Quebec is flat. I mean, my God Quebec is flat. I look out the window of my father’s Buick and there is just gray emptiness, spread out in every direction excepting a few large mounds of trees and earth some miles distant. Coming from the peaks and valleys of Vermont it’s like God took a sledgehammer to this place and sprinkled in some French. It’s a cool, misty evening in June as my father and I drive towards Montreal. There is a German version of the Beach Boys, “In My Room” playing over the radio that I never knew I needed. Another of the weird and wonderful ironies that abound in my family, we’re listening to an all Beach Boys channel on our way to a Paul Simon concert. I’m shifting restlessly in the passenger seat, my right foot thoroughly asleep from the awkward position it’s been jammed in for forty five minutes. My stomach is still churning from the day at work, as usual, the visceral frustration literally burning my ears. I must banish the banality of my reality however, because this night is meant to be different. This journey I now take has been thirty years in the making.
From almost the first moment I became cognizant of the universe around me, Paul Simon’s music has been in my ears. I can actually remember being three years old, riding in my mother’s blue Chrysler minivan down Grove Avenue in Verona, New Jersey. I was bowled over by the power of the first two tracks on his album Rhythm of the Saints. First came the percussive explosion of “The Obvious Child” that immediately commanded your attention, followed by the haunting xylophone and baseline of “Can’t Run But” that played out in my dreams for weeks afterwards. As I grew and my apparatus for introspection increased, Simon’s lyrics connected with me on a deep level, deeper than any of the religious doctrines my mother insisted upon. I was essentially a lonely child, didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin and never really felt like I belonged anywhere. Paul’s songs of anxiety, doubt and guarded optimism spoke to me. I can remember many a rainy summer evening digging through my parent’s cassette collection, buried at the bottom of a cabinet in the living room to find my mother’s copy of Still Crazy After All These Years. Once in hand I would rush back upstairs to my room, fix myself on the radiator and open the window to let in the fresh, fragrant air. Staring out at the watery, green and peaceful world I would eagerly anticipate the gentle opening organ of the title cut. As Paul started singing I would close my eyes and lose track of the rest of the world.
After the death of my mother, the connection I felt to Paul’s music grew even stronger. I listened to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” a great deal during the months following her passing. First the piano came in, elegant and classical with just a hint of gospel tinge to round out the beautiful, mournful opening. Then Art Garfunkel’s gentle voice seemed to float down from the rafters of some ancient cathedral. “When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all.” It was as if my mother was speaking to me from the beyond. I got a cold, clammy feeling in the back of my throat and my eyes would begin to well up. She was telling me that when I felt like I didn’t have a friend, when I was down and out, when the darkness came and pain was all around she would be there to guide me across those troubled waters.
By the end of the second verse, with the piano building momentum and Artie singing to the balcony, the tears would be streaming down my face. I actually had to stop listening to this song in the car because I would breakdown crying and my father would ask me what was wrong, prompting me to make up some excuse because I was still very much repressing my feelings from everybody. After the flourish of emotion, and Paul joined Artie on the bridge, I would feel the weight begin to lift off my shoulders. It was as if my mother could sense I was about to break and sought to reassure me that better days were coming, and that not all my dreams would be so dark. Strings joined in, along with a snapping snare drum to help the song reach it’s crescendo as Artie hit and held that impossible note. The first few seconds after the song was like the releasing of breath after holding it a long time (which I actually sometimes caught myself doing). By the end of that year I would retire Bridge Over Troubled Water from my regular rotation until college.
Many years later, when I was out of college and working in the retail world I began to strongly associate with another Paul Simon song I had largely ignored in my youth, “Slip Sliding Away.” Listening to him sing about these down and out characters I began to see myself as one of them. I was broke as shit, steadily increasing my alcohol intake and felt like I was stuck on a treadmill to nowhere special. There was a particular passage towards the end that really resonated. “We’re working our jobs, collect our pay, believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip sliding away.” This was the justification I used when I quit my job and disappeared for a summer, this was my coda when I wrote Slip Sliding Away. Whenever I hear this song now I am reminded of that time in my mid-twenties, when I was willing to take risks, when despite all evidence to the contrary, I implicitly believed in my guiding star.
