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Paul Simon: I Gotta Peaceful, Easy Feelin’

Paul Simon relaxes and delivers a live album masterpiece

Paul Simon

Paul Simon performs on stage, Amsterdam, Netherlands, May, 1973

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty

Paul Simon in Concert/Live Rhymin’
Columbia PC 32855

Onstage, Paul Simon doesn’t bob around a mike stand like Cat Stevens, tell coy stories like John Denver, flirt like Joni Mitchell, or aspire to the regal trappings of Elvis Presley. He just sort of is.

When he began his first solo tour a year ago, his very naturalness made him remote and distant — and more than a little stand-offish. When asked about it, he responded that if all of the people in the auditorium had been in his living room he wouldn’t have done anything differently. Modifying his stage ambience, his dryness, might have made him more immediately accessible as an entertainer, “. . . but it wouldn’t be me.”

To Simon, “me” is performing his songs to the best of his ability, period. He is not antientertainment, but he intends to be understood through his music — especially his writing — and he offers no substitutes. But it hadn’t just been the manner but the music, too, that was restrained — no doubt a sign of the pressures of embarking on a tour which, in some ways, was a greater challenge than the release of his first solo album, Paul Simon. After all, he had recorded by himself before. In fact, more than half of Bridge over Troubled Water consists of solo performances by either him or Art Garfunkel.

But sometime between his early concert appearances (I had seen him last Spring on only the fourth stop of the tour) and the recording of Paul Simon in Concert/Live Rhymin’, Simon realized he could relax with his music and still not compromise his intentions. He didn’t become more solicitous of his audience but he put far more of himself into performing. The results, as they have been distilled here, are an unqualified delight — a nearly perfect live album. The key to its success rests in his willingness to reinterpret rather than merely re-create his past, revealing hitherto unexplored talents in the process, while never actually breaking continuity with his history.

Simon was one of the first of the studio fanatics who could spend days upon days recording instrumental and then vocal tracks. Garfunkel’s performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was done virtually a line at a time. On most of their albums, blemishes were systematically eradicated through the wonders of studio technology — but so, many would say, was a good measure of feeling.

Once embarked on his solo career, he simplified his approach, reducing the quantity of instrumentation, placing the voice more directly in the center of his records, and permitting himself a more human sound. But Paul Simon remained a rigorously controlled work and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, although another step toward looseness, still revealed a self-conscious control of every facet of record-making.

Live Rhymin’ is different. Here we have the perfectionist singing to us, warts and all — and it’s beautiful because it rings so strikingly true. I enjoy hearing him strain for a note and just get it (or, in some cases, just miss it). And I enjoy hearing the unexpected emphasis on a line or word, where on the studio recordings he had always so meticulously leveled his vocals and modulated his inflections.

Among other things, Live Rhymin’ is brilliantly constructed, beginning with a series of solo performances, then adding the esoteric accompaniment of his Latin American musical friends, Urubamba, for three songs, and finally uniting Simon with the Jessy Dixon Singers, who push him to one climax after another on the second side. It has all been exceptionally well recorded by Phil Ramone, at Notre Dame University and Carnegie Hall.

The three solos should sound closest to the originals but they don’t. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” a delightful way to open, is friendlier, less coy, more assured than the hit version. Only “Homeward Bound” adds nothing to its model — the original recording is one of his most perfect. With “American Tune” comes the album’s first revelation. Minus the orchestration, and given an obvious passion for one of his personal favorites, we hear Simon’s voice rip through the lyric, giving the performance greater intensity than the musically more controlled studio version. In the process of singing so soulfully and so well, he transforms it from a slightly detached to a possibly desperate and certainly despairing anthem. An utterly magnificent performance.

The studio version of “Duncan” always struck me as a bit stiff, especially for a track using so few instruments. Now, done again with Urubamba’s accompaniment, but in front of a live audience, Simon somehow manages to make it seem like he is telling the song’s story for the very first time. Without changing the arrangement, he has vastly improved the effect. And with Urubamba, “The Boxer” achieves an intimacy (as well as a new verse) not possible in its previous incarnation as a sort of Simon-Phil Spector production. It was one of his greatest studio accomplishments, but I’m glad to have the new version which may not be better but is certainly more likable.

Simon is nothing if not eclectic, and no one else could move so easily from the Latin music at the end of Side One to the gospel at the beginning of Side Two. “Mother and Child Reunion” ought to have been doubly jarring for following Urubamba and being wrenched from its reggae context and placed in a religious one. But he sings it, “The Sounds of Silence,” “Loves Me Like a Rock” and “Bridge over Troubled Water” not so much with but against the Jessy Dixon Singers. And his struggle to not only hold his own but prevail against such massive vocal power is exhilarating.

I can only compare the effect to Dylan’s basement-tape performances with the Band. If they, as I believe, contain his best singing, it’s because he had to fight against other voices, some of them technically better than his own. He needed someone to light the fire underneath him to drive him to the peak of his ability. To hear Simon fighting to stay on top of his own music — and succeeding so completely — is to hear that same marvelous interactive process in action.

The seven-minute version of “Bridge” needs to be heard, not written about, and in an edited form could easily win the third gold record for the song — although the first on which Simon himself has sung. He fights like crazy with it, shows off the rock & roll voice that so enlivens the second side, dominates a beautiful coda with the group, flats out here and there, and then clobbers the big notes, and it works — almost magically so. For “Bridge over Troubled Water” finally stands revealed as the genuine gospel music that it truly is, rather than as the pop-gospel work it may have sounded like in past versions.

The album ends with “America,” and here Simon pulls his biggest reversal. He takes his most popular album cut (Columbia released it as a single long after it should have been) and one of his largest production numbers, slows it down and does it with just guitar. As the audience applauds the names of the cities mentioned in the song, he pulls us into the sway of the chorus’s beguilingly simple sentiment — that “. . . we’ve all come to look for America.” Delivered with understated passion, it, like “Bridge,” takes on a new perspective and now stands as one of his indisputably finest works.

On Live Rhymin’ Simon doesn’t just rummage through the past. He inhabits it, singing only those songs that he can still impart a personal meaning to, recharging them and their effect upon us both through his commitment to them and his commitment to communicate through them.


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