Here's to you Mr Simon
As folk-pop legend Paul Simon hints he'll be putting away his guitar for good at the end of this tour, Ed Power looks at his legacy - and his special relationship with Irish audiences
Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30
It has been a year of unimaginable loss in popular music. And while 74-year-old Paul Simon remains fighting fit and in excellent voice, fans of his by turns wistful and playful music will be upset to hear he is considering retiring at the end of his latest tour. Creatively, at least, another light is about to go out.
The good news is that Ireland will have its opportunity to say farewell to this icon of folk-pop, with Simon passing through Dublin for a 3Arena concert on November 21.
After that, though, it seems he will be following the advice he spun so hilariously on '50 Ways To Leave Your Lover' and quietly slipping out of the public eye - a quick getaway after six decades as a working musician.
"Showbiz doesn't hold any interest for me," Simon told the 'New York Times' this week, as the American leg of what may prove to be his farewell string of dates wound down. "None."
His motives appear philosophical as much as practical. Simon has been a songsmith practically his entire adult life. He wonders what it might feel like to cast that part of himself to one side. Would he become a different person? He is fascinated by the question.
"It's an act of courage to let go," Simon said in the same interview. "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?"
Such spiritual weariness is a surprise, considering the bustling figure he cuts on his astonishing new album, 'Stranger To Stranger'. Here is one of those special records where the artist has fun raiding their own catalogue for inspiration, with Simon variously summoning the wide-eyed folk of his Simon and Garfunkel days and the bustling world pop of 1986's 'Graceland'.
It's a cracking collection - one that looks to the future with notable confidence. There is nothing to indicate Simon was considering chucking the towel in.
But even if Simon does indeed lock his guitar away, it will surely not be the last Ireland sees of him.
This Newark, New Jersey son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants is a dedicated Hibernophile, who toured the country long before it was fashionable to (Simon and Garfunkel's troubled 1982 reunion jaunt famously stopped off at Dublin's RDS - a great performance blunted slightly by the fact the feuding partners refused to speak to one another).
Stoking this love for Ireland is a passion for the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Simon travelled to Dublin Airport in 2014 to unveil a memorial to the wordsmith.
"Travellers would do well to carry Seamus Heaney's words with them as they journey around the globe. He was, truly, a poet for all the world," he said.
Simon had earlier paid tribute to Heaney's legacy in the 'New York Times'. The piece made plain that his love for Heaney's writing and for Ireland were entwined. He saw in this country a wild melancholy that touched him.
"I was in the audience at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on June 9, 1991, when Seamus Heaney read from his new book of poems, 'Seeing Things'," Simon wrote in the 'New York Times' several days after Heaney's death in 2013. "I know the exact date because he kindly inscribed his book for me and dated it. But I wouldn't have forgotten that night, with or without the month and year. Seamus gave a mesmerising, witty and emotional performance, and it was a rare opportunity for me to hear the sound of his words spoken with their true accent.
"Seamus, though, was one of those rare poets whose writing evokes music: the fiddles, pipes and penny-whistles of his Northern Irish culture and upbringing."
That Simon would be moved by Heaney's poetry is no surprise. As a songwriter he was quite the poet himself, early standards such as 'The Boxer' and 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' (he was always the lead songwriter in Simon and Garfunkel) glistening with a pathos and wisdom beyond the then young folkie's years.
On his new album, meanwhile, he made use of his friendship with County Armagh poet and academic Paul Muldoon, calling Muldoon up to run lyrics by him. In particular Muldoon was an encouragement as Simon struggled with the song 'Wristband', a meditation on blue-collar disenfranchisement which seems to eerily predict the rise of Trump and Brexit ("He articulated that anger in a way that was atypical of politics," Simon has said of Trump. "You know, 'I'd like to punch that guy in the face'. Nobody says that - but he did and people were like, 'Hooray! Hooray for that!')
The love flows both ways with the Irish music community clearly indebted to Simon. On YouTube you can enjoy footage of Glen Hansard and friends enthusiastically tackling 'You Can Call Me Al'; Simon's influence on Conor O'Brien of Villagers is so undeniable as to hardly need pointing out.
Throughout his career, Simon has been extraordinarily humble about his gifts. Indeed, reflecting on his life in music several years ago, he seemed astonished by what he had achieved. Was he really the person who had written songs that meant so much to so many?
"I was 21, maybe 22, when I wrote 'The Sound of Silence', which seems to me like quite a big jump from where I was before that," he said. "And why or where, I have no idea. I thought the same thing when I wrote 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' -whoa, that song is better than what I've been doing. Different chords and something special about it. The same feeling with 'Graceland', and 'Still Crazy After All These Years'.
"All of a sudden you're there, and you're surprised. This happened to me at times where some line comes out, where I'm the audience and it's real, and I have to stop, because I'm crying. I didn't know I was going to say that, didn't know that I felt that, didn't know that was really true. I have to stop and catch my breath."
The power of those songs was obvious when he played Ireland last summer, in a curious co-headline tour with tantric troubadour Sting. An archetypal little and large pairing, the two good-naturedly dipped into one another's catalogues, Sting harmonising with Simon on 'Mrs Robinson', their voices interweaving on 'Cecilia'.
They also wended their way through Sting's greatest hits and while these segments were perfectly charming, it was the Simon material that truly connected. When the pair leaned low over their mics and negotiated 'The Boxer', 12,000 people seemed to stop breathing at once.
Humbly and with a twinkle of humour, Simon had swept us away with his genius.