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Dec. 9, 2023

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Comparing, contrasting and celebrating two musical Pauls

Simon and McCartney both performing in Portland this spring

By , Columbian staff writer
13 Photos
He&#039;s always strongest when he&#039;s got a tough-minded partner. John Lennon, left, and Paul McCartney in 1965.
He's always strongest when he's got a tough-minded partner. John Lennon, left, and Paul McCartney in 1965. (Associated Press files) Photo Gallery

I’ve loved Paul since before I was born.

It really feels that way.

The world I came into was already reaching the fevered height of Beatlemania, with the folk-rock revolution not far behind. I was 5 days old on Aug. 15, 1965 and living in New York City when the Fab Four played their legendary Shea Stadium concert just across town. I was 2 when the movie “The Graduate” made “Sounds of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson” the sad soundtrack of innocence crashing into experience.

Music mattered in our home. Dad loved classical and ragtime, but he also bought “Sgt. Pepper” and “Bookends” because he knew something important was up. My big brother was — and still is — a hairy singer-songwriter who worshipped Paul (and Bob and Joan; and Joni and Janis; and David, Stephen and Graham). I’m a musician, too, and I absorbed his worship deeply, perhaps as only a younger sibling can.

But I missed the Magical Mystery Tour by a generation. Paul’s partnership split in 1970, so that part of his story has always been history to me. My passion for Paul was embarrassingly passe in my early teens, just when such loyalties really matter to a fan. I endured the shame and now fly my Paul flag proudly. Debate about the quality of his long, post-’60s career will never end; I’m just thrilled that the septuagenarian is alive and well, and rocking Portland this spring.

Paul persists!

There’s a Zen koan — an unsolvable paradox meant to push you past logical thinking — that asks, “What was your original face before you were born?”

I’ve got the answer. Even before I was born, I loved Paul.

Years of careers

Which Paul do I mean? Yes. Totally. Of course, they couldn’t be more different.

If You Go

• Who: Paul McCartney, “One on One.”

• When: 8 p.m. April 15.

• Where: Moda Center at the Rose Quarter, 1 Center Court, Portland.

• Cost: $45.50 to $250 (VIP packages cost more.)


• Who: Paul Simon.

• When: 8 p.m. May 25.

• Where:Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway, Portland.

• Cost: $59.50 to $129.50 (VIP packages cost more)

• Information:www.paulsimon.com/news/2016tour

The little dude from New York City has always been considered sophisticated and intellectual, serious and solemn. “Old Friends” and “Save the Life of My Child” are about as grave and existential as rock ‘n’ roll gets. “The Dangling Conversation” and “Sounds of Silence” review the futility of human communication.

Fortunately, college English major Paul Simon also has a taste for wordy comic relief, such as in “At the Zoo” and “Punky’s Dilemma.” (Check out the hilarious-but-sad “Rewrite” from the 2011 Simon album “So Beautiful or So What.”)

The cute Beatle chafed at music lessons and never went to college. He’s a self-taught prodigy who cut his teeth playing in the band. There’s something slightly supernatural about his genius for melody, as well as the visionary thinking that made “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” a world unto itself. Far from solemn and serious, McCartney remains a pretty unreconstructed hippie. It’s all peace and love, “Ebony and Ivory,” animal rights and vegetarianism to this day.

Of course, everybody knows that Paul McCartney perished in a traffic accident or some other mysteriously covered-up mishap sometime after “Revolver” but before “Sgt. Pepper.” (That’s why the “Pepper” cover is a flowery grave and “He blew his mind out in a car.”) Many like to joke that this explains his infamous flattening out, from great artist in the 1960s to shameless cheesemonger in the decades that followed. Since keeping up the artistic quality is sort of tough when you’re dead.

Everyone also knows that Simon gladly jettisoned Art Garfunkel to go it alone, thus his classic verbal slap before they reunited one night in 1975 on “Saturday Night Live”: “So, Artie! You’ve come crawling back!”

