By Eleni P. Austin
“The fact is most obits are mixed reviews, life is a lottery a lot of people lose/And the winners and the grinners with the money-colored eyes eat all the nuggets Then they order extra fries.”
That’s Paul Simon pondering mortality on “Werewolf,” the opening track of his new album, Stranger To Stranger. It’s a subject he has given a lot of thought, but that’s understandable, along with Bob Dylan, he has been the voice of a generation.
Paul Simon was born in New Jersey in 1941 and grew up in Queens, New York. As a kid he was equally passionate about music and baseball. He came from a musical background, before becoming an educator his dad, Louis, led a small Jazz combo. Naturally, Jazz was an early obsession, followed by Folk, Doo-Wop and the nascent Rock sounds of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
At age 11 he met Art Garfunkel. The duo bonded over their shared passion for music. Inspired by the Everly Brothers, Paul and Art began harmonizing together, and made their stage debut at a junior high talent show. Not long after, Paul began writing his own songs.
By the time they were in high school they were performing at teen dances and parties as Tom & Jerry. They wrote their first song together and Paul registered it with the Library Of Congress. In 1957, they recorded Paul’s song “Hey School Girl” and it hit #52 on the Billboard charts and the pair even appeared on “American Bandstand.”
Following high school Paul was intent on going solo. Despite receiving a recording contract and collaborating with other songwriters under his Jerry Landis and True Taylor pseudonyms, his career stalled and soon he and Art had both enrolled in college. It was the early ‘60s, and the Folk Revival was in full swing in New York City. Encouraged by the emerging trend of singer-songwriters, Paul and Art decided to record as duo again, this time under their own names.
As Simon & Garfunkel they began playing the Greenwich Village club scene and secured a deal with Columbia, (also the home of Bob Dylan, the Woody Guthrie acolyte who ignited both the new Folk and the singer-songwriter movement in 1962 with his self-titled debut). The duo released their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., in autumn of 1964. When it failed to gain traction a discouraged Paul immigrated to London where he played the Folk clubs and finally recorded a solo effort, The Paul Simon Songbook.
A year went by and …3 A.M.’s producer, Tom Wilson discovered that a track from the album, “The Sound Of Silence” was getting radio airplay. He remixed the song, adding electric guitar and drums. By early 1966 it hit #1 on the charts and Simon & Garfunkel hastily reformed and recorded their sophomore album, ironically entitled “The Sounds Of Silence.” Along with the remixed version of the title track, the record included “Kathy’s Song” and “I Am A Rock.”
For the remainder of the decade, Simon & Garfunkel music became the soundtrack of the ‘60s. Paul wrote lyrics that pinballed between introspection and veiled social commentary. Along with the Byrds and Bob Dylan (when he went electric), they popularized the Folk-Rock sound. Their music also defined a turbulent era.
Between 1964 and 1970 the duo released five albums including Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Paul’s boyish vocals complimented Art’s angelic tenor, but as when the ‘70s arrived Paul was ready to move on and he truly embarked on a solo career.
His eponymous album arrived in 1972. Already a student of World music, the record incorporated traces of Reggae, 12 Bar Blues, Gypsy Jazz and Latin music. Paul Simon was an immediate hit and he quickly followed up 16 months later with There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.
That album featured hints of Gospel, New Orleans Second Line and Jamaican riddims. By this time he had married Peggy Harper (the “silver girl” from “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), and she had given birth to their son, Harper. His third album, 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years, was less exuberant and more reflective, a reaction to his and Peggy’s divorce.
For the next five years Paul’s focus was on Hollywood. He wrote the score for Warren Beatty’s seminal film “Shampoo,” then he played an oily record producer is Woody Allen’s most venerated movie, “Annie Hall.” In 1980 he wrote and starred in “One Trick Pony.” The story, of a touring musician with a big ‘60s hit, a young son and a failed marriage, mirrored his own life experience. The movie tanked and although the soundtrack spawned a couple of hits, they were both viewed as disappointments.
During this era, he also began a tempestuous relationship with actress Carrie Fisher. Their break-ups and make-ups culminated in a proposal during a Yankees game and a 1983 marriage that fueled his next record Hearts And Bones.
Hushed and intimate, it was released at the height of the dayglo New Wave era. Lost in that shuffle, it sold poorly and was virtually neglected by radio and MTV. Sadly, the marriage ended after 11 months, but it sent him on a musical pilgrimage that resulted in the most successful album of his career.
In 1984, a friend slipped Paul a bootleg cassette of African Township Jive music. He became obsessed with the myriad styles of South African music, especially Mbaqanga, Maskanda and Isicathamiya. He ended up travelling to South Africa and collaborating with many of the musicians he had been listening to, particularly Ray Phiri and the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Although he paid all the South African musicians three times the union scale wages, he faced serious criticism for making music in South Africa. Because the country practiced Apartheid (a form of racial segregation), most Western countries had imposed a cultural boycott. Paul had violated that agreement. He actually brought many of the musicians to New York, finishing the album there.
When Graceland was released his label, and most of the general public viewed it as a crazy experiment, but once people began to listen to the infectious music, it received rave reviews and became the most successful album of his career. Paul’s artistic vision was validated when exiled South African musicians like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela, (who joined him on the Graceland world tour), praised his efforts to expose their music to the world.
