Time, Nov 12, 1990 v136 n21 p112(3)
Songs of a thinking man: Paul Simon's musical wanderings have taken him from Africa to Brazil and to the deepest, farthest reaches of himself. Jay Cocks.
It's an old question. It goes back as far as Bridge over Troubled Water, when Paul Simon gathered some unexpected, tropical-inflected rhythms around him and first really found his voice. His lyrical voice, that is: the tart, tempered combination of irony and melancholy that would turn him into one of the best writers of his generation, either in the grooves or on the page.
There have been, intervening, two decades, a couple of marriages, one son, a hurtful professional divorce and a group of exquisite albums. But that Troubled Water question, framed as an up-tempo goof but phrased suddenly like a suicide note, still stands. Let's consider it more benignly, as a kind of standing offer: "Why don't you write me/ I'm out in the jungle/I'm hungry to hear you." And take him up on it, at last.
"Dear Paul: How you doing? I suppose we can all hear for ourselves. Another wonderful new album, The Rhythm of the Saints. A stone beauty. Another stone beauty. They seem to roll around every few years or so, and since Graceland in '86, they seem to come from new territory. Sort of rare and familiar at the same time. Must be you're still in the jungle, if not exactly on safari. Africa for Graceland, Brazil now. All those strange, haunting sprung sounds, gliding guitars and drums echoing like distant dreams. Is this the way your dreams sound? Percussive and persistent? The kind that linger into the daylight, aren't they?
"And while we're at it: What did the Mama Pajama see Julio and his friend doing down by the schoolyard? How come we can call you Al? And in this new song The Obvious Child, what is the cross doing in the ball park?
"Yours sincerely . . ."
"It got me thinking when that first popped out," Paul Simon says, sitting in the living room of his Manhattan duplex, watching an early moon come up over Central Park. " `The cross is in the ball park.' The first thing I thought of was Billy Graham, or the Pope, or evangelical gatherings. But I came to feel what that's really about is the cross that we bear. The burdens that we carry are doable, they're in the ball park."
Neat enough, especially for a 49-year-old, 5-ft. 5-in. rock 'n' roller who still plays a court-singeing game of one-on-one and pledges allegiance to the New York Yankees. He is, after all, the man who sang yet another, still more famous question ("Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?"). Settling in to watch the Yankees close down a dismaying season a few weeks back, he speculated on the chances for one heavy hitter to grab off a bit of individual glory. "I'm not confident he's going to hit tonight. I saw him last night, and he had that look of defeat in his eyes. I could tell. Popcorn?"
That's a knowing bit of self-mockery you hear in the voice, making room for the accent that would brand him as a sure New York boy even if his music weren't so uptown all on its own. Simon is well aware of his penchant for self-reflection -- self-immersion sometimes -- and knows how to undercut and play against it, as anyone who's seen him larking around on his producer pal Lorne Michaels' Saturday Night Live shows over the years can instantly attest. The man who wrote Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard and You Can Call Me Al and 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover knows how to have a good time with a lyric, but only Paul Simon could write a tune titled Have a Good Time that's a deliberately dippy paean to incidental ennui and spiritual indifference.
"Rhythm of the Saints doesn't have an overall theme," he suggests. "It jumps around from subject to subject within the songs, slips from verse to verse. There are a lot of personal references: family, friends, some love-affair stuff. I know what all the lines mean in direct relationship to my life."
Lots of others think they know too. It's one thing to work into the new record musically, as Simon's friend Quincy Jones does when he says, "Paul goes straight for the throat. And he's smart enough to understand the African motor, which has driven pop music for so long." But it's another to cast the lyrical runes for references to his personal turmoil, especially when he is hands-down champion of the Confessional Songwriters, Elliptical Division. Perhaps it's just another kind of standing invitation.
Even Simon, who is adamant about protecting his privacy (and thus his best material), has become a little less guarded of late. The release of Rhythm of the Saints coincides with a couple of loud flourishes from the career of his second wife, the writer and actress Carrie Fisher, with whom he is not, at the moment, on speaking terms. This doesn't stop either of them from writing about the other, however. There is a Simonized character named Rudy in her current best seller, Surrender the Pink. But her ex-husband, who has read the book, acts like a man who was let off easy and maybe got in the last, best licks as well.
"It's not really stuff I talk about casually," Simon says, measuring the words like a jeweler weighing gold. There is a Saints love song called She Moves On, in which a man falls victim to a woman's witchery and pays the price: "I fall to my knees/ Shake a rattle at the skies." But the pain, which undoes him, also releases him: Simon takes the high ground. "That song is close to my heart," he admits. "Too close to the heart. It's about men being afraid of women's anger. It felt pretty real."
Along with all those effulgent rhythms, it's the finesse of the language that lofts songs like this out of the arena of gossip and retribution into something far more formidable. "In its literary context, his writing is very important," says the poet Derek Walcott, to whom Simon dedicates a Saints song called The Coast. "Most poetry is sedate, quiet, self-concerned. His imagination is much bolder and more refreshing. He reminds me of Hart Crane."
