Songs of a Lifetime Paul Simon takes a look back, contemplating the music and the method J.D. Considine

September 26, 1993|By J.D. Considine SIMON SAMPLER | J.D. Considine SIMON SAMPLER,Pop Music Critic

What is the measure of a man's career? A man, say, like Paul Simon?

An obvious answer would be to look at his work and see what sort of picture it makes when it has all been fitted together. And that, as any curator will tell you, is no walk in the park.

Imagine, then, how tough it must be when the person assembling that retrospective is the artist himself. In addition to the dirty job of deciding what goes and what stays, he must also contend with the potentially prickly issue of artistic identity. Because if the artist doesn't have a clear sense of himself, how on earth can he present a coherent picture to his audience?

Yet Simon has not one but two retrospectives on deck this fall. The first is "1964/1993" (Warner Bros. 45394), a three-CD set he compiled that stretches from his first hit, "Hey, Schoolgirl" (recorded with Art Garfunkel under the name Tom and Jerry), to his current single, "Thelma." It arrives in record stores Tuesday. Then, on Friday, he'll begin a monthlong stand at New York's Paramount Theater that will feature his current band and a reunion segment with Art Garfunkel, as well as guests the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Phoebe Snow. (All 21 shows sold out almost as soon as they were announced.)

Add in the responsibilities of fatherhood -- he and wife Edie Brickell had a son last December -- and it's clear why Simon was enjoying "the last few days" of his summer vacation before heading into rehearsal for the Paramount Theater shows. Still, Simon was more than happy to spend time talking about his life's work.

Q: Let's start with the boxed set, "1964-1993." You're covering 29 years there -- why do the retrospective now, as opposed to waiting for some round number?

Simon: It's just totally arbitrary. . . . What's the difference between 29 years and 30 or 31? I don't see it, no. There wasn't going to be a new piece of recorded work coming in the next year, so it might as well be now.

First of all, Warner Bros. wanted to put out the boxed set this fall. And that took a while, you know? Just to get yourself listening to that stuff, and to get the tapes organized -- there are so many problems. The tape disintegrates, masters are lost, things have to be repaired. The amount of technical work just to get the preparation took a long time.

The idea of me having to do a big editing job on my entire oeuvre, so to speak, wasn't something that I would have normally looked forward to. So it took a while before I got hooked in, but then I did get hooked in. And I put a lot of time and thought into it.

Q: That's an interesting point about going back. John Lennon once said that he had a difficult time going back to the Beatles albums, because all he could hear were the things he wished were done differently. Whereas the audience listens to those recordings and hears only their familiarity.

Simon: Have you heard the boxed set yet?

Q: Yes, they sent me tapes. I've mainly been listening to the last of the three cassettes.

Simon: Oh really? Interesting. My favorite is the middle one.

But anyway, what I think is that if they are put together carefully, they can be fresh again. There are songs in there that I don't think people would have thought about, you know? Good songs, but overlooked.

Plus, many of the elements from "The Rhythm of the Saints" are foreshadowed, even though I had no idea that I was doing that. They're there so early. You can see them. The journey has a logic to it that I don't think you could have seen as clearly then as you can now, listening to all of it.

In either case, see it or not, it certainly is an interesting journey through those decades, in terms of a popular music evolution. It has a consistency, it has a direction, it has a momentum. It stands as a body of work.

Of course, I don't really know what the public reaction will be to it, because it hasn't come out. But I thought that.

Q: No, I know exactly what you mean, particularly with some of the rhythmic ideas. To me, one of the things that's most interesting about the set is to trace that from the later Simon and Garfunkel stuff up to "Rhythm of the Saints," in that even though there are various ethnic approaches that sort of color it differently . . .

Simon: You know, there is a term that has been terribly misleading.

Q: Which term?

Simon: "Ethnic." It seems to indicate that you're talking about something that's foreign or outside of the mainstream, when in fact it's so completely absorbed within our cultural mainstream that people embraced it when they heard it -- even though they still described it as, like, some kind of ethnic music.

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