When someone does a farewell tour, you wonder how it feels to say farewells every night, in different countries, week after week, for weeks on end. Whether it starts to mean nothing. Or whether they’re able to focus their minds, and in looking over tens of thousands of heads, and timing a particular song with the moment the sun dips under the horizon, recall their relationship with each city, over the past 50 years, and have their own moment, just as everyone else is having theirs.
In my mind Paul Simon is 70, because that’s how old he was the last time I looked: the news of Homeward Bound, his farewell tour, was a bit of a shock to be honest. There is a big difference between being 70, and being 76. At Hyde Park on Sunday night, his colouring is striking – all dark silvers, pewters and shadows, like a strong ghost. His choirboy voice struggles to emerge at first – but that’s OK, if you’re singing a line such as “Michigan seems like a dream to me now” (“America”). He’s pacing himself. I’ve not seen a musical arrangement quite like this before, with its own kind of slow-release energy. At first, there’s a chamber orchestra (they’re called yMusic) clustered around him, supporting his softer singing with spiky, marcato strings and woodwind. By the time we’re on to the Graceland material, it’s all big and brassy like it would have been in 1986. Here’s the woman who was on flute, doing the famous penny whistle solo in “Call Me Al”.
Simon lost his guitarist Vincent Nguini last year and “despairs of playing the music without him” – but he’s found another one, from Nigeria, who does justice to the excruciatingly sweet “Spirit Voices”, from The Rhythm of the Saints. He played that album in full to a rumoured million people in Central Park, in August 1991. It would have been even more magical than this – big gigs make you think of other big gigs you never got a chance to see. There’s a peculiar kind of pain in spending a last hour or two with someone who is almost exactly as good as he always was, but will soon be gone. Dylan hasn’t sounded good live for years – while Joni Mitchell gave up touring when she retired, in 2005, from the “cesspool” of the music industry.
She and Simon are the same in being both poets and spectacularly versatile composers. If you are in your thirties, the chances are your family had Graceland, and you played it on vinyl in the living room, being careful not to jump up and down too much, in case the needle skipped and scratched the record. Or you listened to it in the car, on family holidays, for what seemed like summers on end.
To us, it had nothing to do with Elvis: we didn’t know what “Graceland” was. But we did know that the album was about South Africa, and that bad stuff was happening there, just as we didn’t eat the apples with the Cape stickers on. They raged at Simon for breaking the boycott, but I think that for a whole generation, Graceland’s rubbery images of boys in bubbles, roly-poly bat-faced girls and lost men wandering down dusty backstreets were our first taste of foreign conflicts, bad regimes and dark adult forces that lay beyond our understanding. All with a fun video featuring Chevy Chase.
There are more family groups at Hyde Park than I’ve seen before – by which I mean family groups with baby-boomer parents the same age as Simon, and adult children, and perhaps their children too.
A heavy plane flies overhead, as loud as the helicopters that announced the arrival of the visiting Trump four days earlier. Simon says nothing of politics, or the president who left his Scottish golf course that day, other than to observe that these are “interesting times”. Instead he sings “American Tune” – that young man’s response to the Vietnam War. Its power always lay in its confusion, its gentleness, its headachy bafflement and beautiful bad dreams, rather than in protest song polemic. Tonight it becomes a vigil.
With most farewell tours, you go along in order to say: I was there, I saw the last gig. This one feels a bit different. You went because no one else in the world can write this kind of music, or will again.
This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact