Monday 16 July 2018

Hello Ireland, my old friend - a look back at Paul Simon's love affair with the country

As Paul Simon says goodbye to our shores with a farewell concert tonight, Ed Power looks back on the folk legend's love affair with the country

Simon & Garfunkel
Simon & Garfunkel
Ed Power

Ed Power

An unforgettable Irish homecoming awaits Paul Simon as the folk icon brings his farewell tour to Dublin tonight. Having announced he was hanging up his guitar after more than five decades of hits and heartbreak, the now 76-year-old's final series of dates has obviously been emotional - for Simon, but perhaps even more so for his audience.

Yet the performance at the RDS this evening promises to be extra tearful. Though born into a Hungarian-Jewish family and raised in Queens, New York, Ireland has always loomed large for Simon. He became enamoured with the country's music and storytelling traditions during his early years as a singer-songwriter on the Greenwich Village circuit. Back then, as a footloose newcomer, he would have rubbed up against sad-eyed émigrés the Clancy Brothers - probably after hearing Bob Dylan proclaiming their genius.

Later, when Simon and Garfunkel were conquering the world, he counted Ireland as a favourite stopping-off point. During one of the rockier periods in their notoriously fractious relationship they famously serenaded the RDS in Dublin.

The June 1982 gig quickly went down in the annals. Some 20,000 had gathered to see the pair, whose creative partnership had by that point been moribund more than a decade.

Under an aching blue sky their voices entwined as they began with 'Mrs Robinson' and finished, over two hours later, with the 'Sound of Silence' and a cover of 'All I Have to Do is Dream' by their idols and inspiration The Everly Brothers.

Appropriately, they would bring The Everly Brothers back with them as, on one of their intermittent reunions, they returned to the RDS in 2004. Halfway through the Old Friends tour, Simon invited the Everlys up for their ageless hits 'All I Have to Do is Dream' and 'Wake Up, Little Susie'.

Green day: Paul Simon plays the RDS tonight
Green day: Paul Simon plays the RDS tonight

At this stage, bad blood between Simon and Garfunkel was the stuff of music folklore (Simon was said to resent Garfunkel's good looks and charisma; Garfunkel had to cope with the fact that Simon was an all-time great songwriter). Yet they were giddily chummy at the RDS.

"It's easy to sing when the songs are this good," said Garfunkel, introducing 'Kathy's Clown' (Simon's "most perfect ballad").

Beaming, the wavy-haired vocalist described the tour as celebrating "the 50th anniversary of a precious friendship". Without missing a beat, Simon, who met Garfunkel at school, chimed in: "We actually fell out two years after we first started, so really it's the 48th anniversary, but we don't argue anymore - we're exhausted."

Big international artists are often appreciative of a warm Irish crowd - especially if they've been lately playing to harder-to-impress rooms across the rest of Northern Europe. In the case of Simon, though, the romance runs considerably deeper, as he made clear when he flew to Dublin in 2014 to pay tribute to the late Seamus Heaney.

"I was a friend, and a fan of his writing," he said, after singing extracts from several of the poet's pieces at an event at the National Concert Hall (on the same trip he unveiled a memorial to Heaney at Dublin Airport which he half-jokingly said should be renamed "Seamus Heaney Airport").

"I like the sound of Heaney's poetry - there is a musicality to it. He may have come from Irish soil, but his words resonate around the world."

The words were sincerely meant. Simon would also publish a tribute to Heaney in the New York Times.

"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, 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," he continued, "was one of those rare poets whose writing evokes music: the fiddles, pipes and penny-whistles of his Northern Irish culture and upbringing."

Simon's profound love of Irish poetry has also played a part in his friendship with Paul Muldoon, the Armagh-born Princeton University professor. Simon actively sought Muldoon out after struggling with lyrics for his most recent album, Stranger to Stranger.

"I was having dinner with Paul Muldoon, the poet, and I said, I had this title I don't know whether I want to keep it, 'Wristband'," Simon told the New York Times. "He said 'It's a good title. You could go a lot of places with that title, you should keep it'."

"From out of nowhere, I said, 'Wristband, it's just a metaphor for you can't get in. You don't have what's required'," Simon said. "And that's what's going on. That battle is being fought right now, the haves and have-nots."

Simon performed 'Wristband' when he brought Stranger to Stranger to Dublin in 2016. The song remains in his latest set - proof that, despite all those decades and all those hits, he's never stopped moving forward. For this reason and many others, trust that his Dublin farewell will be an evening to remember.

Irish Independent

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