It takes some effort on Simon's part to stay in such heady company. His apartment, elegant and ordered, always has a guitar handy, but there are books of poetry (Wallace Stevens, Philip Larkin) open all around the living room, within easy reach, like so many cerebral snacks. In case this sounds a little rarefied for a rock guy -- even a rock guy who sang a few tunes to Derek Walcott's poetry class at Boston University -- it should be added that Simon also enjoys listening to music as various as Miles Davis, Prince and Public Enemy. It's not always the sounds of silence up there on Central Park West.
It was those very sounds, of course, that made stars of Simon and his best friend from Forest Hills, Queens, Art Garfunkel. Under the "nom de 45" Tom & Jerry, the boys had a minor hit single in 1957, then followed the folk-music trail into the new decade. Oft-told rock legend #192: how a house producer at Columbia Records without Paul's knowledge added electric guitar, drums and bass to an earnest, intimate, acoustic ballad of Simon's; and how The Sounds of Silence, with its new rock underpinnings, became a No. 1 single in 1966. It was a fluke, but Paul and Artie were smart enough, gifted enough and fast enough to build on it and go for a long, sweet ride.
"My best memories go back to the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme days, when we were beginning to make albums more carefully, that we really liked," Garfunkel says of those post-Silence days. "When we sat back and listened to the playback of that record, it was a high point in my career." The highest came in 1970 with the release of Bridge over Troubled Water, which remains in the top 50 best-selling albums of all time. It was also the last album Simon and Garfunkel would make together.
"We never thought Simon and Garfunkel was going to break up," Garfunkel says. "We just thought we'd take a break from each other." "Going out solo was my decision," Simon says now. "But I was nervous about it." The record company had a case of the corporate faints: Simon was busting up an act whose last record had sold 10 million copies. But the boys were having problems. Garfunkel was getting absorbed in acting, while Paul was taking his first turns down various lightly charted musical byways. "There was stuff I wanted to do anyway that Artie wouldn't have done," says Simon. "He wouldn't have gone to Jamaica to do Mother and Child Reunion. I know that he wouldn't have thought it was interesting." On Bridge, Simon adds, "maybe we sang four [songs] together. The rest is his solo or my solo. Artie and I were over by January 1970. We were really over before the '70s began."
The sympathetic imagination didn't have to strain to see the break coming. Simon's writing then was as vulnerable, and quite a bit more open, as anything he would do until his travails with Fisher resulted in his terrific (but commercially problematic) 1983 album, Hearts and Bones. It was Garfunkel, working down in Mexico on Catch-22, about whom Simon seemed to be singing when he asked, "Why don't you write me," just as it was very probably Garfunkel who was being addressed in The Only Living Boy in New York, an intensely wistful ballad about the encroachments of loneliness and the first endings of a vital friendship. "I've never asked him if any of the songs he's written were about me and our split," Garfunkel reflects. "But So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright [also on Bridge] may be. I was an architecture student. And Why Don't You Write Me sounds a lot like, `Where the hell are you, Artie?' "
There has been a little work together during the years since, including a memorable reunion concert (and resultant high-selling live album) in Central Park in 1981, but altogether, their relationship now follows the course of a Simon song, where endings are lingering but emphatic, and pain, like some rare vintage, grows keener with age. "He does things that I could never understand," says Garfunkel, who lives right across Central Park from his old friend. "He called me up one day and said, `Artie, I'm dropping your vocals on Hearts and Bones. It's not turning into the kind of album I want it to. And by the way, I'm marrying Carrie on Tuesday, and I want you to come.' "
Simon's rejoinders to such talk are kept out of conversation and stashed where they can do the most good: in his songs. "From what I can see/ Of the people like me," he sings in Allergies on Hearts and Bones, "We get better/ But we never get well." Simon does work at it, though, as far from public scrutiny as he can manage. "Paul's been famous since high school," says Lorne Michaels, "so he may have gotten soured on the way his image has been portrayed." The 18-year-old son of his first marriage, Harper, has temporarily left school and spends a good deal of time living with Carrie Fisher in California, where he can be near his girlfriend. When he comes East, his father, an inveterate night owl, rouses himself early to cook breakfast. "There's very little bullshit between them," Michaels observes, and Harper, a Grateful Dead fan, appears to be finding his own way.
But there is a stillness that goes beyond quiet in that apartment overlooking the park. There is a prevailing inwardness, a tone of twilight reflection, that seems to mirror Simon's own tenuous spiritual equipoise. "We see very little of each other now," Art Garfunkel says. "I see him about four times a year. I miss him. We have very complex feelings toward each other. We're not close friends anymore. But we are friends at the bottom of it all. There is a great love for each other that would snap into place on a dime."