If you want to immerse yourself into Paul Simon’s world for a few hours, drive to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles to visit ‘Paul Simon: Words & Music’, an in-depth, interactive exhibit which examines the career of an American icon. I was invited to the press preview on Wednesday morning and was guided through the exhibit by Museum Director Robert Kirschner, managing exhibition curator Cate Thurston and Robert Hilburn, the LA Times ex-music critic, who is now writing Simon’s biography.
The exhibit, which premiered at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2014, but has now almost doubled the original number of artifacts, features a gallery going through Simons’ entire career in a chronological order. In addition to the exhibit, a new Roland music lab (furnished by Roland Corporation) presents hands-on activities using the artist’s top hits – and you don’t need to be a musician to experiment with Simon’s music in this lab.
Through many artifacts and four video installations including interviews created just for the occasion, the Skirball Cultural Center worked with Paul Simon’s private archive to give an intimate look at the trajectory of the musician’s career, as well as the artist’s impact at bridging cultures all over the world.
I learned an abundance of details about Simon’s long and successful career, starting when he was just a kid living in the Queens. A songwriter since 1963, Simon was first a teenager interested by baseball but he got a revelation when he heard ‘Gee’ by the Crows on the radio in 1953. He loved the record so much that it changed his life: ‘It was the first time I ever heard black culture… This stuff was rhythm and blues and I liked it immediately. More than liked it, I loved it.’ he explains.
After receiving a guitar for his 13th birthday (a rare artifact in view in the gallery) and trying to imitate Elvis, he met Art Garfunkel at school, and it is the occasion for the exhibit to concentrate of the first steps of his burgeoning career. A very early (and funny) correspondence between the two teenagers show how Paul was already focused on songs he was already writing. For their first record deal, they were Tom and Jerry (an idea of the record company) and had a minor hit, ‘Hey Schoolgirl’ in 1957 – but received enough royalty money to buy a car, although they were barely 16 years old! Simon released a few solo songs as Jerry Landis, but soon lost interest in rock n roll, being more interested by folk.
If you don’t know the story of their ascension in the music stratosphere, here it is: Tom Wilson, a Columbia’s executive, who was touched by the song ‘He was my Brother’, a song expressing sympathy for the civil rights movement, set up a session for Paul and Art to record an audition tape with recording engineer Roy Halee. This was, by the way, the beginning of a 60-year partnership between Simon and Halee. However, as their first record ‘Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.’ didn’t go anywhere, Simon took off for London, as he had become more and more interested by the UK folk scene. While he was abroad, Columbia’s Tom Wilson reworked the acoustic song ‘The Sound of Silence’ with electric instruments and drums without telling Simon and Garfunkel, but this version really took off and launched Simon and Garfunkel’s career, despite the fact that the track was not theirs and was, of course, hated by Simon.
The exhibit guides us through this story and gives us the opportunity to look at a few of Simon’s iconic guitars, and many yellow pads he used to write some of his most well-known lyrics. Actually, he first worked on the lyrics of ‘Mrs. Robinson’ (first titled Mrs. Roosevelt’) on an envelope, and the early lyrics of ‘The Boxer’ can be seen on a United Airlines magazine. ’There was a Bible on the plane,’ recalls Simon. ‘My notes in the magazine say ‘Biblical Jonah was swallowed by a whale.’ That might have been a paraphrase of something from the Bible.’
There are also funny and sweet pieces reflecting Simon and Garfunkel’s popular appeal, such as plenty of fan letters, after Simon & Garfunkel’s 1969 television special ‘Songs of America’, but also the music sheets for ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ by pop bandleader Ernest “Ernie” Freeman, who had terribly misheard the lyrics and wrote the title ‘Like a Pitcher of Water.’ Simon was furious at the time and didn’t want to use Freeman’s arrangements, but he nevertheless framed a copy and has kept it ever since.
Obviously the exhibit also explores Simon’s solo career after the duo’s breakup following the release of ‘Bookends’ and it showcases Simon’s desire to do other things, try other kinds of music, ‘he wanted to do reggae, gospel and other stuff’, whereas he was told by everyone he was doing the biggest mistake of his life by separating from Garfunkel. Simon had already showed his interest for world music and recorded with Urubamba, Los Incas, the Dixon Singers… and he continued to explore genres with his second solo album ‘There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’ in 1973. It ended up to be an explosion of creativity also acknowledged by Simon himself ‘Some of my best songwriting is in my solo career. I think ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ is one of my best songs.’
