Thursday 14 December 2017

Brendan O'Connor: We all came, to look for America

Still got it: Paul Simon had the audience up swaying and jiggling
Still got it: Paul Simon had the audience up swaying and jiggling
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Obviously I knew logically that Garfunkel was not going to be there. It was very clearly billed as a Paul Simon gig. And let's face it, Artie recently called Paul an idiot and a jerk. Paul responded by saying that Garfunkel is a guy who is wrestling his demons and, "I don't know why he's mad at me, I really don't. He's mad at a lot of people".

So clearly Artie was not going to be there. But nonetheless my warm-up for going to see Paul Simon was listening to the live album of the 2003 Simon and Garfunkel reunion. They did all the classics and talked warmly about their 50-year friendship. I was bitching to my wife that they were going on about how much they loved each other on that album, so how come they don't speak now?

"They love each other like brothers," she said. That shut me up. As it happened I was going with my brother. My niece wanted to go with him. I think he was going because she wanted to go. I was trailing along because they were going. And my wife came because she is gracious. I'm not sure who exactly wanted to be there. But we went. And part of the fun of these things in our family is everybody bitching and moaning. But as I explain to my wife, we enjoy that.

Paul is in great nick. He's 75. And he was there in jeans and T-shirt dancing around, full of beans, for over two hours. But the crowd was the real entertainment. I'm guessing that I was definitely in the youngest 20pc of the audience. Most of them were in their fifties and sixties and having a ball. I'm just guessing here but I reckon Graceland was a seminal album for these people. I went along assuming that, like me, most of them were there for the Simon and Garfunkel songs, songs like The Sound of Silence which, incredibly, Paul Simon wrote when he was just 21. And America, that Mount Rushmore of a song, as much an icon of that great country as Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean or Goodfellas.

But no, clearly at some pivotal points in these people's lives, Graceland had come along, with its African vibes, and blown them away. I should add that this was before cultural appropriation became a mortal sin. So the whole room changed when Paul rolled out Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, and suddenly they were all up and swaying and jiggling delightedly. Suddenly the O3 was like a township in Soweto. And such joy, as they relived that time when they were the original hipsters.

Of course I think of Graceland as late-period Paul Simon, but that album was 30 years ago. The reaction to Diamonds... was nothing next to You Can Call Me Al. They really went wild then. I regard this, perhaps unfairly, as a novelty song. But they went bananas for it. My wife tells me she read Paul Simon somewhere saying resignedly that for all the classics he can pull out of the bag, all they want to hear is You Can Call Me Al. They go nuts for it, every time. At this stage I was kind of laughing at all these mad old people. And then something happened. The biggest singalong of the night came for one line in one song, the refrain of Still Crazy After All These Years. And I realised in a flash that these were good people, and that for one night they were still crazy after all these years. They were still together, still able to go out and have a few drinks, still able to dance around like Zulus, and still able to feel a bit of mindless joy.

My moments came too. The Boxer was a bit low-key compared to the rousing version Irish people have made their own with crashes and booms in it. The finale, Bridge Over Troubled Water was, without Artie, adequate, if not quite as soaring. But America, and that verse: "Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping. "I'm empty and aching and I don't know why" Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. They've all come to look for America

For that moment, for those goosebumps alone, it was all worth it. I can't tell you why that verse affects us all so, or how it taps into the human condition. But it does doesn't it? It was my wife who first turned me on to that song. It gets her too. I could see she was nearly crying. And I understood for a minute why my niece had concocted this outing. Because we may not get a chance to see Paul Simon again, and now we will always remember we stood together and had those moments.

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