We’re at the Capitol Theatre, a beautiful Art Deco building in Port Chester, New York. Inside, Paul Simon is rehearsing for an imminent tour. Wisps of grey hair peep from beneath his snazzy fedora, and he has soulful, searching eyes.
Simon drills his band calmly but authoritatively, and when he chats with Vincent Nguini, the Cameroonian guitarist who’s been with him since 1990’s The Rhythm Of The Saints, the rapport is obvious. “Yes, I like Vincent immensely,” says the singer when we repair to a chandelier-appointed vestibule to chat. “He’s a Buddhist, and we’ve spent time discussing that.”
Though Simon says he isn’t interested in “joining or rejoining any religions”, there’s clearly a spiritual dimension to his new record, So Beautiful Or So What, though the album’s meditative moments are carefully offset by more playful fare, hence Rewrite is a Malian kora-infused tale of a would-be scriptwriter who works at the carwash.
As the singer sips ginger tea, I ask about Love in Hard Times, the tender, beautifully orchestrated song that is his new album’s centrepiece. “It’s a comment on what we’ve done to the planet,” says Simon. “The first part is like a tableau of a religious painting, but the rest is a love song, pure and simple. The guy in the song takes great comfort from being able to hold his wife’s hand in bed at night. That’s why he says ‘Thank God I found you in time’.”
Now 69, Simon knows all about late-onset relationship bliss. He married his third wife Edie Brickell (of the now-defunct pop/rock band Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians) in 1992, and the couple have three youngish children. Simon says he enjoys coaching his son’s little league baseball team, and that he and Brickell recently sang Hank Williams’s Hey Good Lookin’ at a school benefit. A mention of his film director friend Mike Nichols, meanwhile, yields this: “He just sent a lovely letter telling me that his twin granddaughters came into the world listening to [Simon’s solo hit] Mother and Child Reunion.”
Factor in So Beautiful or So What entering the Billboard charts at number four and the garden looks rosier still. Meet Simon, though, and you immediately sense he’s still restless, still chasing. “If you’re competitive by nature then that’s the way you’re going to go out,” he says, and he also expresses a strong desire to continue touring and recording for as long as good health allows. “Can you imagine us years from today / sharing a park bench quietly” he mused when he was 26 and writing Simon & Garfunkel’s Old Friends, a song from their 1968 album Bookends. But as Simon’s own twilight years beckon, such mellow, passive pursuits are clearly not for him.
In 1957, when he and his school friend Artie Garfunkel had a hit with Hey Little Schoolgirl, they were still known as Tom and Jerry. Simon blew his share of the royalties on a red Impala convertible, then fretted when a worthy follow-up hit didn’t materialise. In 1965, though, a reworked version of The Sound of Silence changed everything. Simon’s darkly poetic song charted high for the now less cartoonishly monikered Simon & Garfunkel. In an America still reeling from John F Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, The Sound of Silence resonated deeply.
By 1968, the pair’s soundtrack for The Graduate had displaced the Beatles’ White Album at the top of the US charts. Alas, Simon & Garfunkel’s complex, patently symbiotic relationship would implode during the making of 1970’s brilliant, 25 million-selling Bridge Over Troubled Water, but behind them was a whole raft of beautifully arranged, vocal harmony-rich music, songs such as The Boxer and America soundtracking the 1960s as potently as anything by their peers.
Why, then, I ask Simon, were Simon & Garfunkel never deemed “cool” in the way that, say, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were?
“Those guys just had a look and an attitude that was inherently cool,” he says. “Dylan probably wanted to be James Dean as much as he wanted to be Woody Guthrie, whereas we wanted to be… the Everly Brothers.”
But wasn’t their perceived lack of cool also something to do with them being so heart-on-sleeve, so angelic-sounding? When I interviewed Art Garfunkel some years back, he said he sometimes wished he had a grittier voice…
“Everybody in rock ’n’ roll wishes they had that kind of voice,” says Simon. “The amazing thing about Lennon and McCartney was that they were able to scream and do the sweet stuff, and that gave them extraordinary scope.
“But Artie shouldn’t regret anything,” he adds, defending his old bandmate. “He had an unusually beautiful voice for pop music. Harry Nilsson was great, and Denny [Doherty] from The Mamas & The Papas was a fabulous tenor, but I don’t think either of them sounded as distinctive as Artie.”
When Simon & Garfunkel split, it was Garfunkel’s burgeoning acting career – or rather the time it took from the duo’s music – that rankled with Simon. Not for nothing did The Only Living Boy in New York – a track from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album – reference Simon beavering away while Garfunkel filmed Catch 22 down in Mexico. Not for nothing did he sing “So long, Artie!” on the fade of the same album’s So Long Frank Wright.
“The record company told me I’d never be successful on my own,” says Simon today, but he soon proved them wrong. Guests on his self-titled, 1972 solo debut included Django Reinhardt’s old violin foil Stéphane Grapelli (“he told me he made more money from that than any other recording he ever did”) and Whitney Houston’s mother, Cissy. Songs such as Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard and the aforementioned Mother and Child Reunion were quality controlled, and the album made number one in the UK and number four in the US.
In time, he would have his cake and eat it. Pioneering world music albums such as 1986’s politically sensitive, 14 million-selling Graceland and its Brazilian and Cuban-influenced follow-up The Rhythm of the Saints enabled Simon to explore musical avenues that would have been off-limits with Garfunkel, but lasting affection for the music he and his old school pal made has periodically prompted them to reunite and tour.
At the time of writing, Garfunkel is reportedly recovering from the vocal-cord paresis that led to the cancellation of dates on the pair’s 2010 Old Friends tour, but Simon says a last hurrah isn’t out of the question. “Ten or 15 shows,” he says. “That would do it.”
As our interview winds down, we ponder some of the countless cover versions of Simon-penned songs. Are there any that he prefers to the originals? How about Van Morrison and Them’s take on Simon & Garfunkel’s Richard Corey? “That was OK, but the song is juvenilia for me. I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote that.”
Elvis Presley’s version of Bridge Over Troubled Water? “I wish he’d done a gospel version, because he sang gospel very well.”
He is an Elvis fan, though?
“I’m a huge fan, but I remember being about 14 and thinking, ‘I could never be better than Elvis’, so I put him to one side.”
Simon thinks for a moment, dredging up another memory. “I did eventually make it out to Graceland [Presley’s Memphis, Tennessee, home, later museum after his death in 1977]. I went there in the 1980s; just got on the regular bus with the tour. I remember thinking that it was all really tacky, but then we got to his grave and I read that inscription that says something like ‘Elvis Presley, whose voiced touched people all over the world’, and I started to cry. For a guy born in shack in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935, Elvis did pretty good.”