What is the measure of a man's career? A man, say, like Paul Simon?
An obvious answer would be to look at his work and see what sort of picture it makes when it has all been fitted together. And that, as any curator will tell you, is no walk in the park.
Imagine, then, how tough it must be when the person assembling that retrospective is the artist himself. In addition to the dirty job of deciding what goes and what stays, he must also contend with the potentially prickly issue of artistic identity. Because if the artist doesn't have a clear sense of himself, how on earth can he present a coherent picture to his audience?
Yet Simon has not one but two retrospectives on deck this fall. The first is "1964/1993" (Warner Bros. 45394), a three-CD set he compiled that stretches from his first hit, "Hey, Schoolgirl" (recorded with Art Garfunkel under the name Tom and Jerry), to his current single, "Thelma." It arrives in record stores Tuesday. Then, on Friday, he'll begin a monthlong stand at New York's Paramount Theater that will feature his current band and a reunion segment with Art Garfunkel, as well as guests the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Phoebe Snow. (All 21 shows sold out almost as soon as they were announced.)
Add in the responsibilities of fatherhood -- he and wife Edie Brickell had a son last December -- and it's clear why Simon was enjoying "the last few days" of his summer vacation before heading into rehearsal for the Paramount Theater shows. Still, Simon was more than happy to spend time talking about his life's work.
Q: Let's start with the boxed set, "1964-1993." You're covering 29 years there -- why do the retrospective now, as opposed to waiting for some round number?
Simon: It's just totally arbitrary. . . . What's the difference between 29 years and 30 or 31? I don't see it, no. There wasn't going to be a new piece of recorded work coming in the next year, so it might as well be now.
First of all, Warner Bros. wanted to put out the boxed set this fall. And that took a while, you know? Just to get yourself listening to that stuff, and to get the tapes organized -- there are so many problems. The tape disintegrates, masters are lost, things have to be repaired. The amount of technical work just to get the preparation took a long time.
The idea of me having to do a big editing job on my entire oeuvre, so to speak, wasn't something that I would have normally looked forward to. So it took a while before I got hooked in, but then I did get hooked in. And I put a lot of time and thought into it.
Q: That's an interesting point about going back. John Lennon once said that he had a difficult time going back to the Beatles albums, because all he could hear were the things he wished were done differently. Whereas the audience listens to those recordings and hears only their familiarity.
Simon: Have you heard the boxed set yet?
Q: Yes, they sent me tapes. I've mainly been listening to the last of the three cassettes.
Simon: Oh really? Interesting. My favorite is the middle one.
But anyway, what I think is that if they are put together carefully, they can be fresh again. There are songs in there that I don't think people would have thought about, you know? Good songs, but overlooked.
Plus, many of the elements from "The Rhythm of the Saints" are foreshadowed, even though I had no idea that I was doing that. They're there so early. You can see them. The journey has a logic to it that I don't think you could have seen as clearly then as you can now, listening to all of it.
In either case, see it or not, it certainly is an interesting journey through those decades, in terms of a popular music evolution. It has a consistency, it has a direction, it has a momentum. It stands as a body of work.
Of course, I don't really know what the public reaction will be to it, because it hasn't come out. But I thought that.
Q: No, I know exactly what you mean, particularly with some of the rhythmic ideas. To me, one of the things that's most interesting about the set is to trace that from the later Simon and Garfunkel stuff up to "Rhythm of the Saints," in that even though there are various ethnic approaches that sort of color it differently . . .
Simon: You know, there is a term that has been terribly misleading.
Q: Which term?
Simon: "Ethnic." It seems to indicate that you're talking about something that's foreign or outside of the mainstream, when in fact it's so completely absorbed within our cultural mainstream that people embraced it when they heard it -- even though they still described it as, like, some kind of ethnic music.
For me -- and I've said this in every interview I've ever done since "Graceland" -- I heard all of these sounds a long, long time ago in one form or another, in the earliest days of rock and roll. So really, what happened with me there was that I began to become aware, as a mature person, of the sounds that I heard at an impressionable age. And I began to catalog them, and to use them in an expanding vocabulary to express whatever was on my mind.
And in terms of the musical expression and the sounds that are behind it, those have been more and more within my control and choice in the last six, seven years. And that's one of the things that develops there, is the record-making. The record-making is, I think, as interesting as the songwriting. I probably think of myself as a record maker before I think of myself as a songwriter.
