Concert Review: Paul Simon, Beacon Theater, New York City, May 11, 2011
In a recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine the venerable Paul Simon remarked that he was miffed with comparisons between him and Bob Dylan:
´He´s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time. Rock and roll has a lot to do with image. If that´s not your strength, people find fault with the work.´
In this short quotation we have a profound truth that is a good starting-off point in trying to get a grip on what has become a perennial battle between two titans of American music.
A few hours prior to attending Simon´s Beacon Theater concert I was glancing at the new issue of Rolling Stone magazine which featured the soon-to-be 70-year-old Dylan on its cover. Dylan remains the central figure among ´serious´ Rock intellectuals and connoisseurs. His sometimes impenetrable and always cryptic work is seen as having a heft and cultural cachet often denied to Simon whose very personal songs communicate directly to the listener. Simon has always been seen as wearing his heart on his sleeve and taking seriously the musical craft in ways that Dylan has contempt for.
In an article I wrote on Simon back in 2007 right after he won the first annual Gershwin Prize for American Song, entitled ´American Humanist,´ I looked critically at the artistic legacies of the two men. I have gradually come to understand that the great Dylan, who has assumed mythical proportion in the eyes of many, was, as Simon noted in the recent Rolling Stone interview, rather flippant when it came to the intimate reality of human beings. In the new issue of Rolling Stone dedicated to Dylan´s 70th birthday, a list of his 70 greatest songs is presented with ´Like a Rolling Stone´ leading the parade. The difference between Dylan´s most praised songs and those of Simon rests in the profoundly divergent approaches each of them deploy in dealing with the human condition.
Dylan´s signature song ´Like a Rolling Stone´ is a cruel taunt that leaves its fictional protagonist at the mercy of the poison pen of the great songwriter. ´How does it feel to be on your own?´ the great Dylan sneers, ´like a complete unknown, with no direction home.´ In fact, the last phrase was used by Martin Scorsese for his documentary on Dylan. Dylan´s stock-in-trade is not American Humanism, but a form of American Nihilism. There is no sincerity in his poetry, only scorn and derision. It represents the dark side of the Hippie dream which may well be manifest in the very poor showing of the Baby Boom generation in creating a better society than they inherited.
And this point is critical: While Dylan crassly manipulated the Protest song movement for his own ends and quickly left the socially conscious movement when he became a big star, Paul Simon took the idea of humanity very seriously. He wrote penetrating character studies like ´Richard Cory,´ ´The Boxer,´ and ´Duncan´ which were derided by the snooty Rock critics and effete intellectuals, but which resonated deeply with many listeners. While Dylan was wrapped in a vain mystical gobbledygook, Simon was trying to make sense of the world around him. In classic songs like ´Bridge over Troubled Water´ and ´America´ he addressed the most intimate and pressing issues in society. From the idealism of the 1960s´ social movements to the disillusionment of the early 1970s, Simon sought to honestly engage the personal and political realities of regular Americans with little mystery or obfuscation.
Simon´s songs were written in the spirit and tradition of the Tin Pan Alley masters who he revered. Over the course of time he absorbed many different musical styles that reflect the depth and originality of both American and World music traditions. Beginning with the simplicity of the Dylan-esque Folk song, Simon absorbed Gospel, Jazz, Latin American, African M´baqanga, New Orleans Zydeco, and Reggae influences in a way that showed off a nascent multiculturalism well before such a thing was popular and trendy.
Those of us who studied guitar knew immediately that a Paul Simon song had all those weird chords while the standard Dylan song had three simple chords and a melody that did not much vary from a song´s beginning to end. Dylan was about creating an aura, a mystique, meant to draw in the listener to his world. Once in that world, Dylan felt little need to communicate in a direct way with the listener. Simon took the opposite stance: His lyrics were both simple and very direct. His aim was to bring song and listener together, not in a mystical way, but in a very rational way that spoke directly to the listener´s heart and emotion.
Paul Simon´s music has over the years been meticulously crafted and honed. He is legendary for his many drafts of a song and often spends years working on an album before releasing it. Unlike many of the other major artists of his era, he has released fewer albums and has not been afraid to import new musical styles into his work. The cultural diversity that he has embraced is a natural extension of his American Humanism in the profound respect that he has for what it is that human beings experience and do.
