The neck of my Guitar
Profiles and Interviews: Paul Simon (1975) Rock Lives

By Timothy White, 1975

"Home run!" hollered young Paul Simon, a small bat in his hands, as the baseball-sized cube, blue with yellow dots, bounced off the top of his bedroom window. "That's the waaay!" he roared with high-pitched, nasal glee. "Didja see that ball go? I gotcha now, Eddie," Paul chided his companion, and then lapsed into an imitation of a Yankee play-by-play announcer: "How about that, fans? A Ballatine blast! And the score is 1-0 as we go to the bottom of the nineteenth." Eddie Simon smirked, simultaneously amused and annoyed. A shortstop by vocation, he knew his sinking curve ball was his best pitch, but no match, at least this afternoon, for the nimble arch of his older brother's righthanded uppercut. One lousy hit in nineteen innings might not seem like much, but over the last six years the boys had honed the fine points of bedroom baseball pitching to where they could maintain a scoreless tie for as many as thirty innings, neither surrendering as much as a foul tip.

The soft blue cube had fallen to the floor and bounced along noiselessly, coming to rest at the toes of Eddie's sneakers. It was one of a pair of oversized foam rubber dice, hip midfifties bijouterie that the older fellas in the neighborhood liked to dangle from the rearview mirrors of their cars. As far as the Simon brothers were concerned, the dice were ideal bedroom baseball substitutes for the old horsehide: heavy enough for reasonable pitching control; light enough so that a thoughtful swing was required for accuracy-- and no worry of broken windows.

Eddie scooped up the "ball" and exchanged it for the bat as he passed Paul on the way to the imaginary batter's box at the far end of the fifteen-by-eighteen-foot room, whose plaid wallpapered walls were festooned with the usual motley collection of oddments gathered by small boys: sports photos, Yankee and Michigan State foot- ball pennants, a poster of Johnny Ace . . .

I t was late June of 1955; Dwight David Eisenhower was better than two years into his presidency, Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) was the bane of nationwide Joe-Must-Go clubs; and the Atomic Energy Commission had just reported that a nuclear bomb similar to the one exploded that May in Yucca Flats, Nevada, could be constructed in unlimited size from the cheapest atomic explosives. Albert Anastasia, a Brooklyn racketeer, had just been sentenced to a year in jail for income tax evasion, and Argentine-born singer Dick Haymes, husband of actress Rita Hayworth, had won a three-year court battle against deportation.

Paul Simon, thirteen, and his brother Eddie, nine, couldn't have cared less; baseball season was in high gear and the various trees lining peaceful, almost-suburban 70th Road in Kew Garden Hills, Queens, New York, were in full flower. Indeed, the nation's head- lines seemed light-years away from the shelter of their two-story brick home, one of a block-long row of identical, attached cottages. If the two pale, dark-haired, rather tiny boys were distressed by anything in the newspapers that year, it was the widespread prediction that Cleveland would again edge out the New York Yankees for the American League pennant. Thankfully, the Tribe had nose- dived at the end of May, and the Yanks presently had a 5l/2-game hold on first place. Mickey Mantle, a hero of Paul Simon, was the Yankees' only .300 hitter and led the league in homers. (Nearly two decades later the two would meet on the Dick Cavett show, and Mantle would privately ask Simon. "Howcum you didn't sing about me instead of Joe DiMaggio in that 'Mrs. Robinson' song?" "Nothing personal," Simon told him sheepishly. "You were always good too, but I needed the syllables.") Most important of all to Paul Simon at that precise moment in 1955 was that school was out for summer, which meant that he would never again have to return to Parsons Junior High School, which he had attended for the past two years as part of an accelerated program replacing seventh eighth, and ninth grades. He hated that place. Parsons was not located in his tranquil, overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood, but in a tough black/Italian section twenty walking minutes away. Before Paul finally mustered the courage to stand up to the local punks, they had taken considerable pleasure in tormenting him and his buddy Artie Garfunkel, also in the special program.

Morning after morning as Artie and Paul approached the school during their first year, four or five of a loose gang of a dozen "hitters" would descend upon them for an elaborate liturgy of humiliation that including extorting their lunch money, throwing their books over a nearby fence, and then coercing them into vicious fights they had no hope of winning.

