Hitting the Road in Search of Paul Simon´s America
by Eric D. Goodman
I´ve long been a fan of Paul Simon´s work. But I´m no fanatic. Sure, I have all of his albums -- all the way back to the UK release of The Paul Simon Songbook. Yes, I have a good portion of his Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints rhymes embedded in my mind. And sure, I´ve listened to his new album, Surprise, more times than I´d care to admit. But that doesn´t brand me as a fanatic.
I admire Paul Simon´s talent. His lyrics are poetry; liner notes from a Simon song could rightfully be featured in literary journals and poetry anthologies. But set to music, his lyrics take on new energy. Add to that Paul´s knack for surrounding himself with diverse and talented musicians and it´s easy to see why Paul Simon has glided down the highway of success rather than slip-sliding away as many of his contemporaries have.
I was turned on to Paul Simon during his Graceland period and cemented my fan status with the release of Rhythm of the Saints. While those are, for nostalgic reasons, my two favorite Paul Simon albums, there´s not a record he´s done that I don´t admire.
So when I heard that Paul Simon was on tour, I knew I had to see him. I was fortunate enough to score front row, center aisle tickets to the kickoff show of his Surprise tour in Columbus, Ohio ´¦ and second row seats to his second show the following night in Cleveland. Sure, I live in Baltimore, Maryland. But these were good seats to the first shows, well worth the drive. What´s fanatical about that?
Who am I to Drive Against the Wind?
When I told my wife about my plans to venture to the Midwest to see Paul Simon, her first reaction was to ask me if I was crazy. ´Still crazy after all these years,´ I answered with a grin. But she one-upped me. Nataliya smiled and encouraged me to go to the show: ´Who am I to blow against the wind?´
I set out early on the morning of the show, wearing my Simon and Garfunkel Old Friends tour shirt from when I´d seen them in Baltimore a few years back. It was a good show, but I remember thinking, even as I sat listening to them singing their old tunes, ´I wish Paul would do a solo tour.´ Simon´s talent flourished after his split with Artie.
My iPod loaded with all of Paul Simon´s albums and anthologies, I climbed onto the root of I-70 from Security Boulevard. I´m still amazed that I no longer have to decide which few CDs to bring along for a road trip; my entire catalog is at my fingertips. I set my iPod to ´Graceland,´ all the while replacing the title refrain with ´Cleveland.´ Although that would be the following evening. First, Paul´s first show was in Columbus.
Well before leaving, I´d contacted friends in both Columbus and Cleveland who were as gung-ho as I was about seeing Simon in concert. But the drive was a solo one. Freedom blew through my hair as I glided down the highway. By the time I´d reached Libertytown, Graceland had ended and I was on to Paul´s newest, Surprise, accented with Brian Eno´s sonic landscapes. The lyrics of his new album are pure Simon, although the music sounds different. From any other 64-year-old artist, one might consider the change an attempt to reconnect with a youthful audience. But Paul Simon has always been one to experiment with new sounds, whether the African music of Graceland, the Brazilian background of Saints, or the Puerto Rican Doo-Wop of Capeman. The new techno sound is just another footnote in Simon´s songbook.
A sign welcomed me to Maryland´s Washington County as the song ´Beautiful´ played. I looked around at the trees on the mountainsides and agreed -- it was beautiful. Despite the weather reports for possible showers, was a sunny day. The only clouds in the sky were white accents to bright blue. When I crossed the boarder into Pennsylvania, I felt like I was passing into another galaxy.
When the last track on the new album, ´Father and Daughter,´ played, I called my own 8-year-old daughter. She was getting ready to go to a movie with her summer camp. She was planning to see the new Superman movie. I remembered a time before I knew Simon when Superman was a hero of mine, too. I remember Christopher Reeve battling it out with Gene Hackman. I smiled at the thought of Nicole enjoying the same a generation later.
´Father and Daughter´ is a beautiful song. One review I read of the Surprise album described the last song as ´tacked on.´ While it doesn´t share the same techno vibe as the rest of the album, it´s an appropriate way to end an album all about growing old and painting your hair the color of mud, about how everything changes and stays the same. Perhaps one needs to have a daughter to understand the song.
Later, in Lover, PA, I listened to Paul sing to his baby son in ´Saint Judy´s Comet,´ and I thought of my own 15-month old waiting at home, probably fighting sleep but fading fast into his afternoon nap.
Although Paul Simon sang about the New Jersey Turnpike, I listened to ´America´ as I took my toll ticket and boarded the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I listened to his 1964/1993 anthology, and considered how many different styles he has, and yet how very unique his individual style remains. Lavender grew from the red, rocky mountainside along the turnpike.
As I entered the tunnel into Allegheny Mountain, ´Mrs. Robinson´ began. I remember reading that Ms. Robinson was originally Mrs. Roosevelt -- a tribute to the days of Eleanor Roosevelt ´ until his friend, director Mike Nichols, persuaded him to change it to Robinson for his movie. ´Coo-coo ca choo,´ Paul sang in the third verse, and I realized how similar this sounds to the Beatles´ ´Goo-goo g´joob´ in ´I am the Walrus.´ That connection reminded me of Paul playing on Saturday Night Live with George Harrison, and co-presenting with John Lennon on the 1975 Grammys, Art Garfunkle accepting for Olivia Newton-John.
