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Sounds of Simon

After getting clobbered by critics for Capeman, Paul Simon returns to folk-rock form with You're the One, an upcoming tour, and a few choice words about that sound he hears in his head.

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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.


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