Paul Simon on his Birthday: How Terribly Strange to be 70...

Old friends, old friends,

Sat on their parkbench like bookends
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
of the high shoes of the old friends

Old friends, winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset
The sounds of the city sifting through trees
Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends.

Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a parkbench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy…

“Old Friends” -Paul Simon, (c) 1968

One of my earliest memories is of my two older brothers playing vinyl 45’s on a Lloyd’s battery-powered record player. Gramma and Grampa gave them the record player as a joint birthday present one year, a premium my grandparents received by cashing in hundreds of books of S&H Green Stamps.

My brothers had a very eclectic and strange collection of 45′ s in those early days. At 14 and 12, they were taking their first and timid steps into rock-n-roll: They had “Downtown” by Petula Clark, and “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams (the “B” side of which was “Long Time Blues”). They also had “The Royal Guardsmen”, which did “Snoopy and the Red Baron”– and all the subsequent sequels (by the way: remember when pop songs had sequels?). They also had “Elanor Rigby”, and “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” by the Cowsills.

My brothers would purchase their 45’s from friends, or from garage sales. One such “find” was the ultimate in rock obscura called “Tomorrow” by some band called “Angelo’s Angels”. And, they had a couple Gary Puckett things, and a copy of the Mary Hopkin hit “Those Were the Days” that was so used that, if you held it up to the sun, light would likely have poured through the grooves.

They also had a 45 of Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock”. It (other than perhaps the score to Good Morning, Starshine) was probably the first musical stanza I, as a four or five year old kid, committed to memory.

” I am a Rock! I am an Iiiiiiiiiii-eye-LAND!” I would croon in my childish and flat alto, while stacking up Lincoln Logs. My oldest brother would comment years later that he hated playing records around me when I was that age because I would repeat the refrains endlessly to the most ear-worm worthy songs until he learned to despise them.

Later, my brothers purchased a real turn-table, with the combined proceeds of their paper-route collections. I inherited the Llyod’s record player, which was a portable thing, about the size of an IPad  (–only it was three inches thicker), and painted a blue that rather matches the background hues of a Microsoft program. It had a metal cover that screwed onto the base, with a dial-like thumbscrew that I can still feel in my minds-eye, here, all these forty afteryears later.

With my brother’s new turntable came new LP’s. The first one my brothers bought was the Beatles Double White (“It was twice the music for the same price” said one). The second record they bought was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends“.

My older brothers are now 58 and 56. When Steve Jobs died last week, he was 55. So much time has gone by…

There are many wonderful, golden-hued memories attached to Simon and Garfunkel, rattling around the niter-clogged confines of my skull: Mom becoming horrified when she noticed the lyrics to Cecilia (“I got up to wash my face, when I come back to bed, someone’s takin’ my place…”); but also of my Dad absolutely loving the horns on Keep My Customers Satisfied; and watching with fascination as my brothers learned to play their guitars to “Homeward Bound”, as they sat on the dunes near the beach, with their Stella guitars they bought from Sears…

But, “Bookends” remains one of the greatest albums of the Pop-Rock era.

All you twenty-somethings out there: You must indulge me for a moment, and remember a time when pop music wasn’t ghettoized. There was something called “Top 40 Radio”, and it might play “Six Days on the Road” (a country-trucking song), right after it played “Moon River” by Andy Williams, and before it played “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, and follow it up with “Light My Fire” by the Doors. Today, what is left of Pop Radio is a caricatured of Henry Ford: “You can have any song you want, as long as it’s Rap“. You have to struggle with the radio dial, knowing where the Country stations are, the Urban stations are, the R&B stations, the Techno stations, the Dance stations, and so on and on, before you finally say to hell with this, I’m listening to Rush.

Seemingly these days, there’s a Radio Station for every taste, and a Taste for every radio station. We simply can’t abide listening to a song that isn’t at least knowably similar. We don’t have time.

In an odd way, this is America in the 21st Century, in sum and in fine: So much choice, but so little decision-making.

Oh, but our culture has gotten good at this sub-sub-sub demographic waltz: The marketing geniuses know what we like before we do. If you order a book on Amazon, four other purchasing suggestions for  titles pop up, all based on the demographics of the other folks that have ordered the same book. The ad buyers know us better than we do: If you watch the History Channel, it’s nothing but ads for Cialis and Mercedes-Benz. If you watch the Food Network, it’s nothing but restaurants and Target. Lifetime is nothing by ads for Gardasil. We are known more by our consumer choices than our religion in this age. There is no common culture anymore. Even Republicans are fragmented, diced, sliced and minced.

Herman Cain? Eh, he’s got a plan that won’t work. Rick Perry? No way– he’s got a debatin’ style that won’t work. The problem with Newt Gingrich is that he once sat on a couch with Nancy Pelosi. Mitt Romney is a Cultist who’s in the back pocket of the Bilderbergs. Michele Bachmann screeches too much, and Rick Santorum is a scold. Now, if I could only take a bit of Herman Cain’s sunniness, with a dash of Newt Gingrich’s smarts, and a smidgen of Mitt’s money, a scoop or two of Bachmann’s passion… Then, I’d be satisfied. I can get forty thousand songs on my IPod, 150 shampoos at the grocery store, sixty different flavors of coffee and yet, here I am, stuck with only a half-dozen choices for President.

And they call this America-! Huumph.

America“, actually, is the name of one of my favorite songs on Bookends.

Kathy I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
it took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve come to look for America

Up on Wall Street, America is looking to the future through the rear-view mirror of a culture that gets a kick out of protest chic, yearning for the days when Paul Simon was young, and writing songs about how strange and unknown it will be when he’s 70. Back then, that 70th birthday seemed a long, long way off.

Paul Simon turned 70 today. Happy Birthday, Mr. Simon. You’ve given me a great deal of joy through these many years. As a fellow that enjoys well-crafted music, music that is at once introspective and fun, I would like to thank you for being a companion of mine (unknown though it may be to you), and for giving me the joy of your music. You also have offered a slice of some of the unbridled talent we enjoy in America, but also have illustrated a measure of what we’ve lost.

We no longer share a common American culture, where the radio was on, and Gramma can enjoy “Bridge Over Troubled Water” right along with the grand-kids. We are fractured, enjoying only the most narrow of our own interpretations of “acceptable”. We no longer must accommodate others tastes.  We all have our own TV’s in our dark and lonely rooms, and our IPods with our own music and earbuds that no one else can hear. We think we are increasingly sophisticated with all of this consumer choice, when, in reality we are just more alone and isolated. We eschew communion in our culture, and we find ourselves more ill-at-ease with all the choices, falling increasingly into the confines of the comfortable.

We have a land filled with choice, and yet we are isolated and alone.

…kinda like our view of the Republican Presidential candidates…