Paul Simon announced today that his upcoming “Homeward Bound” tour will be his last.
It would be hard for me to overstate how much Paul Simon’s music has meant to me. I am of an age (34) where Paul Simon was the soundtrack to my childhood. My parents were huge fans. They had most of the Simon & Garfunkel catalog on vinyl, as well as most of Paul Simon’s records from after the duo split up. For road trips, they had some of the records committed to tape so that we could listen in the car. We lived in southwest Wisconsin and most of our extended family lived in Minneapolis/St. Paul. We made the drive north along the Mississippi once every month or two. I have vivid memories of listening to Graceland and watching the great river wind alongside the road, marveling at the sounds through the speakers and the landscape out the window.
As I grew up, I started to play music of my own. I’ve played guitar since I was 15, and have been writing/recording/touring for five or six years. As a songwriter, Simon is a master of the form, and I have studied his work like cannon. (The same is true for many of my friends/songwriter colleagues.) “Duncan” was one of the early songs that I tried to learn when I started out. Graceland remains my favorite record of all time — a truly remarkable feat of both talent and ambition.
I assume — or at least hope — that Simon will continue making music, even if he won’t continue to tour. But losing him from the touring circuit is still a loss. I’ve seen him live twice. The most recent was last summer, when he did a set at the Eaux Claires festival (in Eau Claires, WI, curated by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner), backed by the avant-garde chamber-ensemble yMusic. It was a set that had some really magical moments, but the weather was bad and the arrangements with yMusic made for a lovely but very slow set.
My first time seeing him, eleven years ago now, was a different story. Shortly after I finished my undergraduate degree at Madison in 2005, I was living back near my hometown in southwest Wisconsin and working a relatively dead-end job at a brewery. Simon announced a tour that brought him to the Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis. My dad and I went, following the same route that we’d driven a hundred times when I was a kid, following the west bank of the Mississippi. It was the eve of Simon’s 65th birthday (October 12, 2006), and he and the band were on fire. Even though it was a tour ostensibly in support of Surprise, they burned through pretty much every song I could’ve wanted to hear from Graceland, and a lot of excellent cuts from throughout his catalog. They started the set with “Gumboots” and “Boy in the Bubble” and ended with “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” As the final notes of “Diamonds” echoed, the band exited the stage. The crowd started singing “Happy Birthday,” and Simon and the band (joined by his son Harper) returned to the stage for a three-song encore. Another exit. Another chorus of “Happy Birthdays.” Again and again. Four encores in all. The finale was “Boxer.” I will never forget that room filled with several thousand voices singing along to that chorus. A lot of people cried.
The world has many problems. I’m grateful for everything Paul Simon has given me and so many others, and I’m glad that he’s leaving the road life on his own terms. He’ll be 77 this year, and owes us nothing. But I am saddened that we won’t get more opportunities to experience what I experienced that night in Minneapolis. His music and his shows are like a buoy — a lifeline to steel us through the bad times and wrap our arms around the good ones.