Saturday, July 2, 2016

Paul Simon Contemplates Retirement (UPDATED 10/17/16)



After 61 years of making music and defining the age of folk music as well as world music, pop music, and top-40 music, Paul Simon is looking at retiring, The New York Times reported last week.  This is a musician who started his career at the tender age of thirteen and has not stopped at 74 years young.

“It’s an act of courage to let go,” he says in the article.  “I am going to see what happens if I let go.  Then I’m going to see, who am I?  Or am I just this person that was defined by what I did?  And if that’s gone, if you have to make up yourself, who are you?”

He seems a bit long in the tooth to be questioning himself or his vital importance to musical history.  Simon is a consummate musician, songwriter, lyricist, poet.  I remember walking into a freshmen literature class during my undergraduate years and picking up the course anthology to see not only the usual fare of poets and writers, but there, in the midst of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, were Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.  They are poets as well as musicians and songwriters, and if what passes for lyrics in the dreck-dropping nowadays, they are leagues ahead of their contemporaries.  Songwriters, like poets, should be masters of the language.  Simon is, and we will not see his like again once he puts down his guitar for good.

His words about letting go remind me of the Buddhist idea of detachment.  He is, first and foremost, a human being.  He is also a human being with a gift, and he has given unselfishly for decades.  In the 60s, he defined the American folk scene with his golden-voiced partner Art Garfunkel.  As with all good things, that partnership dissolved with time only to reform and reignite across the years—I think it is currently kaput, but who could forget the Concert in Central Park circa 1982 with an intimate crowd of 500,000 New Yorkers.  Simon went solo in the 1970s and early 80s before joining up again with Garfunkel.  These were the Still Crazy After All These Years and One Trick Pony eras.  I remember many a hot summer night listening to my transistor radio under my pillow, falling asleep to “Late in the Evening,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and “Slip Sliding Away,” tracks that were ubiquitous on FM airwaves.  The late 80s and 90s saw Simon exploring world music with African influences and bandmates on the Graceland album, followed up with the Latin American energies of The Rhythm of the Saints.  I bought Graceland on vinyl and wore the grooves away before purchasing a CD copy which I still have on rotation today.  I love every track, but my favorites are “Under African Skies” with Linda Ronstadt singing harmony, “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes” featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo and “Myth of Fingerprints” with seminal L.A. band Los Lobos.

Simon was not always successful with his endeavors, but he never “phoned it in” on any album or simply duplicated his previous successes.  He took some heat for the failed Broadway show soundtrack, Songs from the Capeman.  He also never fully escaped the Simon and Garfunkel years, even though he performed their music solo in every concert.  It had been a long marriage fraught with tensions and yes, jealousies and tantrums.  Rumors floated around about who was to blame, but what was never in doubt was the talent of the duo.  Garfunkel wrote less of their catalog, but his soaring vocals often made the record, such as in the tracks, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Scarborough Fair.”

Simon’s part in the harmonies cannot be underestimated, but he is the songwriter who penned many of their biggest hits.  His subsequent work as a solo artist also proves his incredible talent to remain current and vital over six decades.  His voice and playing have remained strong, but he is feeling his age, according to the article.  He now requires 15 hours of sleep a day, which leaves a sparse nine hours of waking productivity.  I cannot imagine what that is like, to go to bed at eight in the evening only to rise at eleven the next morning.  The days are indeed “slip sliding away.”  The article cites no reason for this abundant need for sleep, but does mention his failing eye sight and the need he has to rest his voice for longer bouts between concerts.

He also alludes to the fact that it would be good to quit while he is still popular.  The words of Allen Ginsburg sums up his position best:  “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”  “I’ve seen fame turn into absolute poison when I was a kid in the 60s,” he says.  “It killed Presley.  It killed Lennon.  It killed Michael Jackson.  I’ve never known anyone to have gotten an enormous amount of fame who wasn’t, at a minimum, confused by it and had a very hard time making decisions.”  Simon, despite his fame, has made mostly the right decisions.  But he feels it best to lay down the guitar and live a quieter life now.

It is common in middle age to see things we have grown accustomed to disappear, one by one.  Favorite restaurants where the best meals could be had, tiny shops serving the best cups of tea and coffee, landmarks where significant life events occurred, and the people, the people who have meant so much to us.  Paul Simon created more than just the soundtrack to The Graduate; for most of us who are children of the 1960s and 70s, he created the soundtrack of our lives.  If I could speak directly to him I would say that artists never “retire.”  They always, always find another page to turn, another song to sing.  We can only hope this so for Paul Simon.

UPDATE 10/17/16:

Paul Simon was interviewed in the Sunday Los Angeles Times and stated that he may cut back on live performances, but he would continue to write songs and record. At 75, he is "eminently comfortable...about his place in the pop music world." When people ask him why he changes all the time, referring to his work with South African musicians on Graceland and even on his latest, Stranger To Stranger, which incorporates electronic riffs and beats in a fresh and exciting way. Simon says that "As long as you're free from the constraints of trying to make a record that goes up on the charts, you can make great music." His hope is that his music will still be performed fifty years from now. With the fifty years had has been performing, that would make a hundred years, and any piece of music performed for a hundred years is "a good song," says Rhymin' Simon.

Onward.

 

2 comments:

jguywrite said...

Another good one Paul. I remember in Mrs. H's freshman English class reading Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem, "Richard Cory" & Paul Simon's lyrics to the song by that title.

It sounds like Simon is feeling limited by age & doesn't know what to do next. I hope he figures it out.

Jonathan Chant said...

Great article about a great man.