Paul Simon has made classic pop for more than 40 years, from a fractious but glorious partnership with Art Garfunkel, via explorations of South African and Latin American influences - and a tour with Bob Dylan - to his latest album, recorded with Brian Eno. David Lister meets the icon
Published: 26 May 2006
One of the tracks on the affecting new Paul Simon album has a refrain that will be a little disturbing for those of a certain age. The chorus asks, ´Who´s gonna love you when your looks are gone?´ It is sung over and over and over. It is very Paul Simon. No one in popular music, certainly no other Sixties star, does middle-aged angst like Paul Simon. No wonder he had a cameo in the Woody Allen film Annie Hall, as a slightly edgy and nervous rock star - Paul Simon playing Paul Simon playing Paul Simon, or so it seemed. Even when he broke new ground musically in 1986 by using South African musicians on his Graceland album, one of the tracks began, all too inevitably: ´I was having this discussion in a taxi heading downtown/ Rearranging my position on this friend of mine who had a little bit of a breakdown.´ The lyric was more Park Avenue than Johannesburg township.
But then Paul Simon did middle-aged angst from an early age (and to gloriously infectious melodies) What else was ´Mrs Robinson´, his song from Simon and Garfunkel´s Bookends and, much more famously, from the film The Graduate? What else was ´Homeward Bound´, his bout of homesickness written on a bench on Widnes station during an early UK tour? What else was ´You Can Call Me Al´ on the Graceland album, with its beer-bellied anti-hero (´Why am I soft in the middle, when all of my life is so hard?)?´
Yet, when I put it to Paul Simon, on meeting him this week, that some people think of him as depressive, he is amazed. Ever polite, considering each phrase at great length before he utters it slowly and carefully, he replies: ´If you say that´s how people think of me then I suppose that must be how they think of me. But I hope they don´t think of me as depressive. If you look over my songs you won´t come away with depression at all. Go back to Simon and Garfunkel´s ´Bridge Over Troubled Water´.´
Actually, I didn´t necessarily mean the music, which is joyful - and funny too. Humour has pervaded his songs, and an often unappreciated factor in his work are sardonic New York one-liners (the woman at a party, for instance: ´She said there´s something about you that really reminds me of money. She was the kind of a girl who could say things that weren´t that funny´).
Simon is certainly happy right now, and the new album shows that happiness. He has three children with his wife of 14 years, the singer and actress Edie Brickell. We laugh when I inform him that on her internet film site the section headlined ´trivia´ says: ´three children with Paul Simon.´ He does laugh; he even chats about the ´so many laughs´ he had with Bob Dylan when they toured together in America recently. A laughing Dylan and a laughing Paul Simon: I guess you had to be there. They played Dylan´s home town of Hibbing, Minnesota, performing at the fair with the Ferris wheel behind them and 30,000 fans in front.
Simon chuckles as he tells me how Dylan forgot to take his harmonica on stage. I remind him of an early Simon and Garfunkel song with Simon doing a wicked take-off of Dylan losing his harmonica. He gasps, a little embarrassed, clearly realising the link for the first time. ´Oh, that was just me having a joke. I hadn´t even met Bob then.´ He also looks a little anguished when I laugh at the memory of Anne Nightingale asking him on The Old Grey Whistle Test, years after Simon and Garfunkel split, whether he missed Art Garfunkel´s writing contribution. He replied: ´That was never a writing partnership.´ ´Do you think people know that?´ she asked. ´Just about everyone but you, Anne,´ he said. ´Oh, I felt so guilty about that,´ he says now. ´I hear she was teased about it for years.´
It seems he teased Dylan, too, on their tour. ´You know, I said to Bob, just how did a Jewish family end up in Hibbing, Minnesota?´ Simon and Garfunkel, who met in school when they were 11, were two New York Jewish boys. Indeed, the sleeve-notes on an early album, introducing them to the world, were headed: ´A Law Firm They´re Not´.´ Religion comes up occasionally on the new album, but Simon declares: ´I´m not religious, not religious at all. I agree with Richard Dawkins´s suppositions about religion. I´m not interested in religion. I´m more than kind of interested in God. But I´m not interested in religion as a path towards God. My interest in religion is that it doesn´t annihilate me or my family.´
