Reader’s Choice: Song #27/250: Still Crazy After All These Years by Paul Simon

According to Simon, wearing the turkey outfit on SNL was all his idea. He was hoping it would soften his serious image.

“Still Crazy After All These Years” was the title track and the third single released from Paul Simon’s fourth solo album. It hit the airwaves in 1975 and went on to help Simon win a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, as well as for Album of the Year. It was at this particular edition of the Grammy Awards that Simon famously thanked Stevie Wonder for not having an album out that year (Wonder had won the previous two years in a row and would win the next year as well). Paul Simon also used the song to open the second show ever in the history of Saturday Night Live. A few years later, he hosted a second time (on US Thanksgiving Day) and reprised the song while dressed in a turkey costume, stopping halfway through to mockingly complain to producer Lorne Michaels that his “serious image” was taking a beating because of the turkey suit. In all, Paul Simon has released fifteen solo albums and has continued to win Grammy awards for many years. He is in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice because of his work as part of Simon and Garfunkel and because of his stellar solo career.

Paul Simon and Dick Cavett: the magician reveals his tricks

There is much to admire and like about Paul Simon, but the one aspect of his career that the majority of people point to as being the most important is his songwriting ability. The man knows how to tell a story. This brings us back to “Still Crazy After All These Years”. This song is a tune that has been studied by experts and held up in English Lit./Creative Writing classes as an excellent example of story structure, word usage and the cadence of storytelling. To further mythologize the writing aspect of “Still Crazy After All These Years”, a few months before it was finished, Paul Simon appeared on the Dick Cavett Show (which was a television interview-style show for those who may be unaware). During his segment with Cavett, Simon was asked about his songwriting process. Paul Simon then proceeded to use an unfinished song as an example of a work-in-progress. That song was “Still Crazy After All These Years”. In the interview, Simon broke down the musical, as well as the linguistic structure of this song and explained his creative thought processes. Many songwriters point to that interview as being a masterclass in how to write a song. So, let’s take a bit of a closer look at this terrific song. Here is the story of “Still Crazy After All These Years”.

To this day, Paul Simon has never stated what the song was supposed to be about. The only hint he has given was when he said that the idea for the song came to him in the shower, with the warm water flowing over him as he stood there contemplating the state of his life. At the time, Paul Simon was entering his thirties; he had recently divorced his first wife and was attempting to build a career for himself after leaving one of the most successful musical partnerships of all time. He had much to contemplate. Consequently, many who have analyzed “Still Crazy After All These Years” believe that when Paul Simon wrote about meeting “an old lover on the street last night. She seemed so glad to see me. I just smiled” to mean that while he enjoyed his old relationships (with his ex-wife and/or with Art Garfunkel), he was satisfied with his choice to move on without them. Only Paul Simon knows the truth of the matter. But, as someone who has experienced that transitory process of leaving your youthful twenties and entering the real adult phase of life in your thirties, there is a lot to reflect upon and evaluate when it comes to life choices. One can only hope that you can be at peace with the path you are on, moving forward. In the hands of a less talented songwriter, “Still Crazy After All These Years” would go on to answer the questions as to the emotional state of Paul Simon’s mind. But Paul Simon is not a “less talented” songwriter. He knows that life is complex, so he muddies the waters by introducing a lyrical concept known as “the middle eight”.

David Bowie’s “Changes” is one of the most famous songs to incorporate the songwriting device known as a middle eight verse.

Most Pop songs possess a song structure that goes “verse-chorus-verse-chorus” or else, “verse-verse-chorus, verse-verse-chorus”. It is a song structure that helps audiences know how to anticipate what almost any given song is going to sound and feel like. It is said that there is a formula used in the crafting of Pop songs. Part of that formula lies with its structure of verse-chorus or verse-verse-chorus. However, in many of the most memorable songs of all time, the songwriters have changed the flow of their song by introducing a verse known as “the middle eight”. In simple terms, a middle eight is an eight-bar verse that interrupts the flow of a song, taking it in an entirely different direction before returning the listener to the original song. It is almost like when a television show is paused for a public service announcement or a commercial. There have been many examples of this technique being used. For instance, in the David Bowie hit song, “Changes”, we have the sudden change in pacing with the introduction of the lines, “Strange fascination, fascinating me”. “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles has the middle eight verse that begins, “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend”. “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, with all of its wonderful harmonies about good vibrations and excitations, changes dramatically after the second chorus. In most cases, a middle eight verse is inserted after the second chorus or verse. By this point in the song, the listener has begun to form an opinion or idea of what the message of the song is all about. But the addition of a middle eight verse is intentional by the songwriter and is meant to draw attention to a particular aspect of the song’s message. When it happens, this process usually causes the song to take on a deeper, more complex meaning.

