Like a bridge over troubled water, Paul Simon has eased minds and lifted spirits for more than six decades in the spotlight.
Each part of his career — as half of Simon and Garfunkel, as a solo artist and then as a leader of a band inspired by music from around the world — would have been stellar on its own, from “The Sound of Silence” era to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” to “Graceland.” Taken together, Simon’s career becomes a musical constellation unto itself.
On Saturday at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, just a few miles from where he grew up in Kew Gardens, Simon, 76, will wrap up his career as a touring artist and begin something new.
“I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to reach the point where I’d consider bringing my performing career to a natural end,” Simon said when he announced his final tour in February. “Now I know: It feels a little unsettling, a touch exhilarating, and something of a relief. I love making music, my voice is still strong and my band is a tight, extraordinary group of gifted musicians. I think about music constantly.”
Simon, who splits his time between homes in Montauk and Manhattan, says the death of his longtime guitarist, Vincent Nguini, in December contributed to his decision. “Mostly, though, I feel the travel and time away from my wife and family takes a toll that detracts from the joy of playing,” Simon said. “I’d like to leave with a big thank you to the many folks around the world who’ve come out to watch me play over the last 50 years.”
A PRIVATE PERSON
Author Robert Hilburn, who wrote the biography “Paul Simon: A Life” (Simon & Schuster), released in May, says that time is on Simon’s mind a lot.
“He kept asking me how much time this was going to take,” says Hilburn, who became the first biographer to get Simon’s cooperation. “He didn’t want to take the time away from his music.”
In a way, it’s how Simon has approached most of his career. Though he has been in the public eye performing for decades, including as the pre-eminent musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” he’s not known for discussing his personal life or giving a lot of interviews.
“He was always this private person because he understood, after watching Elvis particularly, how destructive fame can be — that you can never let fame be more important than the music,” says Hilburn, who covered music at the Los Angeles Times from 1966 to 2005 as a critic and editor. “He was humble enough and smart enough to realize that, if you want to keep making music for the long run, you’ve gotta grow. You’ve gotta learn more chords. You’ve gotta learn more styles of music. You’ve gotta reach out to Latin music, gospel music, South African music. You’ve gotta keep growing. You can’t keep doing the same thing.”
Greg Harris, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, says Simon’s drive to keep moving forward has made him one of the rarest of artists — a two-time Rock Hall inductee, as a solo artist and with Simon and Garfunkel. “If you look at the body of work of Simon and Garfunkel, that is worthy of induction,” Harris says. “His solo work takes on such a different life, influenced by lots of different cultures, and that stands on its own merits.”
Simon plans to use the time freed up by not touring to build on his legacy.
“After this coming tour, I anticipate doing the occasional performance in a [hopefully] acoustically pristine hall, and to donate those earnings to various philanthropic organizations, particularly those whose objective is to save the planet, ecologically,” Simon wrote on his website.
And he has already started making good on those promises, with a surprise appearance at a fundraiser for the Montauk Point Lighthouse in August.
Simon has also started recording, releasing “In the Blue Light” (Legacy) earlier this month. “This album consists of songs that I thought were almost right, or were odd enough to be overlooked the first time around,” he explained in the liner notes. “Redoing arrangements, harmonic structures and lyrics that didn’t make their meaning clear gave me time to clarify in my own head what I wanted to say, or realize what I was thinking and make it more easily understood.”
Hilburn says it’s a good strategy and it may offer an idea of Simon’s future.
“All of us always miss songs on albums, even if it’s from artists we like,” says Hilburn, adding that “In the Blue Light” made him look at Simon’s songs “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” and "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves” in a new way. “I told him this one night, ‘Your songs were not just hits. They became part of the cultural conversation.’ ‘Mrs. Robinson,’ ‘The Sound of Silence,’ ‘Graceland,’ ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ — these songs entered our cultural consciousness. And I think in his mind he thinks some of these other songs deserve more attention and he’s trying to get another song or two in the cultural consciousness.”
SIMON SWAN SONG
Given Paul Simon’s meticulous nature, he has undoubtedly thought about how he would end his legendary touring career, about what his final song would be.
On his farewell tour, Simon has been closing his shows with “The Sound of Silence,” following a run of encores that started with “Homeward Bound” and includes “Kodachrome,” “The Boxer” and “American Tune.”
“He ends the concert the way he introduced himself in the ‘60s with ‘The Sound of Silence,’ ” says Robert Hilburn, author of “Paul Simon: The Life.” “I think he wants to end his visit with the public the way he started it. It’s a nice touch.”
But will that hold for his final run of hometown shows?
In 2016, Simon chose to end his emotional show at Forest Hills Stadium, which some thought could have been his final area show, with the fitting “American Tune,” his tribute to the resilience of the American spirit. “It’s all right, you can’t be forever blessed,” he sang. “Still tomorrow’s going to be another working day and I’m trying to get some rest. That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.”
Another possibility, Hilburn says is “Questions for the Angels” from 2010’s “So Beautiful or So What” album. When Simon played the Hollywood Bowl, he put “Questions for the Angels” in the second-to-last slot and he also ends his new album “In the Blue Light” with a reworking of the song.
“He loves that song so much,” Hilburn says, adding, “although the audience could be a bit disappointed with ‘Questions for the Angels’ because it wouldn’t be as important to them as it is to him.”
— GLENN GAMBOA
WHO Paul Simon
WHEN|WHERE 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Madison Square Garden; and 7 p.m. Saturday, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Flushing
INFO $69.50-$189.50, 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com, for the Garden; $75.50-$149.50, 888-929-7849, axs.com for Flushing Meadows.