Paul Simon Tinkers With His Classics On 'In The Blue Light' The famed singer-songwriter says his fourteenth album, out now, will be his last. Simon also tells NPR's David Greene that he's ready to stop touring.
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Paul Simon Tinkers With His Classics On 'In The Blue Light'

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Paul Simon Tinkers With His Classics On 'In The Blue Light'

Paul Simon Tinkers With His Classics On 'In The Blue Light'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly 60 years after writing his first song, Paul Simon is winding down his farewell tour. He is 76 years old and talking about retiring from music. But first, the famously meticulous songwriter has some unfinished business. On his new album "In The Blue Light," Simon has rerecorded and, in some cases, partially rewritten 10 songs he feels weren't quite up to snuff the first time around. He talked with David Greene.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: You've been described as a perfectionist when it comes to your songs and your music. Is that a word you like?

PAUL SIMON: I have nothing against the word. It just doesn't apply to me.

GREENE: Really?

SIMON: You can't be perfect. It's either musical or it's not musical. The ear goes to the irritant. When I hear something that I don't think is right, I want to change it.

GREENE: Isn't that what a perfectionist does? Isn't that the definition of someone striving for perfection?

SIMON: If you like. But it's not that I'm looking for the flaws. They search you out.

GREENE: (Laughter).

SIMON: And eventually, you can't ignore them. At first, there's a lot of denial. And you say, this part is good, this part is good, this part - until finally, that all falls away. And you say, I can't stand this...

GREENE: It's gnawing at me.

SIMON: ...This part. Right.

GREENE: Well, I want to - let me talk through some of the songs in this album because that's exactly what you seem to be doing.

SIMON: Oh, yeah. The album's a good example of fixing things that I thought could be fixed.

GREENE: Well, this is the original recording from 1975 of "Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME FOLKS' LIVES ROLL EASY (1975)")

SIMON: (Singing) Some folks' lives roll easy as a breeze drifting through a summer night.

GREENE: OK. And here is your new version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME FOLKS' LIVES ROLL EASY (2018)")

SIMON: (Singing) Some folks' lives roll easy as a breeze drifting through the summer night.

GREENE: You know, Paul Simon, I've got to admit - I kind of like them both. What was wrong...

SIMON: Well, here's...

GREENE: ...With the first version?

SIMON: I thought it was a really good song that didn't pay off correctly in the last verse. This is the original version going back to the '70s. I thought the song would be a powerful song if I rewrote the last verse and made a point, which I didn't do the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME FOLKS' LIVES ROLL EASY (2018)")

SIMON: (Singing) The sunlight written in a scroll, the gift that God intended for us all.

I prefer this version.

GREENE: (Laughter) Well, I mean, you're the one in charge. So it's - if you fixed it and you have it out, I would assume that's...

SIMON: No, not really. It's the listener who's in charge. And it's the listener who's the last composer. They write, in their heads, what they like. Sometimes when I hear people sing my songs, they sing a different lyric. And so I think, well, their brain hears this, and that's the lyric that they like. So they're the final composer because that's what they're singing.

GREENE: Huh. I want to play another song. So this is the opening line of a song from 1983.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE AND GEORGETTE MAGRITTE WITH THEIR DOG AFTER THE WAR (1983)")

SIMON: (Singing) Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war...

GREENE: And so in this song, you have this famous Belgian surrealist artist and his wife, and they're big doo-wop fans. And we hear that. Let's listen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE AND GEORGETTE MAGRITTE WITH THEIR DOG AFTER THE WAR (1983)")

SIMON: (Singing) ...They dance by the light of the moon to The Penguins, the Moonglows, The Orioles, The Five Satins - the deep, forbidden music they'd been longing for.

GREENE: And so in the original, I mean, I could almost see them dancing to the music. And then the doo-wop comes in, and it seemed like this lovely touch. And then this is your new version of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE AND GEORGETTE MAGRITTE WITH THEIR DOG AFTER THE WAR (2018)")

SIMON: (Singing) ...To The Penguins, The Moonglows, The Orioles and The Five Satins - the deep, forbidden music they'd been longing for.

GREENE: So you really lose what, to me, was a fun aspect of the original, the doo-wop. But it's beautiful in its own right. So what were you trying to bring out instead?

SIMON: When I wrote the original, I found this group of doo-wop singers from the '50s. I had a part that I wanted them to sing. But they came in with this whole part they wrote. But I didn't have the heart to tell them, don't do that because they - obviously, they'd worked so hard at it. So I just left it there. But it's not the way I wanted it to be. Again - you know, I don't know whether you would say this was being a perfectionist or whether this was coming closer to expressing what it is that I felt or intuited about the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENE AND GEORGETTE MAGRITTE WITH THEIR DOG AFTER THE WAR (2018)")

SIMON: (Singing) For now and ever after, as it was before, Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.

GREENE: Is there a song that you've never heard a flaw in, a song where you've listened back and you've said, like, you know, there are no little flaws there that - I'm OK with just how it sounds?

SIMON: Maybe. But as time goes by, you change your mind anyway about what a flawless performance is. Some of the songs are effective and last in a way that's, you know, very gratifying. For example, I wrote "The Sound Of Silence" when I was 21 or 22 years old, which - I have no idea how I possibly wrote that song at that age. But that song has lasted all of these years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOUND OF SILENCE")

SIMON: (Singing) And the vision that was planted in my brain still remains within the sound of silence.

I think the big measuring thing is, you know, will something last a hundred years? If you write a song and it lasts a hundred years, I'd say, well, that's a hit. It's a...

GREENE: You've done something...

SIMON: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Something right.

SIMON: And I have a couple of songs that have a shot at it, you know? "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is over 50 years old now. And...

GREENE: Halfway there.

SIMON: Yeah, halfway there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON AND GARFUNKEL SONG, "BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER")

GREENE: It's been such a pleasure talking to you, Paul Simon. Really an honor. Thank you.

SIMON: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Like a bridge...

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