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Facing the music Paul Simon was never a big fan of Braodway musicals. So when he began to write his own show, he made sure the songs came first.

November 16, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

"These songs are all scenes," he explains. "It might be that a scene is based on a rhythmic premise, or it might be based on a sound premise, like the a cappella doo-wop stuff.

"But you get that sound right, and that beat right. And then, when those characters speak, in that musical context, you can believe what they say. If the lyrics are good, you're going to believe it, because it sounds like they're in the right place."

Getting that sound right was important, particularly since there are still a lot of New Yorkers around who grew up in the world Simon wanted to evoke. "The first and most important test of that was: Would the Puerto Rican community believe it?" he says. "Because if it didn't pass that test, then it probably wasn't telling the story in a really compelling way."

Sounds of the time

Simon also had to ensure that the music evoked the proper era. For instance, some of the early scenes are set in the Puerto Rico of Agron's youth. Simon's challenge was simple. "If I was in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, in 1949, what would that sound like?"

He went through his music collection, listening over and over again to recordings of Puerto Rican music from that period. Once he got a sense of the era's sound, Simon recruited musicians who could play in those styles, and started cutting tracks.

As when he collaborated with African musicians on "Graceland" (an album that single-handedly introduced Americans to the zippy "mbaqanga" music of South Africa), Simon started with the rhythm section. Much of what they played was built on the two national rhythms of Puerto Rico, the spritely "plena" (which has a fast, rumba-like one-two-three-FOUR-AND beat) and the more African sounding "bomba" (which has a rolling, ONE-two-and-three pulse).

After they established a groove, they would set down the basic shape of the song -- how long the verses would be, where the chorus would fall, how many times sections would repeat, and so on. Then he would build the song around the recording, slowly adding melody, harmony and lyrics. If it turned out that he wanted more verses than were originally recorded, Simon and his engineer would adjust the shape of the recording through cut and paste. "We would just edit the tape," he says.

Not every song was written that way, of course. "I've used everything that I know about songwriting in writing this show," Simon says.

Other voices

Writing "The Capeman" has been an education for Simon on several levels. For one thing, it's the first time he has had to write for voices other than his own. Because his practice over the years has been to improvise vocally while shaping his melodies, all of his songs have been in a register -- that is, a range of notes -- that's comfortable for his voice.

"But if I write a song for a man and a woman, if the register is right for the male, then chances are it's not right for the female," he says. "So that the melody has to be written as if it were a harmony. That was something that I had to learn."

Then there was his work with Walcott. A poet and playwright whose work earned him the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature, the 67-year old Trinidadian is the first writer with whom Simon has ever collaborated. And he reveled in the experience. "I'm writing with a guy who's a great poet," Simon says.

Just as composing the music followed no single process, Simon and Walcott worked in a variety of ways on the words. "Sometimes I'd write like 80 percent of a song, and come to him, and he'd finish it up with me," says Simon. "Or he'd be an editor, you know?

"Then there were some scenes where he'd write. I would maybe have made a track, with a melody, and he'd write songs. Then I could look through the song and pick out phrases. Sometimes whole verses, because they fit in with the rhythm of what I was singing."

Because Simon and Walcott were writing for the stage, the language in "The Capeman" is far different from what would normally be found in a Paul Simon song. It isn't just that these songs are full of dialogue and exposition; in several cases, they're also full of swearing. Considering that Simon's songs normally don't get any nastier than the mild expletive in "Kodachrome," this polysyllabic profanity may come as something of a shock for some listeners.

"Well, I've never used that kind of language in songs before," Simon agrees, vaguely amused that this would be an issue. "But I didn't need it to say what was on my mind. I needed it here. To be on the streets and to be in prisons, sanitizing the language would strike a weird note. But for all of that, the overall effect doesn't feel brutal," he adds. "I think that so much of the language is beautiful."

Indeed, there is almost a sense of poetry to the frequently profane language of "Vampires," as when one of the characters describes an Irish gang member as looking "Like a ton of corned beef/Floating in beer."

Although Simon is justifiably proud of what he has written, he has no idea whether "The Capeman" will be a success.

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