THE ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK
There was a young boy in Queens, New York City, who played baseball and grew up to create beautiful music. His father and mother listened to jazz and classical music and made sure to share it with their son. This boy was Paul Simon. He loved harmony, especially from the stoops based doo wop groups from far away New Jersey or across the river in Harlem. He wanted to make his own music and he found a friend, Art Garfunkel who could sing too. The two of them started calling themselves Tom and Jerry, (primarily to hide the fact that they were Jewish artists) writing their first songs starting in 1957. Hey Schoolgirl was a minor hit, propelling the two to touring the East Coast and recording several singles.
Paul and Art drifted apart during the early 1960s, going off to college and entering different circles. Paul Simon still hungered for music, writing and producing singles with the group Tico and the Triumphs and writing music under various pseudonyms for Tin Pan Alley song firms. All of this while attending college and earning a degree in English. Paul began to become disillusioned by the plasticity and artificial nature of popular music during this period and he began a transition into folk music that would help him create his most famous incarnation as the Simon in Simon and Garfunkel.
I first heard Paul Simon as part of Simon and Garfunkel, on the radio singing The Sound of Silence when I was a preteen. I was captivated by the quality of their harmonies and I really enjoyed the rock and roll sound coupled with intriguing and enigmatic lyrics. Over time I began to buy Simon and Garfunkel albums, starting with Wednesday Morning 3AM, their first album which is all folk music. This album was released in 1964 right in the midst of the British Invasion, seeing very little airplay until Sound of Silence was to be reengineered as a rock ballad.
After the very disappointing results of the album’s performance, Simon and Garfunkel split up again, with Paul going back to England, where he had been living previously. While in England, Paul was writing several new songs, including pieces that became staples on later albums, such as To Kathy Wherever I May Find Her, I Am a Rock, and April Come She Will. The songs were released on Simon’s first solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook in 1965.
SOMETHING SO RIGHT
Simon and Garfunkel went on to release a total of five albums in the 1960s and early 1970s, including Bridge Over Troubled Water, their most successful album as a duo, but also their swan-song, as they separated as a group after its release.
Paul Simon did not stop writing music however, and this breakup preceded his first self-titled solo album, Paul Simon. The album contains some of Paul’s most melodic songs and showcases his prowess as a guitar player. It includes one of my favorites, Mother and Child Reunion, a seemingly sincere song about family ties (though it was inspired by a Chinese food dish!) and it always manages to affect me emotionally.
After a string of hit albums throughout the 1970s, Paul decided to reconnect with Art Garfunkel in 1981 and they began touring again, leading up to their famous Concert in Central Park, where the two of them performed classic songs from the Simon and Garfunkel days, as well as duet-ing on several of Paul’s solo songs. From the concert album comes my favorite version of Slip Sliding Away, a song that means a great deal to me as a sort of condensed version of my own life.
During this period, Paul and Art recorded a “reunion” album, Hearts and Bones, which, due to a falling out, had all of Art’s vocals removed from it; the album being released as a solo record (and arguably his best work of the period). The 1980s saw Paul enter into a new era of change and creativity, including the creation of his most popular album.
UNDER AFRICAN SKIES
I first heard Graceland after I bought it as a used copy at a local music shop. I remember having heard You Can Call Me Al, but I was not prepared for the quality of the music, how he blended his voice with South African musicians, incorporating local stylistic traditions into the songs. Paul Simon had heard a tape of South African pop music and began to fall in love with its curious rhythms and vocal performances. Braving a ban on artists performing with South Africans (due to the evils of white mandated Apartheid) Paul managed to create a work that celebrated black music and culture and helped to make the world more aware of what was happening in that country.
On this album, two songs stand out for me, The Boy in the Bubble, about the rush of modernization and alienation in the world, and Homeless, sung with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The album was a huge world-wide hit with Paul again being appreciated for his words and music.
After the glory of Graceland, Paul experimented with more regional music with the album Rhythm of the Saints, which fused South American music with Western pop. In my opinion, this is one of his most under-appreciated albums, featuring some of the most poetically inspired song lyrics I have ever heard. Among the gems, Further to Fly stands as a very personal song to me.
At this point in Paul’s career, the machinery of musical praise began to pay him complement. Beyond Grammy awards, he and Art Garfunkel were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Prompting yet another reunion tour (if only they could just kiss and makeup already) and setting Paul’s sights on a new album and other projects.
THAT’S WHERE I BELONG
Paul embarked on a mission of futility in the early 1990s, writing a musical about a young Puerto Rican convicted of murder and later released as a Broadway musical, called The Capeman. The musical, while containing excellent songs, unfortunately completely bombed on Broadway, losing several millions of dollars in the process. Paul, stung by the experience, did soul searching before reemerging with the album You’re the One, in 1997. I really enjoy the songwriting on this record, as many of the songs are performed as self contained stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, such as Darling Lorraine and Senorita With a Necklace of Tears.
Into the 21st century, Paul Simon has continued to evolve as an artist and a poet. Performing at the Concert for New York in 2001, touring, and like always-reuniting with Art Garfunkel. In 2006 he released the album Surprise, which had songs focusing on life in wartime and the damages caused to the American psyche from the Bush administration. Wartime Prayers is the most touching track on the album, and always brings me to tears when I hear it.
His most recent album, So Beautiful or So What continues Paul’s string of elegant songsmithing, with each of the tracks offering a different concept about aging, the nature of humans engaged in destroying those things that are beautiful around them, the death of Martin Luther King, and Vietnam veterans.
He continues to tour and still reunites with Art Garfunkel from time to time.
NEGOTIATIONS AND LOVE SONGS
Paul Simon has written songs that have changed my life, including Slip Sliding Away which brings up all of the images of my youth and growing up without parents, An American Tune, with its sad depiction of the state of our country in the scope of the last 40 years of our history, and Further to Fly one of the most poetic and soul stirring groupings of melody and lyrics I have ever heard.
Into the 21st century he still writes extremely urgent songs about what it means to be alive, what it means to feel the world and the billions of humans breathing, sleeping, eating, and dying all over its surface. He sings directly to my soul, sings into my mind’s eye and writes poetry that I can only dream of ever coming close to in quality or eloquence. I love his music and I love his mind. No matter what the quality of his character, or the nature of his various personal relationships…his music inspires and uplifts me and keeps me whole and makes me sane.
Paul Simon is the most powerful songwriter I have ever heard, even trumping Dylan in the realm of the metaphor. His ability to weave songs from the tapestry of dreams, from the heated heart of the listener, to tap longing as though it was a oil derrick in the middle of the ocean-pumping up from the depths true life and clarion calls to beauty. He stands tall on the landscape of music as an original par excellence.
He is, without a doubt, the best.