Do you listen to the new albums as they come out by your ’60s peers?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I thought “Love And Theft” was an interesting album. I like to listen to Dylan, to find out what’s on his mind or what he’s hiding. But I don’t analyse what those guys are doing so much as listen to them to see what they’re up to. I listened to Neil’s album, Le Noise. I didn’t enjoy it as much as other stuff of Neil’s. You know a songwriter I like a lot, I don’t think this will be a surprise to you, and who has a lot of similarities to me, is Randy Newman.
There are a couple of tracks on the new album, actually, whose sardonic bleakness reminded me of him.
Well, Randy Newman doesn’t have the copyright on sardonic bleakness. I’ve been there before. But I do like that in him and he is the funniest of those writers. His songwriting is also very compositional. And when he gets emotional it’s particularly emotional because he’s so intelligent and cynical.
What was the extent of your ambition when you started writing songs? Would you have been happy just making a living as a songwriter or did you have a larger ambition to leave your mark on the times?
When I started, I just wanted to have a record on the radio. Artie and I were thrilled when the little song we made when we were like, 15, became kind of a hit. That’s really all I thought about. I just wanted that to go on. I wasn’t thinking about how you made a hit record, they were just coming naturally. It all seemed so easy. You made an album, you wrote 10 or 11 songs and three of them were hit singles.
At some point, obviously, your ambition matured…
I wouldn’t really describe it as my ambition. What happened was I started to become a better writer. From Bookends on there aren’t too many really bad songs. There’s a whole bunch of songs that are forgettable, but there aren’t too many real stinkers.
But I wasn’t thinking about making a mark. I never thought of myself as an artist until I was in my forties. That was the first time I said, “I am an artist. That doesn’t mean I’m a good artist. It just means I have a certain personality. I keep making up things.” That seemed to me what an artist did.
Was that a sudden thought you had or did it creep up on you a bit?
I was always uncomfortable with being called a poet or an artist, whatever. I was real uncomfortable with that.
Well, I didn’t grow up in an artistic environment. My father was a working musician. My parents grew up during the Depression, in the ’30s. So things were harsh. It was all about surviving, having a job and taking care of the family. He didn’t want me to be a professional musician. He didn’t think it was a good idea. And there was nobody in my neighbourhood that was an artist.
But by the time I was in my forties, I realised that being called an artist didn’t mean that you were a good artist or a great artist. It just meant that you made your living out of creating. And that’s what I’d been doing all my life. At that point, I began to understand that I had a certain place in the broader scheme of things because of the work I’d done and continued to do. And as you get older, if you don’t die or fade away, you become legendary. But being a legend doesn’t mean anything other than that you’re old.
The incredible success that came with Bridge Over Troubled Water, did you find that liberating or confining?
At the time I thought it was liberating. In retrospect, I would say the entire experience of being famous was restrictive. I never thought of those restrictions as a penalty until way later. I was so busy learning my craft and going from being a middle-class kid to being wealthy, from being anonymous to being famous. All of this stuff is so big to handle, that when I look back I think, well, that’s why a lot of relationships didn’t work out. I didn’t have enough time to pay attention to anybody else.
Nobody taught me how to pay attention. Nobody told me my priorities were all wrong. And the penalty I paid for that is a typical penalty. You can see people who pay an enormous price for fame when they’re young and they burn up. My generation had an incredible role model not to follow and that was Elvis Presley. You may have wanted to be Elvis Presley, but you don’t want to die at age 42, looking like he looked. You have to hand it to Paul McCartney, who I think has had an enormous amount of fame but handles it in such a way that he seems to have a relatively normal life, for someone’s who’s one of the most famous people on the planet. He’s not in any danger of self-destruction, by any means.
Have you gone through any notably self-destructive periods?
I think there were times I probably overdid it with the usual things, the usual rock’n’roll indulgences. Fortunately, I don’t have an addictive personality. So I didn’t have to go through the process of rehab or whatever to stop when I realised what I was doing wasn’t really good for me. It was just giving me a lot of misinformation, basically, exaggerating everything. Making me feel I was better than I was, distorting everything. Making something seem like it was the greatest thing that ever happened to you, when it was actually all shit.
I had to go back and rethink everything when I stopped all that, re-examine what I thought about a lot of things. That’s part of fame, as well. It feeds you a lot of misinformation, things become distorted. People like you for no really good reason, people who don’t even know you. People dislike you for no really good reason, people who don’t know you. It’s not good for you. Fame and what comes with it can be very destructive if you don’t find a way to handle it, if you lose sight of yourself, which is very easy to do.
Your commercial success carried on after Simon & Garfunkel split, with your first three solo albums and hits like “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”, “Still Crazy After All These Years”, “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”. Then there was the failure at the box office of One Trick Pony, the movie you wrote, directed and starred in, and the soundtrack didn’t do too well, either. How did you react to that?
I thought that, actually, was liberating. People weren’t paying such close attention to what I was doing and I was able to go off and do Graceland. I didn’t have to justify that to anyone. If anyone by then was paying attention to what I was doing they would have told me I was crazy. But no-one seemed to expect anything of me.
Were you at a low ebb in your life and work just prior to Graceland?
I was getting used to the fact that I hadn’t had a hit for a while.
Was that in itself a shock to the system, after the years of uninterrupted success? I mean, up to that point did you basically think that anything you did would be a hit because you’d had so many of them?
Yes. I’d have to say I did. But I wouldn’t describe not having a hit as a shock to the system. That’s too strong a phrase. Because I was surprised at a lot of the hits I’d had and didn’t know what made them hits. I would never have guessed that “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” would be No 1.