Sunday 4 December 2016

The Gospel according to Paul Simon

As the great Paul Simon is (homeward) bound for the 3Arena in Dublin tomorrow night, our music critic reflects on the complex genius behind some of the greatest songs of any era

Published 21/11/2016 | 02:30

He knows he is running out of time, but Paul Simon is working on that
He knows he is running out of time, but Paul Simon is working on that

My two favourite Philip Roth quotes. "Unless one is inordinately fond of subordination, one is always at war."

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And - "Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre."

At 75, Paul Simon would probably disagree with both of the above; but certainly the latter. He seems to have made a sort of a peace with himself and his mortality.

(And his immortality through songs like - deep breath - Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Sound Of Silence, I Am A Rock, Still Crazy After All These Years, Homeward Bound, Mrs Robinson, The Boxer, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Graceland, and The Boy In The Bubble.)

Paul said recently that "oddly enough, the older you get, the happier you get. When you've passed through crises a few times - when people die, when you experience enough sadness and enough joy - you tend to turn your attention towards the joy.

"The sadness is a constant anyway, so why deliver it as a gift to someone else? 'Here, take my sadness and listen to it for an hour.' I wouldn't do that."

Born on October 13, 1941 in New Jersey, the man who Time magazine in 2006 selected as one of the 100 People Who Shaped the World is one of the finest wordsmiths of the past 100 years.

He has probably lost out in terms of so-called credibility on the street because he isn't edgy like Lou Reed or alt.vague like Bob Dylan or saintly sage like Leonard Cohen. But none of those artists, if any, could write songs like Paul Simon.

It is important to remember, I think, that songs like I Am A Rock and The Sound of Silence, as Pitchfork's Mike Powell pointed out recently, "deal with characters who wear their alienation like badges, dark lords of their own personal libraries left with no choice but to turn their faces heroically away from the sheeple who surround them".

"This was a guy," Powell added, "who responded to the news of his partner going to work on a movie in Mexico by writing a song called The Only Living Boy in New York, never mind the other six million people living there."

Pitchfork also declared Simon's new album Stranger to Stranger "arguably" his best album since the groundbreaking and iconoclastic masterpiece Graceland in 1986.

Stranger to Stranger is full of meditations on God, death, the afterlife, hospitals and, not forgetting, wolves.

"To get people to listen with open ears," he told Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year, "you have to really make something that is interesting because people are prepared for it not to be interesting."

When this sage deity of song - and so many of them too - plays the 3Arena tomorrow night in what should be the gig of the year expect Paul Simon's performance to be somewhat interesting.

The Gospel According To Paul Simon is always that and more. And you never know, he might even throw out a little wisdom on death and mortality and the like to the audience between songs tomorrow night.

As he told New York magazine's Alan Light in 2011: "Even though I don't actually feel it, I understand intellectually that I'm running out of time."

"But the denial instinct is so powerful that it doesn't depress me or anything like that-I just think, 'Well, I'll have to work on that subject'.

"It's important for one to think about: How am I going to make that transition, from being alive to not being in this body anymore?"

He's still existential after all these years.

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