Paul Simon speaks just as he writes. For line after line he may appear to dart down random tangents, always engagingly, often poetically, sometimes inscrutably. Suddenly his elliptical thoughts will cohere around a distinct point - and then you get what he means.
That happened more than a few times during our hour-long chat earlier this week.
Simon, who called from NYC, is headed back to Southern California for a second run of shows, an encore to a masterful pair of performances at the Pantages Theatre in April behind his highly acclaimed 12th solo album, So Beautiful or So What. After kicking off this next leg Monday night in Phoenix, he appears Wednesday at Gibson Amphitheatre before continuing Oct. 22 at San Diego´s Viejas Arena, Oct. 23 at Santa Barbara Bowl and Oct. 24 at the Colosseum at Casears Palace in Las Vegas.
The new disc - standard LP size, 10 songs in 38 minutes - is a seemingly slight yet richly detailed work whose nuanced grooves and turns-of-phrase lodge themselves in the mind and soul the more you spin it. No less an authority than Elvis Costello, effusive in accompanying liner notes, holds the set among the songwriter´s very finest achievements. ´This is a man,´ he writes, ´in full possession of all his gifts looking at the comedy and beauty of life with clarity and the tenderness brought by time.´
Indeed, Simon´s observations, laced with sociopolitical commentary without ever being overbearing about it, continue to peer profoundly into the most personal, hard-to-explain facets of humanity.
Parting ways with Art Garfunkel after their 1970 turning point Bridge Over Troubled Water - an album that hinted at his burgeoning world-beat fascination via ´Cecilia´ and ´El Condor Pasa´ - his lyrical focus broadened into the ´negotiations and love songs´ of the ´70s and early ´80s, in intimate gems like Paul Simon (1972) and Still Crazy After All These Years (1975) and moodier assortments like One-Trick Pony (1980) and Hearts and Bones (1983). Each found him exploring his own emotional terrain alongside the psychological malaise of the era, while nudging his music into exotic realms: the reggae of ´Mother and Child Reunion,´ the Latin delight of ´Late in the Evening´ and ´Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,´ the wistful Andean flutes of ´Duncan.´
His revolutionary forays into South African sounds (1986´s groundbreaking Graceland) and South American modes (1990´s The Rhythm of the Saints) delved into politics as much as relationships. But his efforts since then, notably 2000´s You´re the One and 2006´s Eno-produced Surprise, have found him readdressing themes from his earlier material (often with heightened spirituality) while still expanding sonically.
So Beautiful or So What in many ways sums it all up. Widely judged his best album in at least 20 years, it once again affixes all manner of global grooves to concise yet expressive insights delivered by a plaintively soulful voice. Nothing else he has recorded so effortlessly evokes his Graceland era - ´probably the peak of my career,´ he calls it in this interview.
It seems destined for a Grammy nomination this December for album of the year - Simon´s eighth nod in that category, should it happen, also counting two with Garfunkel (1968´s Bookends and Bridge).
He´s won that tophy three times (for Bridge, Still Crazy and Graceland), has 12 Grammys overall, plus he´s a Lifetime Achievement Award legend. He was given the inaugural Library of Congress Gershwin Prize in 2007; six years earlier he was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient. He´s twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Time magazine considers him among the ´100 People Who Shaped the World.´
One doesn´t frequently come by an hour of his time, and I´m reluctant to crunch down his thought process to make for snappier quotes that won´t mean as much out of context. What follows, then, is a lengthy chat I think is worth the rambling journey.
Simon rang Tuesday at noon, two days before turning 70. ´Do birthdays matter much to you?´ I wondered, having just wished him a happy one.
´Not really. This is a big one ´¦ it´s a big celebration for everybody� - family, friends and all that. The choice was either run away (chuckles) or stand up there and enjoy it with everybody. I´m actually kinda looking forward to it, whereas I usually don´t do anything on my birthday but have dinner with my family.´
So Beautiful or So What draws on many rhythmic moods without seeming like it´s derived from any single region - which is the opposite of how Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints were conceived. ´The Afterlife,´ for instance - that sounds like it sprang out of bayou country as much as South Africa. Is finding the right feel just a natural process for you now?
