Paul Simon doesn’t need an opening band. Anyway, we’re here to see him. Because he’s not even supposed to be here.
See, Paul Simon officially announced his retirement from performing last year, in 2016. But he’s decided to play one last miracle tour that includes exactly one night at Red Rocks, which just so happens to be my local concert venue. Paul Simon has been writing and playing music for more than five decades, and he has every right to retire. Thus, unlikely last chance gripped firmly in hand in the form of a ticket for the 28th row for his June 28, 2017, show at Red Rocks, I know exactly how lucky I am to be here. This is the first and last time I'll see Paul Simon live in concert.
Paul Simon – 75 years of age, silver-grey hair, wearing jeans, sneakers, a navy-blue jacket with the arms scrunched up, and a t-shirt wishing us "Aloha" in cursive – walks out to the middle of the Red Rocks stage. He's joined by his time-worn band, nine musicians strong, which includes the guitarist and bassist he's played with since roundabout 1986's Graceland, Vincent Nguini and Bakithi Kumalo, respectively, and a white-haired, mega-sideburned, man-bunned multi-instrumentalist whom John, my fiancé and fellow concert-goer, quickly and enthusiastically identifies as his Future Style Muse.
Paul doesn't waste any time. He says, "If I were you, I'd get up and dance." As “The Boy in the Bubble” kicks off, drums and accordion announcing a song everyone in this audience has loved for more than 30 years, the entire crowd does just that. Enthusiastic full-crowd dancing is not a given in an audience made up predominantly of 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-somethings. But our grey-haired Paul has asked us to dance, and the rest of us grey hairs (apparent or secret) will do our absolute best to shake what our mommas gave us.
Paul follows up “The Boy in the Bubble” with “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” complete with smooth choreography, and he’s coy, cheeky, teasing, and so not 75 years old. In fact, he – along with the majority of his band – is actually fit as hell, and I can’t help occasionally wondering if they have some miniaturized, band-only Crossfit gym stashed away somewhere in the back of the tour bus.
Next, from one of his newer albums, he does a mellower, African-flavored number, “Dazzling Blue,” and then the Graceland zydeco classic “That Was Your Mother,” which also features copious amounts of present-day dancing from our Paul. He kicks into “Rewrite,” another new one I haven’t heard, and as I catch some of the lyrics – I'm workin' on my rewrite, that's right / Gonna change the ending / Gonna throw away my title / And toss it in the trash… Gonna turn it into cash – it’s clear that if there are any jokes to be made tonight, he’s already in on them.
By the time he gets to “America,” I’m in happy tears. John puts his arm around me; he thinks it’s adorable. He’s wrong. It’s actually one of the most meaningful, most identity- and soul-clearing moments I’ve ever experienced at a live music performance, and to me, that’s a touch more than “adorable.” Because “America” has long been the song that best captures my own longing for real or imagined adventures in the country I call home: Cathy, I'm lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping / And I'm empty and aching and I don't know why / Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They've all come to look for America...
We’re only a handful of songs in, and if anyone is bothering to wonder, Paul’s still got it. His voice is pure and the notes are right and all his lyrics double as heartbreaking poems, soul-opening confessionals, cultural celebrations, or never-overly-clever stories of people you may know or people you may be. The man who’s singing for us today has been singing for us for more than 50 years. He may be “retired,” but he’s still got it.
The sun is finally going down, and as the Seussian orange-red cliffs that give the venue its name begin to darken, the stage lights come up, illuminating the rocks behind Paul and the rocks surrounding all of us. I have a brief sensation of being in a giant red hug with Paul and all of the lovely 40-plusers around me. It is not something to dislike. As I hear the opening notes to “Mother and Child Reunion,” I hear the woman next to me (40+) whisper to her mother (60+), “He’s still got it.”
Now it’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” and now the old people are not only dancing, they’re also yelling – yelling in joy and absolute contentment. They’re yelling in a well-behaved manner, sure, but yelling nonetheless. Imagine one of the more raucous, enthusiastic concert crowds you’ve ever been in, age them all by about 30 years, and give them each a couple of glasses of wine. Bingo, you have our Paul Simon crowd.
As he announces “Spirit Voices,” he tells us a story about drugs. (Hey, he’s in cannabis-legal Colorado – he can be fairly certain he’s got a sympathetic crowd.) Specifically, he tells us about a trip he took to the Amazon during which he went to see a brujo, a healer/shaman who administers the notorious drug ayahuasca. The brujo told him, for some, it can open up minds, and be tremendously healing. “For others,” he said, “it’s not such a great idea. But it’s up to you, you know.” After spending two nights in the jungle among the families of the local villagers, it was finally his turn to go in and see the brujo. The brujo matter-of-factly told him, “Here, drink this. In about 15 minutes you’ll see the anaconda come in through the window. It’s not real. It’s just the beginning.”
