Songwriter Paul Simon brings a new verse to the Ellmann Lectures

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sep. 25, 2013

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Singing with Paul Simon during his Ellmann Lectures performance was the opportunity of a lifetime for Becky Herring, events manager for the Schwartz Center and a 2008 Emory vocal performance graduate. Emory Photo/Video.

Standing before a packed sanctuary in Glenn Memorial Auditorium, critically acclaimed American songwriter Paul Simon wondered aloud about his qualifications to present the 2013 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

"I'm not a lecturer, I'm a songwriter," he demurred, with a smile.

"Actually, I don't know if I'm nervous or not — yes, I threw up, but sometimes that happens anyway," he drily quipped, winning sympathetic laughter from a supportive crowd.

But the award-winning artist who so deftly transforms poetry into lyrics, songs into storytelling did speak. And sing. And perform elegant, familiar tunes and wrestle with challenging artistic questions, sharing his insights into a career that has spanned 50 years with music that has touched generations.

And so began a three-day celebration, a musical journey exploring the literature of songwriting and the mysteries of creativity as Simon visited Emory Sept. 22-24 for the 12th series of Ellmann Lectures.

Established in 1988, the Ellmann Lecture Series honors the late Richard Ellmann, Emory's first Robert W. Woodruff Professor and a noted literary critic and biographer.

Simon's campus appearance included four public events: two lectures — generously layered with musical moments — a conversation with former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and a concluding concert at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.

Introducing Simon's first lecture, Ellmann Lectures Director Joseph Skibell, professor of English and creative writing, observed that "from the dawn of civilization, great literature has been sung — the Torah, the Psalms, the Koran, the Homeric epics were all meant to be sung."

"For nearly 50 years, Paul Simon's songs have been doing the work of great literature," Skibell added.

A musical memoir

For his first appearance, "Sailing on an Endless Sea: My Life as a Songwriter," Simon presented a musical memoir, sharing signature "Kodachrome" moments from his own writing life:  

"Imagine if you will, that I am 12 years old, sitting on my back porch in Queens, N.Y., on a summer afternoon in the year 1954. I'm filling out a scorecard for the Yankees-Red Sox game that is about to be aired. As I pencil in the player's names … I can hear the radio playing a popular music show which precedes the game, 'Make-Believe Ballroom.' I endure the last 15 minutes of this program only to be absolutely certain that I won't miss the first pitch of the Yankee game. A deejay is playing "Racing with the Moon," by Vaughn Monroe.

"It's the kind of song that could make a baseball-loving 12-year-old throw up. Full of sticky praise for Vaughn Monroe — and really, what kind of name is Vaughn Monroe — the deejay announces that he received that very morning a new record. 'The worst song I've ever heard,' he says. It's so bad that he'll eat his hat if it becomes a hit. Now he's got my attention. He plays a record called 'Gee' by the Crows, and I think to myself, "this is the first thing I've heard on this show that I actually like. The fact is it's the first time I've ever heard rhythm and blues."

And so began the journey, from a boy who hijacked chords from The Penguins' "Earth Angel" to pen "The Girl for Me," — the first song he ever wrote with childhood friend "Artie" Garfunkel — to a world-renowned, critically acclaimed solo artist, who has followed his creative impulses to South Africa, Brazil and beyond.  

Simon's presentation — the first academic lecture he has ever given — was generously peppered with insights and anecdotes that sketched pivotal moments and influences:  

  • At 16, Simon and Garfunkel recorded their first song, "Hey Schoolgirl on the Second Row." "We were called 'Tom and Jerry' after the cartoon characters. There was no possibility of ethnic names like 'Simon and Garfunkel.'" 

  • During their first appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, the duo shared a dressing room with Jerry Lee Lewis, "definitely a guy who didn't come from Queens." When Dick Clark asked Simon where he hailed from, the New Jersey-born singer quipped, "Macon, Georgia" — the home of Little Richard.

  • As artists, Simon and Garfunkel "had a habit" of breaking up and reuniting: "We are currently in one of our break-up phases, but that could change at any moment. Possibly at one of our funerals," Simon joked.

  • Time spent as a street singer in Paris in 1964 "taught me how to hold an audience's attention."

  • On writing "The Sound of Silence": "I was still living at home … and would sit with my guitar in the tiled bathroom with the lights off and the tap running. 'Hello darkness my old friend…' was not a metaphor … I was literally sitting in the dark. Emotionally the song was influenced by JFK's assassination. Had no inkling I had written a song that would last 50 years. I was 21 years old…"

  • The song "that will most likely be cited in my obituary is 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' which he wrote after listening to the Swan Silvertones' album, "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep," the Everly Brothers, "Songs Our Daddy Taught Us" — "it came so easily, as if someone had dictated it to me," he recalled. 

  • Simon never dreamed "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" would be a hit. "It was a song I made up to teach my son how to rhyme."

The writer's conundrum

Paul Simon lecture

Paul Simon and former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins talk about the creative process during the 2013 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature. Photo by James Crissman.

But not all songwriting flowed easily across the span of Simon's career.

The 71-year-old artist shared a frank admission: "I've only completed two songs in the last three and a half years. People ask quite often, 'what took you so long?' as if it were a pizza delivery. The answer is I was trying to write the whole time."

What gets in the way? Simon — an admitted perfectionist — labeled it "the writer's conundrum," the shrill, nagging voice of an ever-present inner critic.

"I'm a songwriting addict," he explained. "Lately, it's just a little harder for me to get my fix."

