JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, from “The Sound of Silence” in the ’60s to “So Beautiful or So What” today.
Recently, I sat down with legendary songwriter and performer Paul Simon.
JEFFREY BROWN: On the title track of his new album, “So Beautiful or So What,” 69-year-old Paul Simon is still turning playful phrases and examining life through song.
JEFFREY BROWN: Several generations of fans have grown up memorizing Simon’s songs. So, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that, when he writes, it’s rhythms and sounds that usually come first, not the words.
PAUL SIMON, Musician: Somehow, when the sound seems to be correct in my imagination, the story can begin. I don’t know what I’m going to write when I begin to write. It feels like you are walking down a path, but you don’t — you can’t see around the bend and you don’t know where you are going to go, which is fun.
JEFFREY BROWN: By this point, of course, Paul Simon has iconic stature. In 2007, he was named the first winner of the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and he has Grammys and honors galore.
But he’s also still the kid from Queens who teamed up with his childhood friend Artie to form Simon & Garfunkel and produced songs that helped define an era. The duo split in 1970. And, from then on, Simon has recorded 12 solo albums.
He’s continued to make rock ‘n’ roll history with the likes of the 1986 album “Graceland,” recorded with South African musicians. His two mammoth concerts in New York’s Central Park, here in 1991, and one 10 years earlier with Garfunkel, drew hundreds of thousands.
The new album, recorded at his home studio in Connecticut, is filled with references to God and mortality, sometimes serious, as on “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” sometimes, as in “The Afterlife,” laced with humor, with heaven a bureaucratic nightmare.
JEFFREY BROWN: When we met recently during a tour stop at Washington’s DAR Constitution Hall, I asked Simon if the heavy subject matter just might be related to the fact that he’s about to hit 70.
PAUL SIMON: It’s more like 70 is about to hit me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?
PAUL SIMON: I suppose there’s a connection, but it wasn’t intentional.
I was surprised myself, after I had written the first six songs, that five of them seemed to have God or some reference, like, to Christmas, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.” I was surprised.
JEFFREY BROWN: You were surprised yourself?
PAUL SIMON: Yes. I wondered what was going on.
Part of what I write, I recognize as being related to somebody that I know or something that happened to me. And part of what I write, I don’t recognize until a long time passes. And then I say, oh, that’s what that was about.
JEFFREY BROWN: While Simon tours with an eight-piece band, several of the new songs, like “Questions for the Angels,” were written simply, with just a guitar, like the old days.
PAUL SIMON: Simon & Garfunkel songs, they were all written just with a guitar.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
PAUL SIMON: But they weren’t as rhythmic. A couple of them were. I mean, “Mrs. Robinson” was off that lick.
JEFFREY BROWN: The lick came first?
PAUL SIMON: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: “Mrs. Robinson” is, of course, just one of so many of Simon’s songs that evoke deep memories, even nostalgia, for millions of people.
So, I asked the man himself if he spends much time looking back to earlier days.
PAUL SIMON: Not really. If at all, it would be for prior to the ’60s. It would be for the ’50s. It would be for, you know, around the age of young teenage, 13 to 15, everything I heard then that I absorbed so thoroughly and completely.
JEFFREY BROWN: What comes to you about then?
PAUL SIMON: Oh, I just like see pictures of — mental pictures of myself and my neighborhood that I grew up in and — well, yesterday, I was coaching my son’s little league team. He’s just 13.
And he was playing center field.
Yes — which is where I used to play. And he kind of — he kind of looks like me at 13, you know, a little bit better-looking.
But — and there he was in center field. And it was so clear, the recollection.
JEFFREY BROWN: In “Rewrite,” one of the songs on his new album, Paul Simon creates a character who decides he’s going to go back and rewrite his own life story to make it all turn out better.
JEFFREY BROWN: We all have the desire at times, the song suggests, but, on this day, the songwriter says he’s content with how things have worked out.
PAUL SIMON: I wouldn’t rewrite. I wouldn’t change anything, even the mistakes, because you never know what you are changing. And change it for what? You know, things turned out pretty well. I mean, I really can’t complain about much.
JEFFREY BROWN: And do you still enjoy this, writing songs, making albums, getting out here on the road?
PAUL SIMON: Oh, yes. I’m very lucky. I’m very lucky that I really like, really enjoy it, always — and have. You know, it was what I wanted to be when I was 12. And I have remained that person, in a lot of ways.
JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Simon is on the road, playing songs new and old, around the world throughout the summer.