Paul Simon will turn 81 next month. I am currently 72, and am therefore older than 78% of the population. So writing about him here today is not something of general appeal. I get that.
Above is their famous concert in Central Park from 1991. It is almost 90 minutes, and I do not ask that kind of time from my readers. My wife and I watched it on Friday, rapt, unable to turn away. They are the river that flowed beside us in our 27 years together, gentle and moving, deep and even dark. Paul Simon is, to me, the greatest living musician, perhaps the greatest of our time. I know those are strong words, and that music is always subjective. Let me defend myself.
Many will scream Beatles! Prince! Elvis! I get that. They were good. But Simon is immensely more talented. In a recent video, Sage of Quay (Mike Williams), notes that while the Beatles were performing publicly, they had supposedly created and recorded over 60 original songs in studio, but never performed them live. The reason, says Williams, is that they had been taught only a small number of tunes, some covers (written and preformed by others). They did not have time to learn to perform the new tunes, which they had not written. Williams in one video does the math behind Rubber Soul, and finds that the Beatles would have only had time in their manic schedule to show up and supply vocal tracts. George Martin used other song writers and studio musicians for the rest. (I cannot find this video – has YouTube taken it down?)
So is Paul McCartney the greatest musician of my generation ? Is he, as Lorne Michaels says, a f****** Mozart? No, neither he or his twin brother are of that caliber. More to the point they are good performers, but beyond that, phonies.
Elvis? Yeah, I get that. A great performer, not a song writer, not a poet. A writhing ball of charisma. That counts for a lot.
Prince … his death at age 53 is, like John Denver’s at the same age, is a tell. He is said to have died without a will, which I interpret as follows: He, like JD, is still alive, but was retired from view. I suspect that neither Prince nor Denver wrote their own music.
There are others, many others. The music business it not what it appears on the surface. People do not rise on talent, but rather on connections, usually family. What emerges from recording studios is often the work of unseen hand, like The Wrecking Crew.
Musicians are often born rich and have spent their youth training to be famous. Alanis Morisette? Her ancestor is from the Mayflower, Alan Morisette. Madonna? I am soon going to revisit this lightly talented star of the movie Evita, about Eva Peron, who was Madonna’s real mother. She was the First Lady of Argentina who faked her death in 1952 at age 33. She then moved to the states to raise a family, The third of a family of six, Madonna Louise Ciccone‘s mother is said to have died in 1963 of breast cancer. My guess was that Eva Peron lived until 2010. More on this amazing phony down the road.
Back to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. They are two immense talents, and as such, there was friction. I would imagine that Paul felt at times that Art stole his thunder, as he wrote the music, but Artie’s voice carried it. I get that. I might have the same reaction had I any musical talent. Paul did say at one point after their breakup that part of the reason was “ego.” I suspect they did the Central Park concert because the price was right, an immense production. As I look through the crowd in the concert shots, I don’t see any alcohol, a staple of modern rock concerts, wild debauchery. But I also do not see any restrooms. A lot could be hidden from view.
Paul Simon leaves behind a body of work that no other can touch, not even f****** Mozart. It is melodic and deep. Each song has a surface layer, and then something deeper, as in the song Graceland, a trip down the Mississippi delta with his nine year old son. He sings about that trip, and about on-again off-again lover Carrie Fisher:
She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead
What a powerful image. And then the song goes back on message, Graceland, where he has reason to believe they both will be received.
There’s more, so much more, such much beauty and depth in all of his work, from Canticle to Cecelia to Only Living Boy in New York, where “Tom, get your plane right on time, I know your part will go fine…,” is a reference to Art who is going to Mexico to appear in the movie Catch 22. Their original name as performers was Tom and Jerry.