Paul Simon: Yes. On this record ´¦ it´s a stew of all the rhythms and sounds and things that I´ve done over the years. I´ve always wanted what I do to be a blend. I was very satisfied with Graceland, very satisfied with The Rhythm of the Saints - rhythmically, I mean. They´re both very different records, and I really like them, I like playing songs from those records. But on new things, if I´m not set in a specific cultural location, and I´m just in my own head, then that´s a pretty comfortable rhythm for me now, something like ´The Afterlife.´ Same with ´Getting Ready for Christmas Day´ - I like that rhythm a lot, too.
Really what it is ... it´s a kind of ´50s beat without an emphasis on a backbeat, which draws out of a New York kind of thing. And Bo Diddley. The Bo Diddley vibrato, and those repeated chord changes ... you know, that´s kinda out of West Africa. The thing is, everything all comes from so many places. Even when you look at South Africa: a lot of their rhythms came from our rhythms in the ´50s, and similarly I´m sure you could trace the Brazilian drumming back to West African drumming. The world has been mixing its music for a long, long time.
I think of David Byrne´s music as I do yours: he´s explored so many regions that when he goes to make a record, you don´t know what you´ll get. It might be an amalgamation of everything he´s taken in.
Yeah, because ´¦ well, it´s not so much an amalgamation of everything, but everything that he knows is available to him. So if you go back into early rock ´n´ roll, which is a lot of what I do ´¦ it´s what I remember ´¦ so much of that music was so distinctive rhythmically. And it really came from different places, you know?
I was punching the radio the other day while I was driving. Mostly I don´t listen to music, but I went back to one of my settings, and one of the stations I listen to is a ´50s station. And not that I even particularly like this song, but they were playing Bobby Bland, ´Let the Little Girl Dance´ ´¦ and, you know, he´s using a Latin rhythm ´¦
Like a lot of artists in the ´50s.
Right, like a lot of artists in the ´50s. But nobody said, ´Oh, well, that´s world music.´ Not that they should have. But it was. So like the Bo Diddley beat ´¦ are you coming out to the show?
Well, I hope to. There are several shows that same night. (We didn´t go specifics until the end, when he wondered what those other gigs are - principally Roger Daltrey doing Tommy at Nokia and Portishead at the Shrine.) But I saw you at the Pantages, which was outstanding. Are you changing much?
Yeah, there´s like three or four songs that I didn´t do, and some changes in arrangements. But anyway, one of the tunes we´re doing is a straight-out cover of ´Pretty Thing´ by Bo Diddley. Except the drummers are playing kind of a Sotho/South African rhythm on the drums. But it sounds just like Bo Diddley. It´s not exactly the Bo Diddley rhythm, but unless I stop to compare the two, I´d say that´s a perfect Bo Diddley rhythm. But it isn´t, it´s a Sotho (´soo-too´) rhythm.
Jim (Oblon), our drummer, he sings the lead on that one and I sing harmony, but (bassist) Bakithi (Kumalo) sings in the Zulu, you know - he sings with clicks against it. And it just goes effortlessly back to some kind of roots. It´s not just one place that these things come from. Many people have the same impulse, rhythmic impulse ´¦ you can find it in different forms. That´s why Louisiana is so interesting.
You offered some juxtapositions like that at the Pantages as well - ´Hearts and Bones´ segueing into ´Mystery Train,´ for instance. Is that bedrock for you, the ´50s rock ´n´ roll you grew up with?
Well, it certainly is what I like the best. You know, ´The Afterlife,´ for me, has a very ´50s kind of rhythm guitar.
´Love Is Eternal Sacred Light´ as well.
Yeah, and even more so, because we´re doing that again. I think I´ve solved the problem of that song.
What was the problem?
I didn´t like that it started out right in that gospel rhythm and stayed there. So now I´ve reworked the early beat, and it eventually evolves into these other rhythms that are similar to the record. That´s one of the things that makes touring fun, or at least endurable: you can keep going and correct� - or at least keep altering - something until it´s finally satisfying. ´Love Is Eternal´ was never fully satisfying to me. It took a long time to get it to where it was, and I still didn´t really know what it was that I didn´t like. But now I´ve figured out another way.
