Wednesday, April 13, 2011

SIMON SAYS by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Agatha, Anthony and Macavity award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate. Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution. Along with her 26 EMMYs, Hank’s won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a radio reporter, a legislative aide in the United States Senate and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine working with Hunter S. Thompson.

Her first mystery, the best-selling PRIME TIME, won the Agatha for Best First Novel. It was also was a double RITA nominee for Best First Book and Best Romantic Suspense Novel, and a Reviewers' Choice Award Winner. FACE TIME and AIR TIME are IMBA bestsellers, and AIR TIME was nominated for the AGATHA and ANTHONY Award. (Of AIR TIME, Sue Grafton says: "This is first-class entertainment.")

Her newest, DRIVE TIME, earned a starred review from Library Journal saying it “puts Ryan in a league with Lisa Scottoline.” And Breaking News! DRIVE TIME was just nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Mystery of 2010.

Hank's short story won the AGATHA, ANTHONY and MACAVITY for Best Short Story of 2009.

Hank is on the board of New England Sisters in Crime and the national board of Mystery Writers of America.  Her website is

By Hank Phillippi Ryan

I’m a little starstruck.

Back in the um, sixties, when I was just learning about the world and about writing and about how we’re all connected, I of course fell in love. With Paul Simon. 

I don’t remember the first “record” (remember records?) I ever bought—it might have been Lets Twist Again.  (Which I should have realized was a precursor to being a mystery author—“the twist” being such a critical part of any such novel.  But I, as usual, digress. ).  And of course I remember the Beatles—those of us from a certain era can certainly bring back the memory of that first earful of the Beatles.

But I do remember the first song lyrics that really bowled me over. It was Sounds of Silence. I was a bookish kid, always reading and hyper-thoughtful and all that. And Sounds of Silence—wow.  “Hello, darkness, my old friend?” Yikes.  Paul Simon got me. And didn’t let go.  And the idea of lyrics as literature, lyrics as poetry, lyrics as just as gorgeous and complicated and compelling as any good novel—began to evolve in my head.

Remember Paul Simon’s American Tune?

 Many’s the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And “America”?

Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together

(I promise this has a point.)

Even though my career took a different path, I always wanted to be a mystery author. And when you think about it –being an investigative journalist—as I’ve been for the past thirty-plus years and being a mystery author are actually similar.

Because they’re all about tell the story. Right? With compelling characters, and important conflicts, and in the end, there’s change and if you’re lucky, justice. Whether its fact, or fiction, we try to tell the story. In the most efficient, most succinct way. In the sparest possible way. The most power in the fewest words.

And Paul Simon’s lyrics, always seemed to do that.

In The Obvious Child, on a man’s life journey:

Sonny sits by his window and thinks to himself
How it's strange that some rooms are like cages

Boy in the Bubble-where the universe and our place in it are put into perspective

The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky

So you can imagine my delight, as a fan of Paul Simon’s for so many years, to be invited to a very exclusive discussion-seminar he was giving in Lyrics as Literature.

The other panelist—the Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon.  

About two hundred people, at the most, were individually escorted into a smallish room at the JFK Library, and I must say, I was nervous.  Would I be able to ask him a question? What would I ask? Maybe about--The Boxer? Where does a story-song like that come from, and how is it crafted?

I am just a poor boy.
Though my story's seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises

But most important, what could I learn about lyrics as literature? I knew, I just knew, that Paul Simon would have something I could take away and use. (I know, it would be ironic here if it turned out that didn’t happen, and he was boring and pompous and selfish. But for once, irony does not win. He was brilliant and thoughtful and astonishing.)  Remember Kathy’s Song?

And as a song I was writing is left undone
I don't know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can't believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.

So out he comes, all kind of shabby-in-a-cute-way looking, and smiling, and with a fleece and a battered old hat, and I’m fumbling in my purse for my camera thinking—I’m going to do it, I don’t care I’m going to get a photo! And my husband is poking me with an elbow—shush, don’t take a picture.  So I held off, (briefly) and took notes instead.

Paul Simon first quoted Coleridge—that writing is “trying to put the best words in the best order.”

He talked about being in the zone—“As a writer, I’ve experienced that a few times. And that’s the beauty, isn’t it? When you’re starting from scratch, that’s the start of something interesting. If I knew what I was doing, what’s the point?”

How do you know if a song will be good? “You can’t know. It’s a mystery. That’s what’s so great about it. But you can access bliss. If you’re lucky, you can find it. That’s WHY you do it. Just to catch a glimpse of it.”

He was asked—is there anything you wish you could take back?  He thought about it, smiled, then said, “I’d prefer not to tell you. Anyone can be bad. So why should I be ashamed?”

