Saturday, September 13, 2003

NOW, TO SOME MUSIC I know a little about. Simon and Garfunkel was the first act I fully embraced, in the easy-listening phase of my musical awakening. Garfunkel's "Watermark" was the first actual popular-music album my brothers and I owned, if you don't count the "Rocky" soundtrack. Later, as Paul Simon's genius became more widely recognized, I was less sheepish about this phase. I came to realize that Paul Simon was the famous person I'd be, if I were a famous person. The very, very verbal view, the seeming emotional detachment, the approach-avoidance conflict when it comes to performing. (First runner-up: David Letterman.)

On last night's Letterman show, I saw the reunited Simon and Garfunkel for the first time.

Their choice of a first song was a good one: "America," from the "Bookends" album. It's a fairly well-known song, a greatest-hits selection, but not one that has been played into the ground. Unfortunately, the performance didn't start well. Garfunkel was solid, but Simon (surprise!) was emotionally detached. His phrasing was posturing, mugging, arch, to use a word I never use. He was making fun of his own material, singing in the exaggerated fashion that joiners-in in a "Happy Birthday" chorus use to emphasize that this isn't really the way they sound when they're doing some serious singing. (He stopped short of swaying to and fro and wielding a pantomime conductor's baton.)

Simon's mood changed, though, somewhere in the middle. After the extended Paul-Kathy-banter sequence that didn't use to be a Garfunkel solo but is now (ending with I said, "Be careful: His bow tie is really a camera"), Paul continued his phrasal mugging on the Toss me a cigarette/I think there's one in my raincoat line, but from We smoked the last one an hour ago on, he was a changed man. Really. It must be true; I'm just not that perceptive.

The Nina Blackwood head-shake that accompanied the lyrical mugging returned, though more subdued, with So I looked at the scenery/She read her magazine. Simon started to surrender when he and Garfunkel let loose in the full dual release of And the moon rose over an open field, and after the affectation saw its death throes with
"Kathy, I’m lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping, the rest was flawless:

"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.
All come to look for America.
All come to look for America.

At first, I thought the other song choice wasn't a good one. I love "The Boxer." I was a boxer. But this is one of those played-into-the-ground songs, and without the iconic quality of "The Sound of Silence" or "Bridge Over Troubled Water." (On-topic note: That's Sound, not Sounds -- though the album title was sans The and avec s -- and Water, not Waters. Everybody gets those wrong.)

I was wrong. It was perfect. Simon's head was still shaking a bit, but his voice was sincere. Lie-la-lie. Where do I buy my $200 tickets?

Oh, by the way: Congratulations, Dave!

SOMEBODY WHO KNOWS SOMETHING about music probably wrote something yesterday about how the sparse instrumental accompaniment showcased the instrument that was Johnny Cash's voice. Because it did. I envy those people who can listen to a song and identify the components. What is that anyway on "I Walk the Line"? A bass fiddle and a couple of maracas?

I barely deserve to talk about Johnny Cash. When I was little and hated basically all music (Dad said they were all hippies, damn hippies!), I held a special disdain for Johnny Cash, who was the favored entertainer of our neighbors, the Ball-Plunkett family (Dad said they were all hillbillies, damn hillbillies!). I smiled at the part his name played in my favorite "Bob Newhart Show" episode, though. And as I gradually eased my way into music fandom, although I long steered clear of anything that could be called country, I quickly added Johnny Cash to my guilty-pleasures file.

Before too long I realized his greatness, though I'm ashamed to say he wasn't a part of my large CD collection until Jacqueline got me one of his recent releases for Christmas last year. And I'm ashamed to say I don't think I even knew that was "Folsom Prison Blues" that the Phantom Limbs covered in most of their sets in my college days in the '80s in Tucson. But there's Johnny, at least, on my hard drive, from the glory days of Napster. "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues" and, on the recommendation of my Vegasphile friend Matt, "I See a Darkness."

I'll be buying more Johnny Cash CDs soon. (Morbid bandwagon? Guilty as charged.)

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