Paul followed up four years later with the Brazilian flavored Rhythm Of The Saints. In 1992 he married singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, who is 24 years his junior. The couple have three children together. He spent the remainder of the ‘90s writing the Broadway musical “The Capeman.” The show premiered in 1998 and closed after only 68 performances, losing 11 million dollars. His album that accompanied the show, Songs From The Capeman, was also a huge flop.
His first 21st century album was a little more subdued, You’re The One arrived in early 2000. Grammy nominated for Album Of The Year, Paul became the first artist to be nominated in that category five consecutive decades. (All told, he has won 12 Grammy Awards).
Following a very successful reunion tour with Art Garfunkel in 2004, (the duo has reunited periodically throughout the years, but their contentious friend/partner-ship remains an up-and-down affair), he began collaborating with Brian Eno. A member of Roxy Music and an eclectic solo artist, he is best known for producing David Bowie’s Teutonic trilogy, Low, Heroes and Lodger, he also made seminal records with Talking Heads and U2. In 2006, Paul released the aptly entitled Surprise, the album hit #14 on the charts.
Another five years elapsed and he returned with his strongest effort of the new millennium, So Beautiful, So What. Critically acclaimed, the album debuted at #4 on the Billboard Top 200. Now Paul has returned with his 12th solo album, Stranger To Stranger.
The record reflects his latest obsession, the experimental music of the late Harry Partch. As recording began, he sought out musicians who played the instruments Partch kind of invented, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Sonic Canons, Marimba Eroica, Kithara and Chromeloden. The other musical inspiration came from Flamenco Rhythms.
The album’s twangy opening note is provided by an East Indian instrument called the Gopichand. The sound slightly approximates a Werewolf’s howl and ushers in the aforementioned “The Werewolf.” The lyrics offer a sardonic look at mortality, which is a valid concern for a man who is turning 75 in October. The arrangement is a curious mix of industrial sounds, Doo-Wop harmonies and a shuffle rhythm.
Three tracks continue the socially conscious streak that has informed Paul’s music since the ‘60s. On “Street Angel” the lyrics pivot perspective from a good Samaritan to a homeless guy who considers himself a spiritual visionary. Over a hiccupping back-beat, orchestral bells and glockenspiel the conversation progresses until the homeless guy is taken away in an ambulance.
The action is picked up with “In A Parade.” Here the insistent rhythm echoes the exhilaration of Brazilian Carnival, and belies the song’s serious subject. Now we meet a harried ER doctor who attends to the same homeless guy. The spiritual visionary begins to ramble; “I drank some orange soda and then I drank some grape, I wear a hoodie now to cover my mistake/My head’s a lollipop, my head’s a lollipop and everyone wants to lick it, I wear a hoodie now so I won’t get a ticket, I write my verse for the universe.” The doctor jots down a differing opinion; “Diagnosis: Schizophrenic, Prognosis: Guarded, Medication: Seroquel, Occupation: Street Angel.”
On “The Riverbank” rippling guitar riffs, boomerang bass lines, sawing cello, buoyant harmonica and crackling beats are juxtaposed with tougher imagery. The lyrics were inspired by a visit to Walter Reed Veteran’s Hospital as well as the emotional experience of playing at a memorial for one of the teachers killed in the Sandy Hook School massacre.
Limning the ongoing sorrow of wounded veterans along with the grieving families of gun violence, he strikes a calibrated balance with these words; “Is there a woman or a man who wouldn’t understand why he could not sleep/And the nightmares when they came, like poison to the brain, reminded him again, life is cheap.”
Love and spirituality intersect on two tracks. The pensive melody of “Stranger To Stranger” is built on stuttery percussion, fluid guitar notes and percolating horns. The lyrics ponder the longevity of lust and desire; “Stranger to stranger if we met for the first time this time, could you imagine us falling in love again?” For him, the frisson of attraction remains; “I’m just jittery, I’m just jittery, it’s just a way of dealing with my joy.”
Meanwhile, the lilting “Proof Of Love” flows like a river. Blending hand-clap Flamenco rhythms, lush guitars and a roiling horn section the lyrics search for signs of a higher power. “I trade my tears to ask the Lord for proof of love.”
The best songs here are “Wristband” and “Cool Papa Bell.” The former opens with ambient noise and sly bass lines. A slinky, syncopated delight, on the surface the lyrics relate an anecdote of a famous musician who accidently gets locked out of the venue he is headlining. Denied re-entry, he is indignant. “And I said wristband? I don’t need a wristband, my axe is on the bandstand, my band is on the floor!” But dig a little deeper and the lyrics offer a canny meditation on the inequity between the haves and have-nots.
The melody and instrumentation of the latter is the closest Paul comes to replicating the Mbaqanga bliss of Graceland. Here he’s both loquacious and profane, celebrating ball player Papa Bell and waxing philosophical on the inherent ugliness of the epithet “mother-fucker.”
The set is rounded out by two guitar instrumentals, “The Clock” and “In The Garden Of Edie.” The album closes with the hushed anxiety of the “Insomniac’s Lullaby.”
Although he’s never been prolific, except for a couple of glaring mis-steps Paul Simon has been consistently wonderful. By following his muse he has inspired millennial musicians like Vampire Weekend, Fool’s Gold and Aqualung. His music also continues to resonate for his own generation, Stranger To Stranger debuted at #3 on the charts.
Paul has hinted that this may be his final album and tour. If that’s true it would be unfortunate. But Stranger To Stranger ensures his lasting legacy as an incomparable songwriter and musician.