Young Paul shuddered at the recollection. In a few days, he'd be leaving for two months at a bucolic summer camp far out on Long Island, and then he'd start tenth grade in Forest Hills High School, located in the fashionable upper-middle-class enclave. "Forget it," he said to himself, relaxing a clenched fist that had compressed the sponge cube to the size of a walnut. "It don't matter anymore . . ."

Driven indoors earlier that afternoon by a sudden downpour which had caught them at the baseball diamond at Public School No. 165, Paul and Eddie, their jerseys and dungarees still damp, had been absorbed for the last hour in one of a half-dozen events in the "Simon Olympics," a customized two-boy indoor sports marathon which also included wrestling, basement hockey, house basketball, and a curious type of sparring consisting of playfully strategic hesitations and studied jabs that were never (intentionally) landed. Nobody else was home. Louis Simon, a professional bass player, had left for Manhattan early that morning to sit in with the CBS-TV band for a taping of the Arthur Godfrey show and then do some session work across town. His wife, Belle, was out for a day of shopping. But for the laughter and raucous banter coming from the brightly lit second-floor bedroom, the neat, simply furnished house was dark and silent.

Though the boys were some four years apart in their age, their appearance, mannerisms, and even speech patterns were so strikingly similar that at times their ritual fisticuffs must have seemed like sharp-focus shadowboxing. But besides the age difference--Paul was born on October 13, 1941, and Eddie on December 14, 1945-- there were a few other distinctions between the two. Paul was an inch taller than Eddie, had larger, broader features, and though an agreeable, outgoing boy, was decidedly more subdued when compared to his bubbly twin.

In fact, Eddie seemed to take after his mother, a diminutive-- four feet, eleven inches in her stocking feet--effervescent woman who taught English at the elementary school level. Paul, however shared much of the reserved, studious side of his father, Louis, who stood a trim five feet, four inches and, at that time, was a respected professional musician whose career included stints in the studio orchestras of local radio stations and frequent work on the Arthur Godfrey, Garry Moore, and Jackie Gleason TV shows. Eddie faced Paul and waited, stonefaced, for the first pitch in the bottom of the nineteenth inning, the room silent but for the gray rain tapping on the windows. Baseball, bedroom or otherwise, was of almost religious importance to both boys, but Paul most especially. He was an excellent outfielder and base-stealer, known for his fierce dedication to winning at any cost; he wore spiked shoes even to casual pickup games and had no qualms about thrusting them into the legs of a skinny young infielder while sliding into second base.

(Paul still has bitter memories of his final year in Queens's Five- Foot softball league. The borough was playing Staten Island for the city championship, and just before the game, all team members were measured to make sure none were taller than five feet. Paul, a star player all season, had grown an inch over the summer and was barred moments before the start of the final game; Queens lost, and he was glad. )

Paul winked at Eddie from across the room and then went into an abbreviated windupi the pitch was high and inside with a breaking outward spin on it--you really could do a lot with that foam die. Eddie pulled in and tried to bunt it between the beds for a single, but Paul saw his plan and leapt across for a classic one-handed catch: Paul wins, 1-0.

A small victory, but a victory nonetheless--the kind of modest triumph Paul Simon has always found especially satisfying. Soon afterward, the Simon brothers were down in the basement playing hockey with equal determination--one taking shots with a tennis ball and the other tending goal with a fielder's mitt on one hand and a tennis racquet in the other. "My brother and I knew how to create fun," Paul Simon later tells me. "We made up our own sports, depending on what materials were available. When my mother and father would go out, Eddie and I would go into their bedroom and play basketball with a Spauldeen, swinging their door against the wall to form a basket- type shaft.

"We had these crazy made-up names for each other when we played bedroom basketball. I was called George Muffchatiery, and Eddie was Mickey Muffchatiery. We used to do these running commentaries as we played, and I always was 'Coming out of retirement for one last game!'