Back in the car my dad and I were snarled in traffic, neither one of us having thought to bring a gps and blindly groping our way through the rain-soaked streets of Montreal (for those of you planning to navigate Montreal by street signs… good luck with that). As each minute fell away from the clock my anxiety increased. Dad said he had a general idea of where the Bell Center was but, if I’m being honest I found that claim to be somewhat dubious. By the time we parked in a random, ramshackle parking garage there were only thirty minutes to showtime and I was convinced that there was no way in hell we were making it there before then. For all I knew we were miles from the arena. Bucking the stereotype my dad shamelessly approached people on the street, most of whom only spoke broken English to get directions to the arena. At first I was terribly embarrassed by this but then a thought occurred to me that put a smile on my face. We weren’t bumbling tourists at all, no, no we were pilgrims, and we were bouncing into Graceland.
Each person my dad stopped seemed to have a slightly different interpretation but they all shared a general direction. We wove our way through a forest of hotels stretching into the clouds and a slalom of road construction but I could see the Bell Center now, there was hope. At one point we found the sidewalk was closed and, rather than go on a lengthy detour we braved traffic and walked in the street. We’d come too far to be foiled by poorly timed infrastructure maintenance, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. It occurred to me as we got off the elevator onto the main floor of the Bell Center that we’d have to go through security, and who knows how long that would take. A couple of years ago I went to a Springsteen concert with my step-mother in Albany and it took us thirty five minutes just to get in the arena. There were only twelve minutes until showtime and crowd of people tangled around the security checkpoint didn’t fill me with confidence.
At one point the line wound through a doorway and then, with no guiding ropes or direction looped back through the door and towards security. It was like some weird social engineering experiment to see just how far people would go. I managed to drop all of my belongings trying to get through the metal detector, including my passport and concert ticket, but security found me more bumbling than dangerous and set me loose inside. I managed to locate my father in the throng and together we mounted a series of seemingly endless escalators, passing by the pinky up luxury boxes as we made our way to the nosebleeds. We made it to our seats with only a minute to spare, good thing too because it took all of that minute to pack in like sardines in order to fit into sections clearly designed for people who were 5 foot 2 and 130 pounds. Double fisting Captain & Diets I settled in, fully aware that my butt would be asleep in approximately 17 minutes and 23 seconds.
As the house lights went down and the cheers rose I couldn’t help but look over at my father and wonder how he was going to hold up sitting like this. I was worried but soon familiar notes drew my attention to the stage. Emerging from the darkness was Paul Simon, wearing what appeared to be a purple sport coat and clutching his acoustic guitar. Truly one of the wonders of 20th century pop is how so much big music came from such a small man. The opening chords of “America” began to play and I felt untrammeled shouts of delight escaping me, like some hysterical fanboy. Then Paul began to sing and I could physically feel the air escape me. His voice was cracking and fluttering all over the place as he sung the words to the greatest road trip song ever penned. I was horrified, I said to myself, “my God, what if the whole concert is like this?” I didn’t think I could stand two plus hours of my musical hero stumbling through the songs that had come to mean so much in my life.
Paul’s voice seemed to steady somewhat during “50 Ways to Leave your Lover” as I drummed the immortal opening into my left thigh and mused that I had at least three other ways to add to that list. The energy seemed to return to the building as Paul addressed the crowd directly. First he apologized to the largely Canadian audience for Donald Trump’s recent attacks on the Prime Minister and reminded the crowd that Trump and his ilk did not represent the heart of the American people. This drew rapturous applause from the crowd he now held firmly in his hands. Paul then reminded us all that his songs were meant for people to dance to and encouraged everybody to shake loose and have fun. The band then launched into two of my favorite tunes from Graceland, “Boy in the Bubble” and the Zydeco infused “That was your Mother” For the latter Paul Simon, 76 years old, joyfully danced around the stage before going to the mic and magically finding a voice that hadn’t sounded this strong in almost thirty years. How could I have ever doubted the consummate professional? Besides, with his backing band playing so fucking hot that it’s a miracle they didn’t burn a hole in the stage, how could he fail?
