Out There

Fall from Graceland

Songs from The Capeman
Paul Simon
Warner Bros. Records

It's easy to understand why Paul Simon would be attracted to the story of Salvador Agron, who, in 1959, stabbed to death two innocents caught in a New York City gang war. Agron, then a 16-year-old Puerto Rican member of a gang called the Vampires, was sentenced to die. When he was caught, Agron--referred to as "The Capeman" because he was draped in a black cape with red lining--was defiant, openly proud of what he had done. Yet a group fundamentally opposed to the death penalty convinced the governor to overturn his death sentence. Agron instead served 20 years in prison, where he was "re-humanized," as he called it. When he died in 1986, worn out at 43, Agron was nothing more than a faded symbol of injustice.

As a kid, Simon, a native New Yorker, wasn't drawn to the boy's plight; he simply liked the fact that Agron was a slicked-back teenager, a "rock and roll hoodlum," as Simon refers to him in the liner notes. Simon saw in Agron something he'd never become but always wanted to be. And so Songs from The Capeman, a sampler of songs contained in The Capeman, the musical that Simon and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott will debut on Broadway in January, is less about Agron and more about Simon's wish-fulfillment. Thirty-eight years later, Simon, singing in an affected Spanish accent, finally gets to become Agron--a poor kid from the barrio (he pronounces it badio).

Those who praise Songs From The Capeman as a work about redemption and injustice miss the point; they are hearing not this album but the ancient echoes of a time when Simon didn't have to try as hard to say so little. The album plays instead more like a parody of West Side Story; it is soulless, overwrought, laugh-out-loud funny. Simon, attempting to fuse Puerto Rican music with the street-corner doo-wop of his youth, has created a sterile soundtrack of the 1950s, more cracker revisionism from the man who turned Ladysmith Black Mambazo into a backup band. But Simon doesn't get away here with performing in brown face.

Even worse, Simon simply can't play it tough. He tries to portray himself as "just some spic they grabbed off the sidewalk," but the songwriter gets in the way of the performer. Then he bangs home his point with a thousand-pound hammer; he and his "cast" trip over his and Walcott's cumbersome lyrics: "The politics of prison are a mirror of the street/The poor endure oppression, the police control the state." The best part is, Simon treats Agron as the victim--as a good guy simply dealt a bad hand. It's comforting to know that Agron, who offered no excuses for his actions, likely would have hated this musical most of all.

--Robert Wilonsky


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