And then 75-year-young Paul says, back here in present-day Red Rocks, “These are actually the facts of how this next song became ‘Spirit Voices’.” And the version of “Spirit Voices” that Paul and his trusty band gift us with today has potentially the most instruments (including spoons) I’ve heard deployed in a single song ever ever ever. The crowd is on a communal ayahuasca trip, but it’s only because we’re all in love with Paul and apparently, he’s still in love with us.
“The Obvious Child” follows next, all glee and drumbeats and rock-shaking vibration: And we said these songs are true / These days are ours / These tears are free. Then “Stranger to Stranger” introduces me to yet another new song that’s already somehow a new classic, this one stitched with the certainty that life is way fucking complicated sometimes: I cannot be held accountable for the things I do or say / I’m just jittery / It’s just a way of dealing with my joy / It’s just a way of dealing. The high-reaching flute of “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” gives us a much-needed moment of calm, and then the little-heard “Duncan” lets us in on another of Paul’s cheekier moments – a moment that reveals him as someone who can write a song about losing one’s virginity that’s simultaneously hilarious, sweet, sincere, and tongue-in-cheek. In fact, this, too, is a song I’ve never heard before, but someone just behind me is quietly singing it in my ear.
But here’s where I lose the plot slightly. See, I’ve been known to faint. And, for reasons I fail to understand, during “Cool, Cool River” (thankfully a song during which all us not-used-to-dancing-so-much old people have signed a communal agreement to sit down for a much-needed rest), I nearly faint. My vision goes fuzzy; I struggle to hold my focus and stay upright; I drink water from my Nalgene like it’s the sacred medicine of angels and only thing keeping me alive. But I don’t want to tell John about it. I won’t confess. I sit next to him, quiet, willing him not to notice that I’m quite possibly about to tip forward onto the people in the row in front of us. Why does this part of the story matter? Because it shows how incredibly unwilling I am to give up my one and only Paul Simon concert by risking that anyone insist I “find a nice, quiet place to lie down,” because there is no such place here at Red Rocks unless it is the first aid station. And while I’m not certain of much in this head-bleary moment of vacating consciousness, I am certain of this: the sound and view are not nearly as good at the first aid station.
In my notes, dutifully conscripted to Google Keep throughout the show, I write only this: “I go briefly batshit.” I don’t tell John about it till hours later.
Fortunately, good old Paul knows exactly how to summon me back, and it involves, back to back, an ecstatic “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and an uber-smooth “You Can Call Me Al.” All is again well. And when Paul and the band walk offstage, waving and smiling, I’m not even vaguely troubled, as I am absolutely certain I can count on Paul and company to come back and sing and play for us some more.
I’ll tell you now that Paul and his crew come back for not one, but two encores. The first encore begins with an instrumental flowing into the hilarious “Wristband,” another new one. “Wristband” is a sharp, hilarious rumination on the (fictional? who knows?) scenario of Paul Simon unable to get back into his own show because he’s an old dude they don’t recognize and he lacks the all-important… wristband, the passport of the new generation.
Paul says to the crowd, “Requests?” He listens to the crowd yelling out the names of 50 years’ worth of songs, songs he wrote, songs he’s performed hundreds upon thousands of times. The roar is deafening as these otherwise mellow and reserved adults – adults who’ve likely made it to the rare fourth glass of their chosen alcohol – jockey to hear their still-missing favorite from Paul’s seemingly endless songbook. After a long pause, Paul, smiling, slides up to the microphone and finishes his thought: “I don’t do requests.” Everyone laughs at the joke. But then we hear the opening strains of “Graceland,” and we all get the real joke: every Paul Simon song is somebody’s request. That’s just who this guy is – his particular magic, and his insane-to-contemplate vision and mastery of so many songs that have become the very mythos of our personal histories. An ASL interpreter stands stage right, signing against her heart the words we all know by heart: And she said losing love / Is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you're blown apart...
He moves on to “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and he’s telling our love story: the love story that will never go away between him and us, the people who have spent their lives listening to, growing up alongside, and feeling along with his songs. I met my old lover / On the street last night / She seemed so glad to see me / I just smiled.
They leave again. They come back again. (They wouldn’t dream of deserting us now.) When Paul comes back on-stage, he’s wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the Half-Earth Project. It’s time for him to remind us that, even though we’re here for Paul, he’s here for our planet. He reminds us that we’ve no choice but to think of the good of our planet, too, and he launches into “Questions for the Angels,” another one off one of his more recent albums. He sings, and we listen: Who believes in angels? / I do / Fools and pilgrims all over the world. (Indeed, Paul’s back on tour to benefit and call attention to E.O. Wilson’s biodiversity foundation, the Half-Earth Project. Because I have E.O. and his foundation to thank for allowing me to fulfill my bucket-list goal of getting to see Paul Simon to perform live, I’ll ask you to check out and potentially support their mission, too.)
