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Accidental Heroes

Paul Simon
By Martin Kelner on Jan 14, 2001 - 1:09:00 PM

Article dated: Sunday 14 January 2001
Paul Simon
In the film Annie Hall, when Woody Allen rejects the chance to "get mellow" with laid-back rock star Paul Simon there is a certain irony, since there is far more that unites the two artists than divides them.

Both grew up in the New York suburbs in similar lower middle-class Jewish families just after the Second World War, they both have stuck somewhat spikily to their personal vision despite critical brickbats, and both can be credited with bringing a touch of Greenwich Village coffee-house literacy to art forms that were previously the province of the emotions rather than the intellect.

While Woody was making stand-up comedy relevant to college kids, with his references to Adlai Stevenson and Stanley Kowalski, Paul Simon was rescuing pop music from the leather jacket and inviting in duffel-coated grammar school types with songs that wore their literacy on their sleeve, and were therefore roundly criticized for being overly melodramatic and pretentious.

Sure, those early songs were a little pretentious, but that's what we liked about them. "Fog's rollin' in off the East River bank/ Like a shroud it covers Bleeker Street....A poet reads his crooked rhyme/ Holy, holy is his sacrament/ Thirty dollars pays your rent/ On Bleeker Street." To those of us growing up several thousand miles away - literally and spiritually - from New York's Bohemia, lyrics like this transported us. Here was pop music we could relate to - a thrilling fusion of Elvis Presley and T.S.Eliot.

The Sound of Silence, for instance, Simon's first hit, contains lines - "In restless dreams I walked alone/ Narrow streets of cobblestone/ 'Neath the halo of a street lamp/ I turned my collar to the cold and damp" - that could almost have come from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Not that Simon was in any way sniffy about the more plebian side of rock 'n roll. From the very beginning, New York's street music - doo wop and gospel - found its way into his songs. He paid tribute to a long forgotten star of doo wop in the track The Late Great Johnny Ace, and was the first white performer to make reggae records; Mother And Child Reunion and Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard.

His borrowings led to accusations of musical colonialism, repeated later when he collaborated on the Graceland album with African musicians like Youssou N'Dour and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But that takes political correctness to ridiculous extremes.

Simon was actually rather ahead of his time in referring to other people's music in his work. These days using samples of old records to create new ones is accepted practice. In Paul Simon's case, though, it was not the quest for the fast buck that led him to incorporate doo wop and other primarily black rhythms into his music.

He truly loves the pop music with which he grew up, witness his latest project, a musical called The Capeman, the story of a disturbed Puerto Rican teenager who killed two others in a gang fight in New York in 1959. This allows Simon to write songs in the style of the time. "Writing songs in a 50s style was very appealing to me," says Simon, "and so was writing songs in a Latin style, which was a significant and exotic New York subculture to me when I was growing up."

Simon works slowly - and even occasionally has to revive his famously stormy relationship with Art Garfunkel to finance his projects - but it is nearly always worth the wait. Unlike Bob Dylan, who ran out of steam years ago, Paul Simon is still experimenting after forty years in the business, and still leading now grown-up college kids down new musical avenues.

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