I find that you slip in and out of different rhythms from different places, but I don´t really think of them as going to another place. I just think of them as rhythmically attractive or alluring. And that´s really the answer to (the first question). If you play ´El Condor Pasa,´ an Andean rhythm ... it doesn´t matter that it comes from some other place, only that it makes me move, that I like it.
And the audience´s perception ´¦ after a while are they really discerning one feel from another?
I don´t even think they bother. I´m not telling anybody in any form, as subtext or overtly, that they should categorize. Just tap your foot if it really gets ya. I really try to make each one of the rhythm things, or the ballads, have that - because when they´re right, they are infectious. I don´t think it matters where the rhythm comes from. And that´s why I go back to the ´50s, and say it again: there´s no backbeat in Bo Diddley.
That´s about as tribal as rock ´n´ roll gets.
It is, isn´t it? And I don´t even know where he got it from. Maybe he invented it or something, but I doubt it. I just don´t think anybody invents anything. It all comes from something that you heard, or misheard, somewhere.
Does that happen a lot, where you haven´t fully figured out a song even though it´s already on record?
Sometimes. And it can take a while. I couldn´t figure out ´Love Is Eternal´ in the spring, either, when we were playing it live. I wouldn´t say it was perfect now, but it might be. We´ll have to play it for a while, ´cause like anything else it has to shift effortlessly from one sound and groove into another, and that shift has to be a natural evolution. It can´t be arbitrary or think-y. It has to really be a feel thing.
Revamping material live is something that goes way back with you, but it seems like you relish it now more than ever. Does that keep you going?
t´s a puzzle, and I enjoy it, I love those musical puzzles. And now the band is sort of working out their own stuff as well. Because I´m always talking about: what´s the sound? You´re playing a part, but what´s the sound of the part? First: is the part right? Then: is the sound right? Or you could go the other way, first get the sound right, then we´ll get the part right. Same goes with rhythm. And now the band is starting to think that way.
I remember in rehearsals Bakithi (´bah-kee-tee´) was still working on a bass part he had been working on forever, the bass solo in ´You Can Call Me Al.´ I mean, he played it! And here he was still working on it. Because, you know, it´s always presented this odd little problem: that bass solo, it starts off forwards, and then right in the middle it goes backwards. It´s the first half of the solo played backwards in the second half. Which, at the time, nobody realized that.
So of course you can´t really ´¦ you can play the notes, but you can´t get that (mimics the funky cascade of the solo), that backwards-y thing. He must have spent a half-hour just fiddling around with the backwards pedal, just trying to get it. And eventually I said, ´You know, it´s better when you play it forwards. The technology is not as interesting as what you do.´ The opposite might have been true, in which case I would have said, ´Fabulous, that´s great.´ But I encourage everybody to explore.
The band ´¦ they really know what they´re doing on a very high level of musicianship. They can play stuff that´s a lot harder than mine. But when they start to really get into everything that I put into my stuff, really go in and analyze the way a track was made and figure out when it´s right, then it´s not so easy to play.
Does that joy in rediscovery ever inspire ideas for new songs?
I would say it´s more a moment on stage. Not that it couldn´t inspire a song. I was thinking that with this Bo Diddley thing ´¦ it took us maybe a day to puzzle it out, break down every bar of it ´¦and that´s all anybody wanted to play that day, this Bo Diddley thing, all day long. I wanted to play the harmonica on it ´¦ it´s a very easy harmonica part, but it was giving me a kick, ´cause I´m just a beginner at that. I thought afterwards: ´That´s so good I should do something like that.´
But I probably won´t, because it really is just a pure Bo Diddley cover. So the thoughts cross my mind. The truth, though, is that when I begin to write, which I´m thinking will probably be late next summer or early fall ´¦
To start work on a new album?