You could say that Simon’s solo career felt apart after two flops, an attempt at movies with ‘One trick Pony’, and another album ‘Hearts and Bones’, mirroring his failed marriage with Carrie Fisher, but it surely took off again with his growing interest in world music. Once again, Simon followed his own mind and didn’t listen to people telling him that nobody is recording world music because ‘it doesn’t sell.’
He didn’t care, at this point, he was not selling anyway, told us Robert Hilburn, but he loved music from South Africa because it reminded him early rock ‘n’ roll: ‘I had a very strong feeling that the music that I was hearing from South Africa was not that different from the music that I loved when I was a kid … . It was three-chord music, so it was easy harmonically. It was always in four [4/4 time, i.e., marching beat]. And it was guitar lines, so I had an instant attraction to the music. I really wanted to record it,’ explains Simon. The famous songwriter was so into his own mind/world/music universe, he didn’t see the arguments against Apartheid. Breaking the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa, he went to South Africa, revisited his rock ‘n’ roll roots and against all odds, recorded his biggest and probably best album, ‘Graceland’.
If the exhibit offers very little on the subject, the Skirball Center will explore the controversy surrounding the making of ‘Graceland’ with the projection of the documentary ‘Under African Skies’ on May 12th. I would like to add that this is an exhibit which focuses on Simon’s resilience and courage, some qualities that other people may call stubbornness or even worst.
One thing is certain, you can’t accuse Paul Simon to have chosen the easiest paths, he always turned his back to an easy ride, has always tried something new, and never felt limited by personal setbacks… did you remember about his Broadway musical adventure ‘Capeman’?
Beyond the music, Simon turned into a pop culture icon when ‘Mrs. Robinson’ became forever associated with Mike Nichols’ cult movie ‘The Graduate’, and as he became a regular of Saturday Night Live – he is Lorne Michaels’ long-time friend – his impact on pop culture is well represented in the exhibit, with a comfortable seated area where you can watch old SNL sketches with that famous Turkey suit.
The exhibit was made with hands-on activities in mind, and the most entertaining part of the visit is probably the music lab, which uses Simon’s original stems and recordings and allow people to play with them… ‘These are the ingredients of the cake before it’s baked,’ we were told. Different stations participate in the deconstruction and reconstruction of many famous songs such as ‘Boy in the Bubble’ or ‘You Can Call me Al’, and you can isolate Simon’s vocals, the background vocals, the guitar and different instrument tracks or even harmonize yourself with the original vocal track on ‘Kodachrome’ or ‘50 Ways to Leave your Lover’.
People can also play with various Roland digital percussion devices and interact with the songs, as the drums and percussion parts of 4 different songs have been separated, and each item in a drum circle has a unique sound that complements the other instruments. I am certainly no drummer, so the mix and match activity was the easiest one for me, as I easily managed to match the drums/percussion part with its melodic/harmonic part for four songs,…. Listening for Paul Simon’s for decades helps a lot. Probably the most intriguing element was the Partch microtonal keyboard recreated because Paul used special instruments on his latest album ‘Stranger to Stranger’. He got interested to the musical theories of Harry Partch who invented instruments to produce 43 microtones instead of the classic 12 notes in an octave.
It took me a few hours to explore the whole thing, and I could have played much longer with all these interactive music stations. The exhibit wants to be a sort of musical biography of Simon’s life through his creative process, so don’t expect personal details about his private life, the focus is his music and creativity.
However, you can learn a lot about the man, and perhaps the most intriguing part of all this was Simon’s meticulous desire to document everything. First of all, how did he manage to keep all these yellow pads with the handwritten lyrics? Even a 1968 United Airlines magazine with the early lyrics of ‘the Boxer’? Who keeps a 1965 gig diary that long? There is also an annotated setlist of his ‘Rhythm of the Saints’ tour, with a decade indicated for each song, showing how much he wants to keep track of everything, even when balancing the decades through a setlist. Does it mean that Paul Simon is very invested in his own story and myth? May be, but he is also invested in others’ stories as he is the cofounder of the Children’s Health Fund, an organization which brings medical care to homeless children. He has also being involved with many charities, and, according to the Museum director Robert Kirschner, Simon made a pitch for environmentalism the night before, when he performed at the exhibit. However, as Kirschner told us, this part was the biggest struggle to showcase, as they had a hard time to convince Simon to allow them to talk about his charitable side.
If the exhibit is obviously a must see for Simon’s fans, it also tells a story of a NYC man who never has stopped exploring music, all genres of music, while doing exactly what he wanted, and this, despite what he was told. However, far from presenting Simon like a rebel, he is regarded like a man trying to build bridge between people and communities all over the world, a man trying to learn about himself through his art, while always aiming to find a deep connection with others.
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