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!