The best measure of a pop song is when it is stripped down to a singer and a guitar. No gimmicks, no gadgetry, no studio effects. The greatest songs transcend their element; they can stand naked. And over the course of three days at Emory University, including an acoustic concert Tuesday evening at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, Paul Simon proved more than worthy of his status as popular music’s greatest American songwriter alongside Bob Dylan.
Selected to give this year’s Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, Simon gave three talks, including one Sunday afternoon on the craft of songwriting, and closed the series with the performance in Emerson Concert Hall.
The Ellmann series is usually reserved for literary heavyweights — Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood are among past lecturers — and Simon is the first “non-traditional” writer selected for it. “Song is the most social form of literature,” said Joseph Skibell, professor of English and creative writing at Emory and director of the Ellmann Lectures. “From the dawn of civilization, great literature has been sung. And Paul Simon’s songs are great literature.”
Tuesday’s sold-out show in the intimate Emerson Hall featured Simon accompanied by guitarist, cellist and harmony vocalist Mark Stewart. The concert opened with a slow, haunting version of “The Sound of Silence.” In his Sunday lecture, Simon, 71, said that he was 21 when he wrote the song, which was inspired by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was playing guitar in the darkness at his parents’ house when the opening lyrics came to him. “ ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’ was not a metaphor,” Simon quipped.
As he fingerpicked the famous opening lick Tuesday evening, two things were immediately evident: Simon is a masterful rhythm guitarist, and this concert had the promise of being something very special. Next came a laconic, Cajun-flavored “Slip Sliding Away,” followed by an energetic “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”
Because Simon has his own enormous body of impressive work, it came as a surprise when he chose to depart from it. A loud murmur rose from the crowd when it heard the opening notes of George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun.” In that moment, the performance seemed to transform. It took on the relaxed feeling of sitting in Paul Simon’s living room and listening to him jam with Stewart, playing his own music but also other songs he loves. That feeling only grew when “Hearts and Bones” segued into Simon’s pitch-perfect rendition of Scotty Moore’s classic riff that opens “Mystery Train,” one of the first songs recorded by Elvis Presley.
Simon was joined onstage by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who sang a verse of “Mystery Train,” and Andy Teirstein, a member of the Ellmann Lectures selection committee and a composer and performer who is on the faculty of the Tisch School of the Arts in New York, on harmonica and violin.
They stayed onstage as the “Mystery Train” lick segued into the intro to “Mrs. Robinson.” Singing background vocals was Becky Herring, events manager for the Schwartz Center, and Skibell joined in on guitar. After the medley, Simon joined arms with the others and bowed, then briefly walked off before he returned to perform “The Boxer.”
Simon’s lyrics are so complex that it was only natural that he’d get tongue-tied at some point, and it happened on “The Boxer,” when he had to hum the opening line before the words came to him. He followed that with a moving version of “American Tune,” a song about working-class alienation and the struggle to keep up; it’s a song that perhaps resonates even more today than it did when he wrote it 40 years ago.
It was an amazing concert, unlike any other Paul Simon performance one will ever see, but here’s the rub: it barely lasted 45 minutes. Even another 15 minutes — three or four more songs — would’ve made it feel complete. Instead, most of the audience stood outside waiting in line longer than the actual concert they were waiting to see.
Of special note was the sound quality in Emerson Hall; it was breathtakingly good, which felt like a karmic do-over for the dismal sound during Simon’s lecture in Glenn Memorial Auditorium on Sunday afternoon. The ill-suited microphone and P.A. set-up often reduced his voice to a mumble, which was unfortunate because Simon spoke candidly and often eloquently about his songs and the songwriting process.
His talk was not without humor. He quipped that the woman he loved when he lived in England for two years, who inspired “Kathy’s Song” and was his muse early in his career, had recently emailed him to announce that she’d just become a grandmother.
Simon noted that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” will most likely be the first song mentioned in his obituary. “It was 1969, a spring evening, and I was sitting in my apartment playing my guitar,” he said. “It came so easily that it almost felt like somebody dictated it to me.” He added the third verse in the studio because then-partner Art Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee “wanted the recording to be epic.”
Simon’s landmark Graceland album represented a major change in the way he constructed songs. Typically, he did what everyone else did: he went into the studio with a few songs he’d written, worked up arrangements with the musicians, and then recorded. With Graceland, inspired by the music of South Africa, he recorded the tracks before he wrote the lyrics. “That was the first time I did an entire album backwards,” he said. “There was music where no song existed.”
To illustrate, he played a recording of the track that eventually became “Graceland,” and then the drum track alone. In its original form, it featured an accordion and had a zydeco feeling. “I didn’t like the song, only the drum track,” he said. One day in the studio, he played the drum track for the South African musicians who performed on the album, and bassist Bakithi Kumalo came up with a lick that Simon described as “Soweto meets Memphis.” And the arrangement took off from there.
But Simon had no lyrics, just a working title, “Graceland.” The song wasn’t supposed to be about Elvis Presley, yet the title stuck with him. Then he made a drive up Highway 61 in Mississippi, the cradle of the blues. “I finally decided I needed to go to Graceland,” he said. “I was on Highway 61, driving from Louisiana to Memphis. That opening line just came to me.”
Simon was candid about his fear that his songwriting well is drying up; he said he has written only two songs in the past three and a half years. He also faces his own harshest critic, himself. “There’s a shrill, arrogant inner voice that often blocks my pathways,” he said. “It says, ‘That’s not true.’ And ‘This song sucks.’ And ‘Someone else already said that.’ ”
At first, he meekly accedes to the inner voice: “Yes, you’re right, all my stuff sucks.” Then he bucks up and fights back: “Who the fuck are you? Where did you come from? What credentials do you have? Nothing? So, you are only a critic.”
Even when he wins the verbal battle, songs now come slowly. “If you’re a songwriter for life, your reservoir of melodies will dry out,” he said. “But I will continue to write.”
At the end of Tuesday’s concert, Skibell walked to the microphone with something in a large frame. He reminded the audience that the late Richard Ellmann, who taught at Emory from 1980 to 1987, wrote the definitive biography of Irish writer James Joyce. He turned the frame around to reveal a photograph of Joyce playing a guitar.
Simon was visibly moved by the gesture. “You have no idea how cool this is,” he said. He waved and walked offstage, as the crowd clamored for another encore that never came.