It’s an August night in 1991—by all accounts a perfect summer night, the sky clear after threatening rain all day, the temperature hovering at a classic all-American 82 degrees that refuses the sticky inclinations of most New York summer days—and Paul Simon is singing about Memphis, Tennessee to thousands of New Yorkers when suddenly they erupt in cheers so loud they nearly drown him out. Reports of just how large the sea of people packed tightly into Central Park’s Great Lawn that night vary; some estimated it to be as large as 750,000, while others placed the number at a more conservative 48,500 (the Lawn’s capacity, apparently). In their review of the show, TheNew York Times likened the crowd to “some vast teeming ant colony.” Whatever the size, when Paul Simon sings “there is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline” and they explode with hometown pride, their individual shouts and whoops and applause converging together, I am almost certain that number is closer to the former than the latter. I am almost certain that I have never heard a sound so joyous. Tears are not the appropriate reaction to have to a sound this happy, but when I hear it lately, that’s all that seems to come out.
When Paul Simon took the stage in Central Park that evening, he was two months away from turning 50 and despite his two previous best-selling albums (1986’s Graceland and 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints) offering plenty of meditations on growing older disguised as pop songs, old was the furthest thing from how Paul Simon looked. To the thunderous swell of the Brazilian drum corps Olodum playing the electrifying opening moments of “Obvious Child”—never more urgent, booming, and bursting at the seams with life—Simon strolled out with his guitar, wearing a purple T-shirt and blue blazer with what looks like some sort of Flat Stanley pinned to the lapel; he gave a small, boyish wave, and got right into singing a decidedly danceable song about middle-aged life. The show just kept rolling from there, the set list stacked with such a perfect combination of past favorites and then-new releases—nearly all of which now, with nearly 30 years hindsight, comprise his greatest hits—that there seems to be no low point in programming, no moment when something new prompted a tepid response from an audience there to hear classics from the Simon and Garfunkel catalog or early solo cuts and little else. If you could own only one Paul Simon album, the double record from this night—aptly titled Paul Simon’s Concert in the Park—is the one to place on your shelf. Most reports agree that a good time was had by all; only four arrests were made the entire evening. It’s as if it were, if not the perfect concert experience, pretty damn close.
I wasn’t present for any of this; I was only a few months old when it happened. (Early in all this, I had the seemingly-brilliant idea to ignore my quarantine birthday and use this glitch in the timeline to start slyly shaving years off my age. I seem to have failed this endeavor quite quickly.) Bemoaning the feeling I was born at the wrong time, all I have ever had to cling to is a grainy YouTube video of the event. A little faded and soft around the edges like the 78-year-old man Simon has now become, it is the perhaps third or fourth transfer of a VHS recording of the original live broadcast on HBO; every performer’s features blur to a point of just on this side of tolerable. I’ve watched this video countless times over the past decade, always wishing I could be there, but now more so than ever.
Remember crowds? Remember touching? Remember singing along to music at the top of your lungs in public without a piece of cloth across your face? Where in previous summers Simon’s Concert in the Park was a gleeful way to keep post-concert blues at bay between an otherwise packed schedule of shows, now it’s a constant battle to try not to cry while listening to it, one I lose often, overwhelmed by the sense memory of standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers in one big, effervescent crowd. I would give anything to stuff my office desk drawers with every pair of jean shorts I own, to build out a secondary closet meant to be hastily scrambled into within the confines of a cold, cramped stall in the office bathroom like a sort of Clark Kent, trading my workplace identity for my after-hours one. I would give anything for one more evening spent sweaty and with a two-drink buzz and simultaneously thirsty and needing to pee for three hours but holding both for later because there are only two circumstances in which I’m leaving my spot near the front of the stage: if the show is over or I’m carried out on a stretcher. I would give anything to be surrounded by thousands of different people brought together by this one specific thing. I would give anything to check out of the real world for a few hours, let go of any self-consciousness, and revel in the carefree euphoria of listening to music I love.
When I rewatch videos of the concert now, I no longer find its aged quality endearing. It’s just sad. I want so badly to be able to make out the features on the faces in the front row, to be able to leech a bit of their joy out from behind the computer screen. I want what they have, even if I can barely see it.
Simon frontloads the concert with some of the most depressing of his then-newest songs: “She Moves On,” “The Boy in the Bubble,” “Train in the Distance.” Lyrically speaking, they’re real bummers, songs about divorce and disappointment and global despair, but well-received when fed to the audience sugar coated in danceable beats or mellow soft rock. It’s hard to digest the lyrics, hard to have a bad time listening to them, when the music is so right.
Simon wrote “The Boy in the Bubble”—the track that immediately follows “The Obvious Child”—in 1986, depicting a fraught moment in humanity in which a Venn diagram of technology’s advancements intersection with technology’s harm was beginning to eke its way closer to just being a circle. “These are the days of miracle and wonder,” Simon sings, and when I was in my early 20s, I took those words too literally, with too much naive earnestness. Sure, I might be able to watch the world self destruct in real time on my iPhone, and sure, that same phone’s camera might share more things than it really should, but all I wanted to focus on was the miracle of being able to access information or document things with the tap of a finger in the first place. After all, I was young, and there was so much to know and so much fleeting youth to capture. Any time I listened to the song, it seemed to be on a steamy New York summer evening, always on the run to something, in that specific kind of mood where the possibilities for adventure felt infinite and awaiting me at my destination. It was easy to listen to Simon when he urged don’t cry, baby, don’t cry. Why would I want to?
