Meditations on Crime
Simon, Harper. Los Angeles: Hat & Beard Press, 2023. 9 in. x 12.25 in., 352 p. New.
“Everyone is fascinated by crime,” says Harper Simon. “When you look at the history of song, romantic love songs may be the dominant mode of songwriting, but second would probably be songs involving crime—murder ballads for one. Crime is a major theme in all songwriting.”
Simon offers a new and expansive contribution to this legacy with Meditations on Crime, an ambitious multi-media project that includes an album he produced of musical collaborations with a sweeping range of contributors (Julia Holter, Gang Gang Dance, King Khan, the Sun Ra Arkestra) and a book he edited featuring essays by such notables as Miranda July, Hooman Majd, and Jerry Stahl, alongside artwork from giants like Cindy Sherman, Tracey Emin, Julian Schnabel, and Raymond Pettibon.
The genesis of Meditations on Crime came in 2016 as a confluence of several ideas. Simon was interested in collaborating with musicians he knew and admired on the creation of a vinyl LP with an accompanying book, which would be “a beautiful physical object to stand outside the digital world.” Given what America was going through during that particular election year, though, he thought the times called for something more politically charged.
“I was trying to come up with a collective, curated project that had political content, but wouldn’t be so obvious and agenda-driven,” says Simon. Something “that would give people the freedom to express some ideas that might meet that volatile period in culture and in politics. One of the titles I came up with was Meditations on Crime—if you get down to it, crime is politics and politics is crime, so crime can go a lot of different ways. It seemed to be a way of approaching the moment that was a little more subtle and left space to explore.”
The songs were developed in a variety of ways: Sometimes Simon sent his collaborators guitar tracks or demos he was working on and had them write over them, sometimes he collaborated on lyrics. On the Sun Ra Arkestra track, he composed melodic themes and went to the group’s home base of Philadelphia with the legendary producer Hal Willner, where they fleshed out two songs. (Willner passed away in 2020 from Covid. “To have that creative moment with him makes it really touching for me,” says Simon.)
“Since I wasn’t out in front singing, it freed me up to go into a lot of different styles and genres that I wouldn’t attempt on a solo project,” says Simon. “It was liberating and fun—that was part of what I wanted to do, and it turned out to be gratifying in all sorts of ways.”
As he reached out to more musicians (“I kind of just went with my gut, and one person led to the next”), he retained a consistent backing band for most of the tracks, allowing for some cohesion. He played most of the guitars, with Paz Lenchantin from the Pixies on bass and Carla Azar, who has played with everyone from Jack White to PJ Harvey to The Who, on drums, as well as members of Ariel Pink’s band and Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s.
For the book, Simon points to “On Crime,” the essay by Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri, as a central piece. “It almost felt like an introduction because it was so philosophical,” he says. “It set the tone. The book started to become less political and more interesting. Once the tone was set, you could go to this beautiful essay on war crimes by Janine di Giovanni, the famous foreign correspondent. You could see it go to a humorous place in a piece by Jerry Stahl or an interview with Kenneth Anger. Wayne Kramer from the MC5 has a foundation called Jail Guitar Doors that brings musical instruments and songwriting to prisoners, and has spent time in prison himself, so I thought he would have an interesting perspective.”
Simon was committed to including visual art that investigated the idea of crime, so he enlisted his friend Jonah Freeman, from the art team Freeman-Lowe, as a co-curator. “He brought in a great deal of artists and really became my partner,” says Simon. “Julian Schnabel came on, Nate Lowman, Laurie Anderson, just so many great people. And then Jonah got Raymond Pettibon, who made this original portrait of John Dillinger, and we put that on the cover—which I loved, because I grew up listening to albums with Raymond Pettibon covers, like Black Flag and Sonic Youth.”
Though the concept sprang from Simon’s inspiration, he emphasizes the collaborative aspect of Meditations on Crime. “This is a counterculture project that integrates different areas of creativity into a collective effort,” he says. In the end, 38 artists contributed across the various media, three of whom remained part of the endeavor despite facing online controversies after their collaborations were recorded. “I made the decision not to cut them,” says Simon. “One of the reasons being that I think canceling, in quotes, is blacklisting, and blacklisting, in my view, is wrong whether it comes from the left or the right.”
Meditations on Crime is already expanding into other areas, as Simon and Freeman are completing a short film based on Okri’s essay, narrated by actress Katherine Waterston. There’s talk of possible art shows and benefit concerts in the future based around the theme.
“A lot of the old models of how things are done in the music world are becoming more and more obsolete and uninteresting,” says Simon. “Make an album and make an album cover and put it out and get a review in the music press and go on tour and make a poster—I don't know if it's just been exhausted creatively or made obsolete due to technology. It’s time to play with different ways of approaching how to put things out, and how to play with different areas of creativity and weave them together in new ways and create new models. I don't think people even have the language yet to know how to speak to this transitional moment in culture.”
“This project allowed me to explore different worlds other than the music world,” he says. “To have different platforms for different audiences, and to do a whole bunch of things that people don't normally do when they make an album.” 9781955125284 Inventory Number: I00230827