A Brief Faroe Islands Recap Interruption: Paul Simon’s Latest CD, “So Beautiful or So What”

I am a huge Paul Simon fan.

He and James Taylor were the two artists that made me want to write songs, made me want to write, period. They moved me with their music, they caused my adolescent heart to ache with their ability to convey conflicted layers of emotion and tell hauntingly specific yet universal stories with a minimum of well-placed words… Also, James Taylor was HOT in that scruffy, singer/songwriter/soulful kind of way that made girls (me) daydream of being The One that would hold them and stoke their long reckless mane of hair and say, “There, there, my tortured poet– I understand.” (See also: why I married Russ. Bless our hearts.)

Paul Simon, on the other hand, looked like a harmless little Jewish garden gnome. But a garden gnome with DEEP THOUGHTS.

I remember way back in the dark ages of phones with cords and actual record players, sitting on my bed holding the receiver of my yellow princess phone in the air pointed towards the album spinning on the turntable, making my then- boyfriend Russ listen to Paul Simon singing “Loves Me Like A Rock.” I may or may not have been trying to prove that I knew a little something about gospel music, too– sure, I’d never heard of Jake Hess, but could HE identify the velvet tones of the legendary Dixie Hummingbirds singing back-up?

Then Simon’s “Graceland” album changed my life. It was a globally eclectic mixture of sounds and styles, many of which I was hearing for the first time. He recorded most of it in South Africa, then still in the iron grip of apartheid, and introduced (me and) the world to artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. It had zydeko squeezebox, a cappella harmonies, and Tex-Mex guitars. I was dazzled. The sheer genius of its scope still astounds me, twenty-five years later.

When we taped the Gaither Homecoming video at Carnegie Hall in 2002, I got to brush elbows with both of my musical heroes in the same day. It just so happened that James Taylor was staying at our hotel, as he was in rehearsals for some big benefit concert that was also to be held at Carnegie Hall a few days later. I spotted him in the lobby, proceeded to silently FUH-REAK OUT, then impulsively and uncharacteristically followed him right into the elevator– and was so undone by the wonder of his close proximity that I stood stock-still, staring a hole through the sign above the door that indicates what floor we’re passing, too embarrassed to speak to him. (OK, eventually I did. Take me out to dinner sometime, and I’ll regale you the tale. Spoiler alert: I managed to not TOTALLY humiliate myself. But just barely.)

That night at the taping while I was still reeling from breathing the same air as my beloved JT, I started hearing rumbles from the other artists that Paul Simon *might* show up at the concert. Why? Because, like all of us, he loved Jessie Dixon. Paul Simon heard Jessie for the first time at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1972, and for over 8 years the Jessie Dixon Singers sang back-up and toured around the world with him. In fact it was Jessie and his group that provided the live BGVs for “Loves Me Like A Rock” on Simon’s first Dick Cavett Show and Saturday Night Live performances. I immediately tracked Bill Gaither down in the bowels of the Carnegie Hall dressing rooms to get him to confirm or deny the rumor. Bill laughingly told me that yes, Paul was supposed to come hear Jessie, and would possibly even do a song with him, though Simon’s record company probably wouldn’t allow that performance to be included on the final video edit. (They didn’t, the jerks.)

About an hour later, standing backstage watching the taping, I turned around to head back to the craft table (hello–lox and bagels!) and literally almost tripped over Paul Simon. I stammered an apology, and he said, “No problem.” Abandoning my snack plans, I planted myself right there and continued to watch the concert. As far as I could see, Simon was there all alone, no handlers, security, etc. I kept sneaking side glances at him, and was struck by two things: One, I could look down and see the entire top of his head (seriously– I don’t mean to be ugly here, as we say in the South, but the guy is like, freakishly small!) and Two, there seemed to be an almost palpable air of melancholy about him. He seemed very somber and unapproachable, though not rude or arrogant. Like, you kinda wanted to slap him on the back or chuck him under his little chin and say, “Paul, babe– lighten up!” (Don’t worry, I DIDN’T do it.) I did however eventually work up my nerve enough to casually whisper, “So, you’re here to see Jessie?” and he answered me without turning. “Yes,” he said. “He is my favorite singer.”

