim is a big influence on me. Also, Fifties West Coast-jazz guys like [Paul] Desmond, Miles Davis, [Dave] Brubeck — that harmonic way of approaching things, and also the use of different time signatures.

“So, I’ll take the basic rock thing and expand it into different areas musically, and then I’ll contract it back to the rock thing. Always coming back to the basics — to either gospel or rock — but goin’ away so it doesn’t sound like everything. It puts that earlier vocabulary in a different musical perspective.

“Lyrically, what I do is in a sense parallel to the music. I try to combine ordinary speech patterns — a vernacular way of speaking, slang, clichés — with poetic imagery. Lines that you wouldn’t say in ordinary speech: ‘Boy’s got a heart, but it beats on his opposite side.’ ‘The stars were white as bones.’ I try to balance that between striking visual images and ordinary speech. And ordinary speech can be used with the extended harmonic thing to create a sense of irony or contrast, while I can use a strong visual or poetic image with a basic rock & roll thing to undercut. Or I can go the other way: simple speech patterns and simple musical things. I mean, I have all those elements to play with, to see just what I want to create. If I want to say two things at once, I’ll go against styles, I’ll make ’em rub. I’ll put background voices that sound like Jack Scott or the Crickets, and I’ll use a line that doesn’t sound like them.”

It’s unlikely that there’s another songwriter of the post-Presley generation who could, or would, articulate so completely his working methodology. To some, this may smack of calculation, but it’s really just a product of Simon’s analytical bent. He is, after all, a man who went back to study music theory after he’d already become an established success. “I had to do that to get out of writing three- and four-chord music. I really feel that one of the most important elements of popular music is melody, and it’s very hard to write melodies if you have to stay within the blues changes. Even ‘Late in the Evening,’ which is written on blues changes, is really not a melodic song, it’s a rhythmic song.”

Melody has not exactly gone out of vogue since Still Crazy after All These Years — there are Billy Joel and Michael McDonald and a new generation of black vocal groups to make sure of that — but all of the important trends (funk, disco, punk and New Wave avant-gardism) place the emphasis elsewhere. Most of this music rejects complexity in favor of a simplicity that can strike the uninitiated or unconverted as simply crude. More than most pop musicians, Simon is insulated from trends (the only time he was really trendy was in the early days of folk-rock). Nonetheless, much of his reaction to the critical response to his new album reflects an awareness of trends.

“It seems like there’s great resentment whenever you try to take something simple and make it complex,” he says. “It’s almost as if this vision of simple is that it’s naive, innocent. You know, the noble savage. And that’s what they admire in rock & roll. But as an artist matures, you can’t be an innocent anymore. You can’t be. You would be like Peter Sellers in Being There. You must learn something, and you must try to incorporate that into the world. So, naturally, the way you see things becomes more complex. And in order to express something that’s more complex, you need more tools to express it. So what’s this insistence on ‘It’s not good old rock & roll,’ as if because it’s not good old rock & roll, it can’t be good? It’s strange, isn’t it?”

What Simon is saying may apply equally to Jonah’s predicament in One-Trick Pony. “Jonah Levin doesn’t have the luxury that I have of sitting back and thinking about strengths and weaknesses,” Simon admits. “He’s out there hustling a buck. And I’m not.”

Indeed, that’s another factor that drastically distances Simon from the character he’s created. Jonah Levin is caught up in rock & roll as a job, in a situation where it’s an effort to find paying work and an agony to deal with callous record companies and a producer working to subvert him. For Jonah, just making a friend is a luxury.

That’s not Paul Simon’s problem. “I wanted to do something other than just record an album. I felt my choices were either to write a Broadway show or a movie. I chose the movie because I thought it would be closer to the process of recording. You get a take, and that’s your take. I don’t have to go in every night and see whether the cast is performing. Also, I could still record and use the movie as a score. But if I’d written a show, I couldn’t have recorded my own stuff — other people would have had to sing it.”

Obviously, he doesn’t need the money. Simon has had a consistent string of artistic and commercial successes since “The Sound of Silence” in 1965; composing “Bridge over Troubled Waters” alone earned enough to make him financially comfortable. Then there’s the new record contract he signed in early 1978 with Warner Bros. That deal meant leaving CBS, where he’d been for fifteen years, and it started a major music-industry feud (some traces of which turn up in Rip Torn’s characterization of One-Trick Pony‘s record-company president, Walter Fox, who’s treated as a pondering schlemiel). But the Warners contract also guarantees Simon substantial wealth: for his next three albums, he will reportedly make somewhere between $10 million and $15 million, with complete artistic freedom.

So unlike most rockers gone to the movies (Peter Frampton or Meat Loaf, for example). Simon isn’t looking for a way to extend his career once his moment passes. Rather, he seems to have made One-Trick Pony for other reasons: because he genuinely felt the need to expand his artistic horizons, and because in the circles in which he now travels (going out with actresses like Shelley Duvall and Carrie Fisher), film is a much more acceptable medium. Even if you’re not a one-hit wonder, to the showbiz elite, as long as you’re primarily a recording artist, you might as well be — you haven’t really made it until you’ve accomplished something in Hollywood.

But the virtue of One-Trick Pony is that it’s so completely unlike Hollywood glamour. Like Simon’s best music, it’s a work in miniature, constantly withdrawing into itself, commenting obliquely, without much sense of grand gesture. In either medium, such a guarded approach can seem smug, or even arrogant (who is this upstart to make a film that takes its audience’s interest so much for granted?). And there’s no denying that Simon strikes a lot of acquaintances this way.

Yet, like the screams that aren’t in him, reaching out for attention more boldly —behaving more obviously — is just not part of Paul Simon’s character. Maybe one reason One-Trick Pony is about a loser (an anomaly, since its creator and his music are both such obvious winners) is that losers aren’t obligated to be brash.

