The opening bars of Paul Simon’s “America” echo across the bowl of Glasgow’s Hydro concert hall by the Clyde. Along with 12000 others I’m humming the notes I first heard over 50 years ago. The diminutive figure steps up to the microphone: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together….” He’s singing to long gone English girlfriend, Kathy Chitty, but there’s little doubt that the words equally describe the part he has played in the lives of so many of a certain age in this audience.
His songs, music and lyrics have been emotional way stations in our lives over half a century. The words he wrote reached out to us. They were the progression – for him and for us – from the pop simplicity of the Brill Building music factory, where he toiled with Goffin, King, Sedaka, Mann, Weill, Greenwich, Barry, Diamond and more, to a more lyrical, intense, creative style of expression. For those of us in our mid teens then, his songs provided the bridge from the immediate accessibility of pop singles to the deeper sensitivities of the singer songwriters and the classical literature with which we had struggled to come to terms.
How many of us first understood the meaning of “mediocrity” from its use in “Homeward Bound” or awoke to the possibilities of poetic description with the phrase “I turn my collar to the cold and damp” in “Sound of Silence”? How often do we notice graffiti – even now – and find ourselves thinking: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls”. Looking round at our 21st century world of marketing and celebrity aren’t we reminded of the prescience of “to the neon god they made”?
The connections are many and sometimes random. Sitting in the middle of the night, trying to sleep, on Wigan railway station in 1977, heading home after seeing Scotland beat Wales in Liverpool in World Cup Qualifying, I couldn’t help but think of “Homeward Bound”, written on the very similar Widnes station, only fifteen miles away. And now there are poems from local poets written on the waiting room windows of Wigan Wallgate railway station. Somebody else made a similar connection, perhaps.
The first time I ever wept at concert was the first time I heard Paul Simon sing “Sound of Silence” live. I was quite taken aback by the strength of the emotion and wondered if it was purely a sentimental recall of my childhood. Perhaps it was, but it was also a strong reminder of how deeply some of the music and lyrics of those years are embedded in our psyche. It’s also true of the Beatles and others, of course, but the intensity of Simon’s lyricism seems somehow to cut deeper – it’s about how he is saying it as much as what he is saying.
I remember a night when I was seventeen. Our senior school social club had a folk night and one of my classmates – a music prodigy called Steve Dunachie – performed “Scarborough Fair” in a complete version of the Martin Carthy arrangement used by Simon and Garfunkel. His guitar playing was immaculate and I wondered if I kept practising would I ever become as competent – and the answer has been “No”! However, for ever, the opening strains of that song have taken me back to a classmate I haven’t seen since I left school, and a poorly lit school dining room in 1969. It is chastening and, I have to admit, a little thrilling, to recapture how serious and intense we were about our music then – without the distractions of computer games, videos, Spotify or MTV and its ilk.
Around the same time, with my closest school friend, who remains my oldest friend, I was discussing the song “America” and the filmic qualities of its lyric. We discovered we had both had the exact same dream about the circumstances of the song. Perhaps not surprising, but it seemed almost mystical way back then.
Ten years later, when I started to travel around the American mid-west, the song was never far from my thoughts, and, with a family history that goes back to Brooklyn in the 1880s, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of trying to capture the “reality” of the USA, and haunted, as well, by that line: “’Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping” as a perfect evocation of loneliness.
Perhaps part of Simon’s success is the way in which his art kept on developing, seeming to match the progress of our lives. From the south American and Hispanic influences of “El Condor Pasa” and “Me and Julio” through the reggae of “Mother and Child Reunion” he always seemed to open to finding new ways to enhance and broaden his musical vision; a new Simon album was rarely predictable.
He matched the mood perfectly, despite initial controversy, when he was brave enough to cross Apartheid barriers to promote and popularise African music with the “Graceland” album. Those who feared he might lend legitimacy to the South African regime quickly accepted that he was, in fact, opening the doors and windows for the rest of the world to acknowledge the talent and joie de vivre which was being half smothered by the status quo in South Africa.
It was “You can call me Al”, always remembered through the iconic Chevy Chase video, which brought the Hydro to its feet dancing this week, but has there ever been a more uplifting intro or a more evocative opening line than in “Graceland”: “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar” over that galloping bass beat?
But, ultimately, Paul Simon has always made my generation reflect. From the student angst of “I am a Rock” – where we sat silently and empathetically alone in our bedrooms, as the orange CBS label spun round on our Dansette record players, through the busy production of “Mrs Robinson” with its spray of American icons, echoing Dustin Hoffman’s twitchy awakenings with Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate”. We listened and we learned, I suppose.
The use of language became something to which we could aspire, and we lost our self consciousness when it came to enjoying, or attempting to produce, lyrical imagery. Words were on our side now, we slowly forgot to fear their complexities, and started to celebrate their power. We enabled our more creative thoughts and found ways of sharing them. Of course, Simon was not single handedly responsible for our growing maturity when it came to language, but he certainly opened many doors and guided us in many directions.
And his influence was felt in the most unusual aspects of pop culture. In many respects, television’s “Top of the Pops” has not aged well, and perhaps the most embarrassing reminder of a certain era in our lives, beyond the retrospective disclosures of the activities of some of its DJs, was the weekly performance of the resident dance troupe “Pan’s People”. However, Simon’s influence even assuaged the dubious taste of that regular routine. Probably the only “Pan’s People” appearance that anyone can clearly recall after more than four decades would be the video filmed to accompany “Bridge over Troubled Water”. Away from the normal “bump and grind” presentation, this featured only the group’s leader, Flick Colby, in a balletic interpretation of the atmospheric song. Filmed almost in monochrome, the “different” nature of the clip, the fluidity of the interpretation in her dance, allied to the soaring beauty of Garfunkel’s vocals, fixed it in the collective memory – almost a paradigm for Simon’s abilities to promote different art forms and encourage a more eclectic approach to popular culture.
Of course, it’s a personal and individual thing: different songs and different memories for each of us, but the connection can’t be denied. When he sang “The Boxer” in Glasgow, it was inevitable that a thousand voices in syncopation would supply the “whipcrack” effect at the end of the line “Lie de Lie “ – it was a Pavlovian reaction, born out of decades of internalising the song. For us, “Kodachrome”, played at the funeral of my much loved brother-in-law, a photographer, was particularly moving, but we were dancing through our tears.
He started with “America” and ended with “Sound of Silence”, and, in between played just about every song we could remember, backed by an epic band, and displaying his wit, communication skills and seemingly undiminished enthusiasm, despite it being a “Farewell Tour”.
But ultimately, Paul Simon has become embedded in the part of our psyche which thinks – about life, people, and the whole damn thing. He is representative of a whole generation and class of American whom the world admired, who challenged those “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening”. So it was timely that he was singing to us as the current American President was heading towards these shores.
Long before Trump’s appalling election, Simon’s “American Tune” was pondering the state of America, consciously evoking the sense of pessimism generated when the values and ideals of the founding fathers are compared to the realities of today. Neither he, not his supporters, could have dreamt that the song would be so completely relevant in these times.
As a child of an emigrant family, as a supporter of an inclusive and welcoming policy towards refugees, I still find that Paul Simon’s lyrics are relevant, thought provoking, and, sometimes, ultimately heart breaking.
“And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea…
We came on the ship they called the Mayflower
We came on the ship that sailed the Moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American Tune.”
I’m just glad that tune was sung in my lifetime.