On his new CD ´So Beautiful or So What´ Simon has produced a typically low-key assessment of the current difficulties we face as a society. Its songs touch on themes of life, death, militarism, belief, and love; the struggle of living in a time of great uncertainty. The characters in these new songs, as has been the case in his work for many years, are shown in their full complement of human existence. People struggle to earn a living, find peace and contentment and love, try to do what is right and good, and are often stymied by the chains of convention and the depredations of the cruel and greedy.
A typical Simon song is a response to aggression and cruelty; the empowerment of regular people who are beaten down by the everyday indignities of a world that has become somewhat unhinged. There are allusions in the new songs to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, to the current financial calamity, to the seemingly endless wars that America is now involved in, and to the dread of life and death. God and religion make their appearance on the CD in a quiet but profound way.
As the concert at the Beacon Theater ´“ Simon´s ´home-field´ as he said ´“ began, something strange was unfolding. As with the new CD, Simon chose to perform his songs in a quiet and intimate manner with little thought of glitz and overt showmanship. Of course, the trademark attention to craft was present, but the note that he was looking to hit was more of a calm and collected reflection. This was a performance that was consumed by the theme of death and tragedy and the search for life´s meaning. It was articulated in the way that Simon has made his trademark over the years; through the intimate exploration of human character in a way that was not over-fanciful or mystically impenetrable.
The songs were carefully chosen to reflect a very somber and melancholy mood. From the first notes of the opening song ´Crazy Love, Vol. 2´ to a brilliantly chilling performance of ´The Sound of Silence´ (one of only two Simon & Garfunkel songs included in the set) in the first encore, the songs Simon chose to sing this night were replete with a dread and concern for mortality that was perhaps most apparent on two numbers, ´Here Comes the Sun´ and ´Gone at Last,´ that honored two recently-passed friends, George Harrison and Phoebe Snow.
But these tributes, as touching as they were in their honesty and simplicity, were only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Simon, coming from the tense concerns that comprise the ´So Beautiful or So What´ CD, expanded his repertoire to include his older songs that reflected the same basic themes.
After referencing the tragic death of Martin Luther King Jr. in ´So Beautiful or So What,´ Simon performed ´Slip Slidin´ Away,´ a song about the bitterness of life and not being able to achieve contentment. It is a pessimistic vision of life that speaks to human pain and failure.
The next bunch of songs spoke to the political mess that we are now in: Beginning with a cover of Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff´s anti-war classic ´Vietnam,´ Simon looked at war and peace and social discontent through the lens of death and decay. The performance of one of Simon´s most insightful and moving songs ´Mother and Child Reunion,´ an explicit engagement with the pain of death, echoed the depredations of war in Cliff´s song. This concern with war and peace was capped by an extraordinary rendition of ´Peace like a River,´ another cut from Simon´s first solo album, which is a critical take on war that transposed the Vietnam debacle to our current entanglements.
This is the vision of a mature writer seeking to penetrate the tragedies we face as human beings and examine who we are through our fears and frustrations. It is a passionate cry against the cruelties of war and the excruciating tribulations that people face when they lose their bearings. But rather than appropriate the cruelly taunting tone that informs Dylan´s ´Like a Rolling Stone,´ Simon deals delicately with the human condition and looks critically at the many socio-political forces that seek to harm our well-being.
When he sang ´Hearts and Bones´ there was an eerie feeling of nakedness in the theater. There was an echo in his voice of the human heart and its many complexities. This was the human experience presented in a most intimate but profound manner. The songs were specific in their presentation of character, but were ultimately generic in the way that we could approach our humanity. They were about individuals who deal with the same things all of us do. Failed love, the pain of death, the questions about God and spirit, and the violence that humans do to one another all formed part of a unique concert performance that embraced the darkness of tragedy in a way that was by no means alienating, but which sought to bring us as human beings closer to who we are and how we feel about our lives. This thematic was strongly reflected in his choice to cover the Sun Records´ classic ´Mystery Train,´ made famous by Elvis Presley, in a way that emphasized its spooky take on death and disaster.
This death rattle permeated the concert.
