Paul Simon (illustration by Andy Friedman)
[September 2018 update: “I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to reach the point where I’d consider bringing my performing career to a natural end," wrote Paul Simon in a wistful but resolute note back in February when he announced his retirement from touring. "Now I know: it feels a little unsettling, a touch exhilarating and something of a relief." Citing reasons that touched on the December 2017 death of his lead guitarist and friend of 30 years, Vincent Nguini, and a desire to spend more time with his family, Simon has spent the better part of 2018 on the road with his band for the last time on his "Homeward Bound - The Farewell Tour." He will play his three final live shows in the most sentimental and perfect locale — his adopted hometown of New York City (he was born in Newark, New Jersey) — at Madison Square Garden on September 20 and 21, leading up to an emotional grand finale at Flushing Meadows Corona Park on September 22. [He played Newark's Prudential Center on September 15, giving both Jersey fans and New Yorkers ample opportunity to see him one more time.]
But while touring is behind Simon at age 76, things are less clear when it comes to his future as a recording artist. To coincide with his adieu to suitcase living, he's unpacked some older, deeper tracks from his vast solo catalogue and revised them for a new album, called In the Blue Light, an FUV New Dig selection. There's a quiet elegance to these revitalized and re-examined tracks, like Rhythm of the Saints' "Can't Run But," which is transformed into a strings-and-woodwinds canter. Perhaps Simon is looking backwards briefly to propel himself foward into a new chapter — or he had some unfinished creative business with a few much-loved songs before embarking on a well-earned retirement ahead.]
Paul Simon is often a traveler in his songs—taking a Greyhound to Pittsburgh, driving along the shining Mississippi Delta or dancing through Mardi Gras. His characters restlessly tumble through his lyrics too, wandering the sultry South or surveying African skies. When they rest, they do so uneasily and with a future destination in mind, sheltering in a harbor church or sitting at a railway station.
Yet despite the peripatetic nature of Simon's songs and frequent collaboration with South African, Brazilian and Caribbean musicians, he has always remained closely entwined with New York. Other hometown sons and daughters, like Lou Reed, Jay-Z, the Beastie Boys, or Alicia Keys, have deftly harnessed the tough spirit of the city in their work. But for a generation that came of age in the '60s and '70s, the Newark, New Jersey-born, but Kew Gardens, Queens-raised Simon has represented a particular narrator of New York life: literate, observant, questioning, romantically vexed, and anxious.
As a man who writes with a New Yorker's discernment (and slight neurosis), Simon is an iconic figure in this city's cultural history. After 9/11, it was Simon who comforted a grieving nation with "The Boxer" on the first "Saturday Night Live" that aired following that nightmare. On that episode, which aired on September 29, 2001, Simon tenderly sang before an audience that included members of New York Fire, Police and Port Authority Departments. The timing had an added wistful resonance too: two decades (and also a decade) earlier, Simon had given New York two of its most joyous free concerts in Central Park—with Art Garfunkel on September 19, 1981 (which drew an astonishing 500,000 people) and as a solo artist on August 15, 1991. In 2016, Simon returns to Queens to play Forest Hills Stadium on June 30 and July 1. The concerts might not be free this time, but they are welcome during a turbulent news cycle.
Simon, who turns 75 in October, has been writing songs since he was a precocious just-barely-teenager collaborating with Garfunkel, a schoolmate. That first song? "The Girl For Me," a simple, moonstruck tune about a girl with flowers in her hair. "I always loved her," Simon's nascent lyric goes, "And I know she'll be true."
Sixty years on, he's a far more agile writer, but still investigating the bewildering puzzlement of the heart. On Simon's most recent album, Stranger to Stranger, he almost poetically bridges the youthful ardor of his very first song to the title track of his latest release. Watching a woman he adores from afar—this time his wife of 24 years, Edie Brickell—he declares "I love you" as a somersaulting mantra. That long stretch, looping his beginning to the present day, is even found in his choice of co-producer on Stranger to Stranger; Simon collaborates again with Roy Halee, who produced Simon and Garfunkel's earliest demos.
For some of his fans, Simon will always be inextricably linked to Garfunkel, the soundtrack to Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," and songs steeped so deeply into cultural consciousness—like "Homeward Bound" or "Mrs. Robinson"—that they're a part of our lexicon. For others, Simon will be the heavily moustached '70s troubadour of "Still Crazy After All These Years," or the ruthless explorer of romantic abandonment, suggesting "Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover" or sifting through "Hearts and Bones." There is an entire generation that recalls first hearing Graceland in their parents' car on long road trips and falling in love with the music. They might have been too young to fully understand the horrors of apartheid or the controversy that dogged the album back in 1986, but the joy and sorrow of Simon's collaboration with South African musicians like Tao Ea Matsekha or Ladysmith Black Mambazo resonated (and offered a template for future songwriters too, like Vampire Weekend's Chris Baio or The Noisettes' Shingai Shoniwa). Others caught up to Simon with the mature introspection You're The One in 2000, nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy—his astonishing fifth such nomination in five decades.
Paul Simon has only released 13 solo albums since 1965, at a leisurely pace that allows him to tour, observe the years that pass, and peruse his own personal history. There are few modern songwriters who adroitly write more philosophical, romantic or spiritual lyrics, traversing the world in a search for intimacy, but ususally finding those answers—or more questions—at home.
Simon, the consummate archetype of a restless New Yorker (even if he does live in Connecticut these days) might not reflect the experiences of all residents in the five boroughs, but he's always tried his best. On the occasion of his 2016 homecoming and the release of Stranger to Stranger, Simon is absolutely one of our FUV Essentials.
More on Paul Simon:
Villagers' Conor O'Brien: Five Essential Paul Simon Songs
FUV Live: Paul Simon 2016 (an interview with Rita Houston)
#FUVEssentials: Paul Simon (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Rita Houston)