Do you know when you’re good? He smiled, and admitted—“You start to recognize it.” He said when he wrote in Graceland  ‘And I see losing love Is like a window in your heart’:  “I had to sit down.”

And when he wrote ‘Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down,’  he said to himself, “Well,  that’s better than you usually do.”

I didn’t get to ask a question, but I didn’t care. He said he “…wasn’t sure he believed in the muse, but what the heck. Can’t hurt.”

And here’s the point of the whole thing:

 “If you believe in the Muse,” Paul Simon said, “the Muse may believe in you.”

And let me just say—I left the room, clutching my camera. Thinking about my new book. Believing. And humming:

Still crazy
Still crazy
Still crazy after all these years…

 So--what's your favorite Paul Simon song?    Do you think of lyrics as literature? 



Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hank - Welcome

This is a wonderful post, thank you! I just love it.

I adore Paul Simon, and I'm trying very hard not to hate you for getting to be so up close & personal with one of my musical (and now literary!) heroes.

I did see he and Art Garfunkel in Atlanta at Georgia Tech's Grant Field in 1983. It was during their reunion tour. I was over the moon & didn't even care that the show started waaaaay later than it was supposed to wonder where that Tshirt is . . . .

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, find the t-shirt, Kaye!

I've been humming The Obvious Child ALL DAY. Does anyone understand that song?

It's so interesting--I know what that song means, in the big picture.. But when I try to parse the specific words, it's more difficult. Funny.

HOw do you suppose he thinks of this stuff? What a genius. Do you all agree?

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Absolutely, good lyrics are good literature. You've got to piece together a string of words which is not only coherent and heavily layered with meaning(s), and which transfers easily to a reader - you've got to do so in a way that also falls well on the ear, and does not confound the singer's diction.

And yes, Simon does that well.

Molly Swoboda said...

Thanks Kaye & Hank for making good stories into great times. Getting to The Zone can be the writer's journey of a lifetime.

I never manage to catch the Express, but wouldn't trade those sleepless nights on the Local for anything.

Keeping it in perspective, I nominate my favorite Simon work: "The Dangling Conversation". ~m

Patty said...

"Sounds of Silence". It was the first "rock" song we were allowed to sing in church! That was back when Rock 'n Roll was still considered "evil", or is it still???

Shane Gericke said...

The Boxer is one of my favorite songs of all time, and one of the few I actually can sing all the words to. The other being Moon River, which I rarely brag about :-)

Another wonderful piece of writing by a terrific author: Hank. Thanks for sharing her with us today, Kaye.

Lesa said...

Of course good lyrics are literature! But, then, I've been a country music fan for over forty years. And, so many country songs are stories.

Thank you, Hank, for letting us hear a little of Paul Simon's words.

Warren Bull said...

Paul Simon's lyrics are poetry as far as I am concerned. and Art Garfunkle (sp?) sings like an angel. It's hard to choose a favorite song. but I love, "like a softly falling silent shroud of snow."

lil Gluckstern said...

What a lovely piece. I actually went to school with Paul and Art, and they would sing in the cafeteria. I had no idea what I was listening to. Due to this year's Honda commercial, I'm humming "The Only Living Boy in New York." I like a whole bunch of their songs. Some of Paul's stuff really evokes New York City for me-The Zoo-and I haven't been "home" for thirty five years

WS Gager said...

I listened to tunes as I drove today thinking about so many of the things that Hank so elequently described. My favorite story teller to music is Elton John -- Pinball Wizard, Rocket Man, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. His songs typically tell a story about a character and you can picture the people in only a few words. The wordsmithing in songs is amazing and envied by me.
W.S. Gager

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, Jonathan, exactly. Paul (I call him Paul :-) ) talked a lot about matching the words to the music, and making sure they connect and compliment each other. Even sound by sound--like not ending on an "eeee" sound.

SO interesting, huh? And then, in writing, you try to do the same thing, right? Have the sentence end--with the emphasis that works.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

"And we note our place with bookmarkers, and measure what we've lost.."

And I agree, Moly, it's wonderful. And how he talks of "verses out of rhythm, couples out of rhyme" WITHIN a song!

So many wonderful lines..

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Patty, I think "evil" rock and roll is over..even though I have to admit there are songs today I dont understand. Sigh.

And yes,Sounds of Silence was a bridge between generations, really..what other songs did you sing?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Shane! So lovely to see you here! Congratulations on your Thriller nomination! SO well-deserved. could sing a version of The Boxer at Thrillerfest? "I am just a writer, and my story's often told..."

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Lesa, so nice to see you. Yep, it's about the stories.

In fact, Paul Simon said that one on the best lyrics of all times for telling a story is "Wake up, little Susie."

He said--just from those four words, you can instantly imagine a relationship and a conflict.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Lil! Tell ALL!

