Crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to hear Paul Simon in conversation with Paul Muldoon, I became ensnared in the Polish Day parade (floats, cheer leaders et al). So when I finally arrived, the only seats were in the back row. For the first time all weekend, I felt a flash of irritation with the Festival organisers. If you’re going to bring giants to town, then for God’s sake put them in venues with raked seating, so everyone can see.
But if my view was limited (I got the occasional glimpse of Simon’s close-cropped silver hair), the sound was faultless, and I was mesmerised to hear, for the first time in person, a voice I’ve known nearly all my life. And not just a voice.
Next to Simon was his guitar, and he reached for it when he needed to illustrate what he was saying, just as a long-married man might turn to his spouse to help him complete a sentence.
Paul Muldoon, poetry editor of the New Yorker—paunchy, shaggy-looking, and replete with Irish fluency and charm—began by asking Simon about his early days, kicking about with "Arty" Garfunkel when they were both 11, writing their first song, "The Girl for Me", when they were just 13 (Simon’s father, a bass player, wrote out the words for the boys on a piece of paper, now in the archives of the Library of Congress).
This was 1950s America, and whites and blacks were just beginning to share a culture. "It made song lyrics very tentative," Simon explained.
Simon: "Yeah. OK. But beneath those lyrics were sex and drugs and gangs—just not spoken."
Lyrics came easily to Simon in those early days. "When you’re young, whatever you say is fine because you don’t know anything," he posited. It's the "yin and yang of experience" that makes the creative process more complex.
And it was the creative process that Muldoon really wanted to nail him on. How did he set about song-writing? When, driving to Graceland, he saw the Mississippi delta "shining like a national guitar", where did that image come from?
Simon’s answer, in essence, was that the whole thing was a mystery—and that was "part of the joy". But he shone one or two rays of light on it too. As a boy, he used to walk along with his head down, in case there was a dime on sidewalk. "And then one day I found a dollar. So you see you have to be always looking."
He keeps a notebook in which he jots down phrases that intrigue him. The song "Darling Lorraine" started with four words—"the sin of impatience"—that came to him out of the blue. It became a tragic song, and Simon confessed that he'd wept writing it. "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader," Muldoon responded approvingly, quoting Robert Frost. The song "Mother and Child Reunion", meanwhile, had taken its title from a dish of that name he'd been served in a Chinese restaurant—a dish composed entirely of chicken and egg.
Great hilarity at this, and Simon joined in the laughter. But one had the definite impression that he was essentially serious, a man of restless intelligence, still searching after all these years.
We'd been promised a treat before we left, and we got one. Slinging his guitar round him, Simon picked out the first, unmistakable notes of "The Sound of Silence". The audience erupted, then hushed. Singing in that pure, soft, questing voice that has beguiled the world for nearly half a century, he transported me straight back to late childhood. Forget my gripes about the venue. I’d have crossed the Atlantic for this moment alone.