Monday, October 7, 2013

A vision softly creeping

Walking to the subway yesterday afternoon, Stan and I passed a striking-looking woman standing on a stoop, talking on her cell phone. A black town car waited at the curb, rear door ajar.

You make me beautiful,” the woman said into her phone as we passed by and out of earshot.  I turned to Stan.

“Her stylist? Photographer? Mother? Lover?”

“This conversation is just the kind of thing I would have put in my strip,” said Stan, whose Village Voice comic strip, “Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies, specialized in the found art of overheard dialogue.

Click to enlarge
The moment proved to be a propitious segue to the event we were headed for: Paul Simon talking with poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon as part of the weekend's New Yorker Festival. 

I say that casually, but my teenage self was sending up a high-pitched squeal. Paul Simon has been a hero of mine since the 1970s, when I was old enough to swipe albums from my older brothers and sisters. There Goes Rhymin' Simon was my first hot-fisted filch, with its graph-paper album cover design (thank you, Milton Glaser) and its king's-ransom's worth of songs, including Kodachrome, Love Me Like a Rock, Something So Right, and the never-out-of-date American Tune:
I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to its knees.
Simon's music has gotten him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, Muldoon pointed out.

Simon: "Yes, the first time was for Simon & Garfunkel. The second time was to aggravate Artie."

Muldoon: "How did that work out?"

Simon: "It worked out well. He's pretty aggravated."

I love Simon's music, his groundbreaking mixture of global rhythms and musicians on Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, his guitar-playing—but it's his lyrics I roll around in like a dog rolls in dirt.

"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance." 
"You've got the cool water when the fever runs high." 
"She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy." 
"There's a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline." 
"I like to sleep with the windows open, you keep the windows closed, so goodbye, goodbye, goodbye."

And, of course, "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar"—cited by Derek Walcott, with whom Simon collaborated on the ill-fated Broadway musical The Capeman (whose music I love), as evidence that Simon is a poet.

So it was surprising, often hilarious, and strangely not at all disillusioning to hear Paul Simon talk about the many seemingly accidental ways that titles and lyrics ended up in his songs.

"I was in a Chinese restaurant and on the menu there was a chicken and egg dish. And they called it the Mother and Child Reunion."

"I was flipping through a book on Magritte, and there was a photo with the caption, 'Georgette and Rene Magritte with their dog before the war.' But I thought it should be, 'Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.' " 

Asked by a girl in the audience to reveal the mystery of what "me and Julio" were doing down in the schoolyard, Simon said, "If I tell you I'm just going to wreck it for you—that was all about just getting the name 'Julio' into a song."

When another woman cited "The cross is in the ballpark" (from The Obvious Child on Rhythm of the Saints) as one of her favorite lines, Simon said, "Me, too. I wish I knew what it meant."

And he happily admits to quoting many, many lines from the songs he grew up with in the 50s, "when every song used the same three chords."

One of those chords ended up in Graceland—an unexpected minor chord played by South African guitarist Ray Phiri.

"They almost never use minor chords in South African music, so I asked him, 'Why did you use that chord?' " Simon said, "and he said, 'Because you use that chord'—a chord I took from Earth Angel. That's when I knew we were really making global music."

The racing percussion line that underlies Graceland gave the tune a rockabilly feeling that put Simon in mind of Sun Studios in Memphis, where Johnny Cash and Elvis had recorded.

With no lyrics for the song, he started singing, "I'm going to Graceland, Graceland"—"but I thought, 'Well, I'm not using that, it makes no sense.' "  Until he returned to the States and actually took a trip to Graceland, his first.

"I was driving down the highway, and there was the first line of the song actually laid out before me: 'The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar.' "

Muldoon interrupted: "It should be said, not everyone would put it that way."

Simon is either modest or flatly realistic about his lyrical gift. Most of the time, he says, "I don't know where it comes from"—a sentiment echoed by Muldoon, who encouraged a budding poet in the audience to "go in ignorance."

But ignorance with your eyes open.

"When I was a kid, I was always looking at the sidewalk, because you might find a quarter," Paul Simon said. "One time I found a dollar. The thing is, you always have to be looking."

The evening ended with Paul Simon and his guitar and a simple, almost conversational version of The Sound of Silence. 

"Hear my words that I might teach you"?

We heard. We learned. He got a standing ovation.


Ann said...

Ah, Susan. Love Paul. Love this.

Unknown said...

Oh, I am seriously jealous! I have been obsessed with Paul Simon since as an angst-ridden, lonely 13-year-old I found 'There Goes Rhymin' Simo' in a record shop in Stockholm in the 1970's. We saw him perform summer before last in Hyde Park here in London, and I actually cried like a teenage girl at the age of fifty something! What a wonderful account of the talk, thank you. Hx