Recently contributed by someone to YouTube is a one-hour TV interview with Paul Simon, conducted by Mark Steyn in the 1980s (embedded below). Some of us who are fans of Mark Steyn’s sharp-witted topical commentary are amused by the references he occasionally makes to his apparently glamorous former life as a globe-trotting hob-knobber with musical luminati. “As Paul Simon once said to me,” he’ll insert as an aside in some piece on how utterly depraved and beyond-hope the Western world has become; on other occasions it might be: “as I once said to Frank Sinatra …”
Well, there’s now at least video evidence of his proximity to Paul Simon at one particular time, and an extended time at that, talking to him at his home on Long Island and driving around Queens with him visiting Simon’s childhood haunts. And there is Steyn, the same hairy bearded guy with a very-hard-to-place accent who we know very well, except at this point he is still in possession of (quite a bit of) baby fat, so he somewhat resembles a hirsute cherub. The decline of Western civilization has clearly caused him to lose weight, and I guess that must be one of the silver linings of that particular cloud.
But you don’t see very much of Mark Steyn, because the show is actually focused on Paul Simon, who, judging by the conversation, had most recently released the Graceland album. Although about twenty-five years have passed since this interview, it is a superbly intimate portrait of Simon the artist. Steyn knows music and the art of song in particular, and he is a perceptive and sensitive interviewer. I especially appreciate the time spent on songs from the Hearts & Bones album as I harbor a special love for that record and believe that “Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” likely still stands as Simon’s most perfect song and recording. And I say that as a serious fan who believes that every Paul Simon album (post-Simon & Garfunkel) contains multiple doozies.
[with convenient Dutch subtitles]
The interview also gets a little bit at something that fascinates me about Simon, as a writer, and that is a point that I think he essentially acknowledges here; i.e. that he writes the same songs over and over again. In the mid-1980s it occurred to him that he should change up the background (and specifically the rhythms) in order to keep it interesting, for himself and his listeners. Of-course, he struck gold and diamonds by doing so. But from the first Paul Simon solo album to the most recent (I put aside the Simon & Garfunkel era because I think he was still trying to find himself as a songwriter then, despite the commercial success) the voice and context of his songs is basically the same. One way to characterize it is this: He is observing the world from the perspective of a relatively urbane New Yorker, at times overwhelmed with feelings and questions about meaning of life and of love; and he almost always delivers a heavy dose of kindness towards the characters in his songs, as flawed or mixed-up as they may be.
There are too many examples to offer, because every Paul Simon song is an example, but this verse and refrain from the exquisite “Born At The Right Time” is just one that illuminates it:
Me and my buddies, we are travelling people
We like to go down to Restaurant Row
Spend those Eurodollars
All the way from Washington to Tokyo
Well, I see them in the airport lounges
Upon their mother’s breast
They follow me with open eyes
Their uninvited guest
Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time
So, in the verse part he’s basically using the voice of a vulgar American (maybe even some wealthy rock-star), who enjoys traveling the world dropping wads of cash and eating out well (implicitly missing out on everything else). And “Restaurant Row” is a sidelong New York reference, being the name given to one block of fancy eateries on West 46th Street. Then it goes to this wonderful image of him being caught up suddenly by visions he sees in the airport lounges, of recently-born infants eyeing him and the world for the first time. And then the quite sublime refrain comes in, an affirmation of the unique rightness and wonder of every as-yet-unmarred human being at his or her birth.
It is from his 1990 album, Rhythm of the Saints, but the truth is that both lyrically and melodically it could fit on just about any Paul Simon album. It’s just a Paul Simon song, with his trademarked way of juxtaposing the ordinary and the philosophical (and quasi-theological) in his wry New York voice. And it’s wonderful; he could do this stuff forever and it would probably be just fine with someone like me, but set against the delicate textures of the Brazilian rhythm and percussion section on this album (and with the accordion strokes and backing vocals) it becomes a so much more multi-layered delight, repaying repeated listening and seducing the ear in ways that cannot be quantified.
How do you do the same thing over and over again—that thing which admittedly you do best—and yet keep it fresh and even challenging, for yourself and your audience, time after time? Other writers and artists have struggled with this question and sometimes found answers for it, each in their way. From his eponymous first album to his most-recent So Beautiful or So What, it’s been pretty much an unameliorated joy to hear how Paul Simon has worked through this conundrum.