The album contains a touching love song to his daughter, with the chorus-lines: ´As long as one and one is two/ There could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you.´ Simon has three sons, one of them from his first marriage, and one daughter. She fascinates him. ´A daughter is mysterious. It´s that whole thing, she´s the clichĂ© of feminine, combing hair, doing things like that, what clothes she chooses to wear, what she chooses not to wear. She´s about to pass the 200th page of the novel she´s writing.´ How old is she? ´Eleven.´
The title of the album, Surprise, is, he says, ´a pretty fair expression of how I feel. You´re just surprised at the way everything turns out. I never anticipated anything when I was young, so I´m surprised things turned out well. And I´m surprised at things that didn´t turn out well. Life is so enormous and precious and you´re so lucky even to have been born.´
This is a guy at peace with himself. It wasn´t always thus. After his first marriage to Peggy Harper broke up, he married the actress Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia in the Star Wars films. Aside from the diverting question of who had the more famous in-laws, Paul with mother-in-law Debbie Reynolds and father-in-law Eddie Fisher or them with son-in-law Paul Simon, the marriage was a roller-coaster. Fisher suffered from drink- and drug- addiction - she wrote about this in her novel (and later film) Postcards From The Edge and also wrote a novel based on her marriage to Simon. When I ask him about his album Still Crazy After All These Years, recorded around the time of the break-up, he says only: ´I was in a difficult place at that time.´
It is said on various Paul Simon fan websites that he used humour in his songs to write about the split, particularly with the song ´50 Ways to Leave Your Lover´. ´No,´ he says, surprised and with a blush and giggle that is rather sweet on a 64-year-old, ´that was about someone else, actually.´
But now he is content, and there are no problems with that other important relationship either, the one with Art Garfunkel. It ended with a little acrimony at the start of the Seventies, but showed them in great form on a reunion tour two years ago, even if Garfunkel did say that this was the 50th anniversary of their first meeting, only for Paul to interject, deadpan, that it made it the 48th anniversary of when they started arguing.
I mention how surprised I was to hear Garfunkel describing from the stage how the pair busked in Brick Lane in their early days. ´Nah,´ he laughs. ´Not true. That´s just Artie. We never busked. Well, I did in France actually, but never in England. I played the folk clubs. I let Artie say what he likes. It was his turn to speak.´
It had been an astonishingly successful partnership in the Sixties, moving from early, folk-based, material to the quirky melodies of Bookends and the multi-million-selling Bridge Over Troubled Water. Simon wrote the score for the film The Graduate, songs of urban alienation from ´The Sound of Silence´ to ´The Boxer´, and, almost incidentally, came up with the perfect hippy anthem, ´The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)´. The lines ´Hello lamp-post what you knowing?/ I´ve come to watch your flowers growing,´ were Simon, not for the first time, capturing the prevailing feeling of the campuses.
I saw them in concert at the Royal Albert Hall touring the Bridge Over Troubled Water album. The famous choirboy harmonies over Simon´s folk-rock melodies were to be expected, but they were already beginning to have touches of the gospel and latin sounds that would be given fuller rein on Simon´s solo albums. It was the only concert I have ever been to where the audience, refusing to leave long after the lights had gone up and every possible encore had been exhausted, had to be told by a stern official to get out.
Such was their popularity then. But the show was also notable for the expression on Simon´s face as he stood at the side of the stage as Art Garfunkel sang ´Bridge Over Troubled Water´, accompanied by a pianist. It wasn´t quite a scowl, but it wasn´t happy either. Simon admitted years later that he hated seeing Garfunkel get all the applause for his song. Besides, he needed to break free of the duo and its acoustic-guitar format to express his musical ambitions.
Now, though, he has much warmth for days even earlier than that, for his folk period, when he was living in London. At a London concert a few years ago he invited the influential folk singer Martin Carthy on stage to give a marvellous, authentic rendition of the traditional song, and Simon and Garfunkel hit, ´Scarborough Fair´.
