Still grateful after all these years

Approaching 70, legendary singer/songwriter Paul Simon is riding high on his best album in years as his touring juggernaut lands in Israel.

paul simon_311 (photo credit: Mark Seliger)
paul simon_311
(photo credit: Mark Seliger)
Can you imagine Paul Simon giving a performance and not acknowledging his audience? For the nice Jewish boy from Queens, it would be unthinkable – even 69 years and thousands of concerts later.
“I think it’s your responsibility to be entertaining. That doesn’t mean you have to be entertaining to the masses who don’t necessarily share your value system, but you must be entertaining to the people who understand what you’re talking about – otherwise it’s not fair,” said Simon in a recent video interview from London with Israeli reporters that included questions from The Jerusalem Post.
He wasn’t referring to Bob Dylan in particular, but Simon might just as well have been responding to all those fans who were put off last month by Dylan’s impersonal approach to the audience at his Ramat Gan Stadium show.
Simon’s kinder, gentler attitude doesn’t mean that he’s turned into a glib Las Vegas-style entertainer, regurgitating the hits. In fact, fans of the legendary singer/songwriter, who on his own and with his 1960s duo Simon and Garfunkel has scaled many musical heights, may be disappointed that some of their favorite tunes may be absent at his show on Thursday night at the same venue in which Dylan performed.
“I think people come with the expectation of getting enjoyment from the music. But that doesn’t mean I would say I really love performing ‘You Can Call Me Al,’” he said, referring to the bouncy 1986 hit from his landmark album Graceland.
“I’ve done it so many times that it could be boring unless I find a new way to do it. Sometimes it’s OK to put a song aside for a while. On this tour, I haven’t played “The Boxer,” I haven’t played “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “Graceland,” “Me and Julio” or “Mrs. Robinson.” I haven’t played lots of hits, it’s just good to let them sit for a while. I’ll play them again.”
For most songwriters, that dream list of songs would be it – the peak of career achievement. But at an age when most of his contemporaries are resting on their laurels, Simon is still challenging himself by attempting to produce music that, if not able to stand alongside his best work, can at least live together in the same room.
The tour he was referring to – that will see Simon perform Israel for the first time since a 1983 Simon and Garfunkel show – began in mid-April in support of So Beautiful or So What, considered by many critics to be his best album since the one-two late 1980s punch of Graceland and Rhythm of The Saints.
Simon explained that he approached the writing and recording of his new material differently that his latter day efforts, including the well-received You’re The One in 2000, and 2006’s Surprise, an evocative ‘modern’ collaboration with studio whiz Brian Eno.
“The writing of the songs – once I get started – is actually easier than it used to be. It’s just hard to start,” he laughed.
“I began with the concept of trying to write the ballads first by myself with my guitar. That’s been very different from the way I’ve been doing since Graceland, really, when I started using rhythm tracks as the premise.”
“I decided to change that just to make myself a little uncomfortable – and I was. But I overcame it and began to feel the fluidity of playing by myself again. By the time I had written three songs that way, I was ready to play something uptempo, and I started gently with “Rewrite” by making a rhythm loop out of a guitar track, and then I found two other rhythm tracks I liked that ended up becoming “Getting Ready for Christmas” and “The Afterlife.”
“Suddenly the album started taking on a larger nature, sounding like the reverberation or recapitulation of thoughts or musical ideas that I had explored earlier in my career – they were returning but in an evolved state that made things more interesting.”
SIMON’S CURRENT tour, which has included a headlining appearance at the famed Glastonbury Festival in England, features an eight-piece band led by long-time guitarist Vincent Nguini. Even though he’s enthusiastically performing many of the songs from So Beautiful or So What, he hasn’t been neglecting his bursting back catalogue, including everything from “Still Crazy After All These Years” to “Sound of Silence,” “Kodachrome” as well as a touching version of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
With dozens of songs to his credit that have accompanied a generation along their life path, there are still standouts like “Sound of Silence” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that even Simon admits he’s not sure how he wrote.
“Sound of Silence” was much better than any song I had written until then, and I didn’t think anything of it,” he said, referring to the iconic touchstone that he wrote at age 24 in 1965 and which established Simon and Garfunkel as the articulate voices of the burgeoning 1960s counterculture.
