From the pages of


Song-By-Song-By-Simon
by Martin Lewis
(First published February 20, 2001)

Tonight the big church that is the music industry gathers together in the expansive dome of L.A.'s Staples Center to award the 43rd Annual Grammys. Even the cavernous space of that arena may not be big enough to contain the gaping chasm that has opened up in a music community split on the issue of rapper Eminem and whether it is appropriate to honor him or give him a platform on which to perform.

In a way, this battle between young and old, between boomers and Gen Next-ers was foreshadowed in the prescient lyrics of a 1967 song by the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian - memorably sung at the first Woodstock festival.

"Why must every generation think their folks are square? And no matter where their heads are they know mom's ain't there. 'Cause I swore when I was small that I'd remember when... I knew what's wrong with them - that I was smaller then..."

Now the boomer generation which grew up to inherit an academy that often missed the point (in 1967 it named the Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up And Away" Record Of The Year over the Beatles' "Sgt.Pepper") is having to taste its own medicine. And the collective oath that that generation took to be "permissive, understanding of the younger generation" (as Sebastian sang) has driven into the brick wall of reactionary hard-core rap and its snide derision of 60's liberal values.

What has, by the passage of time, become the 'old' guard may lose out tonight - but it suckled happily and with undisguised nostalgia on Monday evening at the Recording Academy's premier pre-Grammy event - the annual "MusiCares Person of the Year Award." This is a charity event that raises funds to care for the vast number of retired or ill musicians who haven't enjoyed the level of success that the famous achieve. It's the industry's attempt to care for its own.

The honoree this year was Paul Simon - and the music business turned out in force to salute him. The evening started out with a silent auction of valuable gifts - many of them donated by musicians. Wandering around the auction room viewing the plethora of autographed instruments, concert programs and CDs was an interesting experience. One becomes aware that musicians have handwriting even less legible than the average physician.

If you didn't read the helpful placard announcing that it was Lenny Kravitz's guitar you could have been forgiven for thinking that it was simply an acoustic guitar on which someone had scribbled the words "Lxzcgx Crostmklw." Joan Osborn's instrument had some indecipherable hieroglyphic that rivaled The Symbol Formerly Known As Prince.

The grand ballroom was stuffed with musicians and record executives - often in animated exchanges. Record producer Quincy Jones chatting with Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun... Rob Thomas (who sang on Santana's "Smooth") was a center of attention. The most visited star was easily Elton John - who held court behind two burly bodyguards - presumably to protect him from those disapproving of his upcoming duet with the pariah Eminem. Incongruous attendee of the night was undoubtedly Hugh Hefner who sat at his table surrounded by nine of the most pneumatic blondes this side of a Michelin commercial. I asked him how he still managed to attract such an impressive entourage. "Having the magazine helps" he explained.

Producer Phil Ramone - the man behind many of Paul Simon's solo albums organized the talent for the evening and, blessed with the Paul Simon songbook as the font of the night's music, he deftly matched up some of the industry's premier singers with selections from the Simon oeuvre. Recent sensation Macy Gray started the evening with a blistering "You Can Call Me Al" - aided on stage by an amiable Chevy Chase reprising his sax mime choreography from that song's music video. Chase then made a few remarks as one of the evening's three roast-masters. He said that is was easy to dismiss Paul Simon as "just another power-hungry little guy" and he made clear that the Simon & Garfunkel duo had only succeeded because "Arty had a good voice." He also revealed the secret of Simon's early lyrics. "He had a thesaurus in one hand - and a joint in the other..."

Panamanian singer/actor/politician Reuben Blades duetted with Danny Rivera on "Born In Puerto Rico" from Simon's unsuccessful "The Capeman" Broadway show - the song seeming so much more powerful outside the dimensions of a stage tune. The affinity that Simon has shown for Latin rhythms over the years has evidently endeared him to Hispanic performers - and his "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was delivered very effectively by Gloria Estafan. She introduced the song by explaining how as a child the song had spoken to her - and indeed in the first verse she provided the sole accompaniment on a battered acoustic - which, she revealed, was the same one she had first played the song on - as a 10 year-old Cuban refugee.

I glanced over at Simon during her performance - seated at a table with wife Edie Brickell. Simon - wearing his inevitable baseball hat - was smiling - and mouthing the words to his own song. It must have been pleasantly odd for him all evening watching singers pay homage to his past creations. Like attending auditions for prospective investors of a new revue called "Song By Song By Simon."

For an ostensibly cerebral composer Simon was among the first Western pop musicians to explore a variety of non-American musical cultures and that was underscored by Ziggy Marley's exuberant "Mother And Child Reunion" which had Simon bopping at the enhanced reggae feel. The broad range of Paul Simon's songwriting was underscored by Shawn Colvin who sang a spine-tingling "American Tune" - Simon's deliberation on the disintegration of the 60's dream into the dark days of Nixon. The power of the lyrics "We come in the age's most uncertain hour, and sing an American tune" seeming even more poignant with the passage of 30 years. Colvin's performance brought the room to its feet in salute.

