After decades of riding the charts, a maturing Paul Simon now relishes his chance to chart the ride
Paul Simon is leaning forward on a sofa in the dressing room of the Fillmore Theater, sipping from a steaming cup of chai and talking about feeling... groovy. "I've got bounty," he acknowledges with a gentle laugh. "Generally speaking, I'd say I'm in the grateful camp -- grateful for my life, for the whole gift of life, for the incredible beauty that's available."
Simon says this with complete conviction. There's a relaxed look about his brown eyes, which shine serenely beneath one of his ubiquitous baseball caps. (This particular one is beige and bears the logo of the Dragonaires, a baseball team from the Dominican Republic.) His speech, though soft and deliberate, has a youthful bounce that belies his 59 years, and so does his gait. Gone are the harried manner and dazed expressions of three years ago, when he was in the final throes of the launching "Capeman," his ill-fated, short-lived, $11-million Broadway musical.
The pop icon has many reasons to be upbeat. His new album, "You're the One," is an unassuming gem that contains some of his most nuanced work yet. His first solo tour in nine years, which wraps with a sold-out, three-night stand Thursday through Sunday at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, is earning rave reviews. (If you can't get tickets, WNET/13 is telecasting Simon's recent performance in Paris at 8 p.m. Tuesday.) He'll receive a special award at this winter's Grammys for his work on behalf of minorities, children and AIDS patients.
Simon also is a nominee for a second Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction early next year, this time as a solo artist -- he and Art Garfunkel were sworn in a decade ago as a duo. Simon and his wife, the singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, have had a third child. His beloved Yankees once again won the World Series. And a couple of theater companies are considering another try at staging "Capeman."
Nevertheless, Simon constantly has to remind himself of his good fortune. "I'll find myself complaining, and then I'll say, 'What are you complaining about?'" he says playfully. "The big picture is, I'm still here, breathing, walking the planet, still thinking, songs still coming, in love with family and friends." Then he turns serious, as if he were bracing for a blow. "Still, I anticipate there are some struggles to come. I don't think anybody goes through life without some real tests."
The sequence was quintessential Simon. During the course of a wide-ranging interview before his show in Denver two weeks ago, his answers frequently began one way but moved in the opposite direction with a "Still. . ." or a "But on the other hand. . ." It was as if he'd found his inner peace, but atop a dune of constantly shifting emotional sand.
The same can be said of "You're the One." Instrumentally, the album is a gentle rocker, moving at an undulating, polyrhythmic lope that's almost invariably upbeat. Thematically, though, aside from an occasional bit of whimsy, the songs explore unmet expectations, social injustices and personal turmoil that perhaps only death can soothe. "You're the one," Simon declares optimistically to a loved one in the title track. But then he adds: "You broke my heart/you made me cry." In another song he equates peace with a "hurricane eye" -- the brief calm in the midst of a horrendous storm.
Almost none of the details in "You're the One" are autobiographical, Simon says. But he considers the album to be an intensely personal musical statement. It's a synthesis of his influences: Woven through various songs are the lush doo-wop that Simon sang as a teenager on the street corners near his home in Kew Gardens, the energetic Buddy Holly guitar riffs that turned him on to rock and roll, and the exquisitely crafted folk-pop melodies he sang with Garfunkel. Add to that the percolating pace of Simon's groundbreaking, South African-influenced album "Graceland" from 1986, the undulating pulse of his Brazilian-laced follow-up "Rhythm of the Saints" from 1990, and the fire of the Puerto Rican bombas and plenas he penned for "Capeman."
"You're the One" also contains the kind of unusual instrumental couplings that have long delighted Simon -- combinations such as dobro with harp, vihuela (a 16th-Century stringed instrument) with a rubbed steel bowl, pedal steel guitar with bamboo flute.
If "You're the One" is a summation, Simon also considers it a breakthrough album, one that fuses his influences so seamlessly that it's difficult to isolate and identify them within a particular song. "I'm comfortable enough with this vocabulary that you really can't say that music is from here or there or anywhere; it's just music, my music," he says with the satisfaction of the veteran craftsman that he is.