Deploying the many musical styles that Simon has integrated into his Pop template over the course of time, the performance was seamless and assured, with the band competent but not overwhelming. This was not an attempt to go back to the razzle-dazzle of the ´Graceland´ concerts when Simon was showing off the muscle of his newfound African rhythms, but was simply a smooth integration of the disparate musical styles set at the service of some very weighty spiritual and philosophical concerns; the concerns of an older artist who has chosen to express his deep concern for who we are as people and what our society has sadly become.
Simon has thus created something of a dilemma for an audience that is largely composed of the elite in our society, those people who run our society and who have lived lives of privilege and material comfort. As the songs relentlessly struck out to attack the complacent and privileged, Simon´s iconic celebrity status as a symbol of the cultural establishment of his Baby Boom generation seemed to be at odds with the pleading of the songs themselves. Simon is an old-fashioned Liberal who looks at the world with compassion and honest concern for the lives of others. He feels the pain of the average person and his songs reflect the everyday tragedies that we all face ´“ at least those of us who struggle to deal with those who run things.
It was not for nothing that Simon played ´The Only Living Boy in New York,´ a song that explicitly reflects a key line in ´Still Crazy After all These Years´: ´I´m not the kind of man who comes to socialize/I seem to lean on old familiar ways.´ In spite of all his public success and that iconic status, Simon remains a restless artist who feels compelled to speak to the complexities of the human condition. Throughout what was a subdued and studious concert performance he scaled back his energies in order to provide a more insightful and sober assessment of American Humanism. There was no show-offiness and no pretenses, only the somber judgment of a writer who continues to explore what it means to be a human being.
His songs touched on problems that we all face: Jobs, wars, love, death, family, politics, and civilization. These brilliant songs question the meaning of success and failure as they ponder questions that are raised in ´Questions for the Angels´ from the new CD. The inscrutability of life is demystified while the passion of living is experienced.
And that is the key to the genius of Paul Simon: The confluence between an honest reckoning with life as we live it in our daily existence and the hard work of creating memorable popular art. Deeply tied to the old Jewish immigrant experience where children were exhorted to make the most of themselves through study and hard work, Simon´s art questions the meaning of life and seeks answers to the perennial philosophical questions, as it thirsts for new and innovative ways of musical expression.
From the fresh-faced excitement of the early Rock music of the 1950s, from Doo-Wop to Elvis and the Everly Brothers, to the Folk music of the early 1960s and the protest of the Counterculture, to the explosion of traditional American styles like Gospel, Jazz, Zydeco, and Philip Glass-style atmospherics, and beyond to African m´bqanga and Brazilian fado, Simon´s recordings have vigorously embraced musical forms that show him to be a restless adventurer who is hungry to learn and explore ´“ just like his immigrant forbears wished for their children.
Simon is thus a quintessential New York Jew whose compassionate humanity is the very core of his being. While the critical intelligentsia often snidely dismisses Simon´s simple Liberalism and its human pathos, these values have aged extremely well by comparison with other artists ´“ like Bob Dylan ´“ who have sought fame by a process of self-mythology and wrapping themselves in an air of mystery and impenetrability.
Paul Simon is a transcendent cultural figure who has not allowed himself to lose his very humane feelings about people. He is a compelling writer who entertains his audience as he seeks to teach life lessons to them. Rather than going through the motions and just doing the hits ´“ something that is always tempting to do in order to rake in the cash ´“ Simon used this concert to convey the things that are troubling him. He handpicked the songs in the set-list to reflect a particular thematic ´“ that of death and tragedy ´“ that was accompanied by his signature Pop classicism rooted in the Brill Building tradition. He is perhaps the last of this generation of songwriters but we should not mistake his traditionalism and classicism for lethargy: Paul Simon is a man bent on achieving redemption and showing his audience how he struggles with the most profound questions of life and living.
As he ended this wonderful performance with a glittering rendition of ´The Boy in the Bubble´ from ´Graceland´ we saw how life´s despair demands redemption:
´These are the days of miracle and wonder,
This is the long-distance call.
The way we look to a distant constellation
That´s dying in a corner of the sky.
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don´t cry baby, don´t cry.´
It is how we find the light in life´s darkness that is what ultimately makes us human. And the vision of an artist like Paul Simon serves us as an indispensable aid in navigating the palaces of our memory and liberating us from the prisons of our fears. This is no mean achievement.