Now it’s time for a solemn version of “The Boxer.” The lyrics are all of us: they are our good intentions, our attempts, our hopes, our failures. I am just a poor boy / Though my story's seldom told / I have squandered my resistance / For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises / All lies and jests / Still a man hears what he wants to hear / And disregards the rest. The whole audience harmonizes on the Lie la lies, and I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one in the audience wishing I lived in a world in which *these* lies are the only ones I’d ever hear.
But Paul’s still got it, so he knows we get it, too. So he does exactly the right thing to reel us back from how deep we’ve gone – he hauls out “Late in the Evening,” which, at its foundation, is a song about partying with your friends and appreciating the life you’ve got the best you can. (And yes, if you’re wondering, the Colorado crowd’s volume again crept precipitously high when he uttered the lyrics, Then I learned to play some lead guitar / I was underage in this funky bar / And I stepped outside to smoke myself a "J.”)
It’s like a pressure valve’s been released. We’re back; we’re fine; the world isn’t ending just yet. But, well, Paul’s pulled us back to ourselves only to make sure we’re ready to listen to this next part. Because, just like any other feeling human being existing in the chaos that is 2017, he’s been feeling a little uneasy, and he wants to do whatever he can to help the communal unease. So he starts talking about anger, about hate, and about judging others when we don’t understand them. About the sneer. “The sneer is addictive,” he says. “We’re becoming a nation of addicts.” He implores, “Think about who’s making a profit from this.” Is that what we want? Don’t we want our actions and words to benefit ourselves, and not those who conspire to keep us angry? “We can solve problems more efficiently with a calm mind,” says Paul. And in that moment, we all know he’s dead right. Don’t give into the sneer. Don’t give in to the anger that doesn’t help any of us get anywhere.
Do you have any doubt what comes next? Only “The Sound of Silence.” And in the naked light I saw / Ten thousand people, maybe more / People talking without speaking / People hearing without listening / People writing songs that voices never share / And no one dared / Disturb the sound of silence. It’s a dare – a dare, and a request, from Paul. Don’t be silent. We can’t afford it. We have to use our voices. Just not in the service of anger.
After that, it’s done. We know it, because it’s a finish we feel inside ourselves, a satisfying of something. Two-and-a-half hours long, and he hasn’t let us down for a moment of it. The entirely well-behaved crowd begins to toddle out, off to relieve babysitters, let the dogs out, attend to their responsibilities, and otherwise return to their regular, non-Paul-Simon-decorated lives. As we leave, Frank Sinatra serenades us over the PA with his version of “Mrs. Robinson,” ticking that one off the list.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but John recently fractured his foot. So, for what’s hopefully the first and only time in our lives, we’re riding the ADA bus from the amphitheater back to the parking lot. (If you haven’t been to Red Rocks: its terrain is unforgiving even for the able-bodied, and anyone with a broke foot can’t do otherwise than the ADA bus.) Since we took our time getting out of the venue, however, a combination of my mooning-about and John’s broken foot, we’re currently near the end of a very long line waiting for the bus. I have a long time to people-watch, reflect, and otherwise try to absorb the facts and feelings of what I’m already considering to be the single best and most important concert I’ve ever attended.
Nearby I notice an overweight woman in sweatpants with long, stringy grey hair. She’s holding a cane and leaning up against the metal barrier to rest and catch her breath. Even with the ADA bus making her journey slightly simpler, it’s been a hell of an expedition for her tonight. It has taken all she has. But when she turns I see something truly wonderful: She’s wearing a “Nevertheless, she persisted” tank top.
We’re all here tonight because Paul Simon’s songs have meant something to us at some point in our lives. This woman probably doesn’t leave the house often; it hurts too much. But, like me, and against considerably more difficult odds, she got here for Paul – because, despite his longed-for retirement, he too persisted nevertheless.
Why is this part of the story important? Because we all put things on our bucket lists. But only some of us make them happen, and only sometimes. We all need to do what we can to make the most of the time we have on this earth. That includes finding and following what rings true and beautiful and good for each of us. For me and the woman with the cane, that includes the music of Paul Simon, which I’m sure she and I would agree is one of the most authentic, unspoiled musical expressions of life and living we’ve been lucky enough to have in our lives. For Paul himself, that includes giving himself the right to come out of retirement just long enough for one more planet-benefiting tour… and just long enough to acknowledge that he still has a role to play in the fairly massive, 50-plus-year love story that many of us have with his music. Who knows: maybe canceling his own retirement is on Paul’s bucket list? We can only hope.