Still, Simon doesn't necessarily expect "You're the One," which so far peaked at No. 19 on the pop charts and currently hovers in the lower 80s, to become a hit. Its complexity, he notes with no apparent concern, makes it an unlikely candidate.
"It's a lot more fun if it's a hit than if it isn't," Simon acknowledges with a shrug. "You want to be accepted in the marketplace, because you're going to the marketplace. You want to at least trade your cows for three beans. You can't make music and put it on a record and not be involved in that."
However, he adds, what's most important is that his music matters to those who hear it, regardless of their numbers. He would like listeners to get the same charge from "You're the One" that he got while attending a festival last summer on the Moroccan coast featuring musicians from Mali and Morocco. "None of that music is on any charts anywhere," Simon notes. "But it was a great festival with thousands of people, lots of joy and dancing and interaction of cultures. That's going on all over the world -- people playing like that, and the deep purpose of their music is to give pleasure."
It does matter to Simon that young people continue to be fans. Simon, along with Bob Dylan and Neil Young, is among a dwindling number of survivors from rock's turbulent second generation who continue to thrive creatively. "But the question is whether the creative output of my generation has any resonance in the culture," he muses. "If it doesn't, then maybe it doesn't matter how well you know how to write a song."
Indeed, the new album's ruminations on love, aging and death, coming from a man who's well into middle age, contain no obvious anthem for a younger generation. There is no anti-establishment declaration like "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls"; no forlorn cry for a hero we can relate to such as "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you."
But at his sold-out show at the Fillmore, it was clear Simon matters to the children of the youths who first chanted those mantras. More than half the crowd looked to be younger than 30, and many appeared to be college students. They joined their elders in swaying and singing along to chestnuts such as "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Homeward Bound," but even more significantly, they also sang the words to Simon's latest work.
One of those new songs is titled "Old." It's a playful ditty about how age is relative in the universal scheme of things, and Simon nimbly proved the point. Backed by an 11-man, multinational band that sounded as global as it looked, he played his guitars with youthful passion and sang in a tenor still choirboy pure. Simon looked youthful as well. Apart from a few lines on his brow and a receding hairline (almost always hidden under his baseball cap), he's changed little in the last three decades. Nor has his uniform changed much -- no jeans on this night, but the dark khakis and black button-down shirt displayed his trademark tidy casualness.
Simon's sound, in contrast, has evolved significantly. With three (and sometimes four) percussionists, three guitarists and a pair of horn players, he and his band expertly reproduced the complexity of his last few albums and revived old favorites with new twists. "Mrs. Robinson" was recast as swampy funk, "Kodachrome" was set to a rolling, Afro-Caribbean gait, and "The Boxer" was propelled by sashaying accordion and clucking banjo.
Given Simon's charged performance, it was almost impossible to believe that this was the same man who predicted three years ago that his days as a performer, and even as a recording artist, were over.
That was just before the opening of "Capeman," an ambitious musical that he'd worked on intermittently for eight years -- and almost exclusively for the last four of those years -- about the redemption of a Puerto Rican man who committed murder during his troubled youth. In late 1997, as he was completing "Capeman," Simon had done just about everything he felt he could do as a pop star. He'd won 16 Grammys. He'd drawn 750,000 people to a free concert in Central Park in 1991. He'd brought world music to the mainstream with "Graceland" and "Rhythm of the Saints."
"That was enough attention paid to me [as a performer], enough ego," Simon told this writer as he was putting the finishing touches on "Capeman." He saw the musical, which he scored, co-wrote and co-produced, as a possible new beginning.
So what's he doing back on stage today, touring in support of a new album? Simon laughs. "That'll show you what perspective is at any given moment," he says, "how reliable it is."