Lives beyond myth

But all of that is, as Mark Twain joked about rumors of his own demise, “greatly exaggerated.”

McCartney’s career sure has had big ups and downs — triumphs and put-downs — but he has never stopped seeking worthy collaborators — Elvis Costello, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder — and trying diverse styles: symphonic works, even jazz. And he has never stopped making well-respected, new rock ‘n’ roll, especially the superb “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard,” a 2005 album that owes much to producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, U2), who kept the cuteness in check and encouraged McCartney to explore darker moods. McCartney has always benefited from the tension and challenge of a tough-minded partner, as we well recall.

And it was Garfunkel who left Simon, not the other way around. “The Only Living Boy in New York” is Simon’s poignant farewell to his childhood pal, off to pursue an ill-fated acting career. The irony is that Simon’s reputation has only grown and solidified since then; he has been less prolific but more consistently excellent than McCartney. Even while penning serious masterpieces such as “Still Crazy After All These Years” — and silly ones such as “Loves Me Like a Rock” — the oversensitive folk-rocker also started dabbling in exotic rhythms and overseas influences, until he traveled to South Africa and made the groundbreaking 1986 album “Graceland” with local musicians there.

“Graceland” is now considered one of the greatest — and most grown-up — pop albums of all time. No exaggeration.

McCartney became Sir Paul in 1997, when he was knighted by his queen. More recently, both Pauls have popped by the White House to pick up the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

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‘Strange to be 70’

McCartney is 73. (“When I’m 64” is long gone.) Simon is 74. Terribly strange for rockers who came up in the youthful 1960s.

And what else is new? This year’s local concert scene is a virtual parade of fantastic old farts. Already been or coming to an area venue — proof that rock ‘n’ roll never dies but maybe should? — are David Crosby, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, the Doobie Brothers, Arlo Guthrie, Steve Miller, Jethro Tull and the still-glowing remains of the Grateful Dead. Worshippers such as I — mindful of the recent deaths of David Bowie, Eagle Glenn Frey and fifth Beatle George Martin — are so glad they’re still around. We wouldn’t mind if they held their ticket prices down, but we suppose all that cosmetic surgery, liver transplants and maintenance of illegitimate offspring must run a pretty penny.

Approximately a million years ago, Mick Jagger said jokingly that he’d rather be dead than still singing “Satisfaction” at age 45. Jagger is now 72 years old, and the Rolling Stones have been touring Latin America; you better believe that “Satisfaction” is mandatory at every show. I bet Jagger feels pretty satisfied with that, as do the rockin’ grandparents who grew up with him.

The two Pauls — the cranky intellectual and the genial hippie — have never been artistic collaborators, but they did pair for a 2001 anti-land-mine benefit concert. And they harmonized joyously on the McCartney sing-along “I’ve Just Seen a Face” at last year’s 40th anniversary broadcast of “Saturday Night Live.”

The joke: Unimpressed host Steve Martin kicked the disappointed duo offstage. As they retreated, Simon grumbled at McCartney: “Told you we should have done ‘Sounds of Silence.’ ”

Paul versus Paul, point by point

Their careers overlap quite neatly. Let’s compare and contrast.

1965: “Yesterday” versus “Sounds of Silence”: McCartney was reluctant to apply violins to his purely acoustic lament, but they turned out to add the right flowery flavor; credit for that idea goes to late Beatles producer George Martin. Meanwhile, the purely acoustic first version of Simon and Garfunkel’s ode to alienation flopped, and the duo split up, before producer Tom Wilson overdubbed Bob Dylan’s snarly garage band onto the track. A folk-rock hit was born. The duo reunited.

1966: “Scarborough Fair” versus “Eleanor Rigby”: Simon’s reworked traditional ballad of lost love floats along upon images of peasant life and the English countryside; McCartney’s riddles about loneliness and mortality lurk among stained glass and gravestones.