(My husband worked with Art Garfunkel at the SEC, when Jonathan was in law school. Apprently Art spent his whole time drawing of money. Jonathan says--he drew perfect obsessive line-by-line copies of dollar bills.)

Oh, yes, At the Zoo! (And the elephants are kindly, but they're dumb...)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Wendy, you are SO right! Let's do a whole nother blog on Elton John. How about "Too Low for Zero?"

Diane said...

Thanks for such a wonderful post. It's something that I hadn't thought about in a long while but genuis words stay with you and today, The Sounds of Silence, will be with me. I too believe that lyrics are literature in creative minds - Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane - story postcards, comes to mind.

Earl Staggs said...

Who can forget Paul's greatest line of all:

"There must be fifty ways to write a novel."

Seriously, he is a musical poet for the ages.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Diana, yes, John and Paul..and George. I always wonder how their minds it the music that helps make the words the way they are?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Earl--ho ho. But seriously--He talked aboout that song. He wrote it as a way to teach one of his young children about rhyming.

And at the event, that song was on a list they'd prepared of other songs from other composers that they felt qualified as literature.

Others were Gershwin's "YOu Can't Take that Away from Me" and Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire."
Cole Porter's "Anyting Goes," and The Beatles "Eleanor Rigby."

watching the game said...

Lyrics as literature? You bet. Especially when a writer begins like this: "I hear the drizzle of the rain / like a memory it falls / soft and warm continuing / tapping on my roof and walls" and ends like this: "the only truth I know is you ..."
wow. words from elsewhere - either from a generous muse or from that mysterious region deep down in the human heart.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, watching, I love that song, to wonder about it. Is it just--imagination?

Vinny O'Neil reminded me of Call Me Al- "there were incidents and accidents, hints and allegations.." I mean, that's someone who loves words and the sound of words..right?

Annie C said...

What a wonderful post this is... I've always been amazed when Paul talks about how he creates: " writes the melodies first, then the lyrics..." My favorites of his are many, but there is something special about Old Friends... winter companions/ the old men/ Lost in their overcoats/ waiting for the sun.

I've many favorite singer-songwriters, but Paul Simon is way up there in my genius rankings... (3 way tie with Bob Dylan and John Prine). Have only seen Paul one time, onstage with Brian Wilson. Ah, that was memorable.

Thanks to Hank, my mind is now spinning around trying to decipher meanings in Obvious Child... hmmm..

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Okay, terrific Annie C--let me know what you come up with...

"The cross is in the ballpark" ?

"Some peolpe say the sky is just the sky but I say, why deny the obvious child" ??

Patty said...

Hank -- Catholic School, mostly hymns. Loved Christmas music (still do, actually) and some other seasonal hymns (Easter is another good season for different songs).

Not much of a church goer anymore but I do miss the music.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, Christmas music,Patty... Another great blog! Let's remind Kaye..

Deborah Crombie said...

And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies.

Kathy's Song, which my husband first sang to me years before I ever set foot in England. But I knew even then that I loved it (and him:-))

And no, my name isn't really Kathy, but you can't have everything.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, Deb, Kathy's Song is the tenderest, most beautiful...and how completely perfect for you!

Sigh. How romantic.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

What a fun discussion!

I've been reading with interest, and I agree, Hank - some GREAT material here for some additional blogs.

Anyone want to guess what music I've been listening to today?!!

Annie C said...

Not my original thought, but Paul Simon's own take on this... Found in a 1990 Time Mag interview, Paul said : "It got me thinking when that first popped out, 'The cross is in the ball park.' The first thing I thought of was Billy Graham, or the Pope, or evangelical gatherings. But I came to feel what that's really about is the cross that we bear. The burdens that we carry are doable, they're in the ball park."

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Now THAT is fascinating. The corss is in the ballpark...and that's what he actually said it means?

Whoa. That's so--I don't know. Several layers deep.

What do *you* think?

Patty said...

And, who should be interviewed tonight on NBC Nightly News but --- Paul Simon!!


Hope the link works.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, Patty, thank you! Watching now..did he talk about ME? :-)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

So wonderful to be here today! I hope our paths cross in person soon...keep in touch, okay?

"Your time has come to shine..all your dreams are on their way..."

Xoxo thanks everyone,, and thank you, Kaye!

Vicki Lane said...

The man's a genius. How lucky you were to be there. Hard to pick a favorite song -- Diamonds in the Soles of Her Shoes is one that jumps into my head just now. As you said -- it's not easy to explain but the big picture is there.

Eve Barbeau said...

I love your post Hank. Sometime ago I realized that I liked song lyrics better than some poetry I'd read and I began to copy lyrics into a journal and pair them with small drawings. I go back and re-read them.