After a couple more numbers that brought on visions of my mother (Mother and Child Reunion) and Sesame Street (Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard) respectively, Paul again stopped the show as musicians filed their way down from the risers and joined him in the middle of the stage. It was after the group had formed a circle that I realized this was a classical sextet he had assembled and was utterly fascinated to see where he was going to go with this. Paul began telling a story of the time he visited Joan Baez in her house when he came upon a picture with the caption “Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War.” He thought this was a wonderful title for a song and set to work writing one of the most beautiful and surreal songs of his career. Next came a song I mentioned earlier, “Can’t Run But” The baseline and xylophone of my youth had been replaced by breathtaking strings and a flute that again would visit me in my dreams.
The crowd fell silent as Paul began introducing the next song by saying that he never really felt this piece was his, rather that he was merely the conduit through which the music came into the world. I had a guess as to what might be coming next but dared not say it lest I jinx the thing. Paul continued that he hadn’t played it much in concert but now felt it was time to retake ownership of the song. At first a mournful trumpet played over a soft organ, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s re-imagining of “Both Sides Now.” Then a South African flavored guitar came in to remind us that this was a Paul Simon concert. As he began to sing the words to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” the old clammy feeling returned to the back of my throat. I didn’t feel the same sadness as before though, more a moment of quiet reflection. It had been almost nineteen years to the day since my mother died, and here I was listening to the same song I had as a grieving twelve year old boy. The long years had changed how I saw this song however. No longer was it a mournful meditation on love lost, it now felt more like a gentle remembrance of the places and people that had come before. Bitterness over her loss had been replaced by gratitude for having known her at all. Of course all of this didn’t magically happen over the course of the song, this had been a process of years and that’s the point. I realized that my life, to a certain extent, was coming full circle.
I was in a bit of a daze as three more choice cuts from Rhythm of the Saints were played ( “ Spirit Voices, “ The Obvious Child”, “ The Cool, Cool River) and it took the marvelous hymn that proceeds “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” to snap me out of it. The next seven minutes of music filled the increasingly rising crowd with pure joy. A fellow two rows to my left, sporting an unfortunate man-bun was dancing with such reckless abandon that I could not help but forgive his fashion faux point and cheer him on. Then “ You can Call me Al” came on as I joined in the gyration. The ebullience of the moment was such that I was still moving my feet as the music stopped playing and the band began filing off stage. What a terribly sobering moment it was when it occurred to me that, at some point this would have to end. No, I’m not ready for that. Damnit Paul get back out here this instant! We are not done yet!
Once Paul and company were coaxed back out onto stage they proceeded to play a few fan favorites. First came the title cut from Graceland which reaffirmed the coda of the evening, that we the audience had indeed been pilgrims, coming from places near and far to get one last glimpse at our Graceland. After revisiting an old lover on the street, the band pumped out the Latin tinged “Late in the Evening.” At a certain point the horn section took over and filled the air with such rhythm that if you weren’t moving to the beat you didn’t have a pulse. It goes without saying that this concert wouldn’t have reached the heights that it did if Paul hadn’t arranged an eclectic array of world class musicians to behind him. After the number ended again the company began to file off stage as the crowd rose as one and cried out for another encore. This time a few minutes elapsed and I momentarily wondered if this was it. Then I realized that this was the Homeward Bound tour and he hadn’t play the namesake song yet. The crowd and I seemed to sense this at the same time and collectively willed the man back onto the stage.
