October 13, 2021

Paul Simon at 80 — A New York Story

By Stuart Mitchner

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America

—Paul Simon

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon marks his 80th birthday today, Wednesday, October 13. Incredible but true, this is the first time I’ve written about him, unless you count the caption headed “A Hazy Shade of Winter” I wrote for the front page photo of a snow scene on January 26, 2011. Sharing the same page in the same issue is a photo of someone I’ve come back to again and again over the years, Simon’s fellow New Yorker, J.D. Salinger, who died in January 2010. As Holden Caulfield would say, “if you really want to know about it,” I’ve always thought of Simon as a Salinger character, like maybe Holden’s brilliant, long lost song-writing baseball-playing cousin from Queens.

Also incredible but true, the last time I was in the city was in early November 2019, for the J.D. Salinger centenary exhibit at the New York Public Library. And the last time I was in Simon’s New York was the other night listening to “Bleecker Street” and “The Sound of Silence” from Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.

He’s In Your Head

Comparing poetry and popular music, Billy Collins, another New Yorker who grew up in Queens, points out that because “pop songs get into people’s heads as they listen in the car, you don’t have to memorize a Paul Simon song; it’s just in your head and you can sing along. With a poem you have to will yourself to memorize it.”

The Simon songs playing most often in my head over the years along with “Sounds of Silence” have been “Dangling Conversation,” “Homeward Bound,” “59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy)” “Slip Slidin’ Away,” “The Boxer,” and “America,” along with lines like “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” from “Mrs. Robinson,” the song heard ‘round the nation on the soundtrack of The Graduate (1966).

Subway Walls

Earlier this year when a friend who was parting with old records asked if I wanted any, I picked Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., which has a cover photo set in the same Fifth Avenue subway station my train used to go through every school day morning. So you could say I’ve had a passing acquaintance with the stanchion Simon is leaning against holding a guitar and looking lonely even with Art Garfunkel standing next to him neatly dressed in suit and tie. The yellow-gold blur made by the train passing through at that moment lends an expressionistic touch to an otherwise underwhelming photo. If “The Sound of Silence” is the song in your head, you won’t find “the words of the prophets” written on this subway wall — unless you count a whiskey ad and the message You Can Help/Throw It Here on a nearby trash bin.

The sleeve notes are framed as a letter from Garfunkel to Simon in which he provides a “listener’s guide” to the album, focusing on “The Sound of Silence” as “a major work” begun in November 1963 and finished on February 19, 1964, when “the song practically wrote itself.” In Paul Simon: A Life (Simon & Schuster 2018), Robert Hilburn ends his prologue with reference to “the birth of Simon’s first great song” during “a period of trauma” when “his world changed” with the assassination of President Kennedy. After spending “hours despondent in his bedroom,” Simon “took his guitar into the family bathroom, where the tile made the sound all the more alluring,” switched off the lights per his custom, and started softly fingerpicking” until he hit “some warmly evocative notes that he played over and over again …. As he sat alone, these words eventually burst forth: ‘Hello darkness, my old friend.’ “

In a later chapter, Hilburn quotes Simon’s thoughts on the lyric’s reference to walking alone on “narrow streets of cobblestone”: “I was probably thinking about Manhattan, the Village … just putting myself into that world of singers who were writing about the world around them.” 

Where’s New York?

Simon’s references to the city stir memories of the singers and players who once frequented Washington Square, another reminder that it’s been almost two years since I was in the city. Although the pandemic is the obvious explanation, I no longer feel the same need to simply be there, walking the streets, making the rounds of record stores and secondhand book stores (the few that have survived), especially when I think of the beanpole skyscrapers that have sprouted up among the towers overlooking Holden Caulfield’s Central Park, or the “luxury living” high-rises regularly advertised in the New York Times magazine, like “NYC’s Top-Selling Building,” 57 unaffordable stories of “Global design, rooted in Brooklyn.”

