28 May 2018, Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA
It was a cold night at the Hollywood Bowl as it usually is in LA in May, but my heart was full of warmth as I watched and listened in wonder at Paul Simon. My mouth must have been wide open in amazement too often through the nearly three-hour show, as I woke the next morning with a sore throat and chesty cough that I am still trying to shake. But how could I not be breathing in the brilliance? How could I not smile widely and sing along with everyone else?
I have not stopped thinking about this show since I was there, right up close in the pool circle of the vast Hollywood Bowl, last Monday night. I found the experience profound. I’ve therefore wanted to write something profound. Or at least intelligent enough to match the mastery and genius of one of America’s greatest ever songwriters. I have realised, after too much reflection, that it’s not for me to do that. There are people far more qualified to write great things about such a great artist. My friend Paul Zollo, most of all, is qualified to write with wisdom and insight about Paul Simon, and I link to his beautiful review of Simon’s second of the three Hollywood Bowl shows at the end of this missive.
For me, it’s about my visceral response to seeing Paul Simon for the first and most likely last time. Yes, it’s true, she who lives for music and has seen so many of the world’s great music artists over 43 years of concert-going had never got around to seeing Paul Simon. Or Simon & Garfunkel together. I did see Art Garfunkel solo (with band) at the Sydney Opera House in 2002. It was magical; his voice angelic. I don’t remember so much his rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel songs. I remember most clearly him singing “I Only Have Eyes For You”, his cover of which had been a Top 40 hit in 1975. I loved it back then when I heard it on my AM mono transistor radio, and I loved hearing it live in the exquisite acoustically perfect setting of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall.
Paul Simon I had not so much disregarded as just been a bit indifferent to. I know, I know. Crazy. Happy to say I am no longer crazy after all these years. (Sorry, it just rolled off the fingertips.) I look back on my indifference and wonder why I was immune to his obvious charms. There were radio hits I enjoyed, especially “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, which even at age thirteen I knew was a work of decidedly melancholic wit. “Loves Me Like A Rock” and “Slip Slidin’ Away” also got a lot of airplay on radio in my teen years. When I was in my twenties the Graceland album came out and the songs were all over FM radio in Australia. I most distinctly remember that cool video of “You Can Call Me Al” with Chevy Chase. But I wasn’t as excited by Graceland as so many people around me were. I was in love with a very erudite, older man at the time, and he thought Graceland was the best album ever. Ever. I was kind of “meh”. And those earlier Simon and Garfunkel hits, I knew they were gorgeous, special, hugely influential. But I didn’t feel it was imperative to seek out an opportunity to see the duo perform together when they reunited at various times. My loss.
A couple of years ago I saw Barbra Streisand in concert for the first time, ticked off a huge bucket list item, and wrote effusively about how awesome an experience that was. I didn’t try to make my report a weighty, insightful critique, more an instinctual response to something that was totally delightful, where I was aware that I was in the presence of a true legend. That’s how my Paul Simon experience on Memorial Day earlier this week was also. Except that with Barbra I had expected greatness in every way, as I had adored her for decades. I had no expectation of Simon; I just wanted to see him before he retired, and the Hollywood Bowl seemed like a great place to see him play a retirement show. So my complete elation through the show and ever since is not so much a surprise as a gift, a blessing that is far greater than I imagined. Which might make me rather lacking in imagination, and I can wear that.
All that said, here is a summary of what I absolutely loved about this show: I loved that Paul Simon at age 76 was sprightly, cheerful, funny, conversational, sang pretty damn well, whistled perfectly, danced terrifically, enjoyed playing and interacting with his band, honoured his outstanding musicians throughout, and that he played so many beautiful songs. I loved that he played plenty of hits that I could sing along to, and that the songs he played that I didn’t know (“Rewrite”, “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War”, “Wristband”, “Questions for the Angels”, for example) were spellbinding to listen to and that Simon was not arrogant enough to expect everyone there would know them, so he gave lengthy explanations of them. I loved that he played the Most Important Songs – “America”, “Homeward Bound”, “The Boxer”, “American Tune” and of course “The Sound Of Silence” – although I wondered why he left out “Mrs Robinson” and “El Condor Pasa”, which he had performed on the first night at the Bowl.
I loved that when he played “Homeward Bound” – which is after all the title of the tour – he indulged in a self-congratulatory slide show taking the audience on the journey of his career. It was very tender, quite sacred. I loved that when he told stories, sometimes rambling to the point of almost losing track, sharing his thoughts about his work and the planet (and plugging one of his charities of choice, the Half-Earth Project) he looked like a little old Jewish man, a mensch, which is exactly what he is. He has always been one of those guys that never really looked like a rock star, even when he behaved like one. I never paid attention to the stories of Paul Simon’s dour moods, his bitter estrangement from Art Garfunkel, his marriages (well, maybe I was a bit fascinated by his second marriage), any of it. I knew he was one of the greatest songwriters of our time, but I never put the time into studying that songwriting beyond casual listening and reading interviews with him by that great songwriter interviewer, Zollo. I did interview his “Red Rubber Ball” co-writer, Bruce Woodley (of The Seekers) for my own book, Songwriters Speak, and enjoyed Woodley’s story of writing with Simon at such an early stage of both of their careers. But I had never gone in depth. There are some artists I have kept at arm’s length, for better or worse.
So I arrived at the Hollywood Bowl just happy to have a ticket to the final Los Angeles show of his farewell tour, knowing I was attending a very special occasion, hoping to be entertained, and hoping I could capture some of it on my little camera. It ended up being one of the most memorable concerts of my life. I love it when that happens.
I have the new Robert Hilburn biography, Paul Simon – The Life, at the top of my pile of summer reading, so now I will immerse myself in that with great enthusiasm. I’ll probably go back and re-read the interviews Paul Zollo did with him, included in his Songwriters on Songwriting books. I’ll look over my photos with gladness that it was my own direct view of all that expressiveness in Simon’s face, his glistening eyes, his relaxed, loose, jubilant body movements, his long fingernails, his utter fabulousness. I’m not sure if Paul Simon is an overly humble man; he is too aware of the great mark he has made on the American – the world – songbook to be modest about it. But he did look incredibly grateful, and after all the bows with his band, before he concluded, just he and guitar, with “The Sound of Silence”, he stood in the spotlight alone, leaning on that guitar, looking out over the huge audience, and whatever he was thinking, it was a moment to savour, for him and for us.