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How terribly strange to be seventy (part 2)

Posted by erweinstein on October 13, 2011

Today (October 13, 2011) marks the 70th birthday of the chart-topping singer-songwriter Paul Simon. First gaining fame as one-half of the folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel, Simon wrote several #1 hits including “The Sound of Silence“, “Mrs. Robinson“, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water“, the latter of which edged out The Beatles’ “Let it Be” on the US and UK charts in 1970. After “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (and the release of the album of the same name), Simon & Garfunkel disbanded, and Simon went on to a highly successful solo career, which included the critically-acclaimed albums Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints that both topped the UK charts and eventually received multi-platinum certification in the US and the UK. Simon has received 13 Grammy Awards, is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2007 he was awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Paul Simon is, by a large margin, my favorite contemporary popular musician. In my personal ranking, he sits just beneath The Beatles and Bob Dylan as the third-greatest popular musician or group of any era. Even so, I recognize that his music, while it ranges widely across styles and topics, isn’t for everyone. Simon’s best songs are outstanding, but much of his music isn’t as accessible as that of Lennon and McCartney. A large part of what attracts me to Simon’s songs is his overt intellectualism. Simon, who once rhymed the word “thirteen” with “mezzanine” and “St. Augustine”, is one of the most intellectual popular songwriters in human history. His songs, dating back to the 1960s, have repeatedly explored psychological themes such as Freudian analysis, social influences on behavior, and disorders like depression and anxiety. Simon’s more recent songs have pondered the ideas of love, faith, God, man’s place in the universe, and finding integrity through one’s work. Simon’s songs are always about something, even if that something is an abstract concept like pain or loneliness. As Don Shewey wrote in Rolling Stone reviewing Simon’s 1983 album Hearts and Bones,

In an earlier era, Paul Simon would have written for Broadway, a craft that demands that a song tell a story or define a character. But like any youngster in the Fifties, he got hooked on the sheer sexual energy of rock & roll — not so much the guitar-based electricity of Chuck Berry, Elvis and the Beatles, but the dreamy soulfulness of groups that euphemized their teenage romantic longings in nonsense lyrics. The trouble was that Simon was too clever for either kind of rock & roll. The words always came first for him, the music was secondary, and the rock & roll he loved — the delicate Spanish guitar, the hushed doo-wop harmonies — lingered faintly in the distance like a disembodied ideal.

As is appropriate for a songwriter who prioritizes the words over the music and the rhythm, Simon has contemplated many issues of great importance to the American (and the Jewish-American) experience, while rarely being overtly political. A few of Simon’s songs represent the straightforward protest sentiments that birthed the folk-rock movement, particularly “The Sound of Silence” from his Simon & Garfunkel years and “American Tune” from his solo years. But the more important thread running through Simon’s music is the transformation of alienation and skepticism into searching and agnosticism, and eventually the transformation of searching and agnosticism into faith and self-acceptance. Simon & Garfunkel music is often considered to epitomize teenage and young adult feelings of loneliness and alienation, so much so that Simon’s songs with Garfunkel were mocked for this quality in an episode of That ’70s Show (from season 4, if I’m not mistaken), as well as in last week’s episode of the recently-debuted comedy New Girl. As his career progressed, Simon’s modernist skepticism, demonstrated in “The Dangling Conversation” from the 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and his doubts in (and disdain for) religion seen in several songs, including “Ace in the Hole” from the 1980 album One-Trick Pony, eventually softened into a neutral agnosticism.

By 1983’s Hearts and Bones, Simon’s certainty in his own intellectual prowess was waning, as exemplified by him having not one, but two songs proclaiming that he “Think[s] Too Much”. It is clear that Simon was realizing that there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in his philosophy. The turning point arrived with Simon’s 1986 album Graceland (which won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year), as Simon began to accept spirituality as a mode of expression. In the title track, he famously sings, “Maybe I’ve a reason to believe / We all will be received / In Graceland”. As reviewers noted, Simon had turned the final home of the bloated and drug-addled Elvis Presley into a “holy place”, a symbol of potential redemption for himself, his son, and his fellow Memphis-bound pilgrims. As he highlighted the injustice of South African apartheid and bolstered the stature of the nascent genre of “worldbeat” with the success of Graceland, Simon continued to become more open to faith and spirituality. This is further demonstrated in his 1990 follow-up to Graceland, entitled The Rhythm of the Saints. In the opening track of that album, “The Obvious Child” (which received much airtime in the US and reached #15 on the UK charts) Simon asserts that faith is, if not a certainty, then at least a possibility. In the third song on The Rhythm of the Saints, “The Coast”, Simon makes what amounts to the most earnest and heartfelt case a New York Jew could possibly make for Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic variety that predominates in Brazil. (After Paul Simon gave a recent live performance, Paul McCartney, who had been watching the show and was struck by the prevalence of Christian themes, came backstage and asked Simon, “Aren’t you Jewish?”) Although Simon attacks and partially dismantles this case for faith in the next song on the album, “Proof“, I (myself a Jew from a major northern US city–Chicago) have always been left with an appreciation for the immense beauty that Simon spins into “The Coast” and intertwines with his interpretation of Christianity.

Simon’s next studio album, You’re The One, reflects an understanding of both the positive and negative qualities of religious faith, especially in the song “Señorita with a Necklace of Tears”. On his 2006 album Surprise, Simon again makes statements of both faith and of skepticism. The skepticism appears in the somewhat-obviously-titled “I Don’t Believe”, and the song “How Can You Live in the Northeast?” demonstrates how religion can divide us, but Simon also portrays the more positive aspects of religion in a few songs, especially the hauntingly beautiful “Wartime Prayers”, and the final verse of “Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean” (my favorite track on that album). Fully half of the songs from Simon’s most recent album, So Beautiful or So What (released earlier this year), contain references to God, religion, or other faith-related concepts. More importantly, these concepts are presented in a mostly-positive manner. While the song “The Afterlife” presents, well, the afterlife, as a bureaucracy where “You got to fill out the form first / And then you wait in the line”, and the song “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light” presents God as somewhat of a trickster, several songs, including “Love and Blessings” and “The Afterlife”, associate God and His Love with music, something that Simon strongly believes (as he illustrates in many songs, including “Ace in the Hole”) can provide redemption. Simon also makes the point throughout So Beautiful or So What that God, and not just the Devil, is in the details, and that we can find indications of a higher power in fleeting moments of everyday beauty. Simon’s transformation, over the course of his career, from an angst-filled modernist skeptic hostile to religion into a musical wise-man who shows us the positive sides of religion, faith, and spirituality as well as the negative, is remarkable, and I find the arc of his career to be personally inspirational.

It is hard to believe that Paul Simon, who once sang, “I started to think too much / when I was twelve going on thirteen” (in the song “Think Too Much (a)” from Hearts and Bones, which I often consider to be a personal anthem) is now a septuagenarian. Fittingly, however, Simon predicted his own senescence in the song “Old Friends”, which Simon sang, along with Art Garfunkel, on the 1968 album Bookends:

Can you imagine us
Years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy

Happy 70th Birthday, Paul! I hope that you have a great day, and that you can spend it with your wife and children, and not sitting on a cold park bench with Art Garfunkel.

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