While other old rockers hit troubled waters Paul Simon is sailing tunefully into the third age, finds Robert Sandall
These are perilous times for the elderly gents of the rock aristocracy. In the past few weeks 62-year-old Keith Richards has done his head in falling out of a palm tree, and Sir Paul McCartney, 63, has mislaid his marriage. So it´s good to find that one of America´s leading sexagenarian rock icons, Paul Simon, is bearing up okay. And delightful to learn that on his 64th birthday last October Simon took a call from his old friend Macca who sang him a certain well-known Beatles song. ´I can´t believe I´m 64,´ he says, cheerfully.
We meet at his suite at Claridge´s. The knowledge that most rock stars are much shorter in person than they seem on stage hardly prepares you for this extraordinary miniature. Today Simon looks like a wrinkled child. Standing barely 5ft high and dressed in a black T-shirt and brown slacks, he is right down there with that other notable rock goblin, Prince, in terms of his startlingly petite stature.
Small suits him, however. It goes particularly well with a delicate speaking voice, which clearly belongs to the same person whose fluting, choirboyish vocals launched all those hits. From the folk rock anthems such as The Sound of Silence ´” which established the Simon and Garfunkel brand that he started as a teenager with his childhood buddy Art ´” through the giant MOR ballads, notably Bridge over Troubled Water ´” which turned the duo into the biggest-selling group in the world after the Beatles (and spawned an album that shifted 14m copies in 1970) ´” to the more adventurous adult pop of his middle years after he became a solo artist.
The success of his 1986 album, Graceland, led to the creation of a new marketing category: ´world music´. The fact that Simon hasn´t troubled the charts for a decade and a half can´t detract from the fact that his is one of the most golden catalogues in pop.
Today, the greying golden boy is not too famous for small talk. Snuggled on a sofa Simon begins by detailing his recent dilemma over hot drinks. The large chai latte teas he´s been guzzling have, he realises, made him put on half a stone ´” ´I found out there are 280 calories in every one of those!´
So he´s decided to switch to small black coffees, which are easier on the waistline but can be tough lower down as we discover halfway through the interview when he makes a sudden dash for the Gents. ´That´s double espressos for you!´ he exclaims on his return five minutes later. ´Where was I?´
That´s a good question. By now we have progressed beyond tea, coffee and the immediate pretext for the interview ´” Simon´s new album, Surprise ´” and are on to the polarisation of attitudes in America today. Uh oh, you think. Listening to pop stars talking politics can be a toe-curling experience. Not Simon, though. He is on matey terms with several leading American politicians, notably Al Gore, with whom he appeared on Saturday Night Live last month. ´I asked him, ´˜Are you gonna run?´ and he wouldn´t say. Maybe he wouldn´t have made such a great president anyway.´
Now this really is a surprise. Like many alumni of the protest generation Simon is generally remembered as one of those long-haired Democrats who supported the überliberal George McGovern in his doomed presidential campaign in 1972. What happened?
´I think there was a powerful anti-liberal movement that began during the flowering of the 1960s, a group of people who said, ´˜I can´t stand this hippie thing´. And they played the long game. And they won. And for that you´ve gotta say, ´˜Good for you! You thought about the future and you went to work´.´
Hmmm. Is this the same Paul Simon who flew down to New Orleans days after hurricane Katrina struck to try to do his bit for the relief effort? Maybe he´s playing devil´s advocate. (It helps to bear in mind that before his music career took off this guy briefly went to law school in the early 1960s.) As if on cue, Simon suddenly takes off on another tack.
´When the feelings about the excesses of capitalist democracy are claimed by people who have a theocratic agenda, or by neocons who have a political agenda, which isn´t discussed except among themselves, then people are gonna get really heated. Especially when you have a president with the thinnest of majorities whose attitude is : ´˜It doesn´t matter if 49.5% of the people loathe us, it only matters that we get our way´. Then a city like New Orleans can be destroyed and nobody does anything. And that to me is a betrayal of what we are as a country.´
As much as he loves to talk politics, Simon is keen to point out that politics is none of his business. ´In the field of popular music, which is what I´m in because I made that decision at 14 years old, it´s just not a very interesting subject. People are exhausted and anyway they have their own opinions and they´re not going to be influenced very much, if at all, by a 3-minute piece of music.´
A bit disingenuous this, coming from the man whose Graceland album sparked a heated international argument, and questions in the United Nations, about his working with black musicians in South Africa during the final phase of apartheid.
But by now it´s clear that contradicting himself, or what he calls ´engaging in a dialogue that goes on in my head the whole time´, is Simon´s big thing.
Brought up in suburban Queens and staunchly resident ever since in and around New York, Simon now lives there with his wife, Edie Brickell (also a musician).
He´s not been averse to a drama himself over the years, although things have calmed down since his marriage in 1992 to his third wife. They have three children who play a key role in his life and his songwriting. ´I write all my lyrics and melodies while I´m driving the kids to school, or taking a detour, playing the backing tracks loud on the car speakers.´
It was during one such session that he came up with Father and Daughter, a song about his 11-year-old only daughter, LouLou. After careful thought he and Edie decided to let their 13-year-old son Adrian (´he´s very musical´) sing backing vocals. ´We´re very apprehensive about the kids being in the public eye, but we decided it was okay.´
Okay too, finally, is Paul Simon´s on-off relationship with his childhood friend Art Garfunkel, one of the longest-running real-life soaps in the world of entertainment. Almost as soon as the Simon and Garfunkel bandwagon started to roll the wheels began to fall off.
After the duo contributed songs to the soundtrack of Mike Nichols´s film of The Graduate in 1967, Garfunkel decided to make movie acting his priority. ´Meanwhile we were making a record which had to stop every time Artie was called away on a shoot.´ There was, Simon admits, ´probably a touch of jealousy´.
Simon and Garfunkel reunions have become an irregular feature of the oldie concert circuit since the pair split in 1970. Most have led to a renewal of hostilities. After they played a run of shows in 1993 the two men didn´t speak for 10 years until the offer of a lifetime achievement award at the 2003 Grammys forced a rapprochement ´It was like, ´˜Look, let´s not be a late-night talk show joke because we couldn´t keep it together for even a week´.´
With the Grammy safely stowed, something clicked back into place and they managed an extensive world tour in 2004 without the traditional falling out. ´We just went back to when we were kids. I find it´s fun to be around anybody who knew me before fame intervened.´ He and Artie now hang out occasionally, like they did in Queens in the 1950s.
In terms of his current work, Simon has a new significant other, the British producer and former member of Roxy Music, Brian Eno, whom he met at a groovy dinner party in London in 2004. Simon likes London, having lived here during the 1960s. ´The party was given by old English friends of mine, very interesting people,´ he says, declining to name the hosts. ´David Hockney was there.´ A sparkling conversation led to a meeting at Eno´s west London studio and ended as a fully fledged collaboration to produce Surprise.
This partnership seems to have cheered up the little old fellow no end. ´The Simon and Garfunkel collaboration was something like this! I like Brian immensely. I was starting to find the process of working on my own very lonely.´
In conclusion I say that Paul Simon now seems a far happier person than the troubled soul I met back in 1991, battling a failing marriage and post-Graceland charges of cultural imperialism. ´It´s a clichÃ© but I do find myself amazed at the way love has turned out, the way life has turned out. I´m not as optimistic as I was. I´m not as pessimistic either. And that´s me. Luckily I can make songs out of it.´