To be honest, I don’t remember much about their performance that night. It may have been “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” but don’t hold me to it. I know that Jessie played piano for him, and they seemed to have an ease with each other born of familiarity, kind of like they just took up where they left off last time they sang together. The entire experience was more than a little surreal. Back at my hotel room that night, I You-Tubed myself into a coma looking up old videos of Paul Simon and James Taylor, reminding myself again of the timelessness and quality of their songs, and thanking God that I got to meet two of my biggest musical influences in the same day. And though, regretfully, neither one of them asked me to co-write a song or get married, they also didn’t shatter my adolescent fantasies by turning out to be giant douche-canoes.


*shakes head to clear the cobwebs, wonders where I was going with that*

Oh, yeah– today I found a link to this interview with Paul Simon about his newest album (they’ll always be ‘albums’ to me, get off my lawn), the critically acclaimed “So Beautiful or So What.” It’s being hailed as his best work in decades, and though I haven’t heard it yet, this interview intrigued me enough to want to share it with you guys. Apparently there is such an obvious spiritual component to this project, it has caused many reviewers to openly speculate about Paul Simon’s religious beliefs. It reminds me of the hoopla that accompanied Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming” album, and how many of my Christian friends pored over the lyrics as if they were trying to decipher a code: Was Dylan really a ‘real’ Christian? Could ‘our side’ now claim him?

Just to be clear, that is SO not why I’m posting this interview! The state of Paul Simon’s soul is not up for debate or conjecture here, and frankly, it’s none of our business. But his thoughtful, open attitude towards God and his willingness to not have to be sure of everything felt refreshingly honest to me. Wherever he ends up on his spiritual journey, he’s most definitely a fellow traveler.

Here it is, let me know what you guys think:

**Random addendum: Shout-out to Dr. Dean, Madi Rose’s last year’s music teacher at UTC, who apparently sometimes stops by here– HEY!

10 Responses

  1. auburn60

    I always knew we were kindred spirits. Here are 2 reasons why I know this: I always loved James Taylor and Paul Simon,although truth is I’d have to give a SLIGHT edge to JT in my affections because he,along with Jim Croce,was the background music to my teenage years. The other evidence of our separated-at-birth sisterhood is that I’m about to ramble all around this post sort of like…um…you just did.

    Did I ever tell you that JT’s brother Livingston was one of Megan’s teachers at Berklee? (I know I did.) And he arranged for JT to come and do a 2 hour seminar for his students and Meg was texting me cool stuff the whole time about the whole brotherly vibe and the music and all the talk about Carole King? And then when Meg graduated we got to see Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble (of the Philadelphia sound)? AND I saw Barbra Streisand and James Brolin at graduation?

    See? All.Over.The.Place.

    But seriously,Jessie was the bomb and a lot of people didn’t realize what a musical history he had and if you weren’t (ahem) of a certain age you might not be aware of how many great musicians he worked with.

    So,I’ve been away for a while.I didn’t realize how long till I started scrolling through 3 months of posts. Looks like I took the summer off. I’m baa-ack!

  2. auburn60

    Oh yeah. The video. I’m still chewing over the phrase “God chronicler by accident”. Is that a real possibility? Or is that God moving through someone who was not expecting to be used by Him? Hmmm. I’ll get back to you on that.

  3. tori

    auburn60– The other reason we totally get each other? I effortlessly follow you All. Over. The. Place.
    Every time. (I really liked the ‘God chronicler by accident’ line as well.)

  4. LindaB

    Okay. I’m still dumbfounded that you went all gaga over PAUL SIMON, a.k.a. “the Garden Gnome with deep thoughts”. (You too, Alyson.) What did I miss? Maybe I’m lacking a certain gene or something…..or have a hormone inbalance of some kind. I like his music, but many of his lyrics I just don’t get. Like——I love the song “Love Me Like a Rock”…..but I don’t know why he would think a rock could love anyone…..and vice versa. And James Taylor???? Plu-ease! I wanna slap ‘em and yell, “Snap out of it! Go do something useful and quit whining!” (Well, they did make some money, didn’t they? LOL Maybe they heard me.)

