Sometimes adults between the ages of 45-65 will ask me (with wonder) how I became such a huge fan of 1960s-1970s rock, pop, Motown, and folk. I tell them it was due largely in part to my parents and my youth advisers during my middle and high school years. And the music they passed onto me reflected a unique transition that was occurring in the culture at the time. When I was 12, my parents bought a new stereo that converted vinyl albums and cassettes (the cooler and more efficient music medium of the day) to recordable cassettes, also known as blank tapes. I remember my parents pulling out their entire vinyl collection–which included The Beatles, Elvis, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Allman Brothers, James Taylor, Jim Croce, The Temptations, The Supremes, Three Dog Night, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Diamond, and Simon & Garfunkel–to record everything onto cassette so we could listen to in the car or portable stereos. Some of my best memories are from the time my parents spent converting the hundreds of songs from those shiny black discs onto tapes.
Unlike current music converting methods, you had no choice to listen to the entire album as it recorded onto a cassette, and that was all right because it gave you an appreciation for what the artist was trying to convey to the listener from start to finish. And, of course, it was a lot of fun. Singing, dancing and discovering new songs–of love, joy, sorrow, redemption, heartache, hope. Of all the albums we listened to and recorded, the two that had the most impact on me was Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits (1972) and Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits (1977).
I felt such deep connections to the songs on those albums, to the profoundly prophetic poetry in each line and note. Simon’s voice was comforting and wise, discerning and wistful, joyful and lamenting. I listened to those albums on cassette tape over and over again and my youth advisers at Shades Valley Presbyterian in Birmingham played them (and others like Van Morrison and Cat Stevens whose art also made an impression) during evening youth group and on youth retreats.
It was pretty common for youth to listen to music from the 60s and 70s because several musicians like Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Elton John and Paul McCartney were in the midst of incredible solo careers and bands like Aerosmith were cranking out rockin albums for a new generation. And all were making some of the first ever music videos for MTV, which was still in its infant stages as a TV station, art form and launching board for musicians–young and old.
The resurgence of popularity for the voices of the 60s and 70s garnered more attention with the invention of the compact disc which perfectly captured the quality of the original recording and made it a lot easier to get from one track to the next or repeat a song without pressing those durn fast forward and rewind buttons just to get to the right spot on the album.
Cd’s opened me up to more music in general, particularly Paul Simon’s solo career. The first two cd’s I ever owned (birthday presents when I turned 16 in 1991) were Live Rhymin (1974) a spectacular album with Lady Smith Black Mambazo; Graceland (1986), Simon’s quintessential masterpiece of rock, folk and traditional African music. A phenomenal album that every music lover should own. I soon added to my collection Live in Central Park (1982) the reunion of Simon & Garfunkel in their hometown, one of the best live albums ever made; Rhythm of the Saints (1990), a wonderful album where Simon incorporates the sounds of Brazilian artists; and Paul Simon-Concert In The Park (1991). I remember vividly watching this live performance broadcast on HBO at my paternal grandparents’ home in Pensacola, Florida that summer of 1991 (in which I spent my days working at their restaurant/car-wash/convenience store business and helping my grandma take care of my grandfather who was dealing with the aftermath of a massive stroke he had 3 years earlier).
Rhymin‘ Simon’s songs continued to speak to me and my friends and our life as teenagers. I’ll never forget my first Montreat Youth Conference as a high school freshman, mostly because that year’s theme in the summer of 91 was the S&G hit “Homeward Bound” which was played at the beginning of every keynote and worship. The song was also used by the conference speakers to make a connection with Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son in The Gospel of Luke. This marked the first time I began to see the strong link to faith and pop culture.
Simon’s body of work,which now spans nearly 50 years, speaks even louder to me as an adult, husband, pastor and father. And yet despite all the love and fond memories I have for Simon’s music, I had never seen him perform live. (I heard him once with other friends in youth group, standing outside Oak Mountain Amphitheater for an hour so as not to break the early 9 pm Friday night curfew. My dad wouldn’t let me buy a ticket to go the concert for reasons that still befuddle me today. It was Paul Simon and not Motley Crew or 2LiveCrew. Anyway, the experience wasn’t quite what I had hoped for, but it was the best I could get.)
For various reasons, I missed future opportunities to catch Paul Simon in concert over the years and though that I might never get to hear and see him play the songs that helped shape me. That changed Saturday evening when Elizabeth and I (as part of our Christmas-Valentine’s-April 3, 2004 Anniversary Gift to one another) went to see Paul Simon open the summer concert season at Chastain Amphitheater.
