Two songs into his set at Flushing Meadows Corona Park on the final stop of his Homeward Bound Farewell Tour, Paul Simon put down his guitar and put on a black baseball glove. “This is like two miles from where I played high school baseball,” he said. “It’s little dark out, but you know what? I’m going to play a quick game of catch.” He then lobbed the ball into the New York crowd and urged whoever caught it to throw it back. It took three attempts, but he eventually found a fan capable of hurtling it right into his glove with a satisfying smack. The crowd cheered with delight at the moment of impact and Simon let out a smile big enough to be seen from about 1,000 feet back.
It was a typically joyous moment on what could have otherwise been a pretty melancholy affair. After all, everyone there was watching one of New York’s greatest songwriters play the last stop of his last tour. But instead of turning it into an evening of sad reflection about the cruel passage of time, Simon – just a few weeks away from his 77th birthday – turned it into a party in the park where complete strangers could groove together to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” harmonize on the “lie la lie” chorus of “The Boxer” and jump up and down while screaming out every word to “You Can Call Me Al.” At almost no point in the night did Simon even hint at the fact that it was the end of his last tour, even if his eyes looked a little misty near the end of “Homeward Bound.”
Like every show on this tour, it began with a rearranged rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s classic “America.” It’s a durable song that has managed to work in everything from David Bowie’s set at the post-9/11 Concert For New York City to a 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign commercial. And now in the Trump era, the “empty and aching” kid on the bus seemed to be speaking for many Americans. The president’s name was never uttered, but after a haunting “American Tune” near the end of the night Simon said, “Strange times, huh? Don’t…Give…Up.”
“America” went right into “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” “The Boy in the Bubble” and “Dazzling Blue” from his 2011 overlooked triumph So Beautiful or So What. It set the stage for an evening where he toggled between his greatest hits and album cuts only familiar to the true devotees. “Most of these songs that I’m going to play tonight I think you’ll be familiar with, maybe a few you’ll be less so,” he said early on. “But the rhythm tunes are all written with the idea you’ll get up and dance.”
They certainly did dance, especially when he kicked into the opening chords of “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” and everyone had the unique chance to sing about “Rosie the Queen of Corona” in Corona. His wife Edie Brickell even came out to deliver the famous whistle solo with impressive skill. The mood then quieted down when the chamber ensemble yMusic came to the front of the stage to accompany Simon on “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,” a fantastically obscure Hearts and Bones song that he’s resurrected on his new album In the Blue Light. That album was a commercial dud in 1983, but time has been very kind to it.
“I have a strange relationship to this next song,” Simon said. “I wrote it a long time ago and when I finished it I said to myself, ‘Hmm, that’s better than I usually do.’ Then I gave it away and I didn’t sing it for a long time, though occasionally I’d try it on tours, though I never actually felt like it was mine since the original versions are so unique. But this being the final tour, I’m going to be playing my lost child.”
He was talking about “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and when he says “gave it away” he means that he let Art Garfunkel sing lead on it. That was the only time he came close to acknowledging his estranged singing partner the entire evening, though his image did briefly appear a few times during a photo montage paired with “Homeward Bound.” Garfunkel booked his own show in Rochester, Minnesota this very night, completely ruling out the slim possibility they were going to come together for the encores. But even though living up to the Garfunkel original is a very difficult task, Paul’s stripped-down arrangement was still quite lovely and one of the high points of the evening, especially when a Spirit Airlines jet flew right over the crowd en route to Laguardia right as he began the climactic “sail on silver girl” verse.
As the clock began ticking to the end of the night, the magnitude of the event began sinking in even though Simon was doing his best not to acknowledge it. Joyful songs like “Late in the Evening” and “Kodachrome” were infused with an unusual sense of sorrow, and the crowd came to a stunned hush during a devastating “The Sounds of Silence” that wrapped up the night. He wrote that song 55 years ago in the bathroom of his childhood home and it became Simon & Garfunkel’s breakthrough hit in 1965. And now the whole saga of his life was coming full circle as he sang it for possibly the last time. He didn’t need to explain any of this to the crowd. We could all feel it.
We’ll never know what the show meant to Paul Simon, but hopefully it doesn’t mean that he’s now completely retired. Hopefully it means he’s going to keep recording new music and playing the occasional show. Hopefully it means we have years and years of new Paul Simon music in front of us. But if that’s not the case and he’s truly done, he couldn’t have possibly scripted a better ending than this one.
He put down his guitar when “The Sounds of Silence” ended and looked out at the sea of people in the audience, soaking in their love one last time. He then raised his arms in triumph and stepped up to the mic to deliver just seven words before walking off: “It means more than you can know.”
Paul Simon Setlist
50 Ways To Leave Your Lover
The Boy in the Bubble
That Was Your Mother Rewrite
Mother and Child Reunion
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard (with Edie Brickell)
Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War
Can’t Run But
Bridge Over Troubled Water
The Obvious Child
Questions for the Angels
The Cool, Cool River
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
You Can Call Me Al
Late in the Evening
Still Crazy After All These Years
The Sound of Silence