'He's playing from memory!' Eddie would announce to the imaginary crowd; 'Old George is playing the whole game from memory! '

"Baseball, though, that was the big thing with me," Simon muses with a low, wistful chuckle. "I can remember, clear as a bell, sitting on my father's lap in our living room and listening to a 1947 Yankee game on the radio: boy, I loved the Yankees. My father once took me to a Dodger game at Ebbets Field--in 1949--and I was so ashamed of being there that I wore a Lone Ranger mask so nobody would recognize me.

"I always was good at that game," he details matter-of-factly. "I used to hustle stickball around Queens in the 1950s, deliberately blowing the first game to fool guys and then doubling the stakes on the second. I'd make $15-$20 a day!"

The year 1955 was an important one in Paul Simon's life. His friendship with Artie Garfunkel, begun while both were still back in P.S. 164, had evolved into an extremely close one through an advanced mutual interest in singing. The two had recently braved their first public appearance together, an assembly at Parsons High late in the spring in which they sang an a cappella version of "Sh-Boom."

"Artie always was the best singer," according to Simon. "Once in P.S. 164 he stood up at a school program and sang 'They Tried to Tell Us We're Too Young,' and everybody was talking about how beautiful it sounded.

"I started to sing around the age of eleven," Paul explains. "I remember exactly when I began. I was singing along to this record of Alice in Wonderland. [Artie and Paul were in the sixth-grade graduation play at P.S. 164, a dramatization of Alice; Paul played the d White Rabbit and Artie the Cheshire Cat.] It was a pleasant little d kid's record, and I was sitting on my bed, singing the songs. My father passed the room, and he said, 'That's nice Paul. You have a nice voice. "That was it; from that moment on, I thought of myself as someone who could sing."

Eager for some musical accompaniment for his and Artie's vocalizing, Paul followed his younger brother's lead and took up the guitar.

"My father bought me a $25 Stadium-brand guitar for my birthday in October of 1955 . He felt that everybody should play a musical instrument and had tried to teach me the piano, but it was no go, so he gave up on me and taught my brother. The guitar was a second attempt on his part."

"Nobody thought that Paul would be very good on guitar," recalls Eddie Simon, who by then was well into classical instruction on the instrument. "The day he got it, he sat down and picked out a one-note tune, 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,' I think. It didn't sound too promising, but he fooled us all and got good quickly."

Paul Simon always has been good at anything he deigned to turn his disciplined attention toward. Those powers of intense concentration have over the years brought him much good fortune, acclaim, and, according to some, a measure of sadness which one friend of his would privately describe to me as "Paul's burdensome, tragic sense."

Paul was fourteen when he began writing songs, at that time collaborating with Artie, who lived three blocks away on 72nd Street. The very first was entitled "The Girl For Me":

The girl for me is standing there That's the one, flowers in her hair.

"Artie and I got 'The Girl For Me' copyrighted and everything," Simon says. "We sent the form in to the Library of Congress along with the four dollars, and then went into Manhattan after school and on Saturdays to hang around the Brill Building, trying to get it published.

"We were fifteen years old when we signed a contract with Big Records as Tom and Jerry," Simon went on. " 'Hey Schoolgirl' was the first song we recorded. To go along with the Tom and Jerry thing, I took on the stage name Jerry Landis and Artie took Tom Graph. I picked Landis because I was going out with a girl named Sue Landis at the time, and Artie picked Graph because he used to follow all the current hit records on big sheets of graph paper. 'Hey Schoolgirl' was sold in both 45 and 78 rpm: on the 45 it says by Landis-Graph, but on the 78 it's got P. Simon and A. Garfunkel." The record was released in 1957, with another Landis-Graph song called "Dancing Wild" on the flip side, and eventually sold 120,000 copies, remaining in Billboard's Top 100 for nine weeks. It advanced as high as No. 54 early in 1958 before disappearing from the charts.

The hits didn't keep on coming. Several other Tom and Jerry efforts were released, among them "Our Song" and "That's My Story," but they stiffed.

Though their early recording career failed to earn them the fortune anticipated--the boys split a few thousand dollars for "Schoolgirl"--it did serve to make their names household words in their own backyard, especially after two appearances on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand."

