To preview the release of my biography of Paul Simon I’m going to post daily previews of the book, taken mostly from original reporting and writing that fueled and/or didn’t quite make it onto the pages. This is a segment of the proposal I wrote for the book in 2012.
My earliest pop radio memories take me to Seattle in the summer of 1968 when my five-year-old self passed the summer pushing trucks across the yard to the tune of “Mrs. Robinson” playing from every transistor radio on the block every 20 minutes. An entire season defined by that off-kilter rhythm, the twittery harmonies and abstruse verses about…well, I had no idea. And yet the images were indelible. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you… Such are the roots of my cultural consciousness.
Born in the early ‘60s, baptized into the culture in the hippie era, old enough to carry a sign (as placed by my mom) through protests against new highways and for the Equal Rights Amendment and into the post-idealistic early ‘70s, through the urban anomie of the next decade and on and on I went, and never without Paul Simon’s voice high in the cacophony. He always had my ear. Made me turn up KJR-AM to consider the unexplained scandals in Julio’s schoolyard, to ride the chorus of “Kodachrome” into the southern gospel of “Loves Me Like a Rock” into the Caribbean rattle of “Mother and Child Reunion.”
And all of this on Casey Kasem’s Top 40 every Sunday night, both alongside and somehow above the love ballads and gloss-rockers that made up the rest of the hit parade. I’m in elementary school, I’m not thinking about this as much as letting it wash over me as I navigated inner city schools whose concrete walls wore fresh memorials to Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. The black kids were angry, the Catholic kids were always hot for a fight. And at least one longhaired son of Jewish intellectuals stuck to the edges summoning the radio voice that laid it all out in witty, but unsparing terms. “When I think back at all the crap I learned in high school…”
I didn’t seek him out back then, but Paul Simon’s voice was always in the breeze and became, as if by cultural fiat, a pillar in my comprehension of the world. In late 1975 or early 1976 I read a magazine article about the new sophistication of the top 40, registering the author’s awe for the Ted Hughes-inspired lyric of “My Little Town” and the sui generis drum pattern in “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” When I absorbed the articles about the launch of NBC’s new Saturday Night enough to give it a look it made sense that Paul Simon was on the leading edge of that curve, too. He hosted the second episode (with Simon & Garfunkel as his musical guest), performing both of the aforementioned songs, shooting hoops with Connie Hawkins and clearly enthralling the shaggy urbanites in the live audience. I’m thirteen, the larger connections start to register. I’m fourteen, fifteen, and the internal networks spark and go immediately haywire. I need new clothes, new friends, a new identity. Nothing comes easily except self-consciousness and the romanticism of adolescent melancholy. With a retrofitting purchase of Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, I have the soundtrack.
You’ve seen this. Maybe you lived some version of it yourself. Goodbye, Columbus read with “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” “America” and “The Boxer” as the backdrop. The sound of innocence colliding with experience in post-war America. As I continued digging through Simon’s catalogue I recognized a sensibility that bridged my emotional and intellectual impulses. As a freshman in college I’d find a rehearsal room and spend hours at the piano hoping to untangle the complexities of “American Tune,” “My Little Town” or “Something so Right.” I analyzed the visual imagery in “Old Friends” in a key first term English paper, and dragged my un-eager and eventually unimpressed roommate to see “One-Trick Pony” at the college’s repertory movie theater.
I had my limits (“The Dangling Conversation” and its sad literary couple who mark their progress through the works of Dickinson and Frost with bookmarks “that measure what we’ve lost,” gives me the vapors) and connections to other artists that at times eclipsed all previous fixations. But just as those earlier records described my youth, Simon’s later work traces my adulthood from post-collegiate (Graceland) to early marriage and career (Rhythm of the Saints) my era in New York media (“The Capeman,” some of which I heard first in a press-only studio preview with Simon and his stars) to my return to Portland (“You’re the One”) to the sweet years of parenthood (Surprise, and particularly the tune ‘Father and Daughter,’ which I’ll never hear without recalling my then-10-year-old daughter’s proclamation that it was her favorite song.)
So it’s no exaggeration to say that Simon is as present in life as the air and waters: That’s exactly how I experienced him over the last 45 years. Song by song, year by year, album by album. Not quite a soundtrack to my entire life, but certainly a musical companion.
And if I’m still finding new meanings in those abstruse lyrics, I have long since grasped the depth of influence Simon’s genre-and-culture-bending music has had on world culture. Just think of those transistor radios playing on my block in 1968 and imagine them stretching around the planet, from Queens to Hollywood to New Orleans to Kingston to South Africa to Brazil and off into space. These are the days of miracle and wonder/This is a long distance call…and it resonates, and keeps on resonating.