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- November 03, 1980
- Vol. 14
- No. 18
Music Keeps Coming
Singer/songwriter Paul Simon Finds His Bridge Over Troubled Water at 39 – and is Better Than Ever with a New Movie
Most surprisingly, perhaps, the liberating locus of Simon's mid-career renewal is not strictly musical. Rather, it is One-Trick Pony, the new movie he wrote, scored and stars in, which represents his biggest risk-taking since the difficult split with Art Garfunkel a decade ago. Garfunkel, of course, found a home in movies like Carnal Knowledge and Catch-22 and is currently starring in Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing/A Sensual Obsession. Simon added to his musical feats (40 million LPs, 13 Grammys) but stayed clear of Hollywood until 1977, when Woody Allen talked him into a cameo in Annie Hall. The switch came, he explains, because "I'm afraid to stop growing, afraid that someday I'll say, 'That's it. I've run out of ideas.' Probably all artists fear that their lives will outrun their gift. And that's a moment you don't want to face."
If nothing else, One-Trick Pony proves Simon's obsession with survival. Even he recognizes it. In one fatalistic but funny scene in the film, Simon comes up with a new twist on an old trivia game. Each player tries to remember the name of a deceased rock star; failure means elimination. ("We should have two separate categories for ODs and plane crashes," someone cracks mordantly.) Yet the more challenging contest might have been to name not the stars who have died since the early days of rock but rather those whose bodies, souls, hearts, minds—and art—have survived intact.
Simon is one of the very few. In the New Hollywood economics, for instance, a successful LP soundtrack can be the tail that wags the horse. The Pony sound track, Simon's first album since Still Crazy after All These Years in 1975, is predictably high on the charts, as is Late in the Evening, the vibrantly percussive, Latin-tinged single from the film. It hardly matters that Simon's most ambitious move—the film itself—has left reviewers divided. A rock critic for the Los Angeles Times cheered that Pony is "so perceptively and ruthlessly honest" that it "ranks among the year's best." But another critic, from the New York Daily News, groused that Simon's onscreen persona was "so forlorn and listless it is hard to care what happens to him." Simon tries but is unable to shrug off critics as just ordinary people. "I should do what Woody [Allen] does, ignore them. But I'm curious." And he admits, "I don't take it well, either for my music or for the film."
A methodical, driven perfectionist, Simon spent four years on the $7 million project that he hopes will launch him in the '80s as The Graduate's soundtrack did in the '60s. He was helped in acting by Mira Restova (a former Montgomery Clift coach suggested by close friend Charles Grodin) and spent several weeks in Chicago mastering the Middle American argot of waitresses and club owners. (The title, referring to a trained pony who can perform only one trick, comments ironically on the fading rock singer protagonist's clinging to his music amid the shambles of his marital life.) Paul reworked some scenes over and over and learned how to cry menthol-induced tears in front of the camera. Yet though he'd like to write another film, Simon will probably cast elsewhere for the lead. "I don't want to be a movie star, and being a celebrity undermines the seriousness of your work. I'm not an exhibitionist," he sums up. "No, I'm not ready for summer stock companies and Streetcar Named Desire."
Simon just concluded a 12-city U.S. tour of small halls and is now playing 13 European gigs with the touring band which stars in the film. The tour, aimed to boost the movie, stands to lose him $300,000. Shrugs Simon of the bottom-line side of the business: "Entertainers are paid disproportionately high sums of money for their contribution to society. I used to feel guilty," he continues, "but now I accept that gratefully. When someone tells me, 'You've given me a lot of pleasure in my life,' it all seems like a gratifying, very pure way of earning money."
Like McCartney and Dylan, Simon is among the wealthiest composers of his generation. In his five astonishingly prolific years with Garfunkel (who rarely wrote), he created a seemingly endless string of sophisticated hits like The Boxer, Sounds of Silence, Mrs. Robinson, Bridge over Troubled Water, America, Homeward Bound and Scarborough Fair. Since going solo, Paul has added Kodachrome, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, American Tune and Still Crazy. His awesome composing prowess, coupled with the fact that he retained all his publishing rights, has generated enormous income from royalties, sheet music, air play and catalogue (previously released LPs) sales. Michael Tannen, his business manager, says, "Paul has probably the most valuable self-owned publishing catalogue anywhere." Bridge alone has been re-recorded 200 times by other artists. Says Simon: "I have enough money. If I want more money I write some songs."
Simon's home (his only one) is a cavernous duplex overlooking Central Park on Manhattan's West Side. It is, like much of his music, elegant, unostentatious, with everything in its place. He likes to sit and pick out new tunes on a couch near the floor-to-ceiling windows. Simon has been living "on and off" for two years with actress Carrie (Star Wars) Fisher. Her filming of Under the Rainbow with Chevy Chase in L.A. and Paul's touring have caused what Carrie calls "forced separations, which are rough." Simon's ex-wife since 1975, Peggy Harper, 41, is a non-showbiz Tennessean who lives a few blocks uptown. Their son, Harper James, 8, a third-grader in private school, divides his time between them. Simon is an animated and warmly attentive dad. "It's a great thing in my life to be a father. I always wanted to have children and be a member of a nuclear family," he says. He then adds, ruefully, "The molecules exploded, however, in a manner I couldn't predict at the time of the marriage." (He met Peggy in the '60s when she was married to his former business manager, and they wed in 1970.) Even now he doesn't rule out another marriage—"if it happened soon enough. But I have no specific plans."
