Paul Simon: Diamonds on the Soles of His Shoes

Grizzly Bear, David Byrne, and host of others join the April BAM residency of New York's quintessential songwriter

Simon once said he thought "Graceland" was his best song. It probably is. When he first heard South African music, he was floored; when he found out where it was from, he remembers wishing it had been from anywhere else. "Graceland" tells the story of a divorced man dragging his son on a journey of self-discovery through the slave-state home of America's most overexposed pop figure. By setting that vision to the bounce of an oppressed people, Simon was able to transpose his complicated passion for South African music into a story about muted redemption. In 1978's "The Big Country," the Talking Heads weighed the same subjects—the urban perception of purity in the Middle-western and Southern states, the allure of their simplicity—but, tellingly, placed its narrator on an airplane. And while David Byrne's characters might never sound as pitiable as Simon's, Simon's would never be so disengaged. In his career's weaker moments—see the bulk of The Capeman—he tries very hard to appear weighed down by the plight and place of his characters, but in his best—"Graceland"—he sounds genuinely upset. For someone so cherished, it's remarkable how little Paul Simon actually smiles.

Multi-trick pony: Simon's three-part BAM project revisits The Capeman, Graceland, and his American songbook.
Robert Clark/Warner Music
Multi-trick pony: Simon's three-part BAM project revisits The Capeman, Graceland, and his American songbook.

When asked why he wanted to celebrate Simon's career, Melillo responded, "I think he really does have something to say as an artist in our lives." He's not wrong, of course, but it's a perfunctory remark. What has Paul Simon said about our lives? In certain ways, it's remarkable how popular he's become. He's recorded snappy hits about how terrifying it is to get old and how painful it is to be lonely. But to exalt him for subverting traditional pop-song subjects misses the depth of his impact. He's as subversive as a public park. Paul Simon didn't have to smuggle the dark and truly heartbreaking into pop music—they're sentiments he helped recast as essential to the form. To doubt whether or not the general public feels the painful undercurrents of a song like "Graceland" is condescension at its ugliest. His popularity isn't an accident or a coup, but a reminder that the stories most difficult to hear are usually the ones we end up holding onto the longest.

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