1970: “Let it Be” versus “Bridge Over Troubled Water”: A year for big anthems. McCartney, rarely considered a confessional writer, said his song was about the end of the Beatles and his mother’s death from breast cancer (“Mother Mary comes to me”) when he was a teen. Meanwhile, the deeper, more serious Simon confessed of his gospel masterpiece: “I have no idea where it came from. It came all of the sudden. It was one of the most shocking moments in my songwriting career.”

Early 1970s: “McCartney” versus “Paul Simon”: The bands that made them stars were gone. Both took stock with introspective, self-titled albums. McCartney’s homemade, kitchen-table creation was full of sketchy noodles and doodles, with one strong hit: “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Simon’s album shares the humbled sensibility, with gentle vocals and bluesy acoustic guitar, but he also enlisted talented friends from around the world and came up with the hits “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and “Mother and Child Reunion.”

Mid-1970s: “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” versus “Silly Love Songs”: Simon’s quiet cynicism climaxed in this sickly bit of unforgettable pop wordplay; McCartney’s kneejerk commercialism climaxed in this richly cheesy poke at his critics and some of the best bass playing of the decade.

Early 1980s: “McCartney II” versus “Hearts and Bones”: Wings crashed. Back to the kitchen table for more solo soul-searching; results not nearly as charming as the first “McCartney.” Keep trying, Paul. Meanwhile, the other Paul squabbled with Art Garfunkel again and wound up wiping all the high harmonies off their upcoming reunion album. “Hearts and Bones” became Simon’s most-panned release. In desperation, he sought new inspiration in South Africa.

1986: “Graceland” versus “Press to Play”: It worked. Probably the height of Simon’s career. And the pit of McCartney’s. Keep trying, Paul.

1990s and beyond: Simon’s “The Rhythm of the Saints” is an even more sophisticated world-music album, this one built on South American textures. McCartney regains his stride by enlisting Elvis Costello as a composing partner and embarking on a lifestyle of lapping up adoration on global mega-tours. “The Capeman,” Simon’s attempt to crack Broadway, features great music but flops; McCartney’s attempts at genuine classical composition go deservedly unnoticed.

Their latest: McCartney’s latest albums, “Memory Almost Full” and “New,” earn good reviews, but his nostalgic concerts get unqualified raves. Simon’s 2011 “So Beautiful or So What” is hailed as his best album in years. A new Simon album, “Stranger to Stranger,” is due later this month.

Local musicians pick their Paul

“I’ve learned ver a lifetime in music that there are ‘head players’ and ‘heart players.’ I certainly like Paul Simon’s intelligent lyrics; nevertheless, I guess I’m a hopeless romantic. I’m simply more moved by matters of the heart. I would have to side with Paul McCartney overall. ‘What’s wrong with that? I’d like to know.’ ”

John Standefer, 2002 National Fingerstyle Guitar Champion

“I learned to play practically everything McCartney did by ear, off records … putting the needle down, getting a few notes, picking the needle up and trying to play the part. Not only his bass parts (‘Penny Lane’), but piano (‘Martha My Dear’) and guitar (‘Blackbird’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ among others). However, I learned the finer points of acoustic fingerpicking by listening to Paul Simon. ‘April Come She Will,’ ‘Kathy’s Song,’ ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Anji’ were huge influences. I owe both Pauls a debt of gratitude!”

Doug Smith, Grammy-winning fingerstyle guitarist

“I danced, sang and dreamed of being a Beatle. I would press my ear to the speaker of my transistor radio, so the bass came out. I marveled at Paul’s creativity on bass. As the group matured, Paul’s playing became more and more distinct. His playing on ‘Rain’ and ‘Come Together’ is incredible. He is an outstanding pianist and has dabbled in other instruments. He started writing music with John Lennon and went on to write music on his own that is equal or better. If I could have a wish come true, I would like to play and sing with Paul McCartney.”

Don Mitchell, Director of instruction, Emil Fries School of Piano Technology for the Blind

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