"You can't imagine what it was like having a hit record behind you at the age of sixteen," Simon confesses with a quick, embarrassed grin. "One month Artie and I were watching 'American Bandstand' on television, and the next month we were on the show. It was an incredible thing to have happen to you in your adolescence. I had picked up the guitar because I wanted to be like Elvis Presley, and there I was!

"The first time we appeared on Bandstand we were guests along with Jerry Lee Lewis. He sang 'Great Balls of Fire'! I tell you, it was a tough act to follow. We didn't meet him before or after the show, though. Actually, I think we were too scared.

"We were big deals around Queens and the high school for a while after the song hit," he adds softly. "I saved the money from 'Hey Schoolgirl,' and, well, two years later I bought a car, a red Impala convertible, which eventually burned to the ground. It had three carburetors in it, and they caught fire one night while I was driving along. As a matter of fact, it happened right on the corner of Artie's block. I had to leave the car--jump right out--and ended up watching while my whole share of the record burned up." A disarming stream of anecdotes pour from a reticent man who seldom lets them slip anymore. It's unfortunate; a natural storyteller, he delivers his with a dry, understated elan that reminds one at various points of George Gobel, George S. Kaufman, and Oscar Levant. Downcast at first, he brightens at my amusement with his reminiscences, showing a genuinely friendly smile that all too quickly vanishes.

Paul Simon, dressed in dungarees, a dark blue shirt, and a drab green tweed jacket with suede patches on the elbows, is seated in an overstuffed leather chair in a drawing room-like chamber of his New York offices, located in a stately townhouse off Fifth Avenue in Manhattan's East Sixties.

After some three months of prodding, he has agreed to two concessions to stardom that he admittedly detests: an interview and, during our meeting, photographs. There was a time when he was so self-conscious about his size that he insisted, as have other public figures of short stature like Tom Jones and the late Rod Serling, on being photographed from below, or some other vantage point which would distort any relative perspective of height and depth. It is a testament to Paul Simon's craft and strength of purpose that he has become one of the major singer-songwriters of his age, selling tens of millions of records and generating a considerable amount of popular sheet music, without once resorting to a publicity stunt, a garish stage show, voguish material, or hype of any sort.

A constant innovator, he has been instrumental in introducing to mass audiences the talents of such artists as reggae guitarist Hux Brown, the Dixie Hummingbirds, South American folk instrumentalists Urubamba, bottleneck guitarist Stefan Grossman, the Jessy Dixon Singers, Brazilian singer-accordionist Sivuca, and jazz greats like violinist Stephane Grappelli, saxophonist Phil Woods, and harmonicist-composer Toots Thielemans (author of "Bluesette"). Although his work, and especially his melodic sense, is much admired, Paul Simon has long been the target of criticism: first, during his collaboration with Garfunkel, for songs that many critics felt smacked of Ivy League ennui with a sticky maudlin glaze; and then, as his solo career has progressed, for lyric imagery that some say has become increasingly hostile and/or sarcastically melancholy.

Simon knows that some people think he's running an angst-athon; he appears to read everything written about himself. He admits that he is not undeserving of critical review but has repeatedly maintained that he writes not for a youthful audience desirous of "entertainment for its own sake" but for adults--marred, scarred, hopeful, inquiring grown-ups.

On the gusty, late-autumn afternoon that we talk, he lets me know with subdued vexation that, since I was asking, he wants to explain the nuts and bolts of his artistry at some length: purpose, choice of subject matter, technique--all of it.

In retrospect, it is neither his opinions on nor explanations of his work, fascinating as they were, that linger, but rather his manner: a quietly compelling combination of something both childlike and durably fatalistic. Apart from behaving as if he wished to be anywhere else but in that room talking about himself, he exuded the Saroyanesque air of one alternately triple and then one-third his years; I won't deny that I envied the timeless quality in his demeanor.

One of my first questions concerned the lyrics of "Night Game," a song on Still Crazy After All These Years. Set in a gloomy, funereal ballpark, the song apparently concerns the cruel demise of a pitcher. Paul Simon being a person sufficiently fond of baseball to have played it with relish all his life--a broken nose and several public mortifications notwithstanding--and then eagerly accept the honor of throwing out the first ball at the start of the Yankees' 1969 season, I was curious why he would then write a song that dressed the game in such utterly odious raiment.