Bridge Over Troubled Water started out as just a small hymn, two verses, when people in the recording studio felt its power, and asked for a third verse. Paul went off to another room, and sat down to write. He’d never done that before, he said, preferring the solitude of his home and music. He shortly came back with
Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
I repeated that last line because, as with Art’s performance, it is powerful and hits home with amazing impact. Silver girl, I have heard, is a reference to Paul’s first wife Kathy, who appears in other of his songs. Simon thought the Troubled Water lyrics too simple and the song too long for radio play. But Art’s performance was so magnificent that the song had power beyond its words. A studio executive stepped out after Paul’s remarks about length and told him not to worry, they would back him all the way on this one. The song went on to become (what I consider) the greatest pop song of my lifetime. Did I mention I am 72?
Music stars come and go, most are forgotten and forgettable. Paul Simon is, in my view, a national, no, worldwide treasure. I wish him continued success and fame and personal happiness.
One final note: My wife and I were in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness on a backpacking trip years ago. We came upon a stream and a bridge that had fallen into disrepair. I was able to get part of the way out, and then jumped to the other shoreline as my wife took my picture. When we got the photos back I came upon that photo, and wrote on the back “Water over Troubled Bridge.”
16 thoughts on “Put this in your pantry with your cupcakes”
It is not possible for me to create classification or hierarchy to music or musicians. We are all created with certain gifts and no one is an exact replica of another. I can love Neil Simon’s imagination and creations as works of fiction. I can appreciate its uniqueness without comparison, competition or compartmentalization. We are all part of the infinite purpose of all that is created. There are no “chosen people” IMO.
Some are called upon to be actors on the public stage, no real talent in tow. The reasons Simon stands out for me is that he wrote and performed his own music. And it was good, kind to the ear, full of poignancy and melody.
I leave out classically trained musicians, who are immensely talented.
Mathis was surprised at one time to find Paul Simon listed in the British peerage, and indeed he is there. This perhaps explains his journey to England and life there prior to being called home to work on The Graduate.
I hope you don’t mind Mark; I have written about this beauty.
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This sort of post cries out for additions like that.
The Sage of Quay™ – Mike Williams – Did The Beatles Write All Their Own Music? (Apr 2020) video is here:
Ha! Sage is a bright guy and thorough researcher, but he does have a blind spot or two. Go to minute 47:00 in this presentation, where they are discussing Neapolitan origins of Yesterday and Hey Jude. They then cut to “Paul” singing Yesterday, and there you have it, head-bobbing, wrap around eyebrows, higher pitched voice than his twin brother, Mike. This is obviously Paul, the crooner, and not Mike, the stage performer.
This also explains why Yesterday was only once performed live when the Beatles were touring. Paul played guitar left-handed, and Mike was still years away from that skill. Mike was the dominant “Paul” and Paul was usually in the background. Mike could not play well enough to perform the song.
Again, if you want to see them in the same movie, see Give My Regards to Broadstreet, which in my mind is homage to Paul the Crooner, who gets to sing five or six songs. He had to stay in the shadows all those years. This movie gave him some sunshine.
Sage will also go all Billy Shears on us in this video, unable to recognize a psyop (the book about BS) used to hide the fact of twins. In that part, I find him presumptuous.
Something else going on … these boys were doing an ungodly amount of live performances in the early 60s, 2-300 concerts a year. There are those who claim there were four sets of twins at play, and two live touring bands. I only found convincing evidence of the McCartney twins, and some tantalizing evidence about John. Nothing about George and Ringo, and I don’t do research on them anymore. Anyone else want to give it a shot?
Better yet – don’t get too involved in Napolitonic origins of Hey Jude and Yesterday, though it is fascinating. Instead, turn off the sound, and play from 45:00 into 48:00 or so. During that time you will see closeups of Mike* singing Hey Jude, and then Paul* singing Yesterday. Stop the frames and study the faces. If you cannot see two different men, I cannot help you further. That Sage cannot see it in his own video … makes me wonder.
*Sage thinks this one, Mike McCartney, is actually Billy Shears, and was surprised to find out that he was there from the early days. He thinks the one singing Yesterday died young. That is maudlin nonsense. He also thanks Billy Shears is a great songwriter. I assure you that Mike McCartney, like Paul, was the beneficiary of of great songwriters assembled by George Martin and Margaret Asher, nee Eliot, of the Guildhall school of music, where Martin was her star pupil.
