“Can you imagine us years from today/ Sharing a park bench quietly/ How terribly strange to be 70,” laments Paul Simon on his enduring ode to companionship “Old Friends/Bookends”, and the insightful singer reaches a ripe 70 tomorrow.
While contemporaries such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, are all – quite rightly – lauded for their groundbreaking songwriting, the diminutive genius from Newark, New Jersey never seems to get quite enough due. He is slammed, in some quarters, for being too successful, too commercial, and too mainstream. When, in fact, Paul Simon’s nimble, idiosyncratic, experimental and habitually droll (“Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia/ Up in my bedroom [making love]/ I got up to wash my face/ When I come back to bed/ Someone’s taken my place on “Cecilia”) lyrics have always been a cut above the ordinary; his storytelling songs are full of smart, adroit observations in the vain of American authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Carson McCullers and Sinclair Lewis.
His voice has also been accused of being too weedy, and lacking Art Garfunkel’s powerful, high-register, soulful oomph, but that argument’s never felt convincing. Simon’s soft, lilting intelligent voice invests lines such as “He said Dolores, I live in fear/ My love for you’s so overpowering, I’m afraid that I will disappear” in “Slip Sliding Away” with unmatchable sense of melancholy and tenderness. Unfortunately, the gorgeous “Slip Sliding Away”, along with a great many of his most exquisite songs (“Me And Julio Down by The Schoolyard”, “El Condor Pasa” and the heart-rending “I Do It for Your Love”) do not feature on the upcoming Songwriter, a new two-disc, 32-song collection (released 24 October) chronicling five decades of Simon’s songs. But the album does include a live performance of “The Sound of Silence”, live at New York’s Webster Hall this year, a performance of “The Boxer” in Central Park and the sumptuous “Something So Right”, from 1976’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.
Although a lot of Simon’s best songs focus on his beloved New York City – “The Boxer” (“Where the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me/ Bleeding me, going home”) and “The Only Living Boy in New York” - his material, which spans 50 years, actually embraces all of America: the melancholic rambling through the nation’s heartlands on “Homeward Bound” and the sassiness and sexiness of the American South in “Come on Take Me to the Mardi Gras”.
For many (me included) the easiest entry point into Paul Simon’s music is through Simon and Garfunkel’s pop gems and Radio 2 staples such “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “The Boxer”, plus “The Sound of Silence” and “Mrs Robinson”, which both enhanced Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. Or his staggeringly successful, Grammy-award winning Graceland album, which was recorded in South Africa in 1986, and featured exiled South Africans Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba and the wondrous male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It also included the hits “Cal Me Al”, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and the witty “I Know What I Know”.
But a solo Paul Simon, free of Garfunkel’s mournful warble, really came into his own in the early and mid Seventies with some sensational material, and his first dabblings with world music - starting with the stirring, Jamaican-inspired, reggae-drenched “Mother and Child Reunion”, from his eponymous 1972 album Paul Simon. This was swiftly followed by the sublime “Me and Julio by the Schoolyard” from the same album, and the gospel-flavoured “Loves Me Like a Rock” from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. The artist perhaps, though, reached his songwriting zenith with the exquisite “Still Crazy After All These Years” (1975) where he plaintively pleads: “I’m not the kind of man/ Who tends to socialise/ I seem to lean on/ Old familiar ways.” In truth, this ever-changing, ever-challenging artist has done anything but “lean on old familiar ways”, and the recently “re-discovered” 1983 album Hearts and Bones, featuring the perky “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War” (which features on Songwriter), is yet another example of his full, vigorous engagement with music. Happy birthday, Paul.
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