Yeah, I think so. I want to finish up this, with So Beautiful or So What and this band, although I would be happy to go on with this band. But I think what´s going to happen is ... it´s the 25th anniversary of Graceland, and there´s a documentary about it that´s coming out at Sundance in January. I was back in South Africa in July, and I played with all the guys ´¦ so we´re trying to figure out how to do a Graceland reunion tour. (Reportedly it´s a go, complete with vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in tow, though tour dates are still a ways off.)
In the recent documentary about the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water you mention that you´ve always taken a while to write songs. Was that true even back in the ´60s and ´70s, or has that become more pronounced over the years?
I think it was true then, and I think it´s become a bit more pronounced now, yeah.
Yet back then album after album came out ´¦
Well, not really. First of all, in total, there are five Simon & Garfunkel albums. So, you know ´¦ how many Beatles albums are there? How many Stones albums? How many Dylan albums - in the same period of time, I mean? I was probably writing about half the pace that they were. The Beatles were putting out an album a year, and easily could have put out more. Of course, they had three writers. But I was not prolific then, and it´s slowed down now. I think if I could just speed the process up ´¦ and then it turns out you just can´t.
What accounts for the pace? Meticulousness? Waiting for inspiration?
It´s not inspiration. There´s no inspiration. It really comes out of, like, prodding yourself.
Randy Newman and Elvis Costello have talked about that - that songwriting is more workmanlike than people think.
Oh yeah, right, that´s the truth.
It´s like writing anything: you have to sit yourself down and push at it. It´s not like the words just magically come to you.
Well, the words for me always come last. And in a certain sense, they do magically come to me, because I really don´t know where some of the most memorable lines I´ve ever written came from. They just come. I can´t explain that. I could explain to you why a Sotho rhythm is a rhythm I really like. I´ve studied it enough. But I can´t say why the lyrics come. That´s just a gift.
That shows in how people get different impressions from your songs. They´re not straightforward; one verse could have several meanings. Is that in part because it comes to you so mysteriously?
Well, the raw material comes out - and a lot of it I discard. And then I take some and I say, ´That´s good,´ and then I start to polish it and chip away, and make it right, or decide this is a better word than that word. But that´s what the process is for the words. The music ´¦ I don´t know, it depends.
I´ll sit with another player, like a drummer, and I´ll say, ´You know what I always liked? ´˜My Babe,´ by Little Walter.´ I really like that record, and I really liked Little Walter when I was a kid. And I could easily say, ´Let´s go and make something that feels like that. And considering that that´s going way back, and it´s really an old rhythm - even though I still think it´s hip and anything can move ya - I would take that rhythm and try to find a reason that the lyrics belong in that context. And then I can say anything - as long as there´s a reason why the narrator or whatever sits in the middle of a Little Walter groove.
Your work has been remarkably consistent - across decades, which is rare. But there are some albums that have been more cherished than others. Robert Altman used to talk about how people get misled into thinking of an artist´s work in a competitive structure, of best vs. worst, whereas the artist will have equal love for it all, as an evolution of creativity.
I would agree with that.
He´d often say the ones that flopped were the ones he loved the most - they were still his creations, just misunderstood or undervalued. I wonder if you´ve ever felt that way about certain albums.
Not so much albums as songs. Well ´¦ here´s an example: Graceland was a big hit, and really beloved. And then The Rhythm of the Saints came out, and it was a big hit - but it wasn´t beloved. Over the years, though, there´s been a gradual but constant re-evaluation of that album. I run into a lot of people who say, ´I know this will sound crazy, but I like The Rhythm of the Saints more than Graceland.´
There are times I like it more than Graceland. No offense.
I take no offense to that at all. In my own way about this stuff, I don´t actually have an ego past a certain point - I´m just as curious about it as anybody else. When I finish an album, I usually think it´s really good, because I´m invested in it. Then a few years will go by, and I´ll say, well, here´s my opinion now. And it´s always different from what it was after I immediately finished it.
But there have been times where I´ve written songs I thought were really, really good that weren´t hits. I think because the early part of my career was so filled with hits ´¦ people maybe felt that if the song wasn´t a hit, that probably meant it really wasn´t as good. I don´t think people looked upon me the way they would, say, Tom Waits, where there´s not a hit single to lead you into his albums. The people who found him just knew each album would have something really interesting, and they didn´t expect anything in particular to leap out. You know, I could write a song like ´The Late Great Johnny Ace´ (from Hearts and Bones) ´¦
Yeah, I thought it was a really good song.
