A big birthday, a new album – and still a class act after all these years
BACK in the late 80s when I probably should have been listening to the likes of U2 and the Happy Mondays and lamenting The Smiths’ demise, like any other self-respecting teenager, it was music from two decades earlier – The Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix and the Stones – that enthralled me. But of all the legendary performers from that heady period there was one I listened to more than any other – Paul Simon. His gig at Glasgow’s SECC in 1991 (I still have the ticket) was the first I ever went to and the memories of it are emblazoned in my memory.
The best of his songs are a perfect marriage of harmony, melody and lyricism that top trump anything anyone else has done, even Lennon and McCartney, and yesterday the man who penned such classics as Bridge Over Troubled Water, Mrs Robinson and The Boxer turned 70.
Like Dylan, who also became a septuagenarian earlier this year, Simon is enjoying something of a renaissance in the twilight of his career. In April, he released So Beautiful or So What, his 11th solo album and his first in five years which Simon himself felt was his best in 20 years.
He also played the main Pyramid stage at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, despite suffering from a throat infection, and this week announced plans to tour his 1986 album Graceland next year and reunite with the musicians who played on the record, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I first heard Simon’s songs after stumbling across The Simon and Garfunkel Collection while rooting through my dad’s music collection, which sent me scurrying to find the rest of the duo’s records, the zenith of which is Bridge Over Troubled Water – not only one of the greatest albums of all time, but also one of the greatest songs ever written. Few can lay claim to being a contender for either, never mind both.
The Simon and Garfunkel legend has loomed large over both men’s lives but Simon’s skill as a songwriter allowed him to escape its long and deadening shadow.
Graceland has sold more than 14 million copies and is his most successful solo record to date. While There Goes Rhymin’ Simon may rank as one of the worst album titles in pop history, musically it’s as good as anything he’s done and stands shoulder to shoulder with JJ Cale’s equally brilliant Naturally and Dylan’s venomous Blood on the Tracks.
It’s been noted that we often turn to poetry at times of grief and it was interesting that during last month’s moving tributes in New York to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it was Simon who struck a chord with the mourners when he played The Sound of Silence, a song he’d written six decades earlier.
We may no longer be living in the days of miracle and wonder but music still provides the soundtrack of our lives, a soundtrack that would be bereft without Paul Simon.