Goodbye Paulie, King of Corona

Paul Simon’s farewell chronicled the beauty, and death, of American togetherness

Paul Simon bids farewell from the concert stage for the very last time. Photo by PSquared

The final night of Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” ‘farewell tour,’ held this past Saturday in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park just miles from where he grew up, was more than another momentous retirement show. Experienced as a sweeping, two and a half hour metaphor-laden narrative from one of our country’s most gifted songwriters, the night came on as a profound meditation on death, beauty and the spirit of  American togetherness.

Maybe it was that this final show took place on the first night of Autumn, but despite its many moments of jubilation, Simon cast the finality of this performance in a powerfully mournful blue light, no matter how final it may ultimately prove to be (Simon has said he’s still open the occasional one-off).

Like so many elder millennials, Simon and Garfunkel were standard issue fodder for my baby boomer parents. Their songs taught me about seduction before I’d ever see The Graduate, and they taught me what “groovy” meant, too. Their idea of wanderlust as expressed in “America”, meanwhile, was a slightly more digestible journey for a toddler than the truckin’ misadventures of The Grateful Dead, homage and elegy at the same time, a erudite chronicle of post-beatified reconnection with this land and its once endless wonders.

Simon and his fantastic band opened with “America” that night before launching into the many classics from his decades-long solo career. Performed next to the structural relics of Philip Johnson’s New York State Pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair, though, “America’s” depiction of this country’s natural majesty and a life with freedom to roam sounded all the more bittersweet. That same year, when the World’s Fair took over the park with its promise of universal utopia and futuristic optimis, Simon and Garfunkel released their debut album.

On this final night of Simon’s final tour, Garfunkel was off on a tour of his own, recently speaking about how their relationship again remains frosty and potentially irreparable. Those architectural marvels of the 1964 World’s Fair , meanwhile, continue to corrode and remind us, however subtly, that in today’s hyper-segmented society, there may never be another such grand celebration of universal togetherness again.

In the crowd, a similar awareness of mortality set in. Someone on Twitter joked about a bar at the show selling dietary supplement Geritol instead of tequila, and a friend remarked on how that final show marked her first time seeing a hemorrhoid pillow out in the wild.

No jokes could wash over the reality that the crowd turned up en masse, many of whom waited from doors at 5 and stood between then and the show’s conclusion at 10, skewed older. When an elderly man collapsed on the floor in front of me, convulsing during Simon’s “Dazzling Blue” and staying unconscious throughout the next song, “Rewrite,” this became starkly clear.

Having suddenly lost my mother five months prior, watching this man collapse on the ground felt particularly foreboding, and lingered after the EMTs came to hydrate him, ease him back into consciousness and escort him away from the music. The mood picked up again when Simon launched into an especially spirited “Mother and Child Reunion,” but that song had taken on a different meaning. Though it was written about Simon’s strained relationship with his mother, his words nevertheless took on the context of death in the still-raw immediacy of my loss.

Then, two songs into his portion of the set with New York orchestral ensemble yMusic that featured arrangements of old songs from his final, recently released In the Blue Light, Simon announced that the next song was one he had not played for years prior to this tour. Without once mentioning Garfunkel by name, Simon explained that he was taking the tune, which he wrote, back for himself, calling it his “lost child. He then launched into “Bridge over Troubled Water”, singing Garfunkel’s words in a quivering, delicate recitation.

This was my parent’s wedding song. While their constant Simon and Garfunkel rotations turned me on to much of the music, “Bridge” remained a maudlin, saccharine curio to this little kid those 25 years ago. Where was the trademark guitar interplay? Why did the song sound so ornate and produced when the duo proved they could make magic with so much less? It wasn’t until losing Mom this year when the profound beauty, and sadness, of “Bridge” first bloomed in my brain.

Beauty because of how its words about unconditional devotion its come-to-god climax of piano string swells perfectly encapsulate a loving union that lasts through time itself; Sadness because codependency can prove disingenuous— the “silver girl” Simon wrote about–his first wife, Peggy Harper–would soon fade into obscurity, only defined through his lens and his history.

“When evening falls so hard/I will comfort you,” now rang less as the lyrics of marital devotion and instead as a reflection of my fiancé’s unwavering support for me after mom died. “I’ll take your part, oh, when darkness comes/And pain is all around.”

Similarly, if the sentiment of this wedding song still holds true, my dad now must be his own bridge. The devotion expressed in this song rejects a more modern idea about self love, which is that, before you truly can give yourself to another person and make them your bridge over troubled water, you’ve got to find your own passage. Now that my mom is gone, we’re all still learning how to make our own way. It’s a slow trip.

That said, the idea of this song being the one that Simon considered his “lost child” to take back also seemed betray its sentiment. After all, a successful creative partnership is not dissimilar to a marriage, built on the same foundations of trust, love and compromise that allow either a song or a child to be born. Whether that partnership ends through death or ego, any subsequent reflections on togetherness will always pit the sadness of futility against the beauty of eternal devotion.

Watching Simon deliver this achingly beautiful, vulnerable version of “Bridge” made me wonder if he thought about any of this while bidding the song farewell without Garfunkel, just as the ex-wife he wrote it for was similarly sequestered in his past.

Half of Graceland later, the show came to a close with an acoustic-heavy second encore. As the expected “Homeward Bound” played, a montage of photos and memories flashed on-screen that only displayed one shot of him with Garfunkel for a few seconds. Simon had peppered the evening with charming nods to his upbringing and life (bringing out his wife, Edie Brickell, to rock the whistle on “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard,” playing catch with the audience), but despite all the moments when Simon seemed genuinely moved that we were all together, during “Homeward Bound” he truly seemed alone.

Just as he’d done on prior nights of the tour, Simon launched into a solo performance of another Rhymin’ Simon classic, “American Tune,” with a rhetorical question, “Strange times, huh?” before taking a beat and saying, “Don’t give up.” It was a strangely poignant moment, poignant as a prelude to the song he would launch into, and strange because the moment of genuine connection was recited verbatim at multiple other nights on the tour.

“American Tune” similarly looks at both the artifice and resilience of this country in the midst of strange times. Supposedly written as a reaction to Nixon taking office, Simon is at once writing about his home from across the pond and using the “I” voice to personify America itself. “And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease,” he sang. “I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/Or driven to its knees.”

While cataloguing his weariness and dreaming that he is dying, “American Tune” simultaneously describes Simon’s reasons for retiring from touring along with the exhaustion that plagues Americans in this age of broken politics, divisive rhetoric and today’s ever-accelerating news of distraction.

“It means more than you can know,” said Simon after finishing “Sound of Silence” solo at the borough where he grew up. The crowd cheered under the blue light that Simon cast, next to those aging World’s Fair structures, grateful to be together with him one last time.

 

Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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