Paul Simon Retires, After a Career Full of Endings

If nothing else, growing old does finally answer the question which troubled the song-writer all this while – of how it will be to grow old.

If nothing else, growing old does finally answer the question which troubled the song-writer all this while – of how it will be to grow old.

File photo of Paul Simon. Credit: Wikimedia

Bangalore: After a fifty-year career performing songs attuned to the passage of time and the absurdity of aging, Paul Simon has done the most Paul Simon thing ever and announced his retirement. On Monday, February 5, he shared a letter about his decision to stop touring, prompted in part by the death of Vincent N’guini, the lead guitarist of his band, but mainly by his desire to spend time with his family.

Simon’s ballads have been milestones, and sometimes monuments, of popular culture in the American century. But from the start, and through the arc of his career, they restlessly searched the line between the past, in which we are always young – and all the world’s a sunny day – and the future in which we are going to be old. 

Simon was already brooding on time and loss while recording Sounds of Silence, his first hit album with Art Garfunkel. The world was still just saying hello, but Simon had to reply – with all the gravity of someone turning 25, ‘Goodbye, goodbye. Goodbye, goodbye. That’s all there is.’

Cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. Credit: Amazon

It was in heartbreak, having seen love go from spring to September, that he first contemplated ephemerality. We might still be young, but love once new would grow old. And through the loneliness of losing one lover we glimpsed the future in which a man can end up alone – within a room, within himself – having lost the ability to love at all. 

In Bookends, Simon and Garfunkel added strokes to the defining imagery of youth in America – precarity and angst on the road – and of being young anywhere; empty and aching and not knowing why. Still Simon’s imagination ventured toward that least rock-and-roll of concerns: geriatric quality-of-life, and whether its misery would be eased by company silently sharing the same fears, even without the words to say it.

Some of those songs have a maudlin air, befitting anyone who feels but is not yet quite entitled to the pangs of mortality. In Bridge Over Troubled Water, the sense of endings was quickened by the strains on his partnership with Garfunkel. The horizon of things staying drew back in – from the end of life, to the more poignant end of the drive to the airport, when someone you once loved is eager to fly

Still, in a little-known verse from ‘The Boxer’, only retained in live versions, Simon names his favourite anxiety, and assures us it isn’t strange or unusual. 

Through the 1970s, Simon and Garfunkel would keep trying to make it work, but they never recovered their harmony. Simon’s voice, now single, was free to find itself anew. After three chart-topping solo albums, though, when it was time to compile Greatest Hits, Etc, the album’s opening song was an epigraph on life’s futility. The sky-high window of possibilities that frames the highway of youth only shrinks as you travel, he seemed to say. The nearer your destination, the closer you get to the point that it closes, immobilising you in the late hours of your life.

In at least one respect, however, the opposite was happening to Paul Simon. Having finally arrived at the thing that had preoccupied him for half of his life – that is, the other half of his life – he finally found how to put it in song.

As a young person, he wrote best about the young and the restless dreams in which they walk alone; now middle-aged, in the 1980s, he began to write about middle age, in songs no less musical or moving. In Graceland, his song-writing transcended the occasional, youthful existential crisis to take on the full-blown mid-life crisis, and it carried his generation with him, as they too wondered how they had got soft in the middle when the rest of their lives was so hard.

In ‘Where We Will All Be Received,’ her essay on the 25th anniversary of Graceland’s release, Nell Boeschenstein called it ‘one of the only albums I can think of that belongs as equally to my parents’ generation as to my own’. That had very particular reasons:

The Paul Simon who, on a bus en route to New York City told his sleeping girlfriend that he was empty and aching and he didn’t know why, that Simon belongs to our parents. My generation may love him but he’s not ours. 

The Simon who is soft in the middle (or at least feels an affinity for men who happen to be), however, the one who reminds young women of money, who has been divorced and has a kid to prove it, and who has the means to catch a cab uptown and take it all the way downtown talking dispassionately while doing so about the comings and goings of breakdowns, that Simon belongs to us as much as he does to our folks because he is our folks.  Not our folks the way they were before we were born, but the way they were when we first knew them, as they were losing their edge and feeling maybe a little insecure about that loss…

In that recognition we also learn what Simon himself was learning, after his years of speculation:

It is proof of life after the bloom of youth, proof that there is as much life in middle age as there is at any age, which has always been and will be one of the most difficult ideas for young people themselves to grasp. 

This year, in which Simon will turn 77 and retire, Graceland will turn 32. As Boeschenstein says, the generation born around the time of the album’s release recognised their parents in it. Today, as we approach middle-age, we recognise ourselves, and it makes the knowledge that we are turning into our parents less awful and more binding, both to them and to each other.

Appropriately, if not happily, Simon’s song-writing had to climb down from the mid-life career peak of that album. Still his newer songs retained their wise appreciation for the absurdity of aging and the chance that when your friends (and you will have them) stand up and cheer and say: ‘Man, you’re old,’ you will cheer too.

If nothing else, growing old does finally answer the question which troubled Simon all this while – of how it will be to grow old. Part of the answer we have learned from his songs. Another part may be in his letter, on reaching the end of his performing career. “Now I know,” he says, about how that feels: “It feels a little unsettling, a touch exhilarating, and something of a relief.”

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