Let’s face it: Paul Simon, who was awarded the first George and Ira Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and was feted with a gala concert in Washington, D.C., on May 23, was never really hip. He was always just a bit too sincere, a bit too dorky, and that’s probably why his music — which has won seven Grammys and has been nominated for several more — has worn so well.
While we’re at it, let’s admit that Simon was never a real folkie, even though he certainly contributed a lot to that loose, capacious monster known as folk-rock. In the mid-1960s, while Simon was reworking and recording such folk chestnuts as “Scarborough Fair,” he was also writing such catchy pop-rock as “Red Rubber Ball,” a huge hit single for The Cyrkle in 1966.
In truth, Simon’s music has different roots. In 1956, when they were 15, Simon and Garfunkel (under the noms de guerre of Tom and Jerry — no ethnic sounding names in the music industry in those days) scored their first hit, “Hey, Schoolgirl,” an Everly Brothers knock-off. As it turned out, the Everly Brothers’ brand of country-twanged rock ’n’ roll was a defining influence on Simon and Garfunkel’s trademark harmonies from that point to “My Little Town,” almost two decades later.
“Hey, Schoolgirl” was a promising start in pop, but it was only a start. After its success, Simon tried to hawk his songs at the Brill Building, an address in midtown Manhattan that for several years was rock ’n’ roll’s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, a place that could honestly be called the home of the hits. Here, a bunch of Jews from the outer boroughs of New York (Simon himself hailed from Queens) “charted” with every kind of song, from The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me” and Elvis Presley’s “Viva Los Vegas” to Eydie Gorme’s “Blame It on the Bossa Nova.” Simon didn’t have much success, but after college he worked with Carole King recording demos of Brill Building tunes, including some by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Simon, who always had a talent for writing good melodic hooks, should really be seen in this company, as his ability to mimic the sound of the ’50s in his 1997 album “Songs from the Capeman” amply demonstrates. Yet, it was his detour through folk music that helped Simon develop into one of the most literate lyricists since World War II. Folk — even the stoned surrealist fantasies of Dylan in the mid-’60s — forced you to pay attention to the whole song and not just to one killer refrain.
Listening to Simon and Garfunkel, you get the sense that Simon gave most of the sweetness — the ballads and the anthems — to Art Garfunkel and kept the edge for himself. That edge became more prominent once Simon went out on his own. Think of the first lines of “Kodachrome” (“When I think back/On all the crap I learned in high school/It’s a wonder I can think at all”), or that jaunty hymn to underage sex, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” which a critic once called “the greatest Catholic guilt song ever written by a Jew.” By the same token, Simon has never had any trouble composing pretty melodies and coming up with very gentle lyrics for his own use. This mixed marriage of prettiness and snarkiness in his own solo work has lent it a fine ruefulness, a quality that makes “Still Crazy After All These Years” such a defining album not only for Simon, but also for its period (the mid-’70s) and for New York itself.
The story goes that Woody Allen, that other popular poet of New York, cast Simon in “Annie Hall” because he wanted to lose the heroine to a man even shorter than himself. (Simon stands a little more than 5 feet tall.) But in this case, size might not have mattered. Simon was a natural for a classic Woody Allen movie: Both men share a generational, geographical and particularly Jewish commitment to relentless introspection and to a clear-sighted feeling for irony.
And here’s a point: Although it is fairly easy to find Simon a secular Jewish context, it is a good deal harder to place him in a particularly Jewish religious one. Simon and Garfunkel had little trouble with overtly Christian material. They recorded unambiguous versions of “The Star Carol” and “Comfort and Joy,” as well as more complicated takes on “Silent Night” and on Jesus’ sermon on the Mount. Simon has written only one unequivocally Jewish song, “Silent Eyes,” featured on “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Of course, Simon is hardly alone in this. The Jewish American rock and pop stars of his generation, from Dylan to Neil Diamond, weren’t any more demonstrably Jewish. Their Jewish identity seems to have expressed itself obliquely: as a now traditional Jewish sense of alienation reworked into a somewhat hazy form of existentialism.
Of course, there is more to Simon’s songs than alienated lyrics and good tunes. There is rhythm. Simon has based much of his solo career on rhythms (and colors) that he has borrowed from all sorts of musical traditions — reggae in “Mother and Child Reunion,” Latin-Brazilian percussion in “Me and Julio,” calypso in “Late in the Evening” (which Simon has recently rerecorded as salsa) and, most famously, the experiments with South African music in “Graceland” and with Afro-Brazilian drumming in the underrated “The Rhythm of the Saints.” Even in this fascination with rhythm, Simon has not strayed all that far from the “Jewish Rumba” of the Brill Building, its rootsy cosmopolitanism.
It makes perfect sense, then, that the Library of Congress should bestow the first Gershwin Prize to a sophisticated Jewish songwriter from New York. Needless to say, there is always a hint of the funereal to awards like this. Up to last year, it would not have been unfair to say that Simon had passed his prime. Although albums like “You’re The One” are well crafted, they lack the punch and interest of his best work of the ’70s and early ’80s. Then, last spring, Simon released the aptly named “Surprise,” an unexpected collaboration with producer Brian Eno. It’s an eye-opening effort, particularly Simon’s uncharacteristically ferocious performance on “Outrageous.” If “Surprise” is anything to go by, Simon can look forward to more than just an illustrious past.
In the not-so-final analysis, Simon’s career demonstrates that coolness is overrated. Listen to “Surprise.” Listen again to his best albums, to “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Paul Simon,” “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and “Graceland.” They might not be hip, but they are the unacknowledged soundtrack of many a boomer’s life.
David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.