The act of creating — both in songs and poetry — served as the focus of his second appearance, a public conversation between Simon and his friend, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

In an easy, humor-filled exchange, 72-year-old Collins asked Simon about the task of writing long-form prose for the Ellmann Lecture Series — a new challenge for Simon, but one that intrigued him.

Simon acknowledged completing 18 rewrites of his material —adding that if someone had suggested that it would have benefited from 18 more rewrites, he would have done them.

In the creative process, he said, stopping sometimes seems an arbitrary act: "There is always the potential for more to happen."

In songwriting, Simon said he is attentive to even the smallest details. Dissatisfied with the "studio sound" of a recording, he once went outside and placed a microphone on a sidewalk to record. "There is no moment in the song — the same as in a poem — that is of no consequence," he explained.

Collins agreed, adding that in poetry, as in songwriting, "the words seem to enjoy each other... sort of a word party."

But how to make words and music fit together? As a light-hearted experiment, Collins fed Simon a few opening lines of poetry — including one of his own: "Too bad you weren't here six months ago…"

Simon immediately had his guitar in hand, strumming chords and walking the audience through his own songwriting alchemy: "That's a very good line. My first thought is, 'Do I want to use up that line on the first line, or do I want to (use it later) for a pay-off?' And it could be either way…"

Thinking out loud, Simon considered the syllables, the beat of each word, in search of a time signature. "It's such a good line, but the power is weakened by the (natural) separation of the words," he mused.

"I often think poets have a big advantage over songwriters," Simon said, explaining that they don't have to be bound by a certain musical rhythm.

"I don't know how I would write a song about what's going on in Syria," he added. "But I can imagine a poem."

"Have you ever written poetry without intending to set it to music?" Collins asked.

"Yeah, a few times," said Simon with a self-deprecating chuckle. "It wasn't that good."

The conversation concluded with both artists demonstrating the power of their own words, in poem and song. Collins drew warm laughter and applause from reading three works, "Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska," "Cheerios," and "After the Funeral."

Simon responded with an impromptu performance of his own, including an elegant, mesmerizing version of "The Sound of Silence" and the joyous, crowd-pleasing hits "Slip Slidin' Away" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard."

The solitary artist, considered

For his final lecture, "View from Cloud: The Solitary Artist in a Collaborative Culture," Simon admitted that he was taking a risk, wrestling with a topic that he hasn't yet resolved in his own mind.

After listening to a TED Talk arguing for more "collaborative thinking in education," Simon wondered "if solitary artists are about to become irrelevant in a speed-obsessed world."

The more he thought about it, "the more intriguing and elusive it became," Simon admitted.

Though acknowledging the creative outcomes that collaboration has played in his own musical life, Simon also upheld the benefits of spending time alone, creating.

When asked his thoughts on today's modern music scene, Simon was skeptical: "Something must be off, because music really stinks," he said, criticizing the dangers of "the collaborative culture" to so willingly accept vulgarity and along with it, a loss of privacy.

"The purpose of art is the nourishment of the culture," he explained. "I don't like art that's meant to shock. I like art that is beautiful … a pleasure to the senses. Something that can open our minds."

He concluded by taking questions from the audience, ranging from "What song consistently brings you to tears?" ("Depends on what medication I'm on," he quipped) and "Will you work with Phillip Glass again?" (he'd love to) to "What's your favorite cover?" (Aretha Franklin's "Bridge Over Troubled Water.")

Later Skibell described this final lecture as a personal highlight, showing Simon as "an intense, focused, omnivorous, intellectual artist with a powerful scope and reach," he explained.

As he watched, "I just thought 'This is something you wouldn't get any place else: Paul Simon thinking through an intellectual knot.'"

A grand finale

Fittingly, Simon's appearance at Emory began and ended with music.

Before he took the stage for his first lecture, music from the Congregation Bet Haverim Music Ensemble had filled the Glenn Memorial Auditorium with song, including Simon's own works.

For his final appearance, Simon took the stage himself, along with musical accompanist Mark Stewart before an enthusiastic audience that filled the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts to capacity.

Appearing relaxed, Simon shared a few of his best-loved classics, with a set list that ranged from "The Sound of Silence" to a surprise cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun" — Simon noted that it's one of his favorites.

At one point, the songwriter stopped to address the crowd: "I don't know that I've ever said how much fun I've had the last few days at Emory," he said, adding that he was "grateful for the process and the things I've learned."

To the delight of the crowd, Simon invited poet Billy Collins and composer Andy Teirstein, from the Ellmann Lectures international selection committee, to join him on stage to perform "Mystery Train," playing tambourine and harmonica, respectively.

Then, an opportunity of a lifetime: Becky Herring, events manager for the Schwartz Center and a 2008 Emory vocal performance graduate, was invited to sing with Simon — first "Mrs. Robinson" and then later, "The Boxer."

"It was a glorious surprise," said Herring, who said the invitation had been extended moments before the concert when Simon's manager heard her harmonizing during a sound check.

"The whole concert felt like a really fun jam session in somebody's basement," she said. "It was so generous of him to share the stage with us — easily the highlight of my singing life."

That casual invitation to perform with Simon? "That's a testament to the good time he had here," concluded Skibell, who also took the stage himself to sing and play guitar for "The Boxer."

"And it was only the most public display of his generosity," Skibell said. "There was nothing but graciousness all the way around. In ways small and large, easy and difficult, he made so many people's days — maybe their lives."

"He's a perfectionist," Skibell added. "An extraordinary writer and thinker. And an extraordinary gift to Emory."