Monday, June 13, 2011

Paul Simon

Watching the evening news a while back I enjoyed the interview of music legend Paul Simon with Brian Williams on NBC.  My ears pricked up when I heard the following part of the interview:

PS: "I'm not crazy about dying"
BW: "I don't know a big fan...."
PS: "No, not too many.  I'm trying to come...  I'm trying to not be pissed off about that"  and a little later...
PS:  "We were always told that your capacity for thinking sort of diminishes as you get older...but now I'm 69 years old and  I think the opposite, I think that it's better. So I look forward to seeing what more time will reveal."

Immediately I wondered about Simon's contemplation on aging and death. I went to work looking at his repetoir of songs to find out what he's been saying in his lyrics about death over the last 4 decades.

The first I found was released in 1972 entitled "Mother and Child Reunion".  From an interview with Rolling Stone that same year Simon explained the inspiration; "Last summer we had a dog that was run over and killed....It was the first death I had ever experienced personally....I felt this loss - one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, "Oh, man, what if that was [my wife] Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can't get it"

Knowing the inspiration then, the lyrics to the song fit, "I can't for the life of me/ Remember a sadder day/ I know they say let it be/ But it just don't work out that way/ And the course of a lifetime runs/ Over and over again."  However, just listening to the melody and upbeat tempo, you'd be hard pressed to hear this and think it was a mournful song.

In 1977 Simon released "Slip Slidin' Away".  There is not a lot of background known as to the inspiration for this piece, but clearly, there are palliative care themes in this.  Many think the "destination" described in the chorus represents death, others may quip that it is a metaphor for any goal or hope for one's life. Regardless the 4th stanza that says "God only knows/ God makes his plan/ The information's unavailable/ To the mortal man/ We work our jobs/ Collect our pay/ Believe we're gliding down the highway/ When in fact we're slip slidin' away"  sounds a lot like someone who is aware of their own mortality.

"The Late Great Johnny Ace" was released in 1983 and is very autobiographical.  Simon was 42 when this was released, and you can sense his maturity in the song.  We are taken on a journey revolving around death and life.  The song opens with Simon as a 12 year old hearing about Johnny Ace's death. Too young to really comprehend this reality, yet somber still the same, the song then shifts dramatically in tempo and melody to a more joyous time of the 60's. The listener has the sense that Simon feels young and immortal. The final third part changes back to the opening melody as Simon hears of John Lennon's death. He connects the news back to the late Johnny Ace's death, except now the sentiment is more personal. I find it haunting that the song concludes with a Phillip Glass instrumental piece, bringing an emotional climax to mortality, as one can imagine in the pulsating melody a clock ticking one's life away.

Finally we turn to Simon's recent album So Beautiful, or So What released this April. Just as the opening interview with Brian Williams suggested, Simon, now 69 years old, is even more aware of issues regarding aging and death. There are a couple of songs on this album that deal with death and mortality.  In "The Afterlife" he pokes fun at death with the opening words, "After I died, and the makeup had dried, I went back to my place" and near the end "After you climb, up the ladder of time, the Lord God is near. Face to face, in the vastness of space, your words disappear."

The more serious is "Love and Hard Times", which though not directly discussing death, is certainly a life reflection. The beginning sets up the human condition with a narrative about God coming and then deciding to disappear, "anyway, these people are slobs here".  The song then moves into a love ballad, and three stanzas cover their first meeting, hard times when love was gone and finally a present moment of gratitude.  The last verse could easily be someone on their death bed, in a still room, "The bedroom breaths in clicks and clacks/ Uneasy heartbeat, can't relax/ But then your hand takes mine/ Thank God, I found you in time"

All in all when I reflect over these works that cover 40 years I get the sense that Paul Simon has often been reminded that life is short. I get the feeling that this awareness allows him to focus on the important things. His statement then "I'm not too crazy about dying" may be less a fear or denial of death, than a realization that he has much more life to live, because life is good these days.

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