Paul Simon is among the most erudite and daring songsmiths in popular music. After the breakup of Simon and Garfunkel in 1970, Simon embarked on a fruitful solo career that’s been notable for lyrical acuity, impeccable musicianship and stylistic daring. While Simon and Garfunkel worked largely (but not exclusively) in the folk idiom, Simon the solo artist has roamed wherever his muse has taken him - and that has literally meant around the world. His is not so much a conventional career in music as an odyssey of discovery using “intuitive flashes, synaptic leaps and shorthand logic” (in Simon’s own words) to help him on his way.
It is a little-known fact that Paul Simon’s solo career commenced in 1965 with The Paul Simon Songbook, recorded and released only in England, where Simon was living at the time. (If you want to get technical about it, Simon released a string of pre-S&G 45s during the period 1958-62 under the pseudonyms Jerry Landis, True Taylor and Paul Kane.) Simon’s Songbook appeared between the Simon and Garfunkel albums Wednesday Morning 3AM and Sounds of Silence. However, the unexpected success of the S&G single “The Sounds of Silence” in 1965 brought Simon back home to New York, where he reunited and remained with partner Art Garfunkel through 1970.
Disinclined to honor artificial borders when it comes to music and culture, Simon mixed it up from the outset. He’d explore and interpolate doo-wop vocals, gospel choirs, New Orleans brass bands, West Coast jazz musicians, reggae rhythms, Peruvian folk melodies and more on such eclectic early albums as Paul Simon (1972), There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973) and Still Crazy After All These Years (1975). Simon wrote enlightened, accessible yet offbeat pop tunes that were in sync with the Seventies and its self-absorbed ironies. His music unfailingly nodded to the exotic without departing the familiar. As a lyricist, he could be a droll, sometimes doleful observer of the human condition; witness his mid-Seventies anthem “Still Crazy After All These Years” (which would become a popular societal catchphrase). Simon expertly sculpted his songs until they sounded so effortless that they belied his careful craftsmanship.
By the mid-Eighties, he was carefully and thoughtfully fusing American and African music forms, which bore fruit on the landmark album Graceland (1986). His buoyant, groove-oriented music drew from the street music of Soweto, South Africa, known as mbaqanga or “township jive.” Between the lines, his multicultural fusion reinforced the notion that music is a universal language that rises above politics. He also helped open the mass audience’s ears to the marvelous forms of music that lay beyond their home borders. Graceland may well be the unlikeliest hit album of the Eighties; certainly, it was among the most revolutionary.
Simon’s efforts at cultural fusion continued on The Rhythm of the Saints (1990). It was another set of audacious musical experiments, this time pairing Brazilian drummers (playing mcbuma and condomble rhythms) with West African guitar and Simon’s brainy lyric sensibility. In addition, he used American blues and jazz musicians, plus backup vocalists from Cameroon. It was a richly textured musical tapestry. For Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints alone, Paul Simon deserves acclaim as for making the world feel a little bit more like a community of kindred spirits.
Forays into film (1980’s One-Trick Pony) and Broadway theater (1997’s The Capeman) have drawn upon and expanded the cinematic storytelling at the heart of Simon’s songwriting. In 1991, he performed a free concert in Central Park, which was aired live over HBO as Paul Simon Live in Central Park: Born at the Right Time Tour: One Night Only. The two-hour performance, which found him joined by a touring band of 17 musicians and singers from various cultures and locales, drew heavily from Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints, but he also threw in five Simon and Garfunkel classics. In 2000, Simon released You’re the One, one of his most artfully understated albums.
Over the course of three decades, Paul Simon has tapped into the mysterious motherlode of musical creation with patience and humility. “I’m more interested in what I discover than what I invent,” he has said. “You don’t possess it. You can’t control it or dictate to it. You’re just waiting. Waiting...for the show to begin.