Q: It's interesting you should say that, because I was reading an interview with Vernon Reid of Living Colour recently, and in the course of his conversation, he must have quoted your lyrics four or five times. And it made me realize how many of the phrases most of us have in the backs of our minds originated in your songs.
Simon: Do you remember which ones they were?
Q: From the interview? The one that springs to mind is "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest," from "The Boxer." A very succinct line, easily understood and beautifully phrased.
Simon: Yeah, there are quite a few lines that have entered into the vernacular. I don't know if that is one, because I've heard that thought expressed elsewhere.
But yeah, that has happened in the course of my career. There must be, I don't know, five or six lines that probably anybody would know. I don't know if they'd know who wrote them. I don't know if anybody would know, when people say "Still crazy after )) all these years," or "Still something after all these years," that they're quoting from me.
But there it is. I see it all the time, all the time. "Slip-slidin' Away," or "Bridge Over Troubled Water" -- I saw those all the time with the floods this summer.
Q: A lot of writers, when they come up with a good line, stand back and say, "Wow, that was a good one." Do you have the same kind of feeling, or do you not notice this until later?
Simon: I don't always notice, no. I would never have predicted that "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" would have been a line that so caught the moment -- caught the yearning for heroes that no longer existed. I didn't know that when I wrote that.
On the other hand, I thought "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was good the minute that I wrote it. The sound just struck me as so natural, the melody and the words came together all at once. "Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down" just came all at once, and I thought that was good right away.
What else? I never gave a second thought to "Slip-Slidin' Away," which I wrote very quickly. Probably the quickest I ever wrote a song. Maybe I wrote it in an hour. I have songs that I've taken a year to write. So that was a piece of work.
"50 Ways To Leave Your Lover," I never anticipated that, never thought it was a hit. I never thought anything about it. It just was something that was amusing to me. The chords were interesting. I don't know. I enjoyed it, but I didn't think it was any big deal.
I guess the answer is most of the time, I don't know.
Q: Is it because you're more concerned with expressing yourself than you are with connecting with the audience at that point?
Simon: I'm not thinking about the audience very much. And I'm trying not to be judgmental in a way that's going to stop me up. So I let the work go, and if it has a kind of an ease in singing and if it sounds good in the singing, even if I don't fully understand it, I leave it alone and I'm ready to move on. Because I sort of enjoy it if I don't fully understand it.
Q: Let's talk about the songwriting process. Apart from the songs that appear full-blown and whole, like Aphrodite out of the water . . .
Simon: That's one -- one song in all these years.
Q: . . . my impression is that songs are done in one of two ways. Some start with a foundation, like a riff or rhythm or chorus, which the songwriter builds on. But the most powerful songs are less like construction than archaeology, in that you notice a shape on the landscape and realize there's something under there. So the whole process of writing is in scraping enough of what's obscuring it away so you see it without actually scraping the thing itself away.
Simon: That's a good way of looking at it. It's not exactly the way I look at it, but it's not very far away. Your metaphor is underground and scraping away, and mine is probably above ground searching for a shape. It's a discovery, and you're hoping that you're going to discover something that you've felt and couldn't articulate and now understand.
And you also hope that what it is that you're writing about is universal enough to have some meaning for the listener. That's what the process is, and that's sort of the land I've been dwelling in.
It's not the only way I can write a song. I might choose another technique. For example, if I was writing a story or a plot or a character -- if I'm writing about me in some way -- then I don't want to set out with a given premise. It's too easy to set out with the point and then explain it. I'd rather discover what the point was. It's truer to what I think.
Q: The first way's also a little bit more like life, isn't it?
Simon: That's right, it's truer. It may not be as pretty. It's not as show-biz. But it's truer, and I think that's important. I mean, it's important to be true in the songs. And for someone who's been doing this for just about his whole life, I'm obliged to seek as deep a level of truth as I can -- as I can summon the courage to investigate.
SIMON & GARFUNKEL
"Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M." (Columbia, 1965). Served up as straight folk, this boasts a couple of strong songs (including the original "Sounds of Silence"), but a largely undistinguished sound. 1/2
"Sounds of Silence" (Columbia, 1966). Having re-invented themselves as folk rockers, S. & G. offer the first inklings of their now-famous sound. Simon's songwriting begins to come into its own.
"Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" (Columbia, 1966). Less folk rock than early stab at singer-songwriter pop, the songs here are witty ("A Simple Desultory Philippic"), literate ("The Dangling Conversation") and enduringly tuneful ("59th Street Bridge Song"). 1/2
"The Graduate" (Columbia, 1968). This may be where "Mrs. Robinson" made its debut, but all the S. & G. material included here can be found elsewhere -- and without cheesy movie music for padding. 1/2
"Bookends" (Columbia, 1968). Simon's writing gets sharper (witness "America" or "A Hazy Shade of Winter"), but the music seems torn between his pop ambition and folkie roots. 1/2
"Bridge Over Troubled Water" (Columbia, 1970). The breakthrough. With their vocal harmonies as the album's only constant, Simon's songs touch on everything from gospel ("Bridge Over Troubled Water") to Andean folk ("El Condor Pasa") to rock and roll ("Bye Bye Love"). A classic that sounds as good now as it did then.
"Greatest Hits" (Columbia, 1972). All the pre-breakup singles. It may lack the context of the originals, but every song's a winner.
"Collected Works" (Columbia, 1981). A better buy you won't find: Everything from their first six albums but the movie music from "The Graduate" (which Simon didn't write, anyway), squeezed onto three CDs. 1/2
"Concert in Central Park" (Warner Bros., 1982). Although this proves conclusively that Paul and Artie didn't burn their bridges over troubled waters behind them, this reunion artifact adds little to the duo's legacy. 1/2
PAUL SIMON SOLO ALBUMS
"Paul Simon" (Warner Bros., 1972). On his own at last, Simon hits the ground running with songs that further explore his interest in exotic rhythms while refining the melodic flair found on "Bridge Over Troubled Water." 1/2
"There Goes Rhymin' Simon" (Warner Bros., 1973). Where "Paul Simon" dabbled in Caribbean and South American sounds, the songs here explore American styles like gospel ("Loves Me Like a Rock") and New Orleans soul ("Take Me to the Mardi Gras") while delivering some of his sturdiest melodies ("Kodachrome," "American Song").
"Live Rhymin' " (Warner Bros., 1974). A concert album showing that Simon's eclecticism isn't as easily managed onstage as in the studio.
"Still Crazy After All These Years" (Warner Bros., 1975). Putting his stylistic experiments on the shelf for a while, Simon goes for a straighter, slicker sound that results in some of his best-ever singles, including the title tune, the sly "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and the subtly bitter "My Little Town."
"One Trick Pony" (Warner Bros., 1980). Part soundtrack and part song collection, and not a complete success at either. Still, the best songs -- "Late in the Evening," "Jonah" -- make it worth hearing at least. 1/2
"Hearts and Bones" (Warner Bros., 1983). Great songs don't necessarily make good records, as this album makes plain. Some interesting ideas surface, like the Phillip Glass interlude in "The Late Great Johnny Ace," but good songs like "Train in the Distance" seem undersupported by the rhythm work.
"Graceland" (Warner Bros., 1986). Another breakthrough. Although this album started out as simple appropriation, with Simon singing over pre-existing tracks (as on "I Know What I Know"), its best moments find him collaborating with South African musicians to create a sound that is neither mbaqanga nor rock, but something completely new. Simply stunning.
"Negotiations and Lovesongs" (Warner Bros., 1988). A solo career best-of.
"The Rhythm of the Saints" (Warner Bros., 1990). Not quite a continuation of "Graceland," this album finds Simon looking to West Africa and Brazil for inspiration. Great writing ("The Obvious Child," "Further to Fly") and some of his best singing ever.
"Paul Simon's Concert in the Park" (Warner Bros., 1991). Simon takes his "Graceland"/"Rhythm of the Saints" band on the road. Solid stuff, and an enormous improvement over "Live Rhymin'."
"1964-1993" (Warner Bros., 1993). Not the boxed set you'd expect. Rather than give us three decades of hits, this collection illuminates the strengths, themes and growth evident in a lifetime of songwriting. A great way to appreciate overlooked gems like "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" or "Cool River." If you'd like to hear excerpts from Paul Simon's new boxed ser, "1964/1993," call Sundial, The Sun's free telephone information service.
You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800, or (410) 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County. After the greeting, punch in 6112.