One of the easiest ways to write a song is to expand upon a cliche: "Taking Care of Business," "Bad to the Bone," or even "It's a Small World."
It's not like Simon to do so, but then his One Trick Pony character, Jonah Levin, "wrote" these songs.
The real question is not why Simon chose to write such a song, but why it wasn't a hit. It has all the fun of "Kodachrome" or "Late in the Evening," with a nice, big blues-rock sound cranked out by a crack set of musicians.
Was it the opening, dismissive of Jesus, that made radio stations afraid to play it? Simply mentioning Jesus , as in "Mrs. Robinson," didn't seem to be a problem. But this first verse might have been one shade too sarcastic for general airplay.
The song itself is straightforward. An "ace in the hole" is a secret weapon, a sure-fire back-up plan, or, in another playing-card metaphor, a trump card. The song discusses various such aces in the hole and their varying dependability.
The first candidate is Jesus. The speaker dismisses this figure as a "man" and implies that if he cared, he would "call [him] on the phone."
Then Richard Tee's character, Clarence Franklin (Tee is Simon's keyboardist; more on him later), is introduced. Clarence explains that he has an "emergency" stash of $200.
Why that amount? "If you wanna get some quality/ That’s the price you got to meet." The item of "quality" in question is not mentioned, but one assumes that this is because the item is of an illicit nature, possibly drugs or a prostitute's attentions. While money is discussed good-naturedly, there is no overt disagreement or dispute as to whether it would provide an adequate ace in the hole.
The next "ace" to audition is self-awareness which leads to self-control: "...my ace in the hole/ Was that I knew that I was crazy." On a functional level, the speaker explains that he focused on moderation to avoid extremes: "I just walk in the middle of the road/ and I sleep in the middle of the bed."
This self-regulatory mechanism did have its drawbacks, however, because it served as a band-aid and did not address or rectify the problem at hand... which was that he was crazy. And so, even armed with self-knowledge and self-control as a way to safely navigate social situations, he would invariably (to use another playing-card metaphor) tip his hand and reveal his oddness by "stop(ping) in the middle of a sentence" while speaking. Why? To hear his brain saying that it was taking care of everything. Which, it then became clear to all present, it was not.
The last contestant is "music." The music doesn't have to be brilliant or special-- it can be "your basic rock and roll" (like, for instance, this very song! How handy.).
To "sit on top of the beat" is music jargon; it means to have the melody line adhere tightly to the rhythm, as opposed to swinging the melody, synchopating it, double-timing or half-timing it, etc. Simon takes this term and expands on it-- if a beat has a "top," it must have a "side" and a "bottom," no? And if you "sit" on top, you'd "lean" from the side and "hang" from the bottom, of course.
Listen to the verse again and you will hear the vocalists doing what they are describing. The first line does "SIT on TOP of the BEAT" (emphasis mine). The next holds the note on "Leeeean," imitating someone stretching out to lean. And the last line uses the fact that "bottom" has two syllables, plus the "b-t" alliteration of "bottom" and "beat," to syncopate the lyric.
However you relate this music, you have to "admit" that it is "sweet." We have a winner, folks-- music is the most reliable "ace in the hole."
Coming back to the bridge, about riding the tour bus, we see a foreshadowing of this realization. When he is on the bus, and the overcast, gray sky is "stony"-- stoic and unresponsive (shades of the reticent Jesus in the first verse)-- and the isolation and lack of distractions brings a flood of regret... then, when he is most in need of an ace in the hole, to what can he turn?
"Roll on, roll on," he tells himself. Just keep going to the next gig. The music is there, waiting for you to arrive.
Musical Note: Richard Tee was a very talented sideman. He worked with Simon on the track "Gone at Last," and later on his Hearts and Bones album. Further, Tee played in S&G's Concert in Central Park band.
He had long collaborations with Grover Washington, Jr., and George Benson. Much of his skill was spent creating sophisticated jazz with the likes of Quincy Jones, Lee Ritenour, Manhattan Transfer, Dave Sanborn, Lou Rawls, King Curtis, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Tee specializes somewhat in backing female vocalists, including Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Roberta Flack, Jackie DeShannon, and Esther Phillips.
But he was not limited to any one genre, backing a wide variety of acts including James Brown, David Bowie, The Bee Gees, and Hall & Oates.
Tee's keys appeared on landmark albums like Aretha Frankin's Young, Gifted and Black, Billy Joel's The Stranger and An Innocent Man, and Peter Gabriel's So. And he had some success with his own band, Stuff.
Sadly, Tee died of cancer in 1993, at 49.
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