Sunday 20 January 2019

The 76-year-old boy in the bubble

Paul Simon writes songs about characters who wear their alienation like badges. Our reporter heralds the songwriting king of New York

Paul Simon is short of leg but long of creativity, and truly sublime to watch
Paul Simon is short of leg but long of creativity, and truly sublime to watch
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

There is an apocryphal story about Paul Simon. I'm sure there are many but I like this one: as a child, he wore such a permanently sombre expression that his parents Belle and Louis allegedly dubbed him Cardozo, after the Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, whose demeanour was famously unsmiling...

Supreme Court Justices notwithstanding, Paul's father was certainly an influence: a musician who performed on television shows for three decades, from the 1930s onwards, Louis also had a doctorate in linguistics from New York University.

Growing up at 137-62 70th Road in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, Paul loved baseball and the New York Yankees as much as the music of Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, the Crew Cut, Johnny Ace et al (Paul's first record purchase was Pledging My Love by Johnny Ace in 1954). The young non-observing Jewish kid went on to be one of the greatest songwriters the world ever saw.

And the least self-regarding...

Time magazine in 2006 selected him as one of the 100 People Who Shaped the World. None of this particularly mattered to Paul, who plays Dublin's RDS Arena later this summer. He has never thought of himself as anything remotely approaching a genius.

Despite having written the likes of Bridge over Troubled Water, The Sound of Silence, I Am a Rock, Still Crazy After All These Years, Homeward Bound, Mrs Robinson, The Boxer, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, Graceland and The Boy in the Bubble, Paul once said, not uncharacteristically: "I never thought of myself as an artist until I was in my 40s, and then it was only as a personality type.

"I thought I was a bright guy, real smart. I could figure stuff out. I was good at things. That's what I thought, but there were periods when I couldn't explain what I wrote. I don't think I'm special, and I never did - I didn't think, 'I'm 21 and I've written The Sound of Silence.' When I wrote Bridge over Troubled Water, I thought, 'That's better than I usually write'.

"As decades go by, you're grateful for the talent you have, but there's a time when you just put away your feelings and work..."

When young Paul heard the son of a travelling salesman, Arthur Garfunkel, sing at a school assembly in grade school - and you could say that his life would never be the same again. After all, Simon & Garfunkel changed music.

I saw Paul play with Billy Joel and Miley Cyrus at Madison Square Garden in New York a few months ago. Short of leg but long of creativity, he was truly sublime to watch - the master in full flow in front of his hometown crowd.

Born on October 13, 1941, Paul Simon is a unique personality in many ways. Pitchfork's Mike Powell pointed out that the songs I Am a Rock and The Sound of Silence "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".

There is more. "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."

"Even though I don't actually feel it, I understand intellectually that I'm running out of time," Simon, who is now 76, told New York magazine's Alan Light in 2011. "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 any more?"

Paul Simon plays the RDS Arena in Dublin on July 13.

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