Paul Simon’s affection for his ‘little town’

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  • Paul Simon onstage in 2016. Photo: Louise Palanker, via flickr

by Jon Friedman

Paul Simon has always had affection for New York City.

In “My Little Town,” he sang nostalgically about his upbringing in Queens. “The Only Living Boy in New York” made his feelings plain. “The Boxer” — my favorite Simon-penned song — was about a ragamuffin struggling to find a place in the urban jungle (was it Simon’s saga or the story of Bob Dylan? Did “the whores on Seventh Avenue,” refer to their Columbia Records label?) In “Overs,” he mused wittily, “There’s no times at all — just The New York Times.”

Simon made headlines the other day when he announced that he would no longer be touring, noting that he wanted to stay close to home with his family. It makes sense. After all, the man is going to turn 77 years old in October and it can’t be easy (or much fun) going any more from town to town. Simon made it clear that he still loves making music so, happily, he is not retiring completely,

When I read the news, I thought about my relationship to Paul Simon’s music over the years, both when he sang with his childhood pal Art Garfunkel in the 1960s and then after he went solo in the early 1970s.

The records hold up magnificently. I listen all the time to their album “Bookends” and continue to marvel at Simon’s brilliant songwriting and their harmonies. Simon reinvented himself as a soloist and achieved worldwide adulation for his landmark album “Graceland” in 1986.

Musically, Simon and Garfunkel impressively found room between The Beatles and Bob Dylan in the ‘60s for their brand of smart, sophisticated rock and roll music, starting with the enigmatic chart-topping hit “The Sounds of Silence” and continuing through “I Am a Rock,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Boxer,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

From the start, the media — needing a snappy journalistic peg and not wanting to play up the easy hook of Simon’s New York Jewishness — projected him as an intellectual rock star. You could picture his groupies presenting their Ivy League transcripts for his consideration (“Paul, I aced AP English, then I went to Brown University and I love Alice B. Toklas’ work!”).

On stage, you’d never confuse Simon with Prince or Mick Jagger. But I found him to be a charismatic performer, nonetheless. One of my favorite concerts of all time took place in November 1975 when Simon performed solo at Avery Fisher Hall. His terrific album “Still Crazy After All These Years” had just come out. A banner in the hall said, “Welcome Home, Paul!” And there was a feeling that our favorite son had come back in triumph.

So strong is Simon’s place in my life that I immediately conjure up memories to the shows I’ve seen. On Sept. 19, 1981, Simon and Garfunkel sang together in Central Park before a crowd of more than 100,000 ecstatic fans. (Make that 99,999 — after the show, I got my heart broken by a woman I was crazy about). In August 1991, Simon appeared solo in the Park and it was a magical show.

The most interesting Simon concert that I ever attended took place in July 1999. I’d always wondered what a Bob Dylan/Paul Simon bill would be like. When they picked and sang together that night at Madison Square Garden, it was epic. Apart, with their respective bands, the contrast between the two performers was noteworthy. Simon appeared in jeans and a baseball cap and, if I recall correctly, there was something of a light show during his set. Dylan came on in a dark suit and hardly connected with the audience.

On a personal level, it seems fitting that the only time I met Simon occurred in 2011 — during a rain delay at Yankee Stadium, the home of our beloved baseball team. And for the record, this tough, worldly journalist had a minor meltdown in Simon’s presence. “You’re Paul Simon!” I practically shouted. “Yes,” he replied, smiling.

His deadpan reply made perfect sense. He knows who he is and what he has accomplished. He doesn’t have to promote himself or stage contrived events for the media. Like all true success stories, Simon made his mark on his own terms.

Simon has stood up for New York when it needed his quiet dignity the most. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Simon went on “Saturday Night Live” to sing “The Boxer.” His calm, moving music particularly resonated during that scary time. David Bowie, fittingly, performed a version of Simon’s “America” to open the big post-9/11 Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden.

Now that he is (literally) leaving the stage, we should celebrate him anew. He has made lots of artistic, timely, brilliant music. He has shown respect and love for his little town.

Jon Friedman teaches journalism at Hunter College.

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