After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same,” Paul Simon philosophizes in a slightly revised version of “The Boxer,” a number about eternal human struggle that’s perhaps the finest song he wrote while he and Art Garfunkel were still a team. When Simon and Garfunkel sang “The Boxer” over an unexpectedly delicate arrangement at their reunion in Central Park last September 19th, those words could have applied to the chemistry between the two men. Even though a decade of solo projects had separated them, their musical relationship seemed essentially unchanged. Garfunkel’s pristine, quivering folk-pop tenor filtered Simon’s wry, angst-ridden musings into a romantic soft focus, and the duo’s close harmonies transformed dark compositions of doubt into warm exchanges of feeling.
That chemistry is recaptured on The Concert in Central Park: nineteen tunes, minus, alas, Simon’s “The Late Great Johnny Ace.” which traces rock fatality from doo-wop to the Dakota. Still, the new album has magic to spare, some of it rough. Though labored over in the studio after the event, the tracks are far from 100 percent polished. Simon’s voice sounds thin and quavery, especially in solo ballads like “Still Crazy after All These Years,” and the playing suggests the thud and fuzziness of rock music recorded from speakers, instead of plugged into a board. It’s actually refreshing.
Paul Simon and David Matthews’ scrupulous arrangements for an eleven-man band significantly improve several of Simon’s major songs over their studio versions. “Kodachrome” has been retooled from a sprightly folk-rock novelty into a tough, galloping rocker that jumps directly into a wonderful rendition of “Maybellene.” This double bill is the LP’s cleverest aesthetic coup, since the number that looks back at a Happy Days high-school dream with such a jaundiced eye segues into a flashback of pure rock & roll joy.
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Simon’s fascination with Latin American music, which surfaced with “El Condor Pasa” and “Cecilia,” has ripened into something truly exciting. The strong Latin folk inflections of the original “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” are accentuated and drawn out in the concert version, which is highlighted by a red-hot salsa break. “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” has been taken off its military pedestal and turned into a swinging Latinate dance tune with horns. The live rendition of “Late in the Evening” is even headier than the original from One-Trick Pony. A lilting, surreal memory song. “Late in the Evening” may be Paul Simon’s masterpiece because of the way it fuses salsa and rock into a transcendently cosmopolitan sound.
One reason the Central Park concert was so memorable is Simon and Garfunkel’s special relationship to New York City. Unlike many of the Gotham-bred pop stars of their generation who made it big, these nice Jewish boys from Queens didn’t run off to Malibu to live happily ever after, once they were millionaires. They stayed around the city, continuing to assimilate its cultural resources, recycle them and give them back. The sense of a lifelong romance with New York permeates the record.
More clearly than any of his solo albums. The Concert in Central Park shows how Paul Simon’s work has accumulated its richness from his absorption of New York street music. Beginning as a cocky folk-pop songwriter dazzled by Bob Dylan, Simon matured artistically as the sounds of the city affected him. With the falling away of early influences a vestigial Semitic quality crept into his compositions and has remained a significant thread, along with gospel, rock & roll and salsa. The melodic voice that Simon has refined in numbers like “Still Crazy after All These Years” is an absolute distillation of all the New York sounds into a single musical strand — easygoing yet melancholy, and deceptively simple.
Lyrically, Simon, like other Beat Generation-inspired romantics, began by seeing the city as an intoxicating phantasmagoria. Then, in the late Sixties, as he started to feel the tug of his immigrant roots and simultaneously discovered America in relation to them, he also discovered his own alienation. After that, the New York melting pot became an adopted spiritual home, as well as a physical one. Nowadays, Paul Simon mocks his alienation with bleak metaphysical jokes. “Slip Slidin’ Away,” one of The Concert in Central Park‘s high points, has a stealthy gallows humor that would please Joseph Heller: “The more you reach your destination The more you’re slip slidin’ away.”
Art Garfunkel gives even Simon’s gloomiest ruminations an inspirational tone. His directness and sincerity make “April Come She Will” seem less like a mournful sigh than a promise of spring. Garfunkel’s animated sweetness in the duet “Old Friends” breathes consolation into an atmosphere of morbidity. And his soaring renditions of “Bridge over Troubled Water” and Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle’s “A Heart in New York” ring with hope.
If The Concert in Central Park is Paul Simon’s valentine to the Big Apple, it’s Art Garfunkel’s voice that really tugs at the heartstrings and sends the message home.