'The Capeman’, the Broadway musical written and staged by Simon, was the most high-profile failure of his career. Vritics savaged it, and the play closed in March 1998 after only 68 performances.
A few months after that disappointment, Simon put together a 10-piece band with no goal other than to bring a sound that he heard in his head to life.
“I had the idea –and this may have been subconsciously- to just go and play music with a band, don’t think, and just get back into the water and enjoy it again,” he said. “Feel no sense of attention –nothing to prove, no goals, just play music. Let that be nourishing, and that’s what happened.”
The eventual result was ‘You’re the one’ (…). The album of songs driven primarily by Simon’s electric guitar marries his singer-songwriter roots with lessons learned during the world-music explorations of ‘Graceland’ and ‘The rhythm of the saints’.
In songs like ‘Quiet’ and ‘Hurricane eye’, Simon is driven lyrically by a search for spirituality in a materialistic world.
His wryly turned stories include a parable about the death penalty, a moving tale of a troubled marriage and a funny ode to aging, ‘Old’. The last is perfect reassurance for baby boomers feeling their age, putting their years into perspective compared to the sweep of time.
“I have no idea where any of the stories come from,” said Simon, who turns 59 Friday.
“What was unusual about this album is that they came very quickly, usually in a day or two days and it was finished.”
He worked a full year with the band before writing any lyrics. Simon’s method is to compose music first and later see what words fit over it. He finds that that leads to more creative compositions than if he were playing guitar and writing at the same time.
“When I begin, I don’t have an idea of what the point is,” he said. “But I’ll find out, and that’s part of the fun. It becomes revealed to you along the way what it is that’s important and what’s in your mind and your heart. When that happens, I’m usually surprised.”
He spoke in an empty office one floor above a rehearsal studio a few blocks from Broadway.
A sign on the studio’s door informs band members of scheduled rehearsals for both days of the upcoming weekend. They begin a 13-city tour in Stockholm October 16. Simon is playing relatively small theatres on this tour. He’ll perform much of the new album and little of the material he played on last summer’s tour with Bob Dylan, delving deeper into his songbook than usual.
Though proud of ‘You’re the one’, he’s a little apprehensive as it leaves the cocoon of his mind and his group of musicians for the general public. He’s not sure where it fits in the world of Britney Spears and ‘N Sync.
“when you approach the marketplace, it’s a little bewildering,” Simon said. “When you’re working, you’re in this very pleasant, safe place in your imagination, working with other imaginative musicians. It’s so pleasurable –everybody understands and everybody agrees with what we’re doing.”
But when it’s released, “you’re getting near a kind of natural negativity. Some people are going to say, ‘I don’t really like that, it’s not for me’ or ‘I really don’t like it’, like ‘The Capeman’.”
That wound is still a little raw, apparently.
Simon talks at length in defense of his work, believing people who saw the show liked it more than the critics. It was a serious look at the concept of redemption and, if people don’t want to think too much, they could just enjoy Marc Anthony or RubÃ©n Blades, he said.
“It was disappointing, yeah,” he said. “It was a lot of work. You work for years on something, put a lot into it and care about it a lot and it goes away very quickly. In a matter of months, it was gone. That was a frustration.”
Now he’s back, the muse returned. Simon is eager to get out and play his music. The only drawback is it takes him away from his three young children –ages 2, 5 and 7- and his wife, singer Edie Brickell.
“When I finish a project I feel depleted, that I don’t have anything more to say and I have no ideas,” he said. “I have nothing. I always wonder: Will ever get another idea? When I do, if I do, I’m really grateful.”
“As I get older, the music for me is more and more about sound. Everything seems to start with sound. Once I get the sound right, that tells you the melody and the melody (leads you) to the words. When I begin an album, I keep a book and I write down phrases and thoughts that might work in a song.
“I’ll then look through the book to see if there’s a phrase that fits with the melody in a way that tells a story. On this album, the words came so fast that most of the songs were written in a day or two. It’s like that old songwriters’ clichÃ©: ‘I didn’t write it. I was just taking dictation.’ But that’s how it felt. That’s very different for me. It’s usually like a couple of months of working on the lyrics.
“’Bridge over troubled water’ came that fast, and I had the same feeling I had with some of these songs, ‘Where did that come from?’ I had no idea that I knew that melody or those chord changes or that I was going to say (those lyrics) at all. I wrote the first two verses in an evening. I wrote the third in the studio.
“It has always been my instinct to be optimistic in my music. There’s some hint of melancholy or sadness here and there, but very little overt anger or hostility. I really don’t believe philosophically that’s my job. If all I have to say is how disappointed I am about whatever there is in life, then I don’t see what the contribution is. There’s already plenty of it out there.
“But I’m not lying when I go the other way. Love is amazing and it’s like I say on the album, it’s something you want so desperately, and it can make you laugh out loud when you get it. It’s like medicine for us.”