During Paul Simon's career making records, the music in which he specializes has transmogrified wildly, from teen fad to global hormonal explosion to Serious Art Form to self-serious indulgence to failed revolution to nostalgia delivery device. Having been part of every stage of this evolution, and at the forefront of several of them, Simon has earned the right to be done.
The news that his forthcoming tour will be his last was hardly surprising. First of all, he's 76 years old. That would be getting up there even if we weren't measuring in rock and roll years—in which 76 is both ancient and average. For contrast: Paul McCartney is eight months and five days younger; Bernie Sanders is one month and five days older. Consider, however, that Simon has been a working musician for 61 of those years, and a major star for 53 of them. You can hardly blame a person for getting tired.
Second, the announcement of Homeward Bound: The Farewell Tour comes during a phase of what might be called "retirement vogue" among artists of a certain age. If their word is worth anything (Cher? The Who? I'm looking at you), 2018 will bring the last stage hurrah for musicians as unalike as Elton John, Neil Diamond, Ozzy Osbourne, Joan Baez, Sonny Rollins, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rush, and even Slayer.
After the deaths of unretired giants like Prince and Tom Petty, whose continued road work exacerbated their dependence on the pain meds that killed them, the prospect of calling it a day sounds less like surrender than self-preservation.
Simon has said he has every intention of continuing to make music and even "doing the occasional performance in a (hopefully) acoustically pristine hall" for charity. But the tour he's about to start will mark the end of a professional career in pop that has stretched across more than six decades.
Still, Simon is unique among the 2018 retiree class in that he is still an artistic striver. His most recent album, Stranger to Stranger (2016), was vital, experimental, and perhaps above all, enjoyable. Songs like "The Werewolf," "Wristband," and "Cool Papa Bell" leave the powerful impression that music itself—the process of finding it, harnessing it, capturing it, playing it, sharing it, hearing it—can be an elemental source of rejuvenation, for both artist and audience. Having long since aged out of plausibility as a pop figure, Simon enlisted unlikely collaborators to help him make unlikely sounds, and wound up making his best, most surprising work in a couple of decades.
So why retire?
"Showbiz doesn't hold any interest for me," Simon told the New York Times. "I am going to see what happens if I let go. Then I'm going to see, who am I? Or am I just this person that was defined by what I did? And if that's gone, if you have to make up yourself, who are you?"
Who Simon is—particularly in relation to the people closest to him—has been the main subject of his songs for a long time. That's more or less why there are still people out there pretending not to care for his work.
He has sold untold millions of records, reliably drawn rave reviews from mainstream outlets, and probably hasn't played an un-sold-out show since 1964. But listeners who fancy themselves discerning have had a beef with Paul Simon from the very beginning. At a time when rock music aficionadodom was at its sternest, Simon's focus on the self fueled the critical reaction against him. As if the self isn't the only truly universal concern.
Bob Dylan (Simon's labelmate, rival, occasional subject, and later, tour mate) had made the aspiration to "serious" poetry a fashionable mode in popular music. The young, self-serious intellectual turtleneck was a relatively new cultural archetype born of the folk revival; Simon, along with his childhood friend and singing partner Art Garfunkel, embraced it fully. As their star rose, haters intimated that Simon, who wrote all the songs, was a B-minus/C-plus Dylan who had tricked tens of millions of presumably guileless listeners into thinking early songs like "The Sound of Silence" and "I Am a Rock" were good. They called him bourgeois and pretentious, wimpy and soft, a poetaster in bard's clothing.
In a 1967 New Yorker column, Ellen Willis captured the argument against Simon's early music when she complained that his subjects were the generic stuff of poetry students the world over: "the soullessness of commercial society and man's inability to communicate. This appealed to kids who hadn't read much modern poetry but knew what it was supposed to be about, or were over impressed with their own nascent Weltschmerz, or both."
She also wrote: "I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation, like the word itself, is an old-fashioned sentimental liberal bore."
That same year, the critic Robert Christgau, who never missed a chance to call Simon wimpy, was just as dismissive: "He is the only songwriter I can imagine admitting he writes about that all-American subject, the Alienation of Modern Man, in just those words."
But stinging critical indictments are
almost never as powerful an influence as selling millions of records, pleasing millions of people, and making millions of dollars.