“In fact, I barely noticed that ‘Bridge’ was much better. But I did. On the night I wrote it, I was shocked, just shocked at how good it was. I remember thinking ‘that’s much better than I usually write, and I don’t usually use those chords, it’s pretty unusual for me, hmmm.
“I was 27 or 28 and I was not at a point in my life where I realized that sometimes you become a channel for some kind of energy that passes through you. It’s just a privilege, it’s really not yours, it’s something mystical and you’ve been lucky enough to help give it birth. That’s what happened, and it’s happened at other times, but not that frequently.
Graceland is another example. But by then, I realized something extraordinary was happening and that I was part of some kind of creative gift. So I became very grateful for it and more careful about preserving it and not so careless about how I lived my life.”
Despite his white, thinning hair, Simon still effects a youthful appearance, preferring T-shirts, baseball caps and sneakers to sophisticated apparel onstage and off. He credits maintaining his health and having three young children (with his third wife, singer Edie Brickell) with keeping him vital.
“If you’re lucky enough to be healthy, and you’re active and creative, that’s really important, more so than your chronological age. But you really are that age and you realize there’s only a certain amount of time left. When you say, ‘That happened 47 years ago,’ you realize how fast it goes. It’s all cliches that I’ve heard all my life, but when it becomes real, it has an enormous power,” said Simon.
“When I wrote [the Simon and Garfunkel classic] ‘Old Friends,’ I didn’t think that it was anything particularly great. But it predicts how terribly strange it is to be 70. And here we are, almost 70. And to write that when you’re 26, how would I know that? I didn’t understand the power of preserving your memories how they’re all that’s left. But now I look and it’s an accurate description of you feel. You really are surprised at how the years crept up.”
BEFORE THEY pile up too high, Simon said he hoped to perform again with erstwhile partner, Art Garfunkel, with whom he’s had an on-again, off- again professional relationship since their acrimonious 1970 breakup. But age, and the ailments it bring with it, may stymie those plans.
“Artie has a mysterious vocal chord problem – mysterious in that it’s been a year and a half that he hasn’t been able to sing,” he said, adding that their last performance together was at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz Festival.
“Time usually resolves the issue, but so far it hasn’t. I don’t like to think of it – it would be too said – but it’s possible that it’s not going to get better. It’s very frustrating for Artie and my heart aches for him. It’s really hard for a singer to lose his voice.”
He recalled that after the period that the duo recorded Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970, both he and Garfunkel knew that their partnership was ending.
”He [Garfunkel] wanted to take a break and make moves, and I wanted to do rhythm songs, harder, more rhythmic things and not the big ballads,” said Simon.
“And I thought that after ‘Bridge’ it would be impossible to make another album like that – it was so big, the next one would have to be different. So the next Simon and Garfunkel album would have been my solo album anyway. I don’t know if Artie would have wanted to go to Jamaica and record ‘Me and Julio.’”
“I had written for a duo for so long, once that wasn’t a requirement, it was liberating. I could go and experiment with whatever I wanted. And if you followed our solo careers, you could see how our tastes had started to differ – you can see what he liked and what I liked. It was the same with The Beatles. It’s in the nature of partnerships.”
And it’s in Paul Simon’s nature to be able to encapsulate the feelings and experiences of his fans that have grown older alongside him in a manner that has remained consistently true to the human condition. And he doesn’t take it for granted.
“Life has been an incredible surprise, especially if you’re fortunate enough to go through it without a terrible tragedy,” he said.
“I’ve lost my parents and have had some disappointments, but I’ve never experienced a tragedy – I’ve never lost a child, fought a war, had a serious illness... the way it’s worked out is that I’ve had a blessed life and I’m very grateful.”
An intimate stadium show
Paul Simon’s concert on Thursday night at Ramat Gan Stadium will differ from previous shows at the venue like Leonard Cohen’s and Bob Dylan’s.
The stage will be set up crosswise, as opposed to at one of the goal lines of the stadium. This will limit the audience capacity to 24,000 and provide a close, cozier atmosphere of the performance, which is slated to begin at 8:30 p.m.
In addition, the promoters announced that two video screens – eight by six meters – will be erected on both sides of the stage to provide closeup views of Simon and his band.