But lately it’s been harder to find the miracle and wonder in all this. It’s hard to remember that those who once marveled at long distance calls are now in awe of Zoom’s ability to instantly connect us with anyone in the world via video when you’re staring back at the thumbnail of your reflection in the corner and willing the screen to not drain all your emotional energy. It’s hard to think medicine is magical when a vaccine seems not only so far away, but likely to end up at the mercy of monied interests, saved for the highest bidders rather than the most vulnerable. Has this generation thrown a hero up the pop charts who hasn’t been canceled yet?
On the live version, Simon slows it down; the new pace blunts some of the recorded version’s cold, dance-y punch. The weight of the words seems to sink a little deeper, at least, it does when you just listen to the track on its own. On video, when the camera pans the audience, large chunks seem to be moving as one, rollicking back and forth in waves. They have what I once had, too, not long ago: the sort of disconnect from cynicism that makes it possible to dance so easily.
The “Graceland” moment arrives a little over halfway through the show. By now, the early evening golden hour light has given way to darkness and I can imagine the air is thick with marijuana smoke and everyone is so in their groove that when the bassline begins to rip like a car engine revving, they are more than ready to hop in and go. “Graceland” is one of Paul Simon’s most well-known songs, a track that, if not impossible to not like, is one impossible to have gone through life never hearing. A post-breakup travelogue through the American South, it is at once a breakdown song and a breakthrough song. It is about the one thing we cannot seem to do right now, no matter how much we wish: running away from that which troubles us, hoping that, even if we don’t find enlightenment at the end of our pilgrimage, then at least some distraction will come our way on the open road.
I can’t remember the first time I heard “Graceland.” A song so ubiquitous is bound to be heard for the first time over a tinny PA system in some fluorescent lit space like a grocery store or a CVS; I mean really heard and bowled over by it. I do remember, though, riding my bike home from the library one pre-teen summer afternoon with CD copies of Graceland and Concert in the Park, both of which I immediately took downstairs to my basement to rip on the family Dell. (Some of you were cool enough to pirate your music from Napster or Limewire; I was not allowed—and also not very cool—and thus spent many youthful afternoons manually flipping through CD racks at the public library as a form of music discovery.) A few summers later, when I upgraded my five speed for my mom’s minivan, “Graceland” was a stereo system staple, burned onto seemingly every mix cd I ever made. It stuck through the years, my understanding of its meaning evolving (all those allusions to Carrie Fisher!) but my love for it never wavering.
In recent years, though, I’ve revisited the song and the album often, always bracing myself to reckon with it (beyond the whole “yeah, breaking the boycott of Apartheid-era Africa was fucked up!” thing). I’ve braced myself to find Simon’s depiction of the women in his life problematic or his use of South African musicians more appropriation than appreciation. I’ve braced myself to be angry, or to be heartbroken, or to be confused over whether or not I had to reconsider my relationship with another musician’s work. So far, Graceland has managed to escape this fate, though I’m never so sure if it does so rightfully, or if I’m too attached to it by now to make the sacrifice.
I saw Paul Simon perform live for the first—and likely last—time in the summer of 2016 at Forest Hills Stadium, for what was to be both the Queens native’s triumphant homecoming after 46 years and his graceful final bow. (Like many artists before, and likely many to come, Simon would play one more final final tour two years later.) The concert took place on the anniversary of the day I became a rent paying post-grad New York resident (a New York-versary I consider distinctly separate from the day I started school here) and I was celebrating the occasion alone in an old stone tennis stadium in Queens soaking wet under a flimsy, cheap poncho I had bought in a hurry at the Duane Reade in the Oculus that afternoon. Thunderstorms rattled through the area and a tornado watch was in effect, but even as the torrential downpours soaked the stage, the show refused to be canceled; they simply delayed the start time by an hour and waited for the sky to clear. Fifteen rows back, I passed time making small talk with an older couple sitting next to me; people love to talk to you when you’re one of the few lone millennials at any event targeted towards the senior demo. The woman was shocked to learn that I routinely went to concerts alone; she asked me if I felt that was safe. “You don’t need to bring a friend to go to church,” I remember replying with a warm smile. The situation was nothing short of miserable; I was deliriously happy.
Paul Simon didn’t play “Graceland” that night, the one gaping hole in an otherwise flawless setlist. And so as much as I like to think that night in Forest Hills was the closest I will ever get to my own Concert in Central Park, there’s still that crucial part left unfulfilled. I can know what it is like to see the electric shock of the opening notes of “You Can Call Me Al” force everyone who was sitting up until that moment to leap to their feet and start dancing—even the salty ones who had yelled at you for standing a few minutes before. I can know what it is like to watch as the sky suddenly cracks open the moment Simon leads the band into the chorus and the crowd simply dances even harder in the rain, their motions even bigger, rejoicing in the cosmic force of nature’s impeccable timing. I can know what it is like to pack in tightly with strangers at the foot of the stage, bruised and bleeding from falling while climbing over slippery metal folding chairs to get there, but anesthetized to the pain by the hymnal way our voices came together to fill in “The Boxer”’s lie la lies. I can know what it is like to stand in hushed reverence with 15,000 strangers making real “The Sound of Silence.”
But I will perhaps never know what it is like to capture that one glorious moment of recognition, of camaraderie, of hometown pride in a song that is not at all about our hometown, to feel like, in that moment, you or I or any one of us could be the human trampoline. And so I listen. And so I watch, again and again.