The neck of my Guitar
The Outsider - 2010 New York Times

Updated: Aug. 11, 2010

It may be hard to think of Paul Simon as an outsider. He rode high on the pop charts for three decades, has collected a dozen Grammy Awards and was a shoo-in for various halls of fame. He can sell out arenas whenever he decides to reunite with his 1960s partner, Art Garfunkel. He wrote and starred in a movie and mounted a Broadway musical. He has gone globe-hopping and drawn musicians who are national heroes to sit in as sidemen.

His music stays restrained, ever tasteful. He sings gently in his own meticulous productions, and his songs can share radio formats with the most soothing soft-rock. But the thread running through Mr. Simon´s songs is estrangement. From ´I Am a Rock´ to ´50 Ways to Leave Your Lover´ to ´You Can Call Me Al´ to the cranky reflections on his 2006 album ´Surprise,´ he has sung about being alienated, misplaced, restless, disillusioned. Moments of solace or satisfaction are far outnumbered by misgivings and regrets. The material comforts that he recognizes are his — as a wealthy man, as a pop success, as an American in a wider world — don´t bring him peace of mind. Neither does the finicky craftsmanship that has always marked his music.

Yet that sense of estrangement hasn´t kept him isolated, as the rosters for the Brooklyn concerts demonstrate. From his teenage partnership with Mr. Garfunkel — which has been a publicly contentious, on-again off-again proposition since the duo broke up at the beginning of the 1970s — through his solo studio albums beginning in 1972, Mr. Simon has made a far-flung social network of his music, surrounding himself with first-rate players from across the world.

The least performed part of his repertory may be ´The Capeman,´ his 1998 Broadway musical (including lyrics by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott) about a Puerto Rican gang member who killed two teenagers. With frequent four-letter words, a Hispanic murderer as its central figure and a subtext of Santería symbolism, ´The Capeman´ was a hard sell on Broadway, where, for all his pop recognition, Mr. Simon was definitely an outsider. (In a streamlined, oratorio-like form, ´Capeman´´ was revived first at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and in August 2010 the Public Theater planned a concert version for Central Park.)

Throughout his career Mr. Simon has been a convenient target, sometimes for good reason. He has made magnificent albums and duds; his songs can be ingenious and emotionally telling or pretentious and whiny. He can be an eerie, evocative lyricist — writing gorgeous lines like ´Long past the midnight curfew we sat starry-eyed,´ from ´Peace Like a River´ — or a prosaic and hectoring one.

Abandon isn´t part of Mr. Simon´s palette; he´s terse, controlled, more than a little uptight. His music is for listeners who appreciate the crafty details nearly as much as he does. He has always been the smart, bourgeois, fussy wimp who makes some self-styled rockers want to kick sand in his face. But his approach keeps resurfacing, as with Vampire Weekend, whose debut album leaped from indie-rock blogs to the Top 20, drawing on Mr. Simon´s vocabulary of collegiate allusions, bouncy rhythms and African-tinged guitar licks.

Mr. Simon was never a doctrinaire folkie, or any other kind of purist. Growing up in the 1950s, he was drawn to Elvis Presley, doo-wop and the Everly Brothers, and in many of the songs he has written as an adult, a phrase of doo-wop melody is shorthand for fleeting bliss. His early recordings — with Mr. Garfunkel under the name Tom and Jerry, and by himself — aimed to be pop-rock hits. Although Simon and Garfunkel emerged as a coffeehouse-style duo backed by Mr. Simon´s lone acoustic guitar, he was soon slipping complex jazz chords between the folk rudiments. His fondness for rhythm gradually resurfaced, growing stronger during his solo career.