´We had a big discussion that night that was long overdue,´ says Simon. It turns out that the discussion was about ´Scarborough Fair´. ´When he sang it, it was striking to me how beautiful it was. Martin Carthy was a big guy in my life when I lived here. I took his flat in Belsize Park when he moved out. I liked everyone here at that time. It was one of the best times in my life.´
Paul Simon´s best discussions are about music. They see him at his most animated. He talks about the version of ´Bridge Over Troubled Water´ on Johnny Cash´s final album. ´It´s one of the treasured versions of it for me, as you could tell he wasn´t going to make another album. He was worried; he didn´t feel his voice was up to it. But for me, the fragility of his voice brings something extremely powerful.´ He talks about his one Broadway musical (and one of Broadway´s greatest flops) The Capeman, which was centred on an infamous 1950s murder in New York. ´I was so interested to do songs with doo-wop, which is a very simple form of music. The way I worked with it was very important to me. For the most part, people, particularly in Great Britain, are not aware of doo-wop. It was urban street music from the Fifties, not really as well-known as rockabilly or early rhythm and blues or the Everly Brothers. Doo-wop came from gospel and, if I hadn´t listened to those groups, groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, I never would have written ´Bridge Over Troubled Water´. In the middle Fifties, when I was 12 years old, it was not unusual to hear melodies that that used major sevenths and sixths.´
He talks about his three and a half decades of solo albums with their contrasting musical styles. Gospel, South African music, Brazilian samba drums. Wasn´t he a Damon Albarn years before Damon Albarn, bringing world music to the fore? Was that a conscious policy? ´No I have no policies, no agenda. The first Latin-American song I did was ´El Condor Pasa´, which I heard when I was on the bill with Los Incas and they performed this gorgeous song. It´s like the national anthem of South America and particularly of Peru. I remember saying to Artie that I would just write a song over this track.
´You know, the Sixties were very experimental as far as world music was concerned. Brian Jones [of The Rolling Stones] went to Africa to record drums, and there was George from The Beatles of course. There was a lot of interest in music from all over the world. It wasn´t considered world music.´
But 20 years ago, with his most successful solo album, Graceland, policy and politics did intrude. He was accused of exploiting the South African artists; the ANC opposed him, and his British concerts were picketed by British anti-apartheid protesters. He admits he was upset at the time. ´I think that what we accomplished was very important. We made a very powerful statement that cultural boycotts are not effective. You allow the free flow of ideas to come into countries and that challenges totalitarian governments. As for the altruism of the people who were opposed to Graceland, it was and is extremely suspect. It was far more political than it was moral outrage. The ANC, particularly in England, was opposed to us, yet Nelson Mandela invited me to play. I was upset at the accusation that I had taken advantage of South African musicians, which was completely untrue. They voted on whether I should come; they asked me to come, and I paid them all. To say that I took advantage of a lot of people who were naive is reverse racism. And it was condescending to a very sophisticated group of musicians, who actually all had agents and publishers.´
If music animates him, it is certainly the case with his new album, and his choice of the British studio magician Brian Eno as producer, though he is actually credited for ´sonic landscape.´ Simon says: ´Eno was very significant. What he added sonically was very fresh for me. His sounds marry with my songs and take them into a whole other place.´
He agrees that his songs do address the concerns of middle age. ´I think,´ he says, ´that my songs are aged appropriately, lyrically. Rhythmically and musically, I don´t think they are allied to an age. They are just me.´
He is one of the few links to another age who can still sound utterly fresh, musically and lyrically. I wonder if he still feels connected to that other age. When Art Garfunkel introduced the song ´America´ at their reunion concert in Hyde Park two years ago, he said it was ´about a time and place that no longer exist´. Does Simon also find it hard to connect to the Sixties and the songs he wrote and performed then? ´Yes, there is a distance. The country is not there any more. We are in a different place. It was a good era but it also coincided with my youth. It was good. I was young.´
When Simon and Garfunkel split, Simon said in an interview that he would like eventually to be remembered as a musician, singer, songwriter and entertainer who once played as part of a duo called Simon and Garfunkel. Three decades on, has he achieved his wish?
´Yes,´ he reflects, ´I think have. But I think that Simon and Garfunkel, as is evidenced by the last time we toured two years ago, have left an enduring mark that is greater than I would have thought at the time. After all these years it´s still a name that fills stadiums all over the world. I wouldn´t have predicted that. To my surprise, I´m proud of the impact of Simon and Garfunkel. The work is pretty good for young work. What strikes me is that it wasn´t angry; there was nothing nasty about it; it was kind. It was sophomoric when it missed; it was sentimental when it missed. But when it hit, it had a purity. And when I look back I think: ´He must have been a nice guy. He must have been in love with the world´.´
´Surprise´ is out on 5 June on Warner Bros and is reviewed on page 19