In Simon’s “America,” he takes a poet’s possession of the New Jersey Turnpike, counting the cars that have all come to look for America in the form of the city the singer and his girlfriend are rolling toward in a Greyhound from Pittsburgh. There’s a sense of awe and wonder and hope in the idea of the nation epitomized in its largest city. But that was in the late sixties when the metropolis was still more or less equal to Walt Whitman’s “Human and heroic New York.” Or maybe one reason the singer’s feeling “lost,” “empty and aching” is that he senses what’s looming on the other side of the millennium.

There’s a sequel of sorts in two songs from Simon’s 2011 album So Beautiful or So What. Discussing the composition of “Questions for Angels,” he calls the last verse “the payoff, the final question for the angels” — “If every human on the planet / And all the buildings on it / Should disappear / Would a zebra grazing in the African savannah / Care enough to shed one zebra tear?” There’s an explicit connection between “America” and “Rewrite,” a song about a burned-out Vietnam vet who ends up as “the old guy working at the car wash / Hasn’t got a brain cell left / Since Vietnam.” Calling it “a generational song,” Simon says he played it in concert before “America,” having realized that “the kid” who gets on the bus in Pittsburgh is “the old guy at the car wash. That guy is some version of me, my generation.”

Thinking Angels

During walks around Manhattan, especially in the Village, I used to think on Simon’s line “angels in the architecture,” from the 1986 song “You Can Call Me Al.” I heard the line “in my head” loud and clear on my last trip to the city. No wonder, I was in the magnificent Beaux Arts building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd, taking a side trip from the Salinger exhibit to the Edward Laning murals surrounding the third-floor McGraw Rotunda. Whenever I’m there, I think of the day 40 years ago, May 1981, when the painter of The Story of the Word lay dying at St. Vincent’s. As always on these pilgrimages, I imagine viewing the scene in the rotunda through his eyes, so much human movement, phones flashing, people from all over the world milling about. The two Korean girls making room for me on the marble bench were both sketching Moses with the Tablets of the Law, one of the four massive panels below the ceiling mural of Prometheus catching the fire of knowledge from the gods.

Simon Steals Home

What can I say, only in October, when “the nation turns its lonely eyes to” playoff baseball, does the image of Prometheus inspire thoughts of a cosmic ballplayer making a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch.

“The first sound Paul Simon fell in love with was the crack of a baseball against a Louisville Slugger” — so begins the first paragraph of Hilburn’s biography: “He could even tell you the moment: the summer of 1948 when, at age 6, he sat down with his father to listen to his first game on the radio” and immediately “got caught up in the excitement of the announcer’s voice (most notably, the ebullient Mel Allen) and the cheers of the Yankee Stadium crowd.” According to Hilburn, as Simon’s allegiance to the Yankees grew, “the games had such a powerful effect on Paul’s mood that his mother had to listen in to the afternoon broadcasts to keep track of the score. If the Yankees lost, she knew there was no point in defrosting a steak, because Paul would be so upset he wouldn’t eat.”

By the time he was 10, Simon was playing in neighborhood pick-up games. By junior high school, in Hilburn’s words, “he knew that his dream of playing for the Yankees was threatened by an issue that would plague him for years: his size.” He was around five feet tall at a time when the shortest players in the majors were five six. He was still so short his senior year at Forest Hills High School that he almost didn’t make the team. Despite his size, he batted over .300 and showed enough speed on the base paths to hit leadoff in the batting order. His greatest moment on the field was “when he pulled off one of baseball’s rarest and most exciting plays: stealing home to tie the score in a game Forest Hills went on to win.” The headline in the Long Island Press, shown in Hilburn’s biography, said “Simon Steals Home.” Six decades later, a framed reproduction of the article was still displayed on a wall in his Manhattan office.

When Simon failed to make the team at Queen’s College the following year, the sound of ball on bat had given way to the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. As for his fellow New Yorker J.D. Salinger, I can’t prove that Holden had a fictional ballplaying cousin from Queens, but I do know that he ghostwrote a paper for his roommate at Pencey Prep about his dead brother Allie’s left-handed fielder’s mitt, which Allie had written poems on in green ink, “so he’d have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was at bat.”