" 'Night Game,' " he sighs. "That song is about ritual death, like in Roman times when they used to send people out into the arena to fight to the death, fighting animals and so forth, and it would have this cathartic effect upon the crowd. Well, today in our stadiums, people don't get killed, but they fight, and there's a winner and a loser. They're the descendants of those arenas, those games. So that's really what the song's about death: ritual death."

"A number of your songs sound as if they come from some sort of sad resignation," I tell him. "How about '50 Ways to Leave Your Lover'? It has humorous overtones, but if you read the words without the music, those overtones simply aren't there."

"I woke up one morning in my apartment on Central Park," he says, "and the opening words just popped into my mind: 'The problem is all inside your head, she said to me . . .' That was the first thing I thought of. So I just started building on that line. It was the last song I wrote for the album, and I wrote it with a Rhythm Ace, one of those electronic drum machines so maybe that's how it got that sing-song 'make a new plan Stan, don't need to be coy Roy' quality. It's basically a nonsense song."

"It doesn't hit me that way," I insist. "It seems more real to me than that."

"It's just the character in the song," Simon minimizes, "that's all."

Eddie Simon, now thirty and an accomplished guitarist who owns a successful music school in Manhattan, would later provide somewhat contradictory background on "50 Ways."

"Paul loves to play these little improvisational rhyming games with his three-year-old son, Harper James," Ed reveals with a laugh. "You know. 'There Goes Rhymin' Simon' and all of that--that's where that stuff comes from. It all started a while ago when Paul was teaching him this 'Fe Fi Fiddle-eye-o' song, and just grew from there. Harper James laughs like crazy when he does it!

"I think that's where the song came from. I believe it grew out of those games they play. I know it's Harper James's favorite." In a similar way, Paul Simon discounts a literal translation of "My Little Town."

"That song isn't about me," he asserts adamantly. "It isn't auto- biographical in any sense. The song is about someone who hates the town he grew up in. Somebody happy to get out. I don't know where the idea came from.

"It was originally a song I was writing for Artie. I was gonna write a song for his new album, and I told him it would be a nasty song, because he was singing too many sweet songs. It seemed like a good concept for him.

"As I was teaching it to him," Simon recollects, rubbing his razor-neat moustache, "we would be, aaah, harmonizing. So he said, 'Hey, why don't you do this song with me on the record?' So I said, 'Yeaah, sure, why not.'

"I think it was Artie's idea to put the song on both of our albums. He felt it wouldn't be fair to put it on one. We figured there would be a certain amount of commotion about our not having sung together in the studio for five years: we decided if people wanted to buy Simon and Garfunkel, they should not have to buy one album as opposed to the other album."

The year 1975 was a rough twelve months for Simon. His four-year marriage to the former Peggy Harper was breaking up during the making of the Still Crazy album, and the songs reflect that strain. Paul declines a request to speak about that misfortune, but says, when I ask, that the song "I Do It for Your Love," a chronicle of poignantly ordinary occurrences in a crumbling marriage was "all partly true, but not literally true."

I then say I regarded the title song on the album as a series of personal reflections and that I had been disturbed by the ominous implications of a couplet in the final verse:

Now I sit by my window and watch the cars I fear 1'1l do some damage one fine day. "What sort of damage?" I ask him. "Violent," he replies in an irritated tone. "Something violent; do a violent act, whatever that might be. Killing someone would be the most violent, then take it down to whatever."

"Where does that anger come from?"

"I don't know," he says. "Right then I was writing about the character in the song, and that's how he felt."

That last part surprised me; I had assumed we were talking about Paul Simon, not a character in a narrative song.

"See," he says confidingly, making a cranky face, "I believe it's no good to talk about your songs; it's wrong. You should leave your songs alone and let them say what they say; let people take what they want from them.

"All I try to do in the songs," he explains, "is write about the world that I'm in, and I try to do it honestly. But it's not good to explain. If they were meant to be explained then they wouldn't be written."

