He's the finest pop singer-songwriter of his generation, which, by my count, was two generations ago. Paul Simon has released only three records this decade: 1990's Rhythm of the Saints (otherwise known as Back to Graceland); a live walk-through in 1991, recorded in the intimate confines of Central Park; and 1997's The Capeman, a soundtrack to his on-then-quickly-off-Broadway outing about a, ya know, misunderstood murderer named Salvador Agron, who killed two innocents in a 1959 gang showdown. Simon never could understand why folks were so pissed off about The Capeman. Oh, maybe it had something to do with the fact that Agron never showed an ounce of remorse for his crimes and that Simon was so unabashed about his oddball hero worship for the leather-clad tough guy. The Capeman, both the record and the show, came and went so fast that it doesn't exist at all in the memory banks, which is just as well. So much for that loving homage to Jeffrey Dahmer that Simon was planning, the tentatively titled I'm Just Hungry.
It's appropriate, then, that only one Capeman song, "Trailways Bus," has shown up on set lists during his long tour with co-headliner Bob Dylan. Bobby D. keeps changing up his sets, throwing curves when he could be hurling strikes; after 37 years, the man exists only to serve himself, playing each set as though last night and last year and last decade never happened. Just when you think he's done for, he'll show up at the Music Hall at Fair Park or on some rinky-dink stage to shatter myth and render it mortal. Check out his stunning, abbreviated version of Time Out of Mind's "Highlands," recorded in New York in July and now available as a Real Audio file at www.bobdylan.com. It's the stuff of high-strung revelation, a wistful song rendered now as some sort of barely veiled fulmination.
But Simon, so far, has stuck to a safe and predictable set list: "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "The Boy in the Bubble," "Mrs. Robinson," "The Sound of Silence," "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," "Graceland," "Late in the Evening," and "Still Crazy After All These Years." And, of course, he renders the oldies in Graceland shades -- lots of imported riddims laid out over all that folksy strumming and that high-and-lonesome voice that still, even now, sounds like that of an English-lit student who picked up the guitar to win the girl. Nothing wrong with any of those songs, but a little wimpy goes a long way; it had to happen eventually, but Simon has become James Taylor. If only he'd stand up there and perform Hearts and Bones -- his Time Out of Mind, recorded and then abandoned in 1983, around the time the man faced down 40 -- then maybe there'd be reason to celebrate. Time to rescue that lost gem from the scrapheap, or at least play "Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War" or "The Late Great Johnny Ace" every now and then instead of God-no-please-no-not-again "Slip Sliding Away" (or even "Mother and Child Reunion," his first and best world-music, ah, experiment).
One colleague insists the 57-year-old Paul Simon is the most literate of all the post-folkies...and the most sensitive, meaning it takes a tough guy to cry. Fine enough. But Simon, who might be the most self-aware and self-deprecating performer to emerge from the 1960s, has always left me a little cold in concert. For more than a decade, he's seemed to be more about technique -- and borrowed technique, at that -- than unfeigned emotion. Does he really enjoy performing 30-plus-year-old songs, or is he just offering the obvious because the well's gone dry? Reworking old songs doesn't necessarily give them life; it just dresses them up in someone else's ill-fitting clothing. To hear "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as mbaqanga is the stuff of novelty -- the grin behind which hides quick-buck nostalgia. Then again, better to hear it that way than delivered in those insufferably insistent, hushed tones that made me hate it when I was a kid, before I knew better. (Give me "Cecilia," please.) Then again, 1971's Paul Simon is one of the best non-rock rock albums ever. Maybe that's all you can ask for. The rest, good or bad, is just gravy.