By now the evening had far transcended the usual schmaltzy tributes to artists - and the bar seemed to be set higher and higher. Cue Stevie Wonder. Perched in front of his customary Yamaha electric piano he pounded out a rollicking "Love Me Like A Rock" - accompanied by the legendary Dixie Hummingbirds - the four-piece gospel group who sang on the original Paul Simon recording. Wonder must absolutely have felt the standing ovation his rendition inspired.

By now the audience was gasping for air. This evening was turning into a baby-boomers extremely wet dream and this was further enhanced by the surprise appearance of Beach Boys' founder Brian Wilson to sing a haunting "Sounds Of Silence." Wilson described Simon as "one of the greatest songwriters ever." If there was a positive equivalent of the expression about the pot calling the kettle black - this deserved it. Simon was clearly moved by the tribute.

It was fitting that later in the evening when Simon was presented with his "Award Of The Year" by the previous year's winner Elton John, the British singer commented that the sight and sound of Brian Wilson singing Paul Simon had reminded him of his earliest days with lyricist Bernie Taupin - when they had endlessly played what he described as two of the finest albums ever - Simon & Garfunkel's "Bookends" and the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds."

Spinal Tapster Michael McKean made merry with a cute riff on how little he knew Paul Simon compared to his co-hosts - and then introduced Joan Osborn ("What If God Was One Of Us") who sang "Homeward Bound" accompanied by The Chieftains. Osborn tried hard but was one of the evening's few performers who didn't catch fire - though the eerie pipes and folky airs of the Chieftains evoked a fitting Celtic mournfulness to the song. Ms. Osborn had dressed in a rather peculiar fashion, a sloppy tee shirt with a shiny wet-look midi skirt - causing several people to wonder who her stylist was.

The third of the comedic talents on stage was Steve Martin who was in rare form. He recounted how early in his life he had awoken one morning with a profound sense of what he had to do in life. He had to "Honor Paul." He didn't know anyone of that name - but he knew it would be important to do, Martin explained how all the wealth and fame he had achieved over the years on stage, record, TV and eventually film still left him feeling empty. He had not yet fulfilled his life's mission to "Honor Paul." The routine had the audience rolling after he then went into a tribute to Paul Newman - who Martin stated did not seem to be apparent - but was "probably hiding under a table." He then noted that unlike the reticent Paul Newman - Paul Simon was NOT hiding under a table - and was thus far more worthy of being honored. Simon was nearly under the table with laughter at this point. Though it was not clear if he would discover the invisible Paul Newman there.

After Martin's roast, Elton John presented Simon with his award and waxed effusively about Simon's greatness. His music, his lyrics, his singing until - running out of superlatives - and eying the rather scruffily-dressed singer Elton finally exclaimed "In fact I admire everything about you except that shirt...." (It did rather appear as though we now had the answer to the question about who Joan Osborn's stylist was. Paul Simon himself.)

What Simon lacked in sartorial elegance was promptly rendered irrelevant. After a short thank you - Simon launched into a brief but powerful set. He unleashed a buoyant "Graceland" - playing off the house band with an almost spiritual fervor. He segued into an effortless "Late In The Evening" - then left the stage. He was coaxed back for one more song and for a moment looked around at the band as if uncertain what to do. So many of his great songs had been sung by others during the evening - would he perhaps choose something less celebrated?

Then came the familiar chords - and he launched into one of his most admired songs - "The Boxer." The audience became a choir on the "lie-lie-lie" chorus and the entire room seemed lifted spiritually. As Simon reached the final verse's defiant lines "I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains..." the hall erupted into a standing ovation for Simon. But it felt as though the room was also saluting the idealism and purpose that has been threaded through Simon's career - and also the very craft of songwriting, melody, harmony and lyrics that typified the 60's generation.

Tonight, Simon's album "You're The One" is in competition with Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" for album of the year. It was clear who the industry was rooting for on Monday night. As the room slowly emptied one was aware that Simon had been honored for a career so far spanning 44 years (his first recording was issued in 1957.) One tries to imagine the MusiCares Person of the Year Award in the year 2041 (which will be 44 years into Eminem's career.) Perhaps there will be an evening in which a dozen stars perform their versions of such Eminem classics as "The Real Slim Shady" or "Stan" or even "Kim" in which the rapper fantasizes about slitting his wife's throat in front of their five-year old daughter. The baby-boomers just can't envisage that. And that's the root of the chasm between the Recording Academy's generations.

John Sebastian's "Younger Generation" lyric concludes with a pertinent question in which the singer's kid asks: "What's the matter Daddy, how come you're turning green? Can it be that you can't live up to your dream?"

What the the 60's generation didn't envisage was that over 30 years later, the popular music embraced by the Millennium teenagers might espouse a message the very opposite of their own visions of love and peace. To the baby-boomers that's not a dream. That's a nightmare...


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