    I don’t get “God chronicler by accident” either. (Don’t hate me or make fun of me! I have feelings.)

    Is it just me or does Paul Simon and Bill Gaither have the same hair?

    I love Ladysmith Black Mambazo! I have several DVD’S of theirs, including their concert at Albert Hall in London. Now, I don’t understand all their lyrics either—-they’re in Swahili or something, but their primitive harmonies give me goosebumps. I don’t know why.

    I like your lyrics, Tori. I understand them. I can relate. But….I do have one burning question……and I guess now is as good a time as ever to ask……I’ve always wondered if I could have lots of love and still remain seated? Arthritis, ya know.

    I really do agree with you on the celebrity converts—–are they genuine or not? I don’t like it when Christians all start speculating about stuff like that…..clamoring for them to join this group or that fellowship! Like you said, only God knows…..just like only God which ones of us are His. And secondly, it suggests that they are more important and have more influence than anyone else, when God says in His Kingdom the first shall be last and the last first, and He uses the foolish and common things of this world to do His work! A celebrity is just one more sinner saved by grace. Nothing less, nothing more. We should just love them………like a rock….like the rock of ages. I guess.

  5. blondie

    LOVE this post. LOVE James and Paul. LOVE you. It’s just a big ol’ love fest around here right now. I’m technically a little too young to claim the guys as my generation, but as much as I love the singer-songwriters, one might wonder if I was born a little too late.

    I do believe I may have first heard “Graceland” at high volume at Mama June’s when you guys brought it along to share. We’ve done the good parenting thing by passing the love on to our offspring, (the bass solo in, “You can call me Al,” was wiggle-time when she was tiny – everyone in the vicinity had to stop what they were doing and wiggle.)

    The Hubster and I went to see JT in concert several years back and towards the end of the night I remember asking the question, “can it be called a ‘mosh-pit’ when the median age of the moshers is 50-something?” And yes, I’m sure the technical term is “moshers.” :)

  6. auntie

    You are such a good writer! I was hanging on every word, and cracked up with laughter over the “Jewish garden gnome” and “Youtubed myself into a coma!” Is Paul Simon still married to Edie Brickell? Isn’t she like a foot taller than him?

    I am smitten with my own local singer-songwriter just now, so I so get your “tortured poet” line! :-) Like you, I’ve spent many hours on Youtube checking out his tunes and various hair styles.

    I would love to take you to dinner to hear your James Taylor story, but sadly am 800 miles from Nashville! However, I did visit your fair city 8 times between 1993-2004, mostly to attend Fan Fair. Speaking of which, as I type, I am thinking that I remember your husband having a booth there! Didn’t he try to cross over to the country side? Wasn’t his booth like right next to Marcia Brady’s??? (Maureen McCormick, who was also trying to cross over, though many years after the Brady Bunch!) Ahh, Fan Fair memories! The best!

    You and I would probably have fun dinner conversation! We could play 6 degrees of seperation. I know people that know you, and I know people that know people that know you :-)

  7. Barbara M. Lloyd

    I can remember opinions being offered without encouragement about Paul’s and Bob Dylan’s salvation….and those opinions changed back and forth. I don’t remember it having a great affect on either of their musical reputations in the end. Both have always been greatly admired in my family for their tremendous talents.