What Simon hadn't known when he said he was through with performing is that "Capeman" would fold two months after it opened, in early 1998. Looking back, Simon says he wasn't devastated, but his voice still fills with bewilderment over the uniformly negative reviews. "The critics said, 'It's really bad, there's nothing good about it,' which is completely false," he says. "The play had its flaws, but it was an interesting attempt, at the least."
Of the Broadway establishment, he says, "It felt to me, after all was said and done, that they didn't want me: 'Don't come here.' "
If he could take back the past, Simon says, he'd still do "Capeman," but differently -- with a smaller cast, previews outside of New York, perhaps even a Broadway director. "I made a lot of mistakes," he says, shaking his head. "I didn't know anything; I only knew what people told me. Different people told me different things, and I picked a piece of information that I thought applied, and I was wrong."
Simon declined to give details on the two companies that are considering reviving "Capeman," saying he's not involved and adding that if he were, it would most likely be peripherally. What he does offer is that he moved on, emotionally and professionally, fairly quickly.
"I didn't think, 'Now, what?' " he says. "My youngest son was born, that's what I thought: 'I have another child. Look at this.' The 'Now, what?' question always gets answered. In the case of the 'Capeman,' some three, four, five months later, I heard a sound in my head, I don't know how to describe it, and I went out to find a band that could make that sound. We began to play for the fun of it, two years ago. . .Once we had the rhythmic structure and the harmonic structure, the words started to come. They came very fast, in a day, in a flow. It was there and ready to be said, so it endeared itself to me."
In the midst of that came his decision to tour two summers ago with Bob Dylan. "As time goes by you say, 'I've been off enough. It should be fun. Go and have some fun. The audience is going to have fun," he says. He found his set as a co-headliner, at 75 minutes, to be a lark; it convinced him he still had the vocal and physical energy to do his customary 2½-hour performance on a solo tour.
It seems inevitable that Simon would go back to recording and performing. He'd wanted to be a rock star since his teens, when he and his Forest Hills High School classmate Garfunkel, who he still refers to as "Artie," sang doo-wop on corners of streets in the throes of a postwar transformation from rural to suburban. ("From my window you could see all the way to the World's Fair -- it was just fields. There was no Long Island Expressway," he recalls.) Apart from a brief attempt at studying law ("It was a disaster from the beginning"), music has been his life. His first hit came in 1957, when he and Garfunkel, using the stage names Tom and Jerry, released an Everly Brothers-style tune called "Hey, Schoolgirl." Simon was only 15.
Simon's father, Louis, who played upright bass in dance bands, worried that Simon would have a tough time as a rocker, and initially he did. Simon & Garfunkel's first album in 1964, the folkie "Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.," failed to make much of a dent, prompting Simon to return to England, where he'd been eking out a living as a folk singer and songwriter. But when the folk-rock craze hit a year later, Columbia Records released an electrified version of "The Sounds of Silence." The rest was history.
Apart from "Capeman," Simon has suffered only one other professional flop: "One Man Pony," the film about a rock and roll journeyman that he wrote, starred in and composed the soundtrack for in 1980.
Simon politely brushes off questions about Brickell and their three young children -- Adrian, Lulu and Gabriel. (He was married twice before, first to Peggy Harper, with whom he has a 28-year-old son, Harper, and in the early '80s to actress Carrie Fisher.) He does say that he loves "the laughter and tumult" of family life, and that he and his brood, who live in Manhattan, also spend time at their house in Montauk. Asked about the future, he says he has no particular plans. He wouldn't rule out another play if an idea came to him. He does rule out a reunion with Garfunkel, saying dismissively: "It's over, long over. I can't even imagine why people would be interested.
"There's that line in 'SeÃ±orita With a Necklace of Tears,' " he says, referring to one of his new songs: ''I know who I am/Lord knows who I'll be ... And that's how I want it to be.''
Simon's remark brings to mind another lyric, from the title track of his new album. "Somewhere in a burst of glory/sound becomes a song," it goes. "I'm bound to tell a story/that's where I belong." The lyric, Simon agrees, is one of the only autobiographical statements in "You're the One." It's also his best answer on the question of his future.