The amount of control Simon was able to exert over One-Trick Pony is extraordinary. Usually, those powers are reserved only for the biggest stars (i.e., Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand). Simon may be a big deal on the record charts, but his previous movie experience was confined to contributing songs to The Graduate and Shampoo, and a role in Annie Hall. But the production of One-Trick Pony revolved around Simon, as screenwriter and author of the score, because his business manager, Michael Tannen, served as executive producer and because Warner Brothers’ movie division financed the film only because of Simon’s involvement.

This presented a problem for most of the directors Simon approached — and he approached many before hitting on Robert M. Young. “They all wondered whether there was gonna be enough room for them to direct. I remember having a conversation with Alan Parker [Midnight Express, Fame]. He said, ‘What would I do here? You wrote it, you’re starring in it, and you wrote the music. I don’t want to be a yes man. What would my role be?’ A lot of people, I think, had that feeling. That wasn’t Young’s feeling, though. His ego didn’t get in the way. He saw room for him to function as a director and be of help to the movie and still feel that he was, you know, in charge.”

The biggest surprise, though, was Simon’s decision to star. Aside from Annie Hall, a 1978 TV special and some work on Saturday Night Live, he’s done no acting. Yet. Simon says, “I was the only one who had any doubts about whether I wanted to act. Warners really wasn’t that interested in the project unless I acted. But I didn’t know if I wanted to be so far out there, to be so vulnerable to criticism on a personal level. And I thought, well, if I write it and I write the music, that’s plenty. But if I go and star in it….”

The final decision was a product of the mechanics that make casting any rock picture difficult: Jonah Levin isn’t a stage singer, he’s a rock singer, and with the exception of Gary Busey, there are few, if any, actors who can also sing rock. “At one point, Richard Dreyfuss and I talked about it,” Simon recalls. “It couldn’t be done. It would have been insurmountable, because I had to give the soundtrack to Warner Bros., and there was no way I could have Richard Dreyfuss singing on it. There was no way Dreyfuss could be in the movie and open his mouth and have my voice come out. It would be funny.” In the end, Paul says, he felt he did a good job as an actor, and even enjoyed it.

So, it’s disconcerting to hear Simon’s response when it is suggested that One-Trick Pony should at least provide a firm foundation for his future movies. “That’s true, I guess. But I’m not all that sure I wanna do another movie.”

It’s hard to say whether that statement is more perverse or ironic. Maybe it’s neither; maybe One-Trick Pony was just a project, almost an experiment. For one thing, Paul Simon still regards himself primarily as a musician and songwriter; he resents accusations that his involvement in other aspects of the movie caused him to skimp on the score and the album. “I know how hard I worked on the music,” he tells me. “And I know what’s there in terms of melodies and rhythms and time changes.”

But there’s more to it than that. As it is for Jonah Levin, touring is a bugaboo for any performing musician approaching middle age. It’s all well enough to talk about the romance of the road, but there are those souls who’d also like to participate in their children’s growing up. If One-Trick Pony is a partial excuse — or explanation — for Simon’s absence from the concert stage in recent years, then the concept of creating musical projects that work on the screen has a built-in attraction. Theoretically, such work might replace touring. In practice, it doesn’t work out that way. Simon says he regrets how little time he’s been able to spend, since shooting began, with his son. Harper, who turned eight in early September. Harper, of course, lives with Simon’s ex-wife (just as Jonah Levin’s son, Matty, lives with his mother), which makes matters even more difficult.

As it happens, Simon is doing a concert tour anyway, to promote the film. It’s brief, just a six-week swing around the States. But because Paul is working with a thirteen-piece band and enough electronic tonnage to restage D-day, it involves a couple weeks of pretour rehearsals.

Simon describes the tour as “virtually sold out and way in the red. There’s no way I can even come close to breaking even.” Others estimate he might lose as much as $300,000 on the tour — only about one-tenth of his record advance, but still not exactly economic good sense.

So what’s the point? “Well, the point is… I haven’t been out there in a while. I haven’t made money on a tour in ten years, not since Simon and Garfunkel. I should go out there. I’d like to go out there. I’d like to take this band and have a record of it — you know, these guys, at this particular moment, ’cause I don’t know if we’ll all be together again. It’s the movie; it’s the album; it’s everything.”

Mostly, though, it’s the movie. One-Trick Pony isn’t a sure shot at the box office by any means. Warners was slow to schedule its opening, which is never a good sign. But it’s a film that deserves to be seen, and as the central creative figure, it’s up to Paul Simon to enhance every possibility. Thus, a tour and the film’s new, compromised ending.

Yet, one also knows that Simon wants to play again — maybe even that he needs to. A few days before we spoke at Rockefeller Center, Simon was running the band through the new set in a huge soundstage on Fifty-second Street. The scene was streamlined chaos: packing cases towering to the vast ceiling, Phil Ramone’s kids toying with Richard Tee’s keyboards between songs, secretaries keeping the phones lit up, various crew members testing out equipment.

In the midst of this madness, Simon was working on a medley of “Kodachrome,” with a modified reggae accent, and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” swinging and (of course) understated. Simon was toying with the words of the original greatest hit, sliding off the lines where Berry had punched them home, tinkering with the rhythms, loosening the song up, letting out some slack. Sprung on you like that, flowing so easily out of the nice bright colors of his own song, it was the best kind of surprise. Not necessarily good old rock & roll, you know, but good and rocking. Just your ordinary rhythm & blues, your basic rock & roll. And Paul Simon was up there with an easy grin on his face. As if to say, he’ll never quit. 

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