"Okay, what's the artistic motive behind your music?"

"Well, I think my songs are lyrically . . . grown-up, you know? d I've seen some reviews of the last album [There Goes Rhymin 'Simon, d 1973] where they say it's disillusioned or bitter, but I strongly don't feel that it is--nor do I feel that I am.

"I think that those guys, those songwriters who grew up in rock and roll and were prominent in the 1960s have to keep writing about their lives as they reach their thirties. There's no need, " he emphasizes, "for me to write 'Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting.' It's not in my life anymore. Somebody's gonna write that and write it well, though, and somebody's gonna write 'Born to Run' and write it very well. There's always been that in rock and roll.

"Look," says Simon, "one of the big things that revitalized popular music in the 1960s was the Beatles, who came around and wrote the truth when the lyrics were still based on a 1950s mentality of 'We're not too young to fall in love' and shit like that. The Beatles wrote about their age, " he asserts, showing another fleeting smile. "That's what I'm doing. I can't stay writing the same lyrics I wrote when I was twenty-three."

Simon is utterly committed to the task of writing for his age group. As he complained to the New York Times in May of 1973, "Nobody's making music for me"--and he says he believes that now more than ever.

"So much of what I hear on the radio is boring," he moans. "I think part of the reason is because it's not real. It may be real-- maybe--if you're eighteen, but not if you're thirty. People thirty years old wonder why they're not getting off on popular music the way they once did, and it's because nobody's singing for them. When you reach a certain age you're not naive anymore. Everything I write can't be a philosophical truth, but it certainly isn't innocent--because I'm not.

"Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die."

"What about the current state of the concert scene?" I ask.

"What do you think of the big arena syndrome, the theatrics? . . ."

"An attempt to evoke an audience response, unless it's something that's truthful, is bad," he decides. "Entertainment for its own sake never appealed to me much, and bad entertainment for its own sake is even worse. But if I know that someone's purpose is to shock me, there's no way in the world that they can shock me; if the performer's purpose is to unnerve me, then boy, I'm annoyed! "That's what's happened at rock concerts, and it's partly due to the fact that concerts moved into those arenas, where you had to make larger strokes to be seen. I don't participate in that."

Simon is currently winding up a concert tour that many-- among them producer-friend Phil Ramone, who produced his last two albums and Simon's soundtrack to the film Shampoo--suspect will be his last for some time to come. Ramone, a likable, well-spoken man with curly salt-and-pepper hair and a bushy beard to match, also has handled the sound-mixing for Simon's last three tours, a unique carryover for a producer. As he has for nearly all previous tours, Simon booked these shows into auditoriums and concert halls in the 3,000-seat range, a deliberate move that, coupled with his insistence on a sizable supporting cast that included the Jessy Dixon Singers and studio-quality sound equipment, ruled out any possibilities of doing much better than breaking even at the box office.

"Paul's very meticulous," Ramone says, "and on the road he looks for a special feeling, a delicacy missing from the normal, blaring rock shows. I apply a recording engineer's concepts to p.a.- system problems to try to bring about something far superior to the norm."

Simon and Ramone have become close as a result of their professional association, and Ramone feels part of the reason is that they share similar opinions on Paul's working pace and what constitutes a well-crafted product.

"Paul Simon is not prolific," says Ramone. "That's not his strength. What makes him great is that he's a craftsman, a perfectionist, and I guess I am too.

"When Paul begins an album, he never has more than one song ready and maybe a fragment of a second one. We take our time and experiment until we get precisely what he wants. The last album took about nine months to make," he grins, "just like a baby. I guess you could call it natural childbirth!

"To work successfully with Paul you must live in the pace he comes into the studio with. A lot of times during the album, we had to stop for a month or so because there was nothing flowing from him. Once they're written, each song matures technically at its own individual speed. When we finally got the concept we liked for 'Gone at Last,' Paul and Phoebe [Snow] knocked that off in about two hours, but that was unusual."

("Gone at Last" was originally recorded with Bette Midler, but never saw release because, as Simon puts it, "We couldn't get through all the haggling with the record companies. The version with Bette had more of a Latin, street feel," he notes. "I changed the concept with Phoebe and tried a gospel approach because she was perfect for it.")

