Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Paul Simon Exhibit | Lefsetz Letter

“Paul Simon: Words & Music”

You’ve got to hook ’em with the very first line.

Some things never change. Just like hip-hop is the sound of the streets and rock and roll is overbaked. That’s when Paul Simon turned away from rock to folk, when the former was repetitive and the latter was saying something, important.

And it was sung by the beautiful Baez.

Paul’s words, not mine. Yes, there are some politically incorrect statements in this exhibit, but it was fifty years ago, times were different, but people were just the same.

Waiting for the Yankees to come on the radio, Paul was infected by this record “Gee.” You’d get it if you heard it, and you do in this exhibit. That’s the power of music, when done right it grabs you, when done wrong, it’s ignored, especially today.

So Paul’s father gives him a guitar. This is the early fifties. But in ’64, the same thing happened with the baby boomers, they saw the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan” and all picked up axes and formed bands, the same way every kid on the street corner is now a rapper. You imitate what stimulates.

So Paul meets the vaunted Artie in school, where Garfunkel is famous for his vocalizing, and they parade up and down the New York streets until they cut a demo and a label overhears them and gives them a deal.

The renamed “Tom and Jerry” have a hit. The label even gets Alan Freed to play it. It’s on “American Bandstand.” With the proceeds Paul buys a convertible. Which catches fire with him inside of it, and after his car is destroyed he never scores another smash, and moves to England after dropping out of law school, where no one is paying attention and he can write songs and get paid fifteen pounds for a gig in 1965.

And the truth is, every baby boomer knows the history. But what makes this exhibit so stimulating is the artifacts and the insights.

Stuff like Simon’s summer camp letter to Garfunkel. Talking about being a waiter, and the girls.

The original label contract.

And all the interludes about life and inspiration.

Being an artist… That’s something that’s fallen by the wayside. Today we have commercial musicians and holier-than-thou performers who call themselves artists but live in an alternative universe where they get no traction.

But in the sixties and seventies, artists ruled. Musical artists. And the way you won was by following your muse and experimenting. Constantly changing it up, not repeating yourself. We were oftentimes flummoxed when hearing the new work of our favorites, but we respected them and gave their tunes time. Funnily enough, the greatest exponent of this today is Justin Bieber, who’s constantly working with new collaborators with different sounds, from DJ Snake to Luis Fonsi. The old farts pooh-pooh, but the little girls understand.

But Paul Simon turned into an adult. And explored adult themes. He grew.

And he’s still here.

Oftentimes we venerate people only when they’re gone. But Paul’s still creating. His song “Wristband” is more timely than most of the stuff on the hit parade. The fact that there’s no place for it on today’s Top Forty is not his fault.

And so many of his songs were political, standing up to the dreaded Nixon.

And Clive Davis, who told him he’d never be as famous without Garfunkel. That’s a great label head, disincentivizing his charges to create. If you’re not willing to follow the artist, you should not be in this business, the artist always knows best, never forget it.

And you see the guitars and the handwritten lyrics and you’re brought back to when.

And when you read about the inspiration, the writing of “Graceland”… Today we think being an artist is promoting, getting your name out there, being in the flow. But the truth is you cannot be creative unless you live your life. Which is why so many of the songs are written by old men and women off the scenes. But since they don’t live a life either, the lyrics are vapid. It’s when lightning strikes that greatness emanates.

Like at Elvis Presley’s estate. Simon couldn’t write lyrics so he went to Graceland, and thought it was uninspiring. But when he saw the lines carved into Presley’s gravestone at the end… The song came together.

Just like “Bridge Over Troubled Water”… He was strumming his guitar and the song fell into place, just that fast. You’re a conduit. Not that Simon didn’t rework his lyrics till he was satisfied.

And it’s this edginess, this belief in his own path, that causes him to have a less than likable image. We want our artists to be warm and fuzzy, just like us, but they’re not, certainly not the greats, if you’ve met any you know this, they’re different, oftentimes tortured, always staring into the distance at a destination only they can see.

If you want to know the history, this Skirball exhibit is pretty good.

But if you want to be inspired, put into a space where you too can create, it’s EXCEPTIONAL!

A museum is where we go to get away from society to reconnect with it. When done right an exhibit requires all of our attention, and rewards us for it.

This presentation might look like a victory lap, but in truth it’s a beacon, if you’re desirous of going some place, if you live on creativity, if you’re looking for your inner tuning fork to vibrate, if you can respect someone who did it his way and won.

And is still doing it.


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