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.”