Encouraged by the massive folk-rock success of Simon and Garfunkel, he ran full-steam toward his pretentions, wearing a cape on the cover of the Sounds of Silence LP and cranking out self-consciously fusty lyrics in "April, Come She Will," "To Emily, Wherever I May Find Her," and his indisputable nadir, "The Dangling Conversation," which groans under lines like "and you read your Emily Dickinson / and I, my Robert Frost / and we note our place with bookmarkers / that measure what we've lost."
What Willis and Christgau, surely two of the shrewdest music critics of all time, failed to explain, was how easy it was (and is) to love these songs. Simon's masterful folk guitar figures and perfect melodies are timeless enough to cover, and even sublimate, the lofty thematic conceits of his early work.
Simon's harshest critics also failed to account for the fact that, in direct contrast to the conventional expectations applied to pop musicians, his lyrics got much, much better as he got older.
By the time of the final Simon and Garfunkel album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, his musical and verbal ambitions had come together. He knocked out swelling masterpieces like "The Boxer," "The Only Living Boy in New York," and the title track, alongside gentle giants like "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" and "Song for the Asking."
When Simon and Garfunkel broke up, some assumed Simon would be lost without the angelic voice of his childhood friend to elevate his compositions. What happened was exactly the opposite. Freed from the constraints of writing for a vocal harmony duo—a lovely constraint, but a constraint nonetheless—he became immersed in a world of rhythmic possibilities that made his songs more versatile, his singing more focused, and his lyrical concerns more emotionally, intellectually, and (dare one say)
As gorgeous as Garfunkel's harmonies were, Simon's solo work surfaced the nuanced virtues of his own singing. His gift for unforgettable melodies welcomed the gentle, conversational tone and chalky texture of his voice to the fore, a sound as physically pleasing as the Rhodes electric piano that plays the intro to "Still Crazy After All These Years."
His first two solo albums, Paul Simon and There Goes Rhymin' Simon, spill over with international influence. "Mother and Child Reunion," his first solo single (the title refers to a Chinese restaurant menu item that combines chicken and eggs), was the first Western hit to blend reggae and pop. "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" leaned into Latin and South American rhythms and sounds—not many cuícas were making their way onto pop radio at the time—that somehow melded perfectly with the jaunty strumming and playful, impossibly catchy, proto-rap vocals.
Working with the famous Muscle Shoals rhythm section, he dabbled fruitfully in gospel and funk, yielding big hits like
"Kodachrome" and "Loves Me Like a Rock," and quieter, more introspective gems like "American Tune," "Something So Right," and the heartbreakingly sweet lullaby, "St. Judy's Comet."
The popular experiments sat comfortably alongside moodier, folk-based explorations of (lowercase-a) alienation, depression, and the limits of love and friendship. These themes mirrored the shift from the utopian and revolutionary optimism of the '60s into the hedonism and despair of the '70s.
The emphasis on rhythm in the new material engaged the body as fully as the lyrics engaged the mind, a combination that allowed the songs to connect with their real subject, the heart.
"I know you see through me, but there's no tenderness beneath your honesty," he sang on "Tenderness."
He never lost the knack for writing about love, but even at his most sanguine, Simon's optimism was always cautious. "When something goes wrong, I'm the first to admit it," he sang on "Something So Right." "The first to admit it, and the last one to know / When something goes right, well, it's likely to lose me / it's apt to confuse me / 'cause it's such an unusual sight / Oh, I can't get used to something so right."
And even a casual classic rock radio listener knows how many flippant ways Simon can find to leave one's lover.
This trajectory—from tempered hope to casual surrender—isn't so profound. In a way, it's just a means of giving voice to some of the least interesting facets of the fear-of-commitment shtick that men have been enlisting to bail on relationships for time immemorial. But it forms the emotional backdrop to Simon's true '70s masterpiece, "Slip Slidin' Away," which reconciles the smooth funk imperatives of his solo period with the thematic concerns he had been wrangling his entire career: loneliness, depression, and the consequences of freedom.
Having strained for more than a decade to give voice to the Alienation of Modern Man, Simon had finally nailed it.
