Simon Doubleday September 23, 2018

Paul Simon’s last concert

It was impossible to believe that this might be his farewell performance. Counting the cars on the Grand Central Parkway and the silver carriages of the “7” trains, they’d all come to look for a musician who has metamorphosed as many times as America. They found, and heard, a man still passionately committed to creative innovation, prepared to challenge anyone who might hear without listening—a singer just as willing to rewrite “René and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War” for strings as to crowd-please with “You Can Call me Al”: a man at the top of his game. Nearby, in the flashes of the neon lights at Citi Field, the Mets were losing, but Paul Simon held out his baseball glove in the dusk, threw a ball into the crowd, and waited for the catch.

Far from the stage, in the gathering darkness under the trees in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, we were in Plato’s Cave, staring at the images projected onto three giant screens: Paul Simon, black-jacketed, red-shirted, grey-haired; his African bass-players, his backing singers, and Edie Brickell, big-hatted, laughing and whistling her way through “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard”, temporary Queen of Corona. Standing on tiptoe, over the heads of ten thousand people, maybe more, we could just see the musicians themselves, like specks on a platform, generating an endless spectrum of sound. The edgy string arrangement to “Can’t Run But”; the bouncing rhythms of “Wristband”; the electrifying South African, and West African, fusions of the 80s and 90s. In its closing bars, the folk-rock song “The Boxer” was given a Mexican corrido twist, conjuring up the Hispanic immigrant’s desperate search for a place in New York.

Overhead, a Spirit Airlines plane flew across the moon.

In this night of possible finality, there were several possible endings. First, “Graceland”: a glimpse of salvation through music – “I have reason to believe / we all will be received / In Graceland” – oscillating between broken desperation and hope.  “She comes back to tell me she’s gone, / As if I didn’t know that, / As if I didn’t know my own bed”. The singer, with his nine-year-old traveling companion, is on the road “through the cradle of the civil war”, through pain and ghosts and emptiness, to heavenly redemption in Memphis. Then, of course, “Homeward Bound”. A banner high above the stage read “Welcome Home,” and Simon gestured at the sky as another plane came in from the heavens to land at La Guardia, saying “Welcome to New York”. The video screens projected images of past concerts, past tickets, past railway stations, past destinations. “American Tune” spoke worryingly to the age’s most uncertain hour.

Too much seriousness – time for “Kodachrome,” for dancing and release, for “Late in the Evening,” lots of people smoking themselves a J. But there was only one way to conclude. As the conversations in the crowd dimmed from a hubbub to a whisper, the vision of some ancient Jewish prophet echoed in the sounds of Paul Simon’s final song. One last strumming of fingers across the guitar, and—for almost a second—the sound of silence.