To most in an audience, applause is applause. It's louder or more sustained for better shows, to be sure, but it's hard to differentiate from one good concert to the next. Not so for the artist. To those on the stage, especially if performing night after night on tour, there is a lot more than the volume or length of applause that reveals how much the show is appreciated.
It was evident that Simon and Garfunkel at the MCI Arena in Washington, D.C., Sunday night were veritably "blown away" by the sincerity of the appreciation expressed by the 20,000 packed into the arena. There was a level of pure gratitude that flowed through the applause that apparently surprised and pleased the duo. It was very obvious how Paul Simon warmed up through the show, and Art Garfunkel, already in awe of the powerful DC audience, said more than once that he was genuinely touched.
One would think it would be like that on their entire tour, however (I didn't see their follow-on concert at MCI Monday night). Back together for only the second time in nearly three decades, they are packing MCI-sized arenas across the nation, reminding hundreds of thousands of Americans of another time when their songs touched so deeply the collective psyche of an entire generation of young people yearning for justice and compassion in a time of strife and senseless war in the 1960s and early 1970s.
It is hard to imagine that out of the same sixth grade class production of "Alice in Wonderland" in 1954 - when 13-year-old Art Garfunkel played the cheshire cat and his classmate Paul Simon played the white rabbit - would come two artists who would define so completely an era, a social conscience, and an eruption of protest and activism that convulsed the nation into an epochal paradigm shift that is still being sorted out to this day.
Their genius was born of their relationship. Paul Simon will go down in history as one of the greatest poets of our age. But it was a unique kind of poetry drawn forth by the opportunity his collaboration with Art Garfunkel provided for giving it a lyrical folk sound and a mass appeal. Garfunkel's voice was the perfect complement and expression for the more yearning tones of Simon's compelling verses. Their chemistry in the art of musical expression was amazing.
Their works combined just the right mix of surface cynicism and inner hurt. They spoke to the quick of an alienated generation.
One of the best balms for loneliness and despair is knowing that someone can truly relate, and through music help lift the burden by making it something universally shared.
But Simon and Garfunkel went a step further. They identified the source of the pain in the constructs of a society more alienated than hurting young people themselves.
In the lyrics to "The Sound of Silence," echoed in many other songs, this is spelled out: "In the naked light I saw 10,000 people, maybe more, people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening, people writing songs that voices never share and no one dared disturb the sound of silence."
"`Fools,' said I, `You do not know silence like a cancer grows. Hear my words that I might teach you, take my arms that I might reach you.' But my words like silent raindrops fell, and echoed in the wells of silence."
"And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made. And the sign flashed out its warning, in the words that it was forming. And the signs said, `The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence."
Few people from that era can read those words without singing them.
In "America," the lyrics reveal a sudden moment of personal insight and profound honesty that also bonds the singer with the impersonal world outside him. Riding on a bus, watching the other riders and the cars on the same road, he sings, "`Kathy, I'm lost', I said, though I knew she was sleeping. `I'm empty and aching and I don't know why.' Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike, they've all come to look for America."
The songs tell stories of declassed and disadvantaged youth, of runaways, who are cut off from their emotions like a rock, paint graffiti and take some comfort from the whores on Seventh Avenue.
By contrast with emptiness and alienation, Simon and Garfunkel looked to the simple joys of life, of "Scarborough Fair," of "Feelin' Groovy," and of love, both fulfilled and lost. I personally consider the very short "For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her," perhaps the most precise and beautiful love song ever written:
"What a dream I had, pressed in organdy, clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy, softer than the rain. I wandered empty streets down past the shop displays. I heard cathedral bells tripping down the alley ways as I walked on. And when you ran to me your cheeks flushed with the night. We walked on frosted fields of juniper and lamplight. I held your hand."
"And when I awoke and felt you warm and near, I kissed your honey hair with my grateful tears. Oh, I love you girl. Oh, how I love you."
But while, in "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," Garfunkel's haunting voice offers an almost transcendent healing power to humankind's hurting, it's in "The Boxer" where the vision of the beaten and bruised individual rises above his pain through sheer perseverance. This is the summary message to a generation of upheaval and change, written with amazingly succinct imagery and power:
"In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down or cut him 'till he cried out in his anger and his shame, `I am leaving, I am leaving,' but the fighter still remains."
I apologize for filling a commentary on Simon and Garfunkel with so much of the actual lyrics to their songs. But that's what tells the story best. To millions, Simon and Garfunkel are their songs, and their songs are a generation.
It was delightful to see them together surrounded by so much heartfelt gratitude Sunday night.
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