Profound song. Lots to say in that song.
Yeah, totally from the heart, and it was all about guns and violence and John (Lennon).
And right after the assassination attempt on Reagan ´¦
Right. And it was a collaboration with Philip Glass, that´s when we became friends. A very, very interesting song and record ´¦ but not particularly known. Same with ´Darling Lorraine´ (from You´re the One) - I would say that´s one of my best songs. It´s so interesting to me, it keeps moving new places, and I like the story. I didn´t know when I began the song what it was about, and I didn´t intend to keep the title ´Darling Lorraine.´ I just kept it because I happened to hear this old doo-wop record called that.
And so I kept it, meant to discard it, and then at a certain point, I said, ´Ah, no, it´ll be added to the pile of 10 or 20 - at least� - doo-wop references that I stick into songs all the time.´ Lines from a song, or a title of a song - they´re just all over the place. Even in ´Graceland,´ you know ´¦ no, no, in ´You Can Call Me Al´ ´¦ you know, ´he´s gone, gone, he ducked back down the alley´ ´¦that´s Little Richard! I mean, they´re all over the place. I forget ´em myself, I stick ´em in so much. On ´Gumboots´ I say, ´Hey, SeÃ±orita, that´s astute´ ´¦ well, ´Hey SeÃ±orita´ is the flip-side of ´Earth Angel´ ´¦
Ah, I didn´t know that.
Which I liked more than ´Earth Angel´ ´¦ and it´s funny that I liked it at the time, because it´s got a Latin groove. And this was me at 13, when I didn´t know what that was. I didn´t know it was a Latin thing. I just thought it was good.
But I was talking about songs ... well, this Songwriter album that´s coming out (a handpicked double-disc retrospective, due Oct. 24) ... I tried to put a lot of the ones that I thought were good in there, although I didn´t put in ´Johnny Ace.´ But I did put in ´Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War.´
You put in ´Train in the Distance´ and left off ´50 Ways to Leave Your Lover´ and ´You Can Call Me Al´ instead.
Yeah, I left those out. Nothing really wrong with those. They were good songs, too. But you know ´¦ I really do think of myself as a songwriter, a creator, an idea person. I´ve gotten to be a better singer over the years, but basically I´m about ideas, and songwriting is what I do. I like to produce records and I like to write songs. And it´s just easier if I´m the artist. It´s not better, but it´s easier.
But how much does the reception of a new record matter to you?
Well, it matters less and less. But it´s nice if people like it. It´s frustrating to do The Rhythm of the Saints or, even more to the point, The Capeman and know that you´re onto something that´s really interesting, and you see that nobody ´¦ they just didn´t get it. Now, when I made Graceland, I thought: I wouldn´t be surprised if people don´t get this. I wouldn´t be surprised if this was a hit, and I wouldn´t be surprised if it wasn´t a hit. But when something is rejected, as The Capeman was ´¦ I mean, The Rhythm of the Saints really wasn´t rejected.
No, it was well-received. Went to No. 1.
And it was nominated for a Grammy and all that. But when something is rejected, you can say to yourself, ´Well, I was ahead of my time.´ But actually I didn´t say that to myself - because I didn´t know if I was ahead of my time, or if I just, you know, f***ed up. It took me a while before I said, ´Yeah, I was just way ahead on The Capeman.´ You know, it took 10 years for Broadway to be ready for a Latin musical. And mine was a Latin musical with Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades.
How could that miss?
Yeah, that´s what I thought. When people got it with Graceland, and they loved it, they began to see the music really through my eyes and hear it through my ears. But they don´t always do that. And whether you didn´t do it right or what, at a certain point you just stop thinking about it, because it doesn´t really matter. The only thing that matters is what did you learn from it and what are you gonna do next? If you´re gonna do anything at all.
What that has left behind, though, is a handful of albums - Surprise is another one - filled with rich material that doesn´t always find an audience until years later. Maybe the Songwriter set will help put that point across.
