Paul Simon and the Hard Road to Graceland

The American folk icon, who announced his retirement on Monday, always found a precarious balance between words and music.

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Paul Simon and the Hard Road to Graceland

In what is becoming an alarming trend, one of the most ever-present musicians of the past half century has announced that his current tour will be his last. Paul Simon, who provided the soundtrack for America’s coming-of-age movie—sometimes awkward and bitter, sometimes joyful and sweet—has now come to an age where he’d rather remain, well, Homeward Bound.

“I feel the travel and time away from my wife and family takes a toll that detracts from the joy of playing,” the 76-year-old Simon wrote to fans on Facebook.

But first there will be a 19-date tour of North America and Europe—nothing on the scale of the 300-show retirement tour just announced by Elton John, but then, Simon was always the subtler musician. “I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to reach the point where I’d consider bringing my performing career to a natural end,” he wrote. “Now I know: it feels a little unsettling, a touch exhilarating, and something of a relief.”

Read: How Elton John Became the Biggest Pop Star of the 1970s

Simon’s career with his childhood friend Art Garfunkel began inauspiciously. After some early recordings under the name Tom & Jerry, the pair released their first album as Simon & Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m., in 1964, just as the British Invasion was colliding with the American folk movement. It was met with tepid sales and even some derision from New York’s folk community over its precious lyrics. “[‘The Sound of Silence’] actually became a running joke,” the folk singer Dave Van Ronk would tell the Guardian. “It was only necessary to start singing, ‘Hello darkness, my old friend …’ and everybody would crack up.”

Wounded, Simon moved to England and Garfunkel went back to college. But the duo were saved from permanent obscurity by the British rock-invasion producer Tom Wilson, who added electric guitars and drums to the song, turning it into a top-selling single. Of course, it would be the unmistakable mingling of those two iconic voices that made the song a generational signpost. Here’s Simon & Garfunkel performing an electric “Sound of Silence,” 30 years after they recorded it, at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif…with the help of Eddie Van Halen.

The folk-rock production that launched “Sound of Silence” was later replicated with the similarly maudlin “I Am a Rock” two years later, and again with great results as measured by single sales. But at the time, Simon was convinced he was failing as an artist and felt isolated and alone. Thus the lyrics: “I have no need of friendship / Friendship causes pain / It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.”

Approbation aside, the hits allowed Simon and Garfunkel to break through as a folk duo even after Bob Dylan had abandoned the genre for rock relevance. The albums Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and Bookends went to No. 1 in the U.S. Still, critics were mixed—often within a single review—with a popular perception that Simon & Garfunkel were almost too good at marrying nostalgic lyrics with catchy melodies. “The music is, for me, questionable,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Arthur Schmidt. “But I’ve always found their music questionable … I admit to liking it, but it exudes a sense of process, and it is slick, and nothing too much happens.”

Mike Nichols disagreed. The young comedian and filmmaker felt that Simon and Garfunkel, hugely popular with campus audiences, were the voice(s) of the burgeoning youth movement and he wanted them to provide the soundtrack to his 1967 film The Graduate, which was targeted at the disenchanted college set. Tasked with coloring someone else’s vision, Simon came up empty until he decided to change a song called “Mrs. Roosevelt” to “Mrs. Robinson,” and the rest is music and movie history. Here’s an exclusive recording of the reunited duo playing the song at their 1981 concert in Central Park.

While Simon did nearly all of the duo’s songwriting, he had to subsume himself partially and sometimes completely due to the presence of Garfunkel. Garfunkel’s name is sometimes mocked as a metaphor for non-essentialness, but his voice is one of most distinctive tenors in rock history. That is on full display here in “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which ended up causing irreparable harm to the partnership when Simon just could not accept that people believed Simon’s words were Garfunkel’s due to Garfunkel’s impassioned singing. Bridge Over Troubled Water was an unqualified smash, won six Grammys, and proved to be the duo’s final studio album. Here’s Art’s star turn at the 1981 Central Park concert.

“Many times on a stage, when I’d be sitting off to the side and Artie would be singing ‘Bridge,’ people would stomp and cheer when it was over, and I would think, ‘That’s my song, man.’”

