There was a strange glint and sparkle at the Paul Simon concert in Vancouver Wednesday night. It didn´t come from the stage, from some trick of high-tech lighting. Rather, it came from the audience, from the glistening bald pates and the flowing grey hair. It came from a crowd of people who, a generation ago, couldn´t have imagined a middle-aged mob rockin´ out in the staid and graceful Orpheum Theatre.
It came from two or three generations of memories -- poignant and rich -- and it came from a compulsive performer, from a generous perfectionist inspired by the adulation of the crowd and driven, still, to deserve that affection.
With due respect to Dylan and Cohen, Paul Simon was one of the true troubadours of the 1960s. He built a following singing ramped-up folk tunes with that Garfunkel guy, and then he broke away in the ´70s for a solo career that just won´t quit. He wrote songs like ´Still Crazy After All These Years´ (1975), apparently imagining that a lot of time had passed -- naively presuming that he was passing into a later phase in his musical career.
Far from disappearing into an early dotage, Simon staged a ´comeback´ in the 1980s with the Graceland album, an extraordinary marriage of American musical prose with African harmonies and rhythms. No collection in the latter half of the 20th century was more influential in teaching pop performers about the myriad possibilities of the beat.
In the 1990s, he filled coliseums with his Born at the Right Time tour, and if you didn´t know better, you´d think that he was talking about his own life -- about our lives; about a generation of baby boomers who have never had to get over being the centre of attention. We were certainly born at the right time.
And now it´s 2006 (how did that happen?), and Simon, his muse still active at age 65, has produced a new album: Surprise. You can imagine, as a result, his management trying to talk him into making another tour -- cajoling him away from his family for the sake of publicizing the CD. You can imagine a 65-year-old faced with months on a bus with the roadies and the bandmates. You can imagine resistance.
But when you see Simon take the stage with a band of players mostly verging on the geriatric, you know that it must be something more. Simon is there to share, and he seems as grateful to the crowd for even showing up as they are to him for a lifetime of music.
Here comes rhymin´ Simon
The performance was typical of a Simon concert, with two exceptions. First, it´s been decades since you could see him in a venue as intimate as the Orpheum, a 2,800-seat theatre with perfect sightlines and enviable acoustics. And second, rock ´n´ roll shows didn´t used to start with a standing ovation.
Simon began with some Graceland tunes (including ´Boy in the Bubble´) and segued into a few pieces from Surprise (the current numbers inspiring the 20-year-old woman in front of us to whoop and punch the air). Then he reached back into everybody´s past for tunes like ´50 Ways to Leave Your Lover´ and ´Slipsliding Away´ -- and even further for ´Mrs. Robinson´ and ´The Only Living Boy in New York.´ By the time he actually sang ´Graceland,´ the crowd was on its feet, clapping and dancing, and the aging Orpheum ushers were milling nervously at the back of the hall. He sang three encores, including ´Still Crazy,´ ´The Boxer´ and ´Bridge over Troubled Waters,´ finally wrapping up with ´Late in the Evening.´
And it was. The show ran a full and lively two hours, and the crowd -- used up from the gyrations and exertions of dancing on the spot -- looked more its age as it filed, smiling, out between the rococo columns of the home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
As we retreated down the sidewalk, we bumped into a clutch of people gathering around the stage door and a big bouncer shouted that we must all move back -- that if we hoped to see Simon or get an autograph, we should line up along the wall. Who would have thought? When my wife Elizabeth joined the lineup, I complained -- ´It´ll take forever. What are we going to do with an autograph, anyway?´ -- and she gave me the look that asked what particular plans I had for the next 10 minutes. None, really.
So we waited -- not much more than 10 minutes -- and sure enough, Simon came out, ready and willing to perform one more duty for his fans.
´Could really believe´
He´s tiny, perhaps five-foot-three, and up close you can see his age. Despite the driving energy that he still brings to the stage -- the exuberant youthfulness -- he looks fleshy and a little frail. And he was clearly exhausted.
When he got to Elizabeth, she handed him a notepad and said, ´Mr. Simon, you surely were born at the right time.´ He stopped his scribble, blinked through the battery of cellphone cameras and looked her in the eye, saying, ´You like that song?´
She told him that she does, indeed -- that when we attended that particular concert, she was eight and a half months pregnant with our first child. We thought he´d written the song for us.
Simon asked, ´When was that?´ And when Elizabeth answered, ´February 1991,´ he said, ´Yeah, that´s right. That was a good time, the end of the Cold War -- it was a time when you could really believe in freedom.´
So, it wasn´t about us. It wasn´t about us as boomers, and it wasn´t about our own new baby, specifically. It seems that Paul Simon really believed in the heady possibilities of that period between the global risk of nuclear annihilation and the very personal threat of terrorism -- between the regional risks of dioxin and DDT and the global threat of CO2. He believed it was ´the right time,´ and that everything was going to turn out all right.
He didn´t sing that song on Wednesday. He didn´t sing anything from the Rhythm of the Saints album. But he brought that feeling. For two hours, a whole roomful of boomers (their numbers bolstered by some youngsters with extraordinarily good taste) clapped and cried and sang along, savouring a life of fond memories and believing that it may yet turn out all right.
Even if, when it does, it will still be a surprise.
Vancouver Island-based Richard Littlemore is a widely published journalist who now devotes most of his efforts to writing speeches and consulting.