It's hard to think of a hit song that paints a bleaker picture of life than "Slip Sliding Away," or any song so catchy that you can sing along with every syllable, mirroring every vocal leap, without realizing just how melancholy the words coming out of your mouth are. The people in this song are desperate and defeated, but Simon's melody ennobles them, while his groove pulls them along. "Dolores, I live in fear / my love for you's so overpowering I'm afraid that I will disappear." "A good day ain't got no rain" and "a bad day's when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been"? Jeez.
If your parents split up in the mid-'70s and the third verse doesn't make you cry, we probably don't have anything more to discuss. By the time this song came out, Simon was the indisputable laureate of divorce rock.
Ten years before "Slip Slidin' Away,"
Simon wrote "Mrs. Robinson." Ten years
after it came Graceland. Do you see where I'm going with this? In what world is that not a formidable career? By what yardstick is this guy not one of the all-time greats?
By the mid-'80s, Simon was in his mid-40s, adrift, divorced again, having made two flops in a row (One Trick Pony and Hearts and Bones—whose best songs would combine into one of the best albums you ever heard). He was desperate for inspiration. It came in the form of a cassette of music played by black South African musicians.
He was so entranced by the sound that he followed it to its source, where he teamed with a community of players who, despite living under one of the most oppressive governments in modern history, made some of the most joyful music he had ever heard. The grooves they captured there laid the groundwork for what would become Simon's greatest commercial, critical, and maybe artistic triumph as a solo artist.
That is, of course, the short version of the story of Graceland, which sold over 16 million copies, and ignited many controversies about the unorthodox nature of its creation and authorship, as well as the moral and ethical legitimacy of Simon's breach of the existing UN cultural boycott of South Africa under the Apartheid regime, which would end five years after the record came out.
But whether or not it was exploitative (which I don't believe), or an act of cultural appropriation (which I think is part of
music's near-sacred duty; if you can't hear Simon's reverence for the mbaqanga township jive sound that Graceland delivered to the West, I can't imagine what would convince you), in the context of Simon's work, it was nothing short of a rebirth, equal parts photo opportunity and shot at redemption.
Despite its worldwide vibe and the political moment that gave rise to it, Graceland is very much an album about the self. What had changed was his disposition toward that self. Compare the resignation of "Slip Slidin' Away" to the near-mystical shades of Graceland's title track. Both songs are about unfulfilled promise, but only the latter portrays a remnant of hope that grace might be available to someone who's willing to go looking for it, in Memphis or Soweto, as the case may be.
In short, though no less self-involved, and no less burdened by illusions, Simon now understood that he was lucky, a revelation that makes all the difference any time a beloved millionaire sings about dissatisfaction.
The album also re-awakened Simon's sense of play, one of the least appreciated elements of his voice. Compare the third verse of "Slip Slidin' Away," in which the father travels a long way to explain himself to his son, only to leave again, too ashamed to wake the boy. A very different father has a very different message for his son on "That Was Your Mother": "You are the burden of my generation / I sure do love you, but let's get that straight."
One album later, on "The Obvious Child," he felt free enough to write the lyric that gets my vote for his all-time best rhyme: "We had a lotta fun, we had a lotta money / we had a little son, we thought we'd call him Sonny."
I love those lines partly because they're gloriously silly and sticky, but also because they sound like words the self-serious turtleneck of his Simon and Garfunkel days might have had the nerve to write in a notebook, but probably wouldn't have allowed himself to sing. That evolution continued up to the first single from 2016's Stranger to Stranger, "The Werewolf," one of the most sneakily astute, end-of-an-empire songs any artist of any age has released since America really went off the rails.
It's been 32 years since Graceland, and 31 more since his first single with Garfunkel, "Hey, Schoolgirl," and Paul Simon is about to take a richly deserved international curtain call. You're well within your rights to withhold your applause, if you insist. But the sound of your silence will be drowned out by the powerful appreciation of a world that has grown up and (now) grown old feeling nourished by songs that wrangle complex feelings of loneliness, isolation, solipsism, and disappointment into words and melodies that are likely to outlive us all.
You'll also be denying yourself one of the most enduring musical pleasures of the past half-century. You're obviously free to keep pretending you don't like Paul Simon—
musical taste, like suffering, is relative. But take another listen to a few songs from his immense body of work and consider the question he posed on The Rhythm of the Saints: Why deny the obvious, child?