In 1971, just months after topping the charts again, Simon called Columbia Records chairman Clive Davis and told him he was splitting with Garfunkel for good. Simon’s career was merely in middle age. He’d go on to have great success as a solo performer, racking up top-selling albums and hit singles through the 1970s and ‘80s. “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” all cracked the Top 5. Simon was looking inward now, and the songs about America that had any inkling of political commentary mostly vanished from his catalogue. The one big exception is “American Tune,” from 1973’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, which seems as relevant today, in the Trump era, as a song about the death of American values as it did when it was written in the aftermath of the election of Richard Nixon:

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying.

Though it was very much a Paul Simon production, “American Tune” carried a foreboding kernel of truth that never really vanished, making it a natural addition to the setlist when Simon teamed with Garfunkel for the Central Park show in 1981 after the election of a new Republican president, Ronald Reagan.

His next studio album, 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years, is the work of an adult for adults. It’s looking back mostly on childhood and, unlike his earlier works, which revered the safety and comfort of “home,” treats it with disdain. Perhaps that’s why Simon wrote “My Little Town” specifically to be sung with Garfunkel, who shared Simon’s Queens, NYC, roots.

Coming home after school
Riding my bike past the gates of the factories
My mom doing the laundry
Hanging out shirts in the dirty breeze
And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It’s not that the colors aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack
Everything’s the same back in my little town.

Despite the epic darkness of the chorus refrain (“nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town”), the song hit No. 1 thanks to the excitement generated by the reunion. Have a listen to the studio version, with Garfunkel joining Simon for perhaps their greatest vocal duo over a mournful piano line.

Simon wouldn’t record another album of original material for five years, when he wrote the script and songs for the film One-Trick Pony, in which he starred as a downtrodden songwriter trying to save his career from a cynical industry.

Read: 10 Great Movie Performances by Rock Stars

The project wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms, and Simon’s album sales suffered for nearly a decade until he released Hearts and Bones in 1983. There’s an argument that the title track is as solid an effort as anything in Simon’s catalog. It was his poorest selling album, but some of that is due to Simon failing to deliver on what his fans felt was a promise to reunite with Garfunkel following their Central Park show. Hearts and Bones, in retrospect, is a more ambitious and electric sonic landscape, providing the transition to his ultimate triumph, Graceland, which became his all-time best-selling work. Its global sound resulted in more sales overseas than in the U.S., where it was a five-time platinum seller.

At 45 years old, Simon was drawing the blueprint for how the stars of his generation—the ones who survived—could chart a course for renewed relevance in pop music. New music, new collaborators, familiar themes. In Simon’s case, he went abroad and embraced the mbaqanga music of South Africa, concocting a devastatingly accessible style that sounded at once exotic and comfortable. With Graceland, Simon managed to recapture his generation right at their midlife crisis, singing intimate songs about golden memories, faded relationships and parenthood while enchanting them with new (to them) sounds that would gain entry into the American mainstream.

Here he is in 1986 discussing his musical rebirth and how rock ‘n’ roll had evolved from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Simon would never again scale the heights of Graceland, but he remained active in the studio. Of special note was Surprise, a 2006 collaboration with Brian Eno inspired by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath. His on-again, off-again partnership with Garfunkel may be permanently off now, after Garfunkel reiterated in a 2015 interview that he never really got over their 1971 split, and that he had “created a monster” when he first befriended the diminutive Simon in Queens. Garfunkel, of course, wasn’t even Simon’s most famous partner—Simon’s tumultuous marriage, divorce and reunion with the actress and writer Carrie Fisher inspired much of his 1980s work. But in a 2011 interview with American Songwriter, Simon said it wasn’t one of the distinct periods of his long career. Instead, he defined them as, “Simon and Garfunkel, pre-Graceland solo albums and Graceland to the present.”

From “The Sound of Silence” to his most recent work, 2016’s rhythmic, forward-looking Stranger to Stranger, Paul Simon’s music has always accentuated that divide between words and music, for better or worse. Addressing the dichotomy, which is often found in folk music, Simon told American Songwriter that the music was always his foundation. “Print critics focus more on the lyrics,” he said. “It’s easier to talk about words with words than to describe melody, harmony and rhythm. Musicians focus more on the music. I’m glad. I spend more time writing music than writing words. The music always precedes the words. The words often come from the sound of the music and eventually evolve into coherent thoughts. Or incoherent thoughts.”

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