Simon corroborates Ramone's testimony on his studio technique.

"I never have songs in the can," he said. "When I finish ten songs for a new album I stop and don't ever start to write again until it's time for the next album. Right now, I don't have anything in the works, not a single tune. I treat each album as a project; I like it better that way."

What's this about a farewell tour? The newspapers and even some of your friends are speculating that, hereafter, you'll restrict your activities to the studio, and maybe a Broadway show. "The last tour was supposed to be my farewell tour," he says, "and here I am again. I really thought it would be the last, but I changed my mind. Thing is, next to interviews and photographs, touring is my least favorite thing, but then I get drawn into it and the next thing I know, I'm out on the road.

"But listen, I don't feel any need to tour and I'm not worried whether I ever will again. I don't mind performing for people, but I'm not a big showman and never was. It's not as if I've got a show of some kind and need some place to put it on.

"As for the things in the newspapers and other magazines recently about a Broadway musical, that's all bullshit. I have absolutely no plans for something like that and no one has approached me, either. I'm not saying I wouldn't be willing to do it some day, but the only plans I have at the moment are to do a lot of reading and start another album in a year or so."

Between the public and private lives of Paul Simon there lies a portable netherworld in which he volunteers, on a small, intimate scale, to bridge the two.

Over the years, that meeting ground has usually been the studio, where he sits down with a few other talented people who assist him in hammering his musical statements into shape. There have been other situations, however, such as a New York University classroom where he led a songwriting workshop in 1971.

"I once spoke to an old friend of Paul Simon's who told me that the best description of him was one of his own lyrics: 'I am a rock. I am an island.' I was surprised--and I don't think I buy it."

The speaker is Melissa Manchester, one of a group of a dozen or so young songwriters selected, through auditions, to study the craft with Paul Simon in the NYU workshop.

"It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life," she says. "At the time I was eighteen years old, and my heart was set on writing songs. To have Paul Simon advise me on something so all-important to me was a gift beyond description.

"It was a very loose situation," she explains. "He came in the first day and said, 'Listen, I've never done this before and I'm not sure I know how, but we'll keep at it until it ends itself.' We used to sit around playing our songs, and he'd play stuff he was working on too. He'd walk around discussing our songs with us, telling us to play one passage another twenty times and then taking apart the lyrics.

"He struck me as an explorer," says Melissa. "A little sad, maybe, the way most artists are, but available for a laugh on life and the dumbness of an industry that sells art.

"One of the most fun things he used to do was tell us stories about all his hassles and paranoias as a successful songwriter and the silly things he'd done. He told us about the first time he ever met Bob Dylan. He said he went over to his house all excited, and the place was a total mess, with junk all over and wrinkled old scraps of paper covering the floors. Dylan kept walking around the room talking and thinking out loud. Paul followed, picking up every loose scrap of paper he could find--anything with words on it--and stuffing them in his pockets. He said he was dying to find out how Dylan did it.

"In the end," Manchester concludes regretfully, "I felt I only got to know a part of him, but I think he was one of the most decent, sincere human beings I ever met. As far as his songs went, he seemed to pay penance through them for all the things gone screwy in his life.

"I remember somebody asked him the first day, 'Paul, how does one write a song?' And he said, 'Oh? What makes you want to write a song?' "

A very pregnant Phoebe Snow prepares a 10:00 A.M. breakfast at home in Bergen County, New Jersey, with her new husband, Phil, and reflects on the events of the past few months, most particularly the privilege of working with Paul Simon.

"Doing 'Gone at Last' with Paul was super exciting for me," she laughs. "God! All of a sudden I was in the studio with a genius whose songs I'd loved for years, singing this joyful gospel tune. That session was so crazy; it went by so fast, like an Amtrak! "Right now I'm just finishing my new album with Phil Ramone," she enthuses with girlish charm. "I'm trying to trim down my songs, but I'm up to my neck in words!

"That's one thing that never happens with Paul. He has this beautiful simplicity, this incredible succinctness. If I wasn't so chicken, I'd ask him how he does it.

