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CULTURE ZOHN: Give It Up for Paul Simon

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"Under African Skies"
Photo: Jack Vartoogian"

What do the following songs recall for you?

The Sounds of Silence
The 59th Street Bridge Song
Scarborough Fair
Mrs. Robinson
At the Zoo
Bridge Over Troubled Water
The Boy in the Bubble
Cecelia
Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes
Graceland
Homeward Bound
Hearts and Bones
I am a Rock
I do it for your love
I know what I know
Kodachrome
Late in the Evening
Loves me like a Rock
Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard
Mother and Child Reunion
Peace like a River
Red Rubber Ball
Rhythm of the Saints
Still Crazy After All These Years
Time is an Ocean
Take me to the Mardi Gras
Trailways Bus
You can call me Al

Ok, maybe you weren't born when Bridge Over Troubled Water came out. But listen to it or download and put it on your Ipod. Or any of the others on the list and just try telling me that they don't have staying power.

Music makes our hearts lift up, if it's the right kind. Each of us has our own faves, the cuts that get us moving in our seats, or tapping our toes, or rocking back and forth, or actually brings us to our feet, the thing that makes the moment deeper and richer. It reflects our moods, enhancing what we are already feeling. We swell with the music and it makes us think of a relationship, or a moment in our lives, or someone we love or once loved; it takes on all the hallmarks of that thing unique to us, yet thousands or even millions of people have connected with it in an entirely different way. It gives us the opportunity to cry a little bit or to dance around the room to a beat, which, at that very moment, only we and the composer can hear.

Lovers often exchange music with each other, it functions in loco lover for the times you can't be together, or when something has gone massively wrong and only a dose of baby baby baby can help that nasty lurching pit in your stomach.

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For over fifty years, Paul Simon has been getting us to move, tap, rock and stand up and it's time to stand and give it up for him. Last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music he began a three week stand called, aptly, Love in Hard Times that is not only a retrospective of his work, but clearly his own way of sorting the by now considerable archive of songs, riffs, hits, many, but also those releases that have gone under the radar.

Not long ago, Simon came under his ex-wife Carrie Fisher's acerbic eye and we were hilariously reminded of the abrasive, neurotic man who was notoriously controlling and who left Art Garfunkle more or less in the dust.

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"Bridge Over Troubled Water"

But here's another way to look at it: Paul Simon is one of our few, really certifiable geniuses who have given us a whole lifetime of pleasure, decades of songs we hum and dance to. Inevitably, there is going to be debris with the career of a major talent.

Songs from The Capeman, the musical Simon put up on Broadway in 1998, and which I saw then, didn't find their audience at the time because the musical itself was so poorly received. The story of a young, Latino killer just didn't have the sympathetic heart that led audiences to take it up, but it had oodles of great musicians (Oscar Hernandez, back at BAM leading his Spanish Harlem Orchestra-yum), a wonderful choreographer (Mark Morris) and it showcased Simon's extraordinary versatility as a songwriter and lyricist and his uncanny ability to channel so many different genres of music, simultaneously, really, really well.

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"Songs from The Capeman"
Photo: Stephanie Berger

The partially staged version at BAM last week finally hit the sweet spot, a rousing collective of old and new voices, tightly choreographed, that put the focus squarely on the music, where it belonged. When he finally came out on stage to sing Trailways Bus, there were a lot of teary eyes, not from nostalgia, but because the whole night showed how much he revered his musicians and singers, and they, him. Simon now seems positively mellow, self-effacing, quiet and determined that his legacy be both accorded its due and yet be placed in proper perspective. I was on my feet with everyone else as the singers twirled a few audiences members into the audience to the strains of an all-Spanish Yo dece en Puerto Rico (I was born in Puerto Rico) an infectious salsa-inflected anthem for proud but undervalued Latino immigrants. Though some of the second act songs are less successful, do listen to this music again and see if doesn't go straight to your heart.

Under African Skies, Part Two of the series which showcased music from the wildly successful Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints albums, demonstrates with finality that he urge to experiment has been his calling card, that his fearlessness in taking on other cultures and voices without being accused of interloping is unique to him. Paul Simon is so generous he let David Byrne steal all his thunder at this second stand, giving him some of his most infectious hits to sing, Diamonds on the Soles of her shoes, and I know what I know to ignite the upscale gala audience. The series culminates in a few weeks with a grab bag of the American Tunes from all periods.

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"Under African Skies"
Photo: Jack Vartoogian

At the end of the week, I attended a concert at Disney Hall that strangely evoked Simon for me. Gustavo Dudamel, LA's conductor-in-waiting, was in LA for a two week stand, a sumptuous feast of romantic classical music: Ravel, Debussy and a little more challenging Bartok. Dudamel is a genius too...someone who loves his musicians so much he goes into the orchestra when its time for calls and sits down and gabs with the flautists, who hugs, and pats his violinists on the back and gives back to them what they so generously give to us. Like Simon, who cannot restrain his enthusiasm for the music, even if he's played it hundreds of times before, Dudamel almost breaks into a salsa step when his arms follow the lush orchestration, even if its Daphnis and Chloe, so swept away is he by the beauty, the thrill of what he is helping to communicate to us. He closes his eyes and channels composers long dead who come to life under his youthful 27-year old baton.

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He shares with Paul Simon a humility in the face of other genius, the ability to link us up to other musicians and to ourselves. He is part of the next generation of musical leaders who will help lift our hearts, or console us after a loss or just plain get us through the drone of workaday life. Though 3000 miles and three decades apart in age, old enough to be father and son, Simon and Dudamel are the bookends of a musical continuum. The cross continental journey of the Olympic Torch may be at risk but the musical journey is doing just fine.

And hey, you can call me Patty.