Sounds of Simon

In Almost Famous, Frances McDormand, playing the mother of a teenage Rolling Stone writer, points to the moody portrait on the cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 album Bookends and insists, “They’re on pot!” Her daughter then offers the duo’s “America” as the only adequate explanation for why she’s leaving home. In the music magazine Revolver, Bono describes his songwriting standard for the new U2 album: “You stop thinking about who’s hip and you start thinking about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ ” At a meeting of the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, delivers an impassioned brief on behalf of Paul Simon – in particular, his groundbreaking 1986 album Graceland. Soon after, Simon is nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist.

Not a bad year, even by Paul Simon’s measure. But he’s hardly immobilized by the weight of his classic work. Simon has just released You’re the One, his first album since Songs From The Capeman, which accompanied the 1997 Broadway musical he co-produced and co-wrote – and that closed after an avalanche of bad press and a disappointing 68-performance run. Unlike Graceland or The Rhythm of the Saints, on which Simon looked toward South Africa and Brazil for inspiration, You’re the One harks back to the sophisticated, folk-rock art songs of his early solo career. Elements of Simon’s musical experiments drift through tunes like “Señorita With a Necklace of Tears” and “Darling Lorraine,” but more as coloration than as a predominant style.

Simon breaks from rehearsing at a midtown studio to talk about You’re the One, the Capeman controversy, and his battles over the years with critics. Wearing an orange T-shirt, black jeans, and a light-brown cap, he sits, a bit anomalously, among equipment cases. His tour, which opens later this month in Europe, occupies his mind. “I find the rehearsal process anxiety-filled,” he says, “whereas I don’t find that to be true at all about performing.”

“You get this sound in your head at some early point in your life and you spend your whole career trying to make that sound.”

“Performing’s easy. But until everything is settled and prepared, I’m not thinking about anything other than ‘Let’s get prepared.’ “

Simon turns 59 this month, and his personal life is more stable than it has ever been. He’s married to singer Edie Brickell, and they have three children: two boys, ages 7 and 2, and a 5-year-old girl. Still crazy after all these years? Not likely.

But even now, Simon can’t resist asking the Delphic Bob Dylan to reveal the meaning of it all.

Anthony DeCurtis: What was on your mind when you set out to make You’re the One?

Paul Simon: Always the same thing on my mind: sound.

A.D.: That’s like the first line on the album: “Somewhere in a burst of glory / Sound becomes a song.”

P.S.: That’s right. I heard a sound, and I wanted to know if it was just an imaginary sound, or could I find a band and make it. I tried for about a month, and I didn’t have it, so I thought, I’ll give it another try – change the players, change the sound. And everything worked. Then we began to just play, and that was really a pleasure. I didn’t have anything on my mind. That was two years ago. We worked off and on until May 1999, when I began rehearsals to go on tour. Up until then we had completed five tracks. They didn’t have any titles. I hadn’t even thought about words. All the songs were called nothing – “C Minor,” “Mystery Train.”

A.D.: “Mystery Train” is a good title – someone should use that.

P.S.: Laughs. I’m always trying to make “Mystery Train” – it’s my favorite record. And that’s what I mean. You get this sound in your head at some early point in your life, and you love it so much. Then you spend your whole career trying to make that sound.

A.D.: It’s interesting that you start with the sound, because you’re so much perceived as the writer, the word guy.

P.S.: If you don’t have the sound right, it doesn’t matter if you have the words right. Edie, she hears the words way before I do – she’ll listen to some song and say, “Did you hear that?” But I didn’t – I wasn’t up to the words – I was listening to “What’s that drummer playing?” But the thing about getting older is I really know what I like. And when I find it, I’m in heaven. And that’s what I try to do: Make a record that is so pleasurable for people who like what I like that they can just swim in it. I really tried to do that.

A.D.: Speaking of getting older, you address the issue of aging on “Old.”

P.S.: That’s easy songwriting. You can get those words; you don’t have to really concentrate. The point will come later. “Down the decades every year / Summer leaves / My birthday’s here / All my friends stand up and cheer / And say Man, you’re getting old” – a little joke. What else can I say? “It’s really lousy”? “I wish it wasn’t happening”? I don’t even know if I believe that. In some ways, I don’t like it. In some ways, I like it a lot.

A.D.: Unlike a lot of your contemporaries, you always seem to write from the perspective of the age you actually are.

P.S.: Well, in the early songs, there was a lot of posing. And there comes a time in every piece of work where I turn on it and say, “Why don’t you shut up?” Then, you know, I say, “I can’t shut up. I’m a songwriter. I’ll try to be more truthful.” It’s an attempt to tell the truth, to say who you are at this point.

A.D.: Did having children affect your writing on the album?

P.S.: People have mentioned that, but I don’t remember thinking that when I wrote it. Maybe I missed it. Pauses. A little bit. A verse here, a little there. Maybe more than a little bit. “Where’d he go? / I don’t know / Well he was here a minute ago / I don’t know” – that’s my 2-year-old. Everything’s in there, and everything comes out.

A.D.: After all the controversy over The Capeman, did you feel any pressure to make a more straightforward album?

P.S.: No, I wasn’t thinking of The Capeman – I was thinking more about generation and age, that if you don’t have anything interesting to say by this point, who cares? It’s different when you’re 25. You could just make a pop record and be a big hit and if you don’t have anything to say, nobody holds it against you.

The reality of The Capeman is, outside of New York, nobody heard of it. It was a nonevent. Broadway’s not a big story anywhere – except here.