Maybe just because of the title. You know, instead of thinking of me as the guy who wrote the Simon & Garfunkel songs and then those ´70s hits, and then the guy who made Graceland, just think of me as a songwriter. Pick a song from here, pick a song from there.
I think most fans tend to hop from peak to peak and overlook some of the great stuff that didn´t sell or get noticed the way Graceland did.
Well, Graceland is a peak experience. Probably the peak of my career. I probably can´t ever have that kind of peak again. That doesn´t mean I couldn´t make something better. But the way that hit ´¦ it was revolutionary at the time. People found it revolutionary, I mean. I didn´t think it was revolutionary. I thought it was cool rhythms that I instinctively understood from way back when I was a kid. The thing that was revolutionary about it was the jump in the lyrics. That was a big jump.
Those songs were much wordier, more impressionistic.
Right, boundaries sort of fell by the way wayside there, and that was very liberating. And part of that liberation comes from me having to study the guitar parts and the bass lines, and what sounded like a rhythm I knew but really wasn´t. There´s a different symmetry, and once I understood that, I entered a whole new world of rhythm, of subtleties of rhythm, what makes rhythm compelling - whereas before I would have to get lucky to get it.
I´d cut a track like ´Late in the Evening,´ and think, wow, that track moves so great, or even ´Mrs. Robinson,´ or ´Cecilia,´ the feel those songs have. But I´d always fall into them. I didn´t really know how to make them. Now I know how to make them. It doesn´t mean I can get it all the time, but if you give me three or four shots at something ´¦ I´m gonna get something.
Maybe it´s that you know how to fall into them now.
Yeah, because I know where all the little hideaways are and all the little oases in the deserts. I know so much of the landscape now because I´ve been doing it for so long.
You mentioned the Graceland documentary, but does a full-length one about your career appeal to you? Or is that something for years later, like Scorsese´s new film about George Harrison?
If it comes along and it´s natural and it seems like it´d be interesting, then fine. You know, there was a reason to do the Graceland documentary. I always thought the story of it was so interesting, and really had not been told on so many levels ´¦ musically, how it was made, and remade into an American record, and politically what was going on, and what was really going on within the Graceland group that toured. And the actual conflicts of South African politics, as opposed to the way the outside world viewed it.
So there was a really good reason to do a Graceland documentary. (It also has a talented documentarian behind it: Joe Berlinger, who made Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, about the West Memphis 3.) But like for the George thing ´¦ well, I don´t know. I watched the George thing, because, you know
You were very close to George
I loved George. It´s like what everybody says in the documentary: everybody loves him. He was really loveable. He just was. He was a Beatle all the time, you know, but he had a sense of modesty. You just sort of knew he´s really special. So I watched it, and you know ´¦ I thought to a degree they caught it, and then to another degree I thought, well, I don´t know ´¦
How can you sum up a life like that in four hours?
Actually, I thought maybe less would have been more. That´s what I mean: I don´t know whether I´d want somebody to do it. Really, if you´re going to deconstruct, and in the deconstruction you remove the magic and the pleasure that the art provided ´¦ well, maybe that´s an achievement for the filmmaker, but that doesn´t mean it´s an achievement for the subject.
So I don´t feel like somebody should really get into that ´¦ and there are things that I wouldn´t tell anybody anyway. Aside from the private things that I wouldn´t tell, about me or everybody that I know, there´s stuff about how I think as an artist and a composer that I wouldn´t tell. And actually I think I´m very forthright about how I think. I really tell virtually everything.
Sounds like it, from talking to you.
PS I feel like it´s a good idea to do that, and I hope that other people take it and run with it, find it useful. I think everybody should contribute to the common well. We´re all drawing from it, and I don´t feel like I own any of this stuff. You know, I didn´t invent it.
But you´ve mastered it in a very distinct way.
Yeah, so that´s available - what I mastered. If you want to know how I mastered it, I can tell you how I did that, because even if you wanted to master it the way I did, you couldn´t. You can only do it the way you can.
Interview with Ben Werner. Published 15 October 2011