The sound of silence ... for good. Paul Simon calls it quits
After 60 years of performing, he is bowing out with a farewell tour and a final album. But is it really all over?
Paul Simon is retiring.
“When I finished that last album, a voice said: ‘That’s it, you’re done’,” the legendary singer-songwriter explains. “It’s fine. I don’t feel nervous or uncomfortable or anything. I think it’s a good idea.”
At 76, seated in a plush London hotel room, Simon looks his age, a little shrunken in physical presence, features pale and lugubrious, tinted spectacles on his nose, a baseball cap pulled over his balding pate. Yet his manner is sprightly, his conversational style as relaxed and fluent as ever, and the years melt away when he talks.
“I’m not stopping because I’m exhausted, I’m not stopping because I can’t sing well any more, or think well,” he insists. “I’m stopping because it feels like a good moment to think about other things.”
Homeward Bound, his farewell tour, is drawing to a close, with just a clutch of US dates left in September before he quits the stage.“I’ve been doing this since I was 16, I’ve never taken a break and never really seriously thought about anything else other than music. So I thought ... Stop! See what happens. See what stopping does.”
He seems genuinely pleased with the notion. “Even saying it aloud sounds interesting.”
“I’d like to see the planet,” he continues, with the glee of any retiree. “I think to myself: ‘Do I want to spend the next three years making an album or would I rather go to India?’ I’ve travelled a lot but there’s a bunch of places I haven’t been – the South Pacific Islands, Cambodia. At the end of my life, if I’m fortunate enough to have a graceful non-painful ending, I’d rather say I had a great life than I had a great career.”The night before, Simon played his final show in Britain, in Hyde Park, in front of 65,000 people. It was an extraordinary and moving event, with his usual dazzling musicianship and incredible songcraft lent a particular poignant intensity. To a spellbound crowd, he closed the show, alone in the spotlight, singing an acoustic version of his 1960s classic The Sound of Silence. “For the last time,” he says, smiling.
And it is hard not to detect a hint of relief in that statement.
He doesn’t seem to have been particularly moved by the experience himself. “There’s no time to get sentimental. I’ve trained myself to be focused on the performance, as opposed to saying: ‘Wow, look at all the people and the sun going down and this is the end.’ When the sound is good and my voice is good, I give myself the pleasure of just singing. But if I allow myself to get distracted, I’m not doing my job. You don’t want to forget your lyrics in front of 65,000 people.”
Yet despite this talk of retirement, he has a new album out next month, In the Blue Light. And it is a real beauty, featuring 10 absolute gems, delicately arranged and performed, with jazzy inflections and some particularly inventive string arrangements. The songs themselves aren’t new, but rather new versions of obscure personal favourites from his solo back catalogue.“I felt there were some really good songs that got lost,” he says. “And some that were almost good songs, that just needed a little nudging.”
There is a huge breadth to Simon’s career, which began with novelty pop in the late 1950s before flowering into the luscious harmonised folk of his superstar partnership with Art Garfunkel in the 1960s. The duo were the bestselling artists in the world when they parted ways in 1970. Despite lucrative live reunions, their relationship soured over the years, with Garfunkel becoming increasingly bitter towards his old musical partner.
Simon has made it clear he doesn’t want to talk about it any more. “There’s a guy who’s wrestling with his demons,” he told me in 2016. “And I understand it’s a hard battle he’s fighting. But if you get close to him, you’ll be in the battle, and you’ll get hit.”Simon’s subsequent solo material merged jazzy grooves and complex chord structure into 70s soft rock, before he enjoyed a second wave of chart-topping success with the dazzling incorporation of world music rhythms in the 80s and 90s. A flourish of outstanding albums since 2000 brought all these strands together with a subtle electronic patina.
He has rewritten and edited lyrics for several songs on In the Blue Light, making significant changes to Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy (originally from 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years) and Love and The Teacher (from the 2000 album You’re The One). “It’s unusual for an artist to have a second shot at fixing the original work,” he admits.“Poets do it all the time. Walt Whitman’s got I don’t know how many versions of Leaves of Grass. But in pop music, you go into a studio and get a version that’s good and say: ‘There it is.’ Then, after singing that version on the road for six months, you find all these other musical choices. It’s a whole different song. And unless it becomes too rococo, it’s usually a better song.”
There were corners of his catalogue that he felt had been neglected, by himself as much as the public. “It’s an advantage to have 10 or 20 years go by and be able to look at it and say that verse didn’t really pay off, or I didn’t make that point strong enough.”
Darling Lorraine, also from You’re the One, is a heartbreaking portrait of an ordinary marriage, from casual encounter (The first time I saw her, I couldn't be sure/ But the sin of impatience said 'She's just what you're looking for') to the bitter end (The doctor was smiling but the news wasn't good).“I think it is one of the best songs I ever wrote,” says Simon. “But it’s clearer now because I smoothed it out. The original arrangement was so interesting that you didn’t really follow the story. You don’t want to get too busy admiring the drums.”
On the other hand, he found himself taking words out to make more space for the music on a gorgeous new version of How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns (from 1980’s One-Trick Pony). “When I’m writing, the lyrics come last. If you don’t make the sound right then it doesn’t matter how great the lyric is. People are just not gonna listen.”
The burning question is whether his songwriting is really over.
“Well, I haven’t written anything. Not in a while,” he shrugs. He mulls the finality of the word, repeating it a couple of times. “Over? I don’t see why it should be over. Willie Nelson, who is a friend of mine, had a couple of beautiful songs on his last album, and he’s 85. So I don’t think there is any reason why you can’t write things that have beauty and something to say, whatever age you are.”His last original album, Stranger to Stranger, came out in 2016. “I thought that’s about as good as I can do it. So, maybe that’s enough. Lately, I notice little things are coming, the way they usually do, a line or two, a title. But I haven’t written anything down, so I’ve forgotten some already. So there’s some sort of resistance.”
Despite his conviction that his working life is at an end, Simon makes offhand remarks about possibly collaborating again with virtuoso jazz guitarist Bill Frisell (who appears on In the Blue Light), and making guest appearances with experimental New York chamber sextet yMusic.
“I could give the money to charity. I really don’t need any more money.”He has a son, 45-year-old Harper Simon, from his first marriage to the singer-songwriter Peggy Harper. His 1983 marriage to Carrie Fisher only lasted a year, although their on-off relationship continued for several years and inspired many beautiful songs, including Hearts and Bones, Graceland and She Moves On. After her sudden death in December 2016, he tweeted: “Carrie was a special, wonderful girl. It’s too soon.”
Since 1992, he has been married to singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. They live with their three children on a country estate in Connecticut. “The kids have grown up, so Edie’s really feeling the empty nest thing. She and her band have been working together, so I might go travel around with Edie. That’s a real possibility. It’s sort of her turn.”It is fair to say that Paul Simon is contemplating a very active retirement. “Let’s see where it goes. I’ve never been bored, so I’m not worried. Creativity just comes, you don’t have to lock yourself away for it to happen.“From a musical point [of view] I don’t think it will do me any harm at all to stop, put this down and see what happens. And if it doesn’t it won’t be from me trying but not being able, it will be because I’m deep into the woods of Papua New Guinea or somewhere.”
There is something quite playful in the way he talks about his future. “What was interesting about declaring a final tour is that I have to keep my word ... at least for a while,” he laughs.
– © The Daily Telegraph