A.D.: The world of popular music seems so youth-oriented now. Who do you think your audience is at this point?

P.S.: This is a question that journalists think about; I don’t know what to think about that. Out of my generation, there’s a handful of people who were big stars once and maybe now they’re not going to be big stars. Well, what did you think was going to happen? That everything was going to stay the same? You were a big star and you’re going to be a big star forever? No, nothing stays the same. And being a star is of zero importance. Get past that. You can’t change what popular culture is by talking about it. You can change it by embodying something that’s real, that’s meaningful, that’s a powerful idea that can sweep the world. And that idea can come from any age, and most of those ideas do come from people who are older.

A.D.: You’ve done that a couple of times – most recently with Graceland. Did you have any idea that album would have the impact it did?

“It’s much more fun if it’s a hit. Capeman was a very rich experience, but it wasn’t fun.

P.S.: I thought, This is great – I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a hit. And I also thought, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a flop. You know, I’d just had Hearts and Bones, and that was a flop. I mean, it’s not unusual at all for me to be in love with some sound that nobody else can hear. I didn’t even get the whole picture of what Graceland would mean till I got to South Africa, and then I said, “Whoa, boy, this is an unbearably tense country, and these guys are desperate to get their music out.” And these musicians think I’m going to make a hit, and I’m thinking, I just had a flop. Don’t bet on me. But as the record grew, it really became something that you knew was good. You didn’t know if it was a hit, but you knew it was good.

And the criticism that came – cultural imperialism is what they said when they really meant cultural colonialism – they don’t even know what they meant. “You must have ripped them off, because you’re white and they’re black, so it’s got to be a bad deal for them.” It wasn’t. Everybody had a good stake, everybody had a ride, everybody was having a good time, and everybody knew it was special. The criticism got pretty intense, but it really wasn’t valid.

A.D.: You also faced intense criticism over The Capeman. Were you surprised at the level of vitriol?

P.S.: Yeah, I was. Pauses. There’s one thing about it that bothers me. I was widely quoted as saying, “I couldn’t care less about Broadway; I’m only doing this for me.” I never said it. That quote came out of Vogue magazine, and it was picked up in other publications, and then it became a fact, and I never said it. I think because of that, people in the Broadway community thought I had a real attitude – like I was something incredible, and you’re all supposed to acknowledge me. I didn’t feel, Oh, I should be unbelievably grateful to be here, or I should feel far superior – I had neither of those attitudes. I was trying hard. I know I didn’t come from that tradition, but I didn’t know you had to. I was just working my ass off with people I was crazy about. Then it got beat up. I didn’t read most of it. I knew it was bad – why should I get hurt? Actually, I thought The Capeman was very good. It was flawed, but I was proud of it.

A.D.: Are you ever surprised at how powerfully people still feel about songs that you wrote decades ago, like “The Sound of Silence” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water”?

P.S.: I was 21 years old when I wrote “The Sound of Silence,” and I must say I’m just amazed that it’s lasted all this time. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was the most mature of that work. It came so fast, and when it was done, I said, “Where did that come from? It doesn’t seem like me.” And then I gave it to Artie to sing, and for decades it really didn’t seem like me. Laughs. So first it seemed beyond what I was capable of doing, and then it was Artie’s signature song, so I couldn’t really identify with it. Really, there were two great versions of that song: Artie’s and Aretha’s. I imagined Aretha’s when I wrote it – I heard it as a gospel song. But Artie sang it the white-choirboy way – which was extraordinarily beautiful. But neither of those voices are my voice, so in a way that song drifted out of my hands. On this last tour, I found a way of singing it that felt right, and then I felt like I understood it and it was my song again.

A.D.: You toured with Dylan last year. What was that like?

P.S.: Oh, that was fun. I have a lot of affection for him. When I was younger, I was very wary, because I didn’t want to be him. He was so good – frankly, I never would have written “The Sound of Silence” had it not been for Bob Dylan. But soon after that, I said, You can’t be that. He’s that. You are – we don’t know what. But you’re not that.

It wasn’t just Dylan. Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones all happened a year and a half to two years before Simon and Garfunkel. I remember thinking, There’s no room to be original here. How do you be – anything? It seemed like, between them, they had every idea.

A.D.: Well, you’ve managed to build up an impressive body of work despite that. How will you pick what to play on your upcoming tour?

P.S.: Because I’m playing 3,000-seat theaters, I’m guessing that the audience is going to be really familiar with my work, and I don’t have to go to the biggest hits. Today we worked out an arrangement on “The Late Great Johnny Ace.” Maybe I’ll sing Johnny Ace’s hit “Pledging My Love,” and then sing “The Late Great Johnny Ace” – I only did that once or twice ever. “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” – I’ve never performed that. “Spirit Voices,” I only did that once. There’ll be at least fifteen songs I didn’t play on the Dylan tour – maybe more.

A.D.: At this stage, how emotionally invested are you in your album’s success?

P.S.: Well, it’s much more fun if it’s a hit. The Capeman was a very rich experience, but it wasn’t … fun. Laughs. The making, the writing, that was fun. But the rest wasn’t. I don’t know what it means. It’s one of the things I think about all the time: What does any of this stuff mean? I remember once standing backstage and talking to Bob. We were thinking of extending the tour, and I said, “I don’t know. What actually is the whole point, anyway?” And he said, “This is what we do.” And that seems to be it. The easy answer that seems to satisfy is, it’s what you do.

Sounds of Simon