"He has a gift for wrapping complex things up in neat little bundles that is amazing," Phoebe offers, "yet he still leaves room for you to wonder. One of the new songs that fascinates me is 'Night Game,' the one about the pitcher dying. It's sad; I wish I knew the story behind it.

"But the Paul Simon song that knocks me out most," she rules, "is 'Something So Right.' I was in Los Angeles when the Rhymin' Simon album came out, and people were telling me about this incredible song on it. 'You've gotta hear this,' they said, and they were right. It's the ultimate ballad. So many people can't come right out and say 'Hey I love you!' but we all desperately need to communicate that to each other, and to be told it ourselves. No bullshit, I cried so hard when I finally heard that song; I kept thinking, 'How much more personal can a person get? How much more of your soul can anyone possibly bare?' I didn't tell Paul when I met him, but I wanted to cover that song, and still do, but I honestly don't think I could get through it.

"I think he understands all the emotional levels of the artistic process," she adds. "I think he understands what's at stake. We were in the control room one day listening to the final version of 'Gone at Last,' and he suddenly turned to me and said, 'Isn't it nice to win?' And I said, 'Yeah, it really is--for a change.'"

Winning is what Paul Simon is all about; going as far down in the well as he thinks he needs to, to find out what he must know, risking whatever is necessary, and then climbing back out, bruised and shaken, the humble prize in hand.

"My brother wrote a song on the last album that any thinking, feeling human being can understand," Eddie Simon suggests one day as we sit together in an empty classroom in his music school. "The title song of his [Still Crazy ] album tells it all. My brother's saying, 'Look. I'm working every day; I'm trying to do the right thing and get through the best way I know how; I've been famous and not famous, badmouthed and broken up inside; I've traveled, I've seen a shrink, I've been in love and got married, and that bottomed out too. And you know something? After all that work, all that pain and trouble, all these years--I'm still crazy. Still fuckin' crazy after all of these years . . ."

As art imitates life, so baseball for Paul Simon has provided both the pluperfect analogy and ultimate achievement of his troubled passage.

It's a sport anyone can play, be they fat, skinny, short, tall, country folk, city people; it's boring, and then, unexpectedly, it's wildly thrilling. You're just one person, lonely at the plate, or on base, or in the outfield, and the whole world is watching, waiting to cheer your best, boo your failures, and dissect your mediocrities.

After all the booing, the cheering, the torments, and small triumphs, what comforts Paul Simon?

"I'll tell you something," he says firmly, near the close of our talk, "I'll tell you something that's really real to me.

"One of the biggest memories of my life--the biggest--is stealing home in the bottom of the 11th inning of a high school baseball game when I was sixteen years old.

"I believe," he swears in dead seriousness, "that I peaked at that moment; I truly believe that was it and don't think I've done anything greater since. I honestly believe I never came quite that high again in my life.

"And I believe," he continues softly, "that the thought crossed my mind as I came sliding across the plate that I was peaking at that very moment. You just can't do any better than steal home in the bottom of the 11th and win the game for your high school team. "Here's how it happened," he recounts with painstaking care. 'I walked; then I stole second, went to third on a ground out and held. As I stepped a ways off third to get ready to run at the next hit, I could see that the pitcher was going into a full windup instead of a stretch. He was giving me a big lead, and I knew I could steal on him.

"I went almost halfway down the third base line on the first pitch, but it was fouled off. But I knew I could do it; heck, I really knew it. So I told the third base coach I wanted to steal, and he gave the batter the signal to bunt. The pitch came bad, high and outside-- and I took off.

"And as I was running for home, I could feel how important this was always gonna be to me; I was sliding along in the dirt with my heart beating 'n all, and I could tell in my bones that this was gonna be my biggest shot; and when I slid across that plate--I was completely sure of it. As sure as I've ever been in my life. "The guy never even touched me."

See also these last articles

He's the one - (December 2000) Newsday - Letta Tayler - 0000-00-00 posted by unknown

A singer lightens up - (October 2000) The Associated Press - David Bauder - 0000-00-00 posted by unknown

Jamey Haddad interview - (1999) Berklee College of Music - 0000-00-00 posted by unknown