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If Bob Dylan's world is in his head and heart, then tourmate Paul Simon's is in the real world outside. Simon has looked beyond U.S. shores for inspiration. His sound has been to Africa (e.g., Graceland) and Brazil (e.g., The Rhythm of the Saints, his last pure pop record, now a decade old).
And though some have accused him of cultural piracy, Simon has never taken credit where it's undeserved and has been largely responsible for exposing many Western ears to world music. People who would never buy a Youssou N'Dour or Milton Nascimento record at least know "You Can Call Me Al" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes."
Born in 1941 in New Jersey, Simon grew up in Queens, New York, surrounded by and obsessed with music. He and school friend Art Garfunkel, performing under the name Tom & Jerry as teenagers, had a minor national hit in 1957-58 with "Hey Schoolgirl." Over the next few years, Simon would record with a variety of other groups and under various pseudonyms, but would reunite with Garfunkel as a folk duo, performing in Greenwich Village coffee houses.
Their 1964 debut, Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., initially flopped, but when a savvy producer overdubbed rock instruments onto one track called "The Sounds of Silence," their careers took off.
For five more years, the hits kept coming: "The Boxer," "I Am a Rock," "America" and "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)." The duo, powered by Simon's extremely literate but sometimes pretentious songwriting and their complementary voices, became an act that hip '60s English majors and homemakers alike could love.
The duo hit their peak in 1970 with the release of Bridge over Troubled Water, anchored by the epic title track that Simon initially wrote for himself to sing but begrudgingly handed over to Garfunkel after hearing his achingly beautiful rendition. By this time Simon had already decided to pursue a solo career, feeling he'd outgrown both his partner and their niche in popular music. They have reunited sporadically over the years (most memorably for a 1981 concert in Central Park that spawned a live record), maintaining a love/hate relationship all the while.
The '70s saw only three original studio records from Simon, but they were full of such hits as "Mother and Child Reunion," "Love Me Like a Rock," "Kodachrome," "Slip Slidin' Away," "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" and "Still Crazy After All These Years." In 1980 Simon starred in the semiautobiographical film One-Trick Pony. The movie tanked, but it produced the infectious "Late in the Evening."
Through this time, Simon experimented with reggae, gospel, doo-wop and jazz. It all culminated in 1986's Graceland, a seamless blend of African melodies and instruments with pop songwriting. It won a boatload of awards, spawned the careers of many musicians on the record (including vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and heightened interest in what would be termed "worldbeat" music. Simon continued his musical journey to Brazil with the less successful The Rhythm of the Saints, which takes several listens to even begin to fully grasp.
For a good chunk of this decade, Simon has been doing what most good pop songwriters are wont to do once Geritol starts tasting good: write a Broadway musical. Jimmy Buffett has already done it, and Billy Joel probably has a great one in him.
Unfortunately Simon chose as his topic the real-life story of a mentally unstable Puerto Rican gang member who went to jail for a violent murder. Though highly anticipated and greeted with more precurtain press than any musical in Broadway history, The Capeman closed quickly. The Simon name just wasn't enough to attract audiences to this bizarre, disjointed story with an unlikable hero and a hodgepodge of musical styles. Simon released a record of his versions of the material, but it fared only slightly better.
Between them, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon could be the foundation on which modern pop sits. The chance to experience them together live before their Social Security checks start kicking in is too tempting. So maybe it's fitting that the advertising sheets for this tour feature no photos of the two men, but just a pair of trains barreling down their respective tracks. They run together but individually.
Bob Dylan and Paul Simon perform Friday, September 17, at 7:30 p.m. at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Tickets are $35 to $95. Call (713)629-3700 or (281)363-3300.
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