In “Still Crazy After All These Years”, the first two verses of the song tend to lead one to believe that Paul Simon is telling a story about reflecting on his life choices to date and being OK with how things have turned out. Then, out of the blue, he changes the narrative by throwing in a middle eight verse about waking up at “Four in the morning, crapped out, yawning…longing my life away”. The middle eight verse ends with the introduction of beautiful saxophone work which fills up enough time within the framework of the song as to constitute another whole verse or two on its own. Simon comes out of the orchestral segment by declaring that he feels that he still has some good years ahead of him and that he will be judged accordingly as having chosen the correct path, “Now I sit by my window and I watch the cars, I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day. But I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers, still crazy after all these years”.

What adds to the debate about what this song is about has to do with an additional wrinkle that Paul Simon has incorporated into the structure of the song. A song has words. We have seen how he uses words in a different way by introducing a verse called the middle eight. But a song has a musical structure, too. I am no expert in song keys and chord changes, but I do know enough to know that composers use minor keys and major keys to help them create certain moods in the listener. Major keys are more upbeat while minor keys are more sombre. In “Still Crazy After All These Years”, Paul Simon not only makes very careful and considered language choices when telling his story, but he also plays around with chord structures all throughout the song so that a variety of emotional manipulations are at work beneath the story his words are attempting to tell. Is his message a determined one? Is he sad and contemplative? Is he resigned to his fate or making a strong declarative statement of belief in himself? His words say one thing while the emotional sea changes embedded within the chord variations suggest something else. As stated earlier in this post, Paul Simon has never actually stated what the true nature of this song is all about.

Is that an appropriate thing for a songwriter to do? After all, life is busy, our minds are often full to overflowing with thoughts we would rather not entertain. Is it too much to ask that the music we listen to be clear and easy to understand?! In some cases I believe that the answer is that music should be fun and easy to understand and enjoy. That’s why Pop music is the genre that it is. It is music that, by definition, is popular (which is where the “Pop” in Pop music comes from). There is a comfort in being able to predict how the melody of a song will play out so you can bop and groove while letting your mind shut down and your daily woes melt away. But I also believe that this shouldn’t be the way it is all of the time. When I used to be a teacher, there were always times within a school year that I would be attempting to introduce a new academic concept (particularly in Math) only to have the kids grow frustrated because it was new and different and was hard to understand in the beginning. Somewhere along the way someone was sure to cry out, “Why don’t you just tell us the answer!?” (instead of making them figure it out). The correct response to that question is always that to tell someone the answer each and every time would rob them of the opportunity to figure it out for themselves and would not help their mind to grow as a result. Not everyone appreciated hearing that. However, the easy way is not always the most beneficial to us in our development as human beings. Thus, when someone like Paul Simon comes along and creates a song that makes the listener think deeper thoughts than they may wish to, it isn’t the worst thing in the world. In fact, it may be a necessary tonic.

If you are a fan of Saturday Night Live, then you will have heard part of this song played during every episode throughout the whole forty-plus years the show has been on the air. The instrumental saxophone segment plays at some point in every show. The link between Paul Simon and the comedy of Saturday Night Live is strong and has obviously stood the test of time. It is not just a matter of producer Lorne Michaels’ personal musical taste, either. Both the song “Still Crazy After All These Years” and the comedy of Saturday Night Live are meant to offer food for thought, as it were. Many people underestimate comedy as a vehicle to expand our understanding of complex topics in the same way that Pop music can be misunderstood as a literary art form. Storytelling can appear in many guises. Perhaps that’s the real message of “Still Crazy After All These Years”? Only Paul Simon can really say for sure. And I am OK with that.

The link to the video for the song “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Paul Simon can be found here.

The link to the video of Paul Simon appearing on The Dick Cavett Show can be found here.

The link to the official website for Paul Simon can be found here.

The link to the official website for Saturday Night Live can be found here.

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