Paul Simon: “I knew I’d never make another Bridge Over Troubled Water”

The songwriter on Garfunkel, Graceland and being ignored by Bob Dylan

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There’s a dramatic and unexpected reference on “So Beautiful Or So What” to the assassination of Martin Luther King. How did that get into the song?
It’s like painting. You don’t know what you’re going to do when you get to a certain place on the canvas. Then it reveals itself when you do it. The verse came I didn’t know from where and then it seemed to fit perfectly; he was one of the great people who said that life is beautiful, it’s not so what. He recognised our potential as human beings, what at our best we can be capable of, what life can be, an extraordinary place for everyone, as long as it is genuinely for everyone. But if I hadn’t been able to come up with a reason for him to be there, I would have taken him out.

It’s the same thing in “Questions For The Angels”, where all of a sudden Jay-Z appears in the middle of this dreamy, questioning song. A few years ago they were doing a month of my music at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I would sing a song or two every night and so I would drive out to Brooklyn, and as you came over the Brooklyn Bridge there was this billboard with Jay-Z on it. That’s how it came to be in the song, which started with just the guitar and those changes and then I think the first line – “A pilgrim on a pilgrimage walked across the Brooklyn Bridge.” I thought that was a good first line. You know, where’s he going? I just have to follow him, see what he’s up to.

When I listen to songs and I know where they’re going and they go there, I don’t like it. I find that boring at this time in my life, after writing hundreds of songs. I like it if I can follow the whole song and it stays interesting.


When you wrote the first three songs, did you have a clear idea what this album would be about, what you wanted to say on it?
No. I don’t usually have a clear idea of what the album is until I’ve written somewhere around six to eight songs. That’s when I begin to see the work as a complete work. I still think of albums as a complete work. But I don’t plan, I don’t have a theme.

I was very surprised that five out of the first six songs I wrote all had had something about God in them. To me, it didn’t really mean anything. It wasn’t like I was spending a lot of time thinking about this, but maybe subconsciously I was. My first thought was, people will think that I’m really into questions about my spiritual being or mortality, which wouldn’t have been a lie, but I didn’t set out to explore it.

So there was no predetermined theme that you wrote songs to articulate?
No. Part of what I like about the process is that I don’t know where it’s going. I get pleasure from the discovery. It just sort of goes and I just sort of trail along. Sometimes I influence it, because I keep notes in a book, phrases. Like the title of the album, it was on the first page of my notes. “Everything is so beautiful or so what.” But that was the last song I wrote. So I didn’t come around to picking up that phrase and using it until the end and then I thought that was a pretty good question to put on top of this pile of songs.


There are a lot of questions about belief in them, questions about God and spirituality.
And it sort of came down to, either you think life is an incredible gift or it’s no big deal. To a zebra, would they care if the whole human species disappeared? Of course they wouldn’t. What a gift! You can’t imagine them saying, “Did you hear what happened to the human race, what a bummer!”

Do you think it’s part of man’s arrogance that he thinks he’ll be missed if he wasn’t here?
Yes, no question. We’re an arrogant species. We have our admirable traits, but we’re also garbage makers. We make a mess of things. In “Love And Hard Times”, like God says, “These people are slobs”.

That’s a pretty harsh view of mankind, isn’t it?
Harsh? No, absolutely not. Look what we did to the planet. We ruined the planet. Take away the human beings and all their inventions and all the stuff we’ve made and the mess we make and you’ve got a much cleaner planet. It would be a lot healthier than it is right now. Would life be better for a zebra without mankind? Absolutely. Would it be better for the trees? Absolutely.

Where would you place yourself in the pantheon of popular songwriters?
I don’t have to do that.

You must have an opinion.
Not at the top.

How close?
It varies.

The album was largely recorded at your own demo studio and self-financed.
Yes, right. I really wanted to get off Warner Bros. I didn’t think they understood what I was doing on the last couple of albums. They just wanted me to make hit singles, which is not really possible for me. It would be a fluke if I had a hit single. I don’t make that kind of music anymore.

It had become very frustrating. Whether or not you achieve what you set out to achieve, when you put years of work into something and it’s released and it sinks beneath the waves, it’s frustrating. But you know, somebody hears it, gets what you’ve done. It’s never entirely lost. It just doesn’t sell millions. And I think that’s age-appropriate, really. What I’m thinking about now and what I’m talking about is really not for a huge audience. It would be unusual to find anybody at my age who is selling enormous amounts of records to the record-buying public.

Do you think there’s a chance that the new album will speak to a younger generation or will it merely sell to the audience that grew up with you?
Both, I’d like to think. Maybe not equally. A lot of people from the ’60s have stopped listening to music. They got bored or don’t listen to anything but the old music. I do know that there’s quite a few people in their twenties, young musicians who are listening. Everybody’s wants to have a role model, some guidance. The handful of people of my generation that have survived are, for better or worse, role models. People will look at us and go, “Well, I don’t want to turn out like that.” Or, “I’d like to turn out like that.” At least we’re here to be observed and seen, because for rock’n’roll, the first generation disappeared except as mythic figures, but few of them evolved.

But the struggle of Dylan and the Stones and McCartney and Neil and all the others is to see the possibility of talent continuing to evolve, as is the case in other arts. Nobody says you should stop painting when you’re 60. Nobody says you should stop writing novels when you’re 60. Nobody says that BB King should stop playing the blues. So The Rolling Stones go out there and people call them dinosaurs and they say, “What are you talking about? We’re reinventing what you can do at our age and if you don’t like it, OK, but don’t try to stop us.”

I don’t really have a whole lot of choice about what it is I do, because my mind keeps doing this. That’s what I am, and if the work is valued in any way, that’s great. If it isn’t then someone else will make that donation. The public will always find the artists it needs.

I’m just an artist, because that’s my personality trait, a characteristic of how my brain works. I can’t figure out a lot of things, I’m not a computer scientist. This is who I am. This is what I do. I make up songs and I try to make them as interesting as possible. Stand back and just let me get on with it.


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