This is why Paul Simon's songs of darkness, bridges, and boxers still matter in these troubling times.
There’s a lot to be said for perseverance, consistency, and transformations in the life of a great singer/songwriter. Bob Dylan may have arguably created the template of what was to be known as the '60s singer/songwriter, but Paul Simon was also there, toiling away on his part of the great stage. Like Dylan, Simon adapted old English folk songs (“Scarborough Fair”) and dabbled in the morose and pompous (never more so than in the insufferable “Dangling Conversation”, where the two brooding partners read their Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost poems, probably sipping coffee, probably not talking with each other.) Add the bright cheery hopefulness of "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”, and the listener is smothered by the toxic, diabetic sweetness of '60s pop.
If Simon’s music has a reputation today it might be one of accessibility, sweet tunes and infectious beats. Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find instability. Think of the singer in 1975’s "Still Crazy After All These Years" when he concludes “I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day”. From the same album, think of the frustration beneath the nostalgia of “My Little Town”, how it builds up to “itchin’ like a finger on the trigger of a gun”. Then, there’s the stunning, full, sad life of a couple encapsulated in 1999’s “Darling Lorraine”. “I’m sick to death of you, Lorraine,” he sings, but by the end of the song, after her health fails, he pleads “Please don’t leave me, Lorraine.”
Simon has labored for over 50 years without a library of studies left in his trail. Where are the Paul Simon college courses? Where are the Paul Simon symposiums? As the 75-year-old Simon prepares for a summer tour this year and the upcoming CD/DVD release of his 2012 “Concert In Hyde Park”, an examination of the bright cheeriness and determined darkness of Simon’s live performances might help shed a fresh light on songs that still have the power to make a difference.
In the beginning…Simon and Garfunkel (AKA, Tom and Jerry)
The difficulty with fully appreciating Simon now might be the fact that he’ll always be assessed within the context of Art Garfunkel. In their early days (1957), as the decidedly non-ethnic Tom and Jerry, they scored a minor east coast hit with their Everly Brothers homage “Hey Schoolgirl”. Their friendship remained and grew, guarded and competitive, and they broke big in 1965 with “Sound of Silence”, released first as a folk song and then electrified. It was the title track to their second album. They (Simon as writer and melody singer, Garfunkel as harmony co-lead singer/duo partner) had transformed themselves from folk purists (as heard primarily in their debut, a collection of several originals but mostly covers) into something deeper, something stronger.
If the “problem” that was Garfunkel for Simon (tall, with a soaring high voice and an angelic red halo of hair) consisted of being more telegenic and commanding, it was a burden that brought Simon and Garfunkel as a duo to the summit and beyond of “voice of a generation” personalities. With “Sound of Silence” (immortalized in Mike Nichols’ 1967 film The Graduate), Simon played beautifully with contrasting ironic images (as heard in the title) and hopelessness removed only by the possibility that we come to understand “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”. When the singer sees 10,000 people in the naked light and knows they’re communing for a higher purpose, the hope rests only in future potential, not actualized reality.
From the 1981 “Concert in Central Park”:
Thirty years later, when Simon performed the song alone as part of the groundbreaking ceremonies for the 9/11 memorial, the lyrics and tone evoke greater hopelessness, deeper yearning for things that could have been but were removed on that September day in 2001. He slows it down, removes the layers. Absent the beauty of Garfunkel’s accompaniment, Simon has more time and opportunity to accompany his listeners into the darkness. Get used to it, he tells us in those final three strums of his guitar. There’s nothing else we can do but listen, try to sing along, and take comfort in the fact that we’re not alone.
At its surface, Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 song “The Boxer” was a simple story of a man who battles demons in and out of the ring. It may also be the first top-selling pop hit where the lonely first-person singer cures his isolation by visiting “the whores on Seventh Avenue”. Rumors circulated that the song was a thinly-veiled tribute to/criticism of Bob Dylan, who at the date of recording was a few years into his brief life as a recluse. The Boxer was a poor boy, a fighter by his trade, and though he’s leaving he wants us to know that “the fighter still remains”. This was also one of the most beautifully poetic, evocative ballads whose wordless chorus (“Lie la lie, lie la la la lie lie/Lie la lie, lie la la la la lie la la lie”) says more simply by saying less. By 1974, deep into performing it on his own, Simon added the verse indicating that “after changes upon changes/we are more or less the same.”
Twenty years later, as he opened the first post-9/11 episode of Saturday Night Live, the resonance of this song’s lyrics were a true gut punch for all of us still reeling in those weeks and months after that day. Where were we going? What have we done? Though this clip is sullied now in retrospect (with the appearance of the now thoroughly discredited then Mayor Rudy Giuliani), it’s no fault of Simon’s. Look at this in context and understand that everything seemed to rest in that trumpet solo, even though we knew not all our problems would be assuaged.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” was based, apparently, on a single line from a Gospel hymn, the melody echoed a Bach chorale. With this song, Simon adapted and interpolated, drew from Gospel, classical, and created a forum in which Garfunkel could soar free with his powerful voice. It was the title track to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 album, the swan song for their initial six year run as a recording/performing duo, and probably the albatross around Simon’s neck during the initial years of the '70s.
Who would sing it in concert? Garfunkel was up to the task during the sporadic reunion concerts and tours, but Simon couldn’t reach the crashing crescendos of the final verse. It’s a true Gospel song (with the wonderful late Richard Tee on keyboards) of redemption through hope and trust in a higher power, a greater power, surrendering to somebody else the responsibility of moving through darkness into light:
In a heartbreaking, slow version, with cello, soft keyboards, quiet bass, subtle guitar accents, and percussion, Simon reclaimed the song as his own for the televised 2001 9/11 benefit. The song builds not on the strength of Simon’s voice (which has always been reedy and suitable for his material) but on the determination of the arrangement. You have been crushed. We have all been crushed. We move on.
In the here and now… Paul Simon in twilight time.
The difficulty of living and performing and writing long enough is that you run the risk of driving too many times around the same scenery. It’s a comfortable route, especially for those who may be considered “legacy” artists. The greatest thrill in exploring Simon is understanding the dark, peculiar underpinnings, like the title track to 2011’s “So Beautiful, So What”. In the second verse, he’s going to tell his kids a story and he doesn’t know if it will have a happy ending. In the fifth verse, four men are on the balcony and Dr. King has just been shot: “And the siren’s long melody/ Singing Savior pass me not”. Simon may in fact be a legacy act, but he brings new life and strange wonder to songs that have been in the fabric of America too long to ever be dismissed. He may be in the twilight of his life and career, but he does not reel and he does not stumble. Like the title character in 1980’s "One Trick Pony", he knows the score:
“He either fails or he succeeds/ he gives his testimony/ Then he relaxes in the weeds.”
The beauty of this song is that the singer is not the one-trick pony but rather somebody observing him from offstage, admiring how he makes it all look so easy and clean. “He moves like God’s immaculate machine,” the singer notes, and that’s as good a way as any to describe the way Simon keeps his work alive.