    But now I feel led to mention the 2002 cruise I went on with my son and his precious wife. On the first day, seeing Donna carrying her camera I announced to both of them that I was not the kind of fan who wants either autographs or pictures taken with an artists. I just didn’t do those things. Not five minutes later, an elevator door opened and I gasped “Russ Taff” and with that I jumped nto that elevator pushing my way back beside a very open-eyed Russ holding a coffee cup to ward me off, I suspect. Poor Donna…someone managed to catch the elevator door so that she got on with me but Mark was left behind smewhere. I assured Russ all that I wanted was a picture of him….er, with me. He said as kindly as he could managed that it might be a good idea we wait until we get off the elevator, knowing full well I would be getting off on whatever floor he was getting off on. So much for blowing my sophisticated meetings with artists. I had managed to turn that upside down in one second of spying my Russ. Well, after all, he had been my very favorite for umpteen years and I had been telling everyone by e-mail to go by his table, get a hug for me (of course) and get a sniff….because he always smelled heavenly. Besides even with showers you didn’t have to put on anymore colonge for a day or two.And, I’m still his No. One Fan. Paul can’t touch my Russ with a ten foot pole. And his wife has written some pretty terrific lyrics. It’s not surprising that she admires all these other folks….but the Taffs have my vote everytime.

  8. MostlySunny

    You guys sooooo crack me up! I totally understand what generation you are coming from because “back then” everyone famous was so inaccesible – only the albums and radio – no internet, Youtube, (Gaither) videos, nothin’!

    My story –

    I was in the elevator once with Guy Penrod’s oldest son at Praise Gathering in Indianapolis when he was sent down to fetch coffee at the Starbucks in the lobby of the hotel!

    And – Janet Paschal was in line for a cab a head of me. She didn’t even invite me to her wedding.

    That’s pretty much it…except I get to chat with YOU FABULOUS PEOPLE every once in a while! I do need to get out more…

  9. MostlySunny

    blondie – Be careful in those mosh pits these day. You can break a hip or something!

  10. JanetB

    I gotta agree with LindaB here…not gettin’ it. Simon & Garfunkel I loved…but not so much a fan of the solo stuff. Sweet Baby James, on the other hand…THAT I get. :) (Hey baby – I’m your handyman. Well, ok. I can get onboard with that.)

    For me, it was Neil Diamond – and I’ll tell you why. My brother, Phil, was 19 when I was born. (Mom had Phil when she was 19 & she was 38 when she had me. Talk about symmetry!) He was already out of the house by the time I arrived; his presence in my life was not a constant thing, shall we say. Until…

    Phil was diagnosed with cancer in late 1973 – I was 11. He lived in Mississippi, but was undergoing treatments in St Louis, which was closer to us. So, I got to see him every month for nearly a year. I have more memories of him from that year than in all of the previous ones put together.

    He loved (adored, worshipped) music. He was a teenager in the 50’s – go figure. I came home from school one day to find him sitting in the middle of our dining room floor, with my mother’s albums – ALL of them – scattered around him. He was “organizing” them. Oh yeah – and he was drinking a beer. I’d never seen a beer in my house before, so that was another shocker. (It helped with the chemo side-effects. That’s what they told me, anyway.) So, being the pesky little sister that I was, I asked if Mom knew what he was doing? He just looked up at me…”So, are you going to help me with these or what?” Okay! I plopped down next to him and spent the next several hours helping him sort the albums…listening to him explain who was who and who was the greatest whatever. That was just a little bit of heaven right there.

    I suppose it was as a result of that lovely afternoon…at some point after that, Phil gave me an album – Taproot Manuscript, by Neil Diamond. He didn’t buy it for me – he gave me the one in his collection. Wow. He told me that he had a hunch that I would love it. I did…I do.

    On side one are songs like Cracklin’ Rosie and He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother; oh but it’s on side two where the beauty is. It’s ND’s exploration of the roots of black gospel & the music of Africa. (This was released in 1970…which predates Graceland by eons. Just sayin’.) One song in particular – African Suite (instrumental) – is still my favorite piece of music in the whole world. It just soars…and takes my soul along for the ride.

    This Friday (Aug 31st) will be the 38th anniversary of Phil’s death at the age of 31; I was 12. I couldn’t listen to that album for a year. Too painful. Then one day…I played it. I let that music cover me and fill me and transport me to a place where joy resides. That was the gift my big brother left to me.

    Sorry, Tori…not trying to take over your blog. LOL Just waxing nostalgic. And – it just occurred to me that Russ could cover Soolaimon and totally pull it off! :)

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