I’ve been on a Paul Simon kick since learning last week that I was a year too early to write up the 30th anniversary of Graceland, so instead I’m going to write up the 35th anniversary of “Slip Slidin’ Away” three years late.
The decision made more sense in my head in the shower this morning.
“Slip Slidin’ Away” marked something of a turning point for Simon as a songwriter. Simon had written and recorded it for his 1975 masterpiece, Still Crazy After All These Years, but cut it from the final release. That was a good decision, too, since the song would have felt out of place on that album. Instead, he released it two years later (along with the mostly-forgotten “Stranded in a Limousine”) as one of two new tracks on the obligatory “Greatest Hits” collection. It went on to become a Top Ten hit and a staple of his concert performances, the one above for the BBC in 2007.
Simon had always been the songwriting master of sad, simple stories, but in “Slip Slidin’ Away” he tells three of them in stripped-down vignette form. As a dad, the third vignette hits the hardest:
And I know a father
Who had a son
He longed to tell him all the reasons
For the things he’d done
He came a long way
Just to explain
He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping
Then he turned around and headed home again
Why had the man left? Or had he never been around? Why did he turn away — did he chicken out, did he decide his boy was better off without him? We don’t know. All we see is that one moment.
By not saying, Simon hints at the more elliptical storytelling style he would adopt for the second half of his solo career. His first album-length attempt at it, 1983’s Hearts and Bones, was such a commercial failure that it nearly killed his career. It’s a good album however, and has long been a part of my collection. Three years later, Simon’s second attempt at the form was Graceland — one of the great albums of American popular music.
Most artists give us a couple throwaway tracks to fulfill their “Greatest Hits” obligation to the record label, but Simon gave us one of the saddest songs ever written and a preview of his even greater hits to come.