Around Flushing, Ohio, I took a bathroom break and got Mrs. Wagner-like pies and coffee from a charity booth. I rolled back onto the freeway.
Was a sunny drive, until I hit Zanesville, Ohio, about an hour outside Columbus. But the rain only lasted a few songs, then moved on. In fact, I didn´t see another drop of rain the entire trip. Fresh grass grew from the rocks on the side of the road. Before I knew it, I was bouncing into Columbus.
My Little Town
I used to live in Columbus, Ohio -- capitol of ´the heart of it all.´ Spent five years in the city. So I drove through my little town and remembered yesterday before meeting up with some friends. We talked about some old times and drank ourselves some beers before venturing to the Ohio State University Schottenstein Center. I´d been listening to Simon´s songs all day long as I coasted along the highway. Now, the moment had come and I was charged.
We presented our tickets and entered the arena. I´m used to having seats several rows (or even sections) back; this was my first time being in the front row of such a big show.
´Front row is an entirely different experience,´ my friend said. He was right. There wasn´t a better set of seats in the entire house. We were directly center stage, front row. I remember thinking that if his wife, Edie Brickell, were here, she´d be a few seats away from us. Of course, I was too set on watching the stage to get a good look around me. The lights dimmed and the opening act came on stage.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Jerry Douglass Band. I´ll admit that I´d not heard of them before, but I learned that Jerry´s won 12 Grammys and has worked with such diverse musicians as Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Reba McEntire and James Taylor. The band did an instrumental set that mixed bluegrass, country, rock, jazz and blues.
After playing about 40 minutes, Jerry´s band left the stage around ten after eight. By 8:30, Paul and his band of nine musicians had begun.
Everything about it is a Love Song
I sat directly in front of Paul, and it was amazing to actually make eye contact with the poet and his band members on virtually every song. He dressed in a faded orange-red ball cap, a tee-shirt and jeans. At one point, he looked right at my tour shirt -- Paul Simon & Bob Dylan written over twin trains -- and smiled at me with a nod.
Paul opened with two songs from Graceland: ´Gumboots´ and a reworked, slow-tempo version of ´Boy in the Bubble.´ With two complete drum sets, an accordion and African guitarists, the songs sounded fresh, but familiar. Paul then offered a song from his new album: ´Outrageous.´
Surprisingly, Paul only played four songs from his new album: ´Outrageous,´ ´How Can You Live in the Northeast,´ ´Father and Daughter´ and ´Wartime Prayers.´ He played more songs from Graceland than any other album -- a total of six songs. One song -- the title track -- came from his 2000 release, You´re the One. The rest (nine songs) were from what I, as a thirty-something, consider his ´old stuff,´ from his pre-Graceland solo career. Many of the songs were loud and electric, different enough from the album versions that it would be nice to see a concert album come of this tour.
The controlled environment of the Schottenstein Center added to the experience: the lighting was simple, effective, colors flashing and fading with the moods of each melody line; fog and mist added to the stage. The musicians, including the versatile Mark Stewart, two African guitarists, an accordion player, and about nine musicians all of whom seemed to play at least a couple instruments, did a great job making each song sound fresh, supporting Simon´s lines.
´What do I think of the current administration?´ Paul asked. ´Maybe this song will give you an idea.´ Then, he proceeded to sing the lines, ´We´d like to know a little bit about you for our files, we´d like to help you learn to help yourself,´ and seemed to give renewed meaning to ´Mrs. Robinson.´
The set ended with ´Cecelia,´ and the crowd went wild. Throughout the show, Paul was kind, throwing waves and smiles to the crowd. He did so for several moments before leaving the stage. He returned for an encore and performed ´The Boxer´ and ´You Can Call Me Al.´ Then, as he said his goodbyes once again, he held his hands in prayer formation and thanked us. Then he reached down and touched some of us in the front row. I shook hands with Paul Simon.
Paul was called back for a second encore. He ended with his new anthem, ´Wartime Prayers.´ Paul left the stage for the last time at 10:30, having played for nearly two hours. Not bad for a senior citizen on his first night back on stage.
After the show, I heard others discussing the show. Some of them hadn´t heard the new material, and ´I like it´ seemed to be the consensus. ´He´s still got it.´ Young and old folks alike talked on cell phones with reviews such as ´awesome´ and ´it was great.´ My friend and I agreed as we exited the center. In fact, I was still discussing the concert around 2 in the morning when I decided it was time to lay my weary body down.
I´m Going to Cleveland
The next morning I awoke with a tune in my head.
I´m going to Cleveland, Cleveland
I´m going to Cleveland.
My iPod is with me, it´s loaded, and we are going to Cleveland.
And my traveling companions are hippies and yuppies,
I´m looking at old and young fans
Maybe I´ve a reason to believe we all will be received in Cleveland.
Okay, so they´re not up to par with Paul´s lyrics. But the tune remained with me as I hit the road and headed for Cleveland for the second Surprise show. I shuffled my Paul play list and listened to songs as unpredictable as a concert play list on opening night.