Seeming to hear us, Paul wasted no time in playing “Homeward Bound,” accompanied by a loving slideshow of his career through the years. After running through one more fan favorite, the world’s greatest advertisement for a color camera, most of the wonderful band departed for the final time. Next up was “The Boxer.” Each time Paul came to the familiar refrain of “Li La Li” he seemed to step away from the mic as thousands in the audience swayed together and boisterously took up the chorus. By this point even my dad was singing along like a little kid, and I cannot express the joy it gave me to sings the songs that meant so much, with the father I loved so much. The last of the band departed after that, leaving only Paul and his guitar on the stage. Much as part of my journey had come full circle this evening, now Paul too was coming full circle. And how fitting that he chose to perform these final songs as he once had busking across England, just himself, his guitar and his audience.
First came “American Tune.” If that had been his closer it would’ve been absolutely appropriate. What better song to play in these times of anxiety, exhaustion and doubt? But we knew better, if Paul was still here and by himself on a darkened stage there was only one number that was going to close us out. Allegedly Paul Simon wrote “The Sound of Silence” while sitting in his parent’s bathroom with the lights out. He explained that he did this because the bathroom had the best acoustics in the house. Later on, Paul and Art Garfunkel recorded the song for their 1964 debut album Wednesday Morning 3am. The song and album went nowhere and the pair split up, Paul catching a boat for England and Art going back to school. It wasn’t until a year later, when an enterprising New York producer (Tom Wilson) heard the potential of the song and supplemented the original recording with electric overdubs that “The Sound of Silence” became a generational phenomenon and launched the careers of Simon & Garfunkel.
Now fifty four years later here was Paul, standing with his guitar and singing to his old friend once again. It didn’t stay dark for long though. In a scene that will stay with me for the rest of my life people began activating the flashlights on their phones and waving them as they would’ve lighters back in the day. Soon thousands of beams of light filled the arena, giving it the appearance of a harmonic planetarium. As he strummed the final few notes on his guitar I knew this was the end. With a flourish and a raising of his guitar (much as his idols the Everly Brothers had) Paul Simon took his final bows and walked to each end of the stage, thanking his audience one last time before disappearing down the tunnel.
As my father and I slowly made our way out of the arena we reflected on our history of concerts together. The Who had lived up to their reputation and nearly blew our eardrums out our assholes. Watching Brian Wilson perform with the rest of the surviving Beach Boys had been a singular pleasure and being present while The Moody Blues ran through the entire Days of Future Passed album on its 50th anniversary had served as bonding experience between my father and I like we hadn’t had in years. Still, we agreed that no concert either of us had ever seen could match what we had just witnessed. The music still ringing in our ears, my dad and I wove our way through the labyrinth of construction and back to our car.
Montreal exacted its revenge for somehow getting to the concert on time, because my father and I became hopelessly lost trying to find our way out of the city. From the outside I appeared to be grousing over the fact that my dad didn’t take my advice and just double back to the street we came in on. I’ll admit that I was mildly frustrated, though I likely couldn’t have done any better, but that wasn’t what really stole the smile from my face. I had been drawing parallels the entire evening and I had missed the most obvious one. This concert was the last time I was going to see Paul Simon, and in a very real sense I was saying goodbye to my musical hero. Much like Paul’s active musical career was in the process of winding down, so too was my father. Both men are far from finished, and I would imagine neither has any intention of exiting stage right in the immediate future but it is a cold reality that I will have to face a day when these two personal heroes, who have so dramatically shaped the first thirty years of my life, will not be here. At least with Paul Simon I’ll have his recordings to reassure me, but what of my father? He is my ballast, my one stop shop for love, reason and support. How in the hell am I going to function when the time comes? I don’t quite know the answer to that, and it brings a grimace to my face to even as dad manages to rescue us from dark back streets and finally find the highway out of town. There is a comforting thought amongst all this consternation though, and it sustains me on that long, dark ride back home. Adventures like we were having tonight, this is exactly what I need to keep doing with my dad, because in the end all we are left with are the stories and memories we have collected through the years, and I have so many more stories I want to author with this man.