And man, does Paul Simon still got it…and more. Whereas Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Steven Tyler and AC/DC are showing their age, Simon’s voice and playing is as smooth as ever. The music never sounded old and tired and the tracks he played off his latest release (which hit shelves earlier this month) So Beautiful Or So What were reminders, as much as the new album itself, that Simon still knows how to magically whip up a memorable and honest heart-felt rhyme. And Paul Simon has the rare ability to take the audience on a roller coaster ride of tunes, a slow tempo on the guitar at one turn and then up-beat percussion and sax on the next as is evident by the set-list:
1. Crazy Love Vo. 11 (Graceland, 1986): She says she knows about jokes/This time the joke is on me/Well, I have no opinion about that/And I have no opinion about me… I don’t ant no part of this crazy love/I don’t want no part of your love
2. Dazzling Blue (So Beautiful Or So What, 2011): A beautiful gem about love, relationships and marriage. Truth or lie, the silence is revealing/An empty sky, a hidden mound of stone/But the CAT scan’s eye sees what the heart’s concealing/Now-a-days, when everything is known. What a terrific turn of phrase and imagery “the CAT scan’s eye sees what the heart’s concealing.” Simon has a gift for words.
3. 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover (Still Crazy After All These Years, 1975): This is when the place started smiling and groovin. And how can one not while singing There must be fifty ways to leave your lover/You just slip out the back Jack/Make a new plan, Stan/You don’t need to be coy, Roy/Just get yourself free/Hop on the bus, Gus/You don’t need to discuss much/Just drop off the key, Lee/And get yourself free.
4. So Beautiful Or So What (So Beautiful Or So What, 2011) One of Simon’s trademark jazzy numbers with a hot-sauce kick of a message. The song became more captivating by the image that flashed on the screen behind the band when Simon sang:
Four men on the balcony/Overlooking the parking lot/Pointing at a figure inthe distance/Dr. King has just been shot/And the sirens long melody/Singing Savior Pass Me Not/Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant/How we seek out bad advice/How we jigger it and figure it/Mistaking value for the price/And play a game with time and love/Like a pair of rolling dice/So beautiful…So beautiful…So beautiful.
5. Slip Sliding Away (Still Crazy After All These Years, 1975):
A perfect blend of poetry and music. Slip slidin’ away/Slip slidin’ away/You know the nearer your destination the more you’re slip slidin’ away…God only knows/God makes his plan/The information’s unavailable to the mortal man/We’re working our jobs, collect our pay/Believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.
6. Vietnam by Jimmy Cliff
7. Mother and Child Reunion (Paul Simon, 1972): One of the best Jamaican songs not written by a Jamaican.
8. That Was Your Mother (Graceland, 1986)
9. Heart and Bones (Hearts and Bones, 1983)
10. Freight Train by Peter, Paul and Mary
11. Rewrite (So Beautiful Or So What, 2011). A poignant tune about a retired and down-on-his-luck Vietnam vet working at a carwash who prays and dreams about changing or rewriting his life. Yeah I’m workin’ on my rewrite, all right/Gonna change my ending/Throw away the title/Toss it in the trash.
12. Peace Like A River (Paul Simon, 1972)
13. Obvious Child (Rhythm Of The Saints, 1990): In the April issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, Simon shares how he creates the music first and the lyrics, second. It couldn’t be any clearer the case than on this tune in which the drums drive the narrative from start to finish. I’m also particularly fond of this song because it was a part of a mix Cd that Amy V., the late Kathy P. and I listened to as we drove to Panama City, Florida for a High School Youth Retreat at Gulftreat Camp and Conference Center. This is a great tap your hands on the driving-wheel-dash-board-back seat kind of song.
14. Only Living Boy In New York (Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1970): A song forever associated with the terrific 2004 film Garden State, which Elizabeth suggested we should watch again this week.
15. Love Is Eternal Sacred Light (So Beautiful Or So What, 2011): Enough said. It doesn’t get any more beautiful and true than that.
16. Father and Daughter (Surprise, 2006): No surprise that the dad of the prettiest 3-year-old daughter in the world loves this song. Katie girl, I’m gonna watch you shine/Gonna watch you grow/Gonna paint a sign/So you’ll always know/As long as one and one is two/There could never be a father/who loved his daughter more than I love you.
17. Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes (Graceland, 1986). This song alone is why going to a concert is fun.
18. Gumboots (Graceland, 1986)
19. The Sound of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel’s Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, 1964). The video is shaky so just close your eyes and listen to the best live version of one of the 10 greatest songs ever written.
20. Kodachrome (There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, 1976): A line that rings so true for all of us, then and now. When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all/And though the lack of education hasn’t hurt me none/I can read the writing on the wall
21. Gone At Last (Still Crazy After All These Years, 1975)
22. Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles (performed with George Harrison on Saturday Night Live, Nov. 20, 1976) A spiritual man singing a hope-filled song written by a spiritual man. Divine.
23. Late In The Evening (One Trick Pony, 1980)
24. Still Crazy After All These Years (Still Crazy After All These Years, 1975)
25. Boy In The Bubble (Graceland, 1986)
After an experience like this what is there about Paul Simon that is not to love…