As I listened to ´Renee and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War,´ I remembered that the song was inspired by a picture caption Paul happened across. Then came the song ´Train in the Distance,´ and I could nearly hear one as I proceeded along I-71.
Paul is graceful enough to not rely on his old hits as a crutch, but he knows when to pull them out and how to make them fresh. For example, when he played ´The Boxer´ in Columbus, I didn´t think of the original version; I instead remembered him standing on stage for Saturday Night Live and opening the first show of the season right after September 11. Now, halfway between Columbus and Cleveland, as I listened to an old performance of ´Take me to the Mardi Gras,´ I picture an older Paul Simon performing the same song at a Katrina benefit concert just a year ago. Not only do his new songs have something to say, but his old work evolves to give meaning to new events.
Recently, Paul said that he found it harder to write these days. Not so much because it´s a more difficult task, or because he´s older, but because in the wake of 9/11 and Katrina, it´s important that his songs tell the truth, and that they have something to say. After a couple hours, I turned off the shuffle option and decided to play a comfortably predictable album.
After the six and a half hour drive of the day before, my two and a half hour drive from Columbus to Cleveland seemed little more than a coast. I drifted into Cleveland over the smooth lines of Rhythm of the Saints.
Paul played the Plain Dealer Pavilion in Cleveland, a very different venue. For this show, I was in the second row. Still good seats, but no comparison to the Columbus front and center seats. Paul and his band played the same songs in the same order -- a play list to follow the entire tour. Many of his songs are musically complex and it would be a lot to ask him to ´mix it up´ from one night to the next.
After having seen him inside, it was nice to watch Paul play under the pavilion´s tent with an old bridge in the background. He referenced the bridge, talking about how the last time he´d done Cleveland he played somewhere else. He saw the pavilion from the bridge and said he wanted to check that place out. The crowd cheered. Then Paul laughed and said, ´That´s better than just saying Hello Cleveland, isn´t it?´ The crowd roared, and he said, ´All right, I´ll try that in Milwaukee.´
Paul began playing in the sunlight, but the night had come before he was through. The Cleveland show had more of a festival feel to it, although I´ll admit that I felt the Columbus show was a far cry better, if only due to the controlled environment and front-row seats. After the show, we talked about the concert and had ourselves some beers.
The next day, after spinning some old Simon and Garfunkle vinyls, I ventured to the National Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and took in the regular exhibits as well as a special Bob Dylan display.
Paul Simon is of a rare breed, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. First, in 1990, he was inducted as half of Simon and Garfunkle; in 2001 he was inducted as a solo artist. The museum notes that Simon´s solo career began in 1965 -- before Simon and Garfunkel hit it big -- with the UK recording and release of The Paul Simon Songbook, never released in America.
I hit the road, homeward bound. I put on ´Kodachrome´ as I proceeded down the Ohio portion of I-76, and remembered reading that the tune was originally called ´Going Home.´ While my Graceland-style pilgrimage had been fun, that´s where I belonged: home, where my family was waiting.
The rides to Columbus and Cleveland were driven by anticipation, but the way home was more reflective, my thoughts escaping. I listened to Paul Simon and his wife Edie Brickell on my iPod and thought about the show, Paul´s handshake, his smiles and nod and music. The music sounded good, but somehow not as exciting as it had just days before. Now, it seemed more comforting than exhilarating.
My wife and children waited for me back home, and that was something to be excited about. The old vintage issue of Playboy from the 80s with the Paul Simon interview was waiting at home, too. I´d purchased the magazine for the purpose of researching this story. For some reason, my wife had the idea I bought it for the pictures. ´Pictures?´ I asked. ´What pictures?´ The Playboy, the concert tickets, the road trip -- it was all about dedication to my work, to my writing, I´d rationalized to her. The drive home always seems to take longer.
I got a phone call as I crossed over the Maryland boarder from a friend in Baltimore. ´I got tickets to Simon´s show at Merriweather, July 12! Wanna go?´
I laughed and said, ´Who am I to blow against the wind?´
When I got home and saw my wife and kids, they had a bit of news for me. ´Guess who´s on Letterman tonight?´
So, for my third night in a row, I watched a legendary songwriter perform live, knowing that he´d be in town in just a couple weeks. It´s outrageous ´¦ but there´s nothing fanatical about that.
Eric D. Goodman is a full-time writer and editor. His work has been published in On Stage Magazine, Travel Insights, Coloquio and The Federal Voice. He recently received an honorable mention in The Baltimore Review´s annual fiction competition and is currently at work on his novel in stories, TRACKS. Visit Eric´s weblog for writers and readers at http://www.writeful.blogspot.com or visit http://www.writers.net/writers/40995 to learn more about him.
Surprise Concert Set List
The Boy In The Bubble
Slip Slidin´ Away
You´re The One
Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard
How Can You Live In The Northeast?
The Only Living Boy In New York
Loves Me Like A Rock
That Was Your Mother
Father And Daughter
Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes
Still Crazy After All These Years
You Can Call Me Al