Don't retire yet, Paul Simon – America still needs you

Paul Simon

Nearly half a century ago, Paul Simon asked the musical question: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/ a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Related: Paul Simon may be on his final tour: showbiz doesn’t hold any interest for me

He might as well stick his own name into that refrain today. In a new interview, the star said he may be ready to pull his own vanishing act, bringing to an end a career some 50 years after it began. Less than four months shy of his 75th birthday, Simon told Jim Dwyer of the New York Times: “It’s an act of courage to let go. If I let go ... who am I? Am I just this person that was defined by what I did? And if that’s gone ... who are you?”

Simon picked an odd time to raise these questions – both in terms of his own career and in light of larger political trends.

In the last month, the star’s new album, Stranger to Stranger, debuted at No 1 on the UK album chart, making him the oldest male solo artist ever to earn that distinction. In the US, Stranger started at No 3, Simon’s loftiest chart position since his classic Graceland album 29 years ago. The music on the album has inspired some of the most rapturous reviews of the artist’s career.

At the same time, Simon’s proposed retreat threatens something larger. It would rob the world of a voice long dedicated to social and political engagement, right when isolationism and xenophobia have taken a sharp, and scary, upturn. Both the Brexit vote and the Trump campaign reflect populist movements in the UK and the US meant to cut the rest of the world out of the conversation. They’re closed in every way that Simon’s creative life has been open.

From his earliest days recording with Art Garfunkel, Simon has been reaching out to other cultures, as well as examining the soul of his own. The first Simon & Garfunkel album in 1964, Wednesday Morning, 3 am, opened with a cover of the gospel number You Can Tell The World, which introduced a duo ready to spread a joyous message globally. The album featured covers of political statements, like Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ and peace prayers, like Ed McCurdy’s Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream, as well as Simon’s own Bleecker Street, which captured the socially-attuned aspirations of Greenwich Village in the 1960s.

On the 1968 song America, Simon nailed a generation’s yearning in the lines “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/they’ve all come to search for America”. Its soaring chorus turned one man’s rumination on the country’s misdirection into one of the most stirring anthems of its day. Simon’s imaginary entreaty to Mr DiMaggio, found on the same album, in the song Mrs Robinson, summed up the nation’s quest for a hero, right when its best candidates for that role, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, were being assassinated.

As a composer, Simon had been engaging the larger world from the start. Early hits, like Scarborough Fair, took influence from Celtic music, while, by 1970, he was exploring the tones and instruments of Peru in El Condor Pasa.

Simon extended that curiosity into his solo career, beginning in 1972, with songs like the reggae-influenced Mother and Child Reunion, or the Brazilian-tinged Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard. The next year, Simon addressed the country’s drift again in American Tune. It found the Statue of liberty “sailing away to sea” as the dream of the nation faded. Unlike contemporary, rightwing political laments for America, Simon isn’t longing for lost privilege but for departed sensitivity.

In the next decade, Simon converted his examinations of America into an excited globalism, evident in the very sources of the music. Graceland, in 1986, proved a watershed moment in introducing a wider world of sound into Anglo-pop. While many commercially potent artists, from Led Zeppelin to Peter Gabriel, had brought music from around the globe into their sound before, Graceland made more people in America aware of the planet’s sounds than any album before it. For all the critiques surrounding its cultural appropriation – made fiercer by the fact that Simon had broken the cultural boycott against South Africa to record the album – the resultant music brought the issues, and sounds, of South Africa front and center in American pop. It turned the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo into stars, and to inject the previously ghettoized sounds of Mbaqanga into mainstream radio.

All five of the albums Simon has released in the years since have broadened both his view of the world and his audience’s. His latest album revisits both South Africa and Peru but it also ushers in sounds that come from no fixed culture. Stranger employs instruments like the chromelodeon and cloud-chamber bowls, contraptions dreamt up by 20th century musical theorist Harry Partch to split octaves from their usual 12 tones to 43.

In doing so, Simon has found new ways to help us hear, and understand, more than we did before. At a time when so many forces have narrowed our views and coarsened our opinions, we need more rhymin’ Simon in the world, not less.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jim Farber, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 29th June 2016 20.10 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010