Some of the songs Mr. Simon wrote for Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s have not aged well. The smiley-faced chorus of ´The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin´ Groovy)´ grew dated along with its slang, and songs like ´Bleecker Street´ and ´For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her´ are painfully precious. Mr. Simon had to find a looser, more colloquial voice, and he did at times on Simon and Garfunkel´s later albums and, decisively, on his 1972 album ´Paul Simon,´ with irresistible but not quite explicable songs like ´Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.´

´Paul Simon´ — which included a song recorded with reggae musicians in Jamaica (´Mother and Child Reunion´) before most Americans were aware of reggae, and one with the French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli in Paris (´Hobo´s Blues´) — was also a harbinger of Mr. Simon´s worldwide musical itinerary. In a way he is a consummate New Yorker, representing a city where innumerable cultures brush up against one another.

Actually ´Paul Simon´ wasn´t his first batch of travel souvenirs. He lived in England in 1964 and played the folk-club circuit there, picking up traditional songs and learning from musicians like the singer Martin Carthy and the guitarist Davy Graham. (Mr. Simon played Mr. Graham´s instrumental ´Anji´ on Simon and Garfunkel´s 1966 album ´Sounds of Silence.´)

When Simon and Garfunkel interwove the traditional ´Scarborough Fair,´ learned from Mr. Carthy, into ´Scarborough Fair/Canticle´ on the album ´Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,´ the first grumblings arose about Mr. Simon as a cultural carpetbagger, an outsider exploiting the pop potential of local scenes.

Another Simon and Garfunkel hit, ´El Cóndor Pasa,´ put new words to the melody of an old Peruvian song. And Mr. Simon regularly drew on varieties of Americana, particularly gospel.

But it was ´Graceland´ in 1986 that made Mr. Simon controversial. He had been through a fallow period with his albums ´One-Trick Pony´ (despite its Caribbean-flavored hit, ´Late in the Evening´) and ´Hearts and Bones.´ Hearing the three-chord bounce of South African township pop unlocked something in Mr. Simon´s songwriting, reminding him of the simple pleasures he had gotten from early rock ´n´ roll and, as he turned African grooves into songs, inspiring some global perspective in the lyrics.

He wrote his own melodies and lyrics atop songs already recorded by South African musicians. He also recorded new songs in Johannesburg with South African musicians during a cultural boycott against apartheid in that country. (The United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee ruled that he had not violated the boycott because he supported black musicians, not the government.) Mr. Simon scrupulously shared credit and royalties with his collaborators and introduced his worldwide audience to South African music — in retrospect, an undeniable boon.

´Graceland´ sold millions of copies and won Grammy Awards, but it also stoked arguments about international cultural relations. Was Mr. Simon a colonialist, expropriating the precious resources of the third world for his own advantage (shared royalties aside)? Was he adding something to his South African sources by placing his own words and his small voice in the foreground, or just diluting African music for uninformed pop tastes? Would listeners accept Mr. Simon´s songs as South African music and look no further, dismissing an entire culture once his album was off the radio? Was he just a tourist, bringing back musical knickknacks torn free of context?

Those arguments can seem quaint now that the world´s music cruises the Internet and countless songs are built by cut-and-paste. The decades proved Mr. Simon´s instincts were right. Just as he had used English folk songs, doo-wop and gospel, he used African music — and later the Brazilian music that fueled ´The Rhythm of the Saints´ in 1990 — but by no means used it up. The sounds he drew on were far more durable than that. And his African collaborators, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, found new, eager listeners for their own material worldwide.

Mr. Simon has turned out to be not a carpetbagger but a connoisseur and, at best, an alchemist. Being an outsider led him to choose musical ideas that didn´t need explanation, that could survive and propagate away from home. And as a craftsman he has tweaked what he borrowed, personalizing and hybridizing it. From ´Scarborough Fair´ to the Afro-reggae beat he recorded in Bahia with the Brazilian drummers of Olodum, Mr. Simon has been sharing ideas, not confiscating them.

He has been one embodiment of the pop process, that mixture of instinct and calculation that scouts cultural and geographical fringes for the next mainstream treat. And being Paul Simon he doesn´t simplify what he finds. He adds his beloved musical convolutions and verbal conundrums, his layers of New York cosmopolitanism, anxiety and striving. It doesn´t always work, but when it does, for a few precisely constructed minutes, Mr. Simon´s music gracefully holds estrangement at bay.

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