What’s with Quay? The great philosopher Yogi Berra summed it up: “There are some people, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell ’em.” Either that or two other possibilities: He was given the book The Memoirs of Billy Shears, produced by Intel, in hopes that he would run with it, or that he is a limited hangout. I say the latter. The lengths the people behind the Beatles have gone to, to this day, to protect the fact of twins behind the McCartney image tells me they are hiding that, and perhaps much, much more.
But hell, I can show the two faces of two different men, so easy to see, and get crickets. Yogi, more than me, knew what was up.
I always loved the line in Graceland about the Mississippi delta shining like a national [steel] guitar. Genius.
I agree with Prince being alive but I would add he most likely wrote much of his own work. He was probably more talented than his music let on, a fantastic guitar player to boot.
I think the accoustic guitar duet singers type of acts are making a comeback in the scene.
Last song I heard that made a big impact on me (beyond just “oh that’s good bumper music, now back to the lame local talk radio ..”) was from Chicago – “”Does anybody really know what time it is” – probably cheesy according to most people. I thought the singer was great, and the brass or whatever behind him, worked for me. Lyrics very intriguing. I guess they’re old hat to most but new to me. IF I sought out music I’d seek out that album.
My relationship with Simon (and Garfunkel) has been somewhat tense over the years. Some of their songs make me weep openly- which is a thing for a guy with precious little emotional coin to spend, especially on the laments of rich artists and their easy access to ‘solace’.
In the seventies, when I wanted it loud and fast, Simon and his dominant familiar, Stevie Wonder, were walking away with all the Grammys while Led Zep, The Who et al. got bupkis. (Country music finally said fuggit and made their own awards)
Eventually, MTV, digital this and that and Walkmen allowed everyone to create their own best of selections and the Awards crap lingered on as the bastard children of the old variety shows.
As for Paul Simon, I would rate him arguably the best lyricist of the pop age- sometimes seeming to my tin ear as too good for the element he labored within. Can pop music support a Scarborough Fair, a paen to herbal remedies for romantic malaise with a subliminal infusion of gratuitous anti-war rhetoric to add real time ‘relevance’? Barely. But back then, radio station formatting called the tune so you had to buy expensive, for the time, albums to get the deep cuts. It wasn’t until years later that I got Tom and Jerry’s greatest hits LP and finally had a sense of how good these guys were. By contrast, the Beatles word play was clever, but hardly worth turning on the waterworks for.
Cover versions that mirror the original’s arrangement usually suck, so just watch this muted: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyQ-R06Q5aA
I just realized I have never in my life watched a music awards show of any variety. My music lists on my phone are completely pedestrian, too much Beethoven and Rach, and staples of my early midlife like Campbell, Carpenters, and S&G. I got nothing!
I love drummers, and got spellbound at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix in the drummers corner. Again I am pedestrian, but there you’ll find Buddy Rich, Keith Moon, and maybe Harold Simon Belsky there (aka Hal Blaine, interesting middle name for this conversation, no?) He was alive when I was there, so not included. Sage of Quay disparages Ringo, but you have to listen to and watch a four hour video, the whole of it fascinating, Billy Shears nonsense aside. It seems Ringo had stand-ins on at least 23 Beatle hits.
Music ain’t my strong point, however. I agree that Paul Simon, without the lyrics, was a tunesmith but not on anyone’s top 50 list.
I hear that Keith Moon couldn’t keep time to save his life; whatever – a wild man on the kit – loose and crazy.
Strange to hear such commentary (implying authenticity) here at PoM of all places… I always believed that ALL the awards ESPECAILLY music related were fixed. Movie awards even worse – if that is possible. Players and controllers… think of all the real<\b><\i> talent pushed aside.
I like that! The Bangles sexed it up, but kept the original arrangement and words.
Here’s a heavy metal version of Sounds of Silence, by Disturbed. When I saw all the musicians they brought in, I thought I was looking at Ten Thousand Maniacs. Did not change a word, just added emPHAsis.
CTA: Chicago Transit Authority – before they were asked to change their name to simply “Chicago.”