Simon spent several years in analysis in the early '70s to help him through the twin turmoil of the Garfunkel split and his marital woes. "It was helpful, but it doesn't cure you. I'm verbal, given to introspection," he understates. "So it's natural for me to lie down and talk about things."
Unlike his Pony character, Simon finds, "My personal life isn't a mess. But it could use more time," he concedes. "I'm much less adept at working out my personal life than my career life. It's not like I spent 15 years on my relationships. I didn't, and you can see I didn't. The ones that I had didn't hold." Lorne Michaels, ex-producer of Saturday Night Live and his down-the-hallway neighbor, thinks Simon may be a little hard on himself in that regard, noting, "Paul's one of the people I go to for advice. He's direct and clearheaded. He assesses your situation with kindness and compassion. He is very gentle."
Indeed, Paul seems to cherish peacemaking with partners of the past, and says he has "no enemies." He and Garfunkel, a buddy since they were sixth-grade classmates at P.S. 164 in Forest Hills, are still friends and see one another or talk frequently. "I root for Artie," Paul says of his friend's current (if controversial) role as a sexually obsessed professor in Bad Timing. "I rooted for Shelley Duvall [with whom Simon lived several years ago] in The Shining. We were together in Cannes when she got the call that Kubrick wanted her." Carrie Fisher doesn't need his prayers, grins Paul: "She's really got the goods and the Force is with her. She'll emerge as a gifted comedienne."
Even professionally, Simon's made amazingly few foes. CBS Records president Bruce Lundvall, who says Paul's recent defection to Warner Brothers (for up to $5 million per LP, according to rumors) left him feeling "bitter and disappointed," now reports that they are again on cordial terms. In fact, Paul cast him as an extra in a party scene in Pony.
Most of all, Simon roots for his ex-wife Peggy to be happy, he says. "It's not just that we share a child. You don't fall in love without a reason. That feeling is rare and those people who meant that to me still mean a lot."
Simon likewise remains close to his family. His father, Louis, a former bass player who went on to teach English at City College of New York, and mother, Belle, who taught elementary school while Paul grew up, are now retired and live across the George Washington Bridge in Englewood, N.J. His younger brother, Eddie, 34, runs New York's Guitar Study Center and lives nearby. As a kid in Forest Hills, Simon was a card-flipping baseball-crazed kid who was competitive in sports, though he topped off at 5'4". "I must have been very angry, probably about not growing," he observes. "I was doing well. When I was 15 Artie and I played on American Bandstand. I batted first on the baseball team. I had a school jacket with letters and everything on it. I was popular. But," he repeats, "I was a real angry guy. I spent a lot of time by myself, playing guitar."
Rather than go out, Simon prefers to invite close friends and family to his eight-room pad, but he mostly centers entertaining in an upstairs den that doubles as office and study. A tiled hot tub is in an adjacent bathroom. He owns a Mercedes and spends summers in rented Long Island homes. "I don't tend to socialize with other musicians," he says. "Lorne Michaels and his girlfriend, Susan Forristal, are my Fred and Ethel Mertz." Socially, Lorne confirms that Paul keeps a low profile. "Flamboyant is not a word that applies here. Paul can get melancholy. But there's a keen, tough New York edge to him." Laughs Simon, "I'm not your basic walk-in-the-woods guy. I'm not overwhelmed by sunsets, and Peggy always used to say I never got poison ivy 'cause I never walked off the roads."
Simon does stay tapered and well toned by jogging in Central Park and sweats through workouts in his $5,000 gym room at home. He's on a strict diet—no dairy foods, red meat or sugar—prescribed years ago to dissolve calcium deposits in his hand which were jeopardizing his nimble folk-jazz guitar-picking style. But lately he has dropped to 117 pounds, even below soul brother Woody Allen's weight class. "Control is one of the essences of art," observes Paul. "There is a controlled tension in my work and it is very much like me." Carrie, 24, agrees: "Paul is the most disciplined person I've ever seen. I don't know anyone who has gone about conquering what Paul has and succeeded."
Paul says he'd like to write a Broadway musical "in the next decade," but one trick he hasn't turned this year is the political benefit. "It was a mistake for politics and show business to mix," he says, "and now it's backfiring, because we have an actor trying to become President." But he adds: "For all we know Willie Nelson is making decisions about Iraq. You know, 'Hey Willie, y'think we oughta send 'em into Iraq?' 'I'll ask Waylon. Shit, yeah, Waylon'll tell us.' Politicians got their campaign moves real down, and they know their TV, but they don't know how to do their job when elected."
Instead, Simon's causes have shifted inward with his realization of aging. "It came so powerfully," he recalls. He particularly remembers visiting a dentist with his son and gazing at an X-ray of Harper's teeth. "To see an X-ray of your skull is to see you dead," he says. "There's nothing there. So I'm looking at Harper's skull, his baby teeth, and behind and below and on top of them I see his next age and then the space for wisdom teeth. I had his whole life right there in front of me. This is my little boy, my boy, a whole life in these X-rays of his teeth." Then Dad stops short, pauses, struggles for words and finishes: "Yeah, it's flyin'; time's flyin'."
But Simon is determined to keep pace. "I have options, I got brains, health. I'm thinking now of the best way for me to live my life." He stops, rubs his cheeks and chin, smiles and nods slowly. "Yeah, I'm happy. I'm busy, it's exciting now. I got a kid. I starred in a movie. I'm touring in Europe. I got friends who love me and whom I love. My parents are alive. Yeah, I'm happy," he sums up. "It's not gonna last forever, but this is a precious moment."
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