Paul Simon played at Merriweather Post Pavilion last Friday with a full band, and I had the pleasure of seeing him and his opener Sarah MacLachlan, a singer I’ve seen twice, with my sister. Simon is a master and his presence fills the stage.
In his 70s, that legend of the 60s was swaying on stage, nodding and stretching out his arms, bobbing his wrist to simultaneously conduct the band. He led with his fingers and his chest like a much younger man.
The instruments: Mandolins, accordions, xylophones, trumpets and the staples: drums, a piano, and guitars. Some sea shells added sound too and a chime that looked like it was made out of spoons, although it surely wasn’t.
The crowd was mostly white, old and young. We sat and stood, bounced and bobbed, cheered and called.
He played my favorites: America, The Boxer, Graceland, Homeward Bound, Call me Al, many I did’t know and finally, alone on stage, The Sound of Silence–the classic that drew me into Simon and Garfunkle in my freshmen year of college.
There is no word for Paul Simon but master: he moves and commands attention with that easy grace of someone fully self-possessed, with the comfort that lacks self-consciousness and hesitance. His twirling wrist signaled the band and his hips moved with his guitar, whether it was acoustic or electric.
He carries that hard-won air of someone who has passed through the stages of craft and relationship: 1) being enamored with music, sound and fame–then 2) the ever-looming disillusionment at the pitfalls of an industry, fickle audiences and imperfect others, and then finally 3) to fully embrace the American musical scene as an institution and his role within it. To be a master, he didn’t abandon music or the audience, but took up his instruments and his listeners–the imperfections and all, and loved American folk music and its people, thereby lifting it–and us–to a higher level.
That’s what a true master does–he doesn’t abandon the imperfect world to seek a purified craft, but embraces the whole endeavor and so raises the water-level of the culture.
Paul Simon’s America
Simon’s music has wandered decades; he’s been and is the voice, the poet of America. His chords are the anthems of American folk music and the playlist of my dishwashing. The lyrics frequently touch on the peculiarities of the life of the poor. The Boxer for instance, tells the story of a young man gone out to seek his fortune;
“Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know.”
Simon’s heritage, the New York Jew, the Yankees fan, the hippie all bring together strains of America that unite our disparate factions and allow us to remember and cherish the collective past, something our nation often seems to struggle with.
Somehow, we believe that we are a class-free society, that one person can strive and rise, bootstrap-style to upper echelons. We are cantankerous; hard work is its own reward; we welcome the stranger, but aren’t afraid to put up our fists when we have to.
Yet we are also highly individualistic and have a sub-culture of roaming–whether for itself or transplanting for work. There is a roaming spirit in Simon’s music that I think speaks for America, for that impulse to strike out alone, to wander, to be pilgrims, in a way, never quite at home.
The wandering spirit pops up in other areas of culture; I think of Jack Kerouac, On the Road and The Dharma Bums. More recently, writer Mary Karr surfed as an idealistic young woman before heading to college after a terrifying encounter hitchhiking. The drive to get up and go, to seek, seems part of our cultural ethos, or maybe it’s just a strain that interests me.
There is nevertheless always a tension or a balance between wandering and stability. The ability to tramp around depends on the stability of most of society–otherwise whose trains would they jump onto? Whose fields would feed them? But the wandering impulse is also a check to a way of a life which has forgotten to wonder.
When I think of the wandering pilgrimage type of life I course cannot help but think of St. Francis and the medieval European pilgrims trailing about from place to place, Canterbury or St. Juan Compostela. We are pre-programmed to search, and that makes sense to me. Though I live in my home-metropolis, I still search.
But back to Paul Simon: what he captures to me is that wandering spirit, of seeking, of longing, and in the American voice, the poor pilgrim always searching out home. To see him was an honor, a legend who set the water-mark.
Questions: Do I have it right? What do you think of Paul Simon? Is there someone else who also or instead epitomizes American music? Who is your favorite music artist? what does that person’s work mean to you?