Paul Simon to call it a day

After finishing his concerts, musician Paul Simon plans to travel for a year.
After finishing his concerts, musician Paul Simon plans to travel for a year. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

The veteran musician says show business does not hold any interest for him

VIENNA, VIRGINIA • Paul Simon says he is ready to give up making and playing music, 61 years after he started as a 13-year-old.

"You're coming towards the end," he said in a recent interview, discussing the mysterious epiphanies that delivered some of his greatest songs, the toxic qualities of fame and his yearning to explore questions of spirituality and neuroscience.

"Showbiz doesn't hold any interest for me," he said. "None."

Here is why you might consider believing him.

At 74, he often needs 15 hours of sleep at a stretch.

The other day, performing in Philadelphia, he looked out from the stage and was surprised to see four mountains on the horizon. When he put on his glasses, he realised the mountains were actually big white tents.

His voice has held up far longer than he had any right to expect, but needs frequent days of rest.

While most stars of his generation are playing greatest hits concerts, if anything, his new album is competing with those of Drake and Beyonce on pop music charts and with Radiohead and Deerhoof for college radio airtime.

So Simon could leave the public stage with one last hit record and final memories of high-energy performances by his touring band, a collection of masterful musicians rooted in Latin America, Africa and the United States who are taking frisky, joyful turns with the Simon canon and his newest songs.

His North American tour comes to an end today and tomorrow in Forest Hills, Queens, where he grew up, went to school and met a boy named Art Garfunkel.

For his audience, at least, finishing the American chapter of his career in Queens, where he began, would be punctuation ripe with history and emotion. He insists that the place holds no sentimental power over him, but he did note that it was the last venue where he played with Garfunkel, from whom he is estranged, as he has sporadically been since they became adults.

"It's an act of courage to let go," Simon said. "I am going to see what happens if I let go. Then I'm going to see, who am I? Or am I just this person that was defined by what I did? And if that's gone, if you have to make up yourself, who are you?"

Maybe, he said, such inquiries are a waste.

Yet nothing about a day with Simon suggests a man ready to withdraw from the pursuits that have absorbed his life. Ahead of a concert on Monday evening at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap here, he kept his band on stage for two hours in the swampy afternoon heat, checking the sound and fine-tuning songs.

His new album, Stranger To Stranger, was released this spring into a shower of laudatory reviews. The album and a single, Wristband, have been among the top songs played on college radio.

He has a detailed genesis for each tune, lyrically and musically.

"I was having dinner with Paul Muldoon, the poet, and I said, I had this title I don't know whether I want to keep it, Wristband," Simon said. "He said, 'It's a good title. You could go a lot of places with that title, you should keep it.'"

Some time later, he got stuck while working on a lyric that involved a musician who steps into an alley behind a club and finds himself locked out, unable to regain entry without a wristband. "From out of nowhere, I said, wristband, it's just a metaphor for, 'You can't get in. You don't have what's required,'" Simon said. "And that's what is going on. That battle is being fought right now, the haves and have-nots."

His success in popular music covers six decades, giving him rare late-inning creative success. In 1957, when he was 15, he and Garfunkel, playing as Tom and Jerry, had a minor hit with Hey, Schoolgirl.

This year, Stranger To Stranger reached No. 1 on Billboard's lists for best-selling rock and Americana/ Folk albums. It could put him in the running yet again for a Grammy among musicians 40 years his junior. (He has already won three Grammys for Album of the Year.)

He labours at music and lyrics, he said, unwilling to accept what would have been satisfactory to him a few years earlier, feeling stalled. Then the songs will move ahead in leaps.

"I was 21, maybe 22, when I wrote The Sound Of Silence, which seems to me like quite a big jump from where I was before that," he said.

"And why or where, I have no idea. I thought the same thing when I wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water - whoa, that song is better than what I've been doing. Different chords and something special about it. The same feeling with Graceland and Still Crazy After All These Years."

The successes mystify him, he said. "All of a sudden, you're there and you're surprised. This happened to me at times where some line comes out, where I'm the audience and it's real and I have to stop because I'm crying. I didn't know I was going to say that, didn't know that I felt that, didn't know that was really true. I have to stop and catch my breath."

He paused, then added: "It doesn't happen too often."

With that gift came popularity, a bewildering force in anyone's life, he said. "I've seen fame turn into absolute poison when I was a kid in the 1960s. It killed Elvis Presley. It killed John Lennon. It killed Michael Jackson. I've never known anyone to have gotten an enormous amount of fame who wasn't, at a minimum, confused by it and had a very hard time making decisions."

He has a European tour scheduled for autumn, when he will turn 75. Then his vague plans are to drift and travel for a year, he said, perhaps with his wife, musician-composer Edie Brickell, if her work permits.

For now, he has started rehearsing songs for the last moments at Forest Hills, including an Elvis tune, That's All Right (Mama). And if that turns out to be a finale, that is all right by him.

"I don't have any fear of it," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2016, with the headline 'Paul Simon to call it a day'. Print Edition | Subscribe