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Paul Simon celebrates his songwriting legacy with new, old works
It's been a year of celebrating both the past and the present for Paul Simon -- and figuring out how he's done "Something So Right" for more than five decades.
The singer-songwriter, who celebrated his 70th birthday in October, started with the release a new album, "So Beautiful or So What," which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart and received some of the best reviews of his career. Britain's Mojo magazine even ranked it the fourth best album of his entire career.
But there's been plenty of tripping down memory lane, too, thanks to a 40th anniversary edition of Simon & Garfunkel's Grammy Award-winning "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and the reissue of Simon's 11 solo albums, remastered and expanded with bonus tracks. He also spanned his career with a two-CD "Songwriter" set.
All of this has created a portrait of an individual and idiosyncratic artist who's had both hits -- including 13 Top 10 singles -- and misses. And Simon, for his part, keeps his focus forward, though with a keen awareness of that celebrated past.
"The best thing is I can do whatever I want artistically in my work," explains Simon, who's won 13 Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement honor, as well as inductions into the Rock and Roll and Songwriters halls of fame and the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. "My work is accepted to lesser or greater degrees. Some things, sometimes, are very popular. Sometimes it's less popular -- but essentially, I mean, people are willing to listen, or watch, or read what it is that I make up."
During the 55 years since he made his recording debut with childhood friend Art Garfunkel -- as Tom & Jerry with the single "Hey, Schoolgirl" -- Simon has marked his career with a broad-reaching stylistic range and musical curiosity that's equalled a peer such as Bob Dylan and surpassed many of his other fellow troubadours.
Though tagged as a melodic folk-rock act, Simon & Garfunkel sampled Latin flavors ("El Condor Pasa (If I Could)," "Cecilia") and gospel ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"). And on his own, Simon has explored even further, dipping into reggae for his first solo hit, "Mother and Child Reunion," and famously journeying to South Africa and South America on celebrated albums such as "Graceland" in 1986 and "The Rhythm of the Saints" in 1990. Subsequent works, including "So Beautiful or So What," have woven together all of those influences, and Simon has followed his muse seemingly without fear of failure -- evidence, for instance, 1997's widely panned Broadway musical "The Capeman."
"If you're a musician, you just love to play music," explains Simon, who's married to fellow musician Edie Brickell and has four children from three marriages. "The generations change and no one wants to hear what you're playing. What do you do? It's happened to a lot of people I knew, even very, very big stars. They don't make hits. Even though they still make records, don't make hits.
"How do you adjust to that? Of course, one does adjust to that. It's a part of, as we say, growing up."
The subject matter has also become grown-up, over time, which Simon considers a natural creative evolution. "It's just a reflection of what's going on in my life," he notes. "If you're trying to tell the truth about something, about anything, and your life is the story that you're most familiar with, well then certainly all those elements would certainly come into play."
But Simon also feels that his music still comes from a place that's not dissimilar from where he started as a fan of early rock back in the 50s.
"It's still the rhythm and sounds and how words flow together," he says, "and humor and serious thoughts or even heartache, all in the same song. "They come out the way the come out. I don't plan them. When I start a song, I don't know what it's going to be about, and my criterion is 'Did I say something that was true as far as I knew.' And that's all.
"And then you try to make it sound interesting and maybe have a good rhythm so that people can feel rhythm while they're listening. I think I'm a rhythm songwriter who doesn't write for dance."
Simon's next plan, meanwhile, is to return to a rhythm from his past. While his current tour wraps in early December, his 2012 agenda is to revisit "Graceland" with a box set that will include a documentary of a 25th anniversary concert he performed during July in South Africa with original album collaborators Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Simon then hopes to take the "Graceland" team back on the road in the new year, though details have not yet been announced.
"I've always pursued a course that seemed interesting to me and that I hoped would be interesting to someone else -- to a lot of people, I hoped," he says. "But if it didn't, or if it wasn't, I never had any intention of changing. Actually, I don't think I could have been capable of changing."
Paul Simon and the Punch Brothers perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Some tickets, priced $59.50 and $39.50, may remain. Call 313-471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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