Paul Simon on life, retirement, and everything
“It’s an act of courage to let go."
Paul Simon was recently asked about how he writes songs, though his answer was as much about songwriting as it was about life: “The songwriter that I am now is very different than the songwriter that I was even in the 70s, and that writer was even different from the 60s. … before that, when I was just writing teenage stuff, that was another way [of writing]. … When you’re young, and you’re writing, there’s really no problem with the words, because you don’t know anything. So whatever you say is fine, because you don’t know anything. Later on you say ‘I can’t say that, because that isn’t exactly true.’ So things become more sophisticated, as our brains become more sophisticated, and attuned to irony, and the yin and yang of everything.”
Like Simon, in some ways—perhaps in many ways—we aren’t who we were. We’re more sophisticated, or more attuned to irony. We’re wiser, due to the breadth of memory and experience now that we didn’t have then. Further, as he says, “we begin to incorporate those concepts into our thinking.” Concepts about who we are, what we need, and how we want to live.
Who are you?
This past summer Simon announced that he’s retiring, or, at least, very seriously considering it. “It’s an act of courage to let go,” he said during a press conference earlier this year. “I am going to see what happens if I let go.” That’s big. He’d be letting go of something that has defined his public life since he was 13 years old and began writing and performing with Art Garfunkel.
To let it go is, indeed, a brave move. “If I let go ... who am I?” says Simon. “Am I just this person that was defined by what I did? And if that’s gone ... who are you?”
It’s both an act of courage and a leap of faith, though it’s not one that exists in a vacuum. It comes from the insight that the things that we need now, or that we want now, aren’t the same as they used to be. He’s also expressing something that we all feel at various points in our lives: we have some big decisions.
As all of us, Simon is tentative about retiring while, at the same time, is curious about what it might offer. “I know that my brain makes up things all the time, but my question is, does it always have to be music? What if I stop on purpose, and [don’t] let it make music. What would it make up? Maybe something that could be very valuable to me.”
Making the leap
He’d certainly be going out on a high note. His latest album, Stranger to Stranger, debuted at #3 in North America, and #1 in the UK, the highest he’s charted since Graceland was released thirty years ago. While retaining a healthy bit of uncertainty, Simon nevertheless seems committed to making a positive change.
In many ways, he’s not like us. Then again, in other ways we’re all the same. It takes courage to make a move, not matter what point in life we may be at. But sometimes—and we all know this from experience—to live the life we need to live, and be the person we want to be, it's the best thing we could ever do.