Paul Simon On 'Stranger To Stranger' And Why You Can Call Him Al (Again) On his new album, Simon remains clever and biting, even when touching on difficult topics — some of them close to home.

Paul Simon On 'Stranger To Stranger' And Why You Can Call Him Al (Again)

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The first concert I ever went to, at least un-chaperoned, was in Philadelphia. It was Paul Simon.


PAUL SIMON: (Singing) I can call you Betty. And Betty, when you call me, you can...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing, unintelligible).

SIMON: (Singing) Call me Al.

GREENE: So when I got a chance to interview him recently, I had to tell him what an amazing experience that was. Back then, he was riding high on his "Graceland" album. And when he played the song "You Can Call Me Al," I mean, the place went absolutely nuts, so nuts that after the song ended, well, he just decided he would play it again.

SIMON: Here's what happened.

GREENE: Paul Simon took me to the moment when that tradition began.

SIMON: We played a concert in Zimbabwe. We played in Harare. Blacks and whites were about 50-50 in the audience, and that was a very unusual situation. And the place was, like, really up and dancing and really cheering.


SIMON: And they just kept cheering, you know.


SIMON: So I start to count off the next number. And Hugh Masekela said to me, no, they want you to play it again. And I said, yeah, I know they want me to play it again, but we - you know, we're going on to the next number now. He said, you don't understand. They want you to play it again.


SIMON: OK, I got it. So we did. And after that, we used to do it twice in a row with, like - it became so popular.

GREENE: Paul Simon is hoping to excite people like that again with his new album released today. It's called "Stranger To Stranger." His writing, it's as clever and biting as ever and always a bit off-kilter. I mean, take this song, "The Riverbank."


GREENE: Musically, it grooves with his hand-clapping and Texas-boogey guitar riff. But the lyrics, I mean, they're pure anguish.


SIMON: (Singing) Army dude, only son. Nowhere to run, no one to turn to. He turns to the gun. It's a cross. It's a stone. It's a fragment of bone. It's a long walk home.

GREENE: Paul Simon says this imagery in "The Riverbank" was actually informed by two tragic scenes, the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and also his visit with recovering troops at the Walter Reed Army Hospital outside Washington, D.C.

SIMON: These are vets who have come back, amputees who are in rehab. I sort of dreaded the visit, you know. But actually, it turned out to be a very inspiring thing because these guys were - first of all, they were in good shape. They were working hard. You know, they hadn't given up at all on their lives. Their families had come to visit them. Kids were there. It was a pretty impressive place. So there was the soldier element.

The other scene that stayed in my mind was - I don't live too far from Newtown in Connecticut, where there was the massacre at the school.


SIMON: (Singing) High school is closing for the local police. Shall we cheerfully embrace? Shall we sing "Amazing Grace"? Or will the shallow river waters bring us peace?

I sang at the funeral of a teacher at the school. The grief was palpable and expressed. And I sang a song.

GREENE: What was it like performing at such an unbelievably somber event?

SIMON: It's hard. It's really hard because you have to hold - you're trying to hold back your own tears. You know, you're standing right in front of the families. My son, my youngest son, he played Little League ball against Newtown. So, you know, if I can do that, if I can stand up there and sing it and it brings some kind of comfort, then, you know, you take a deep breath. You concentrate, and you sing your song. That's all I can do.


SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Hello darkness, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again. Because a vision softly creeping left its seeds while I was sleeping.

GREENE: I saw you about a decade ago in concert in Washington, D.C. with Garfunkel. And it was - it was magical. And I know in - I mean, in just about every interview I read with you, everyone is asking about the next possible reunion. Why do you think people constantly want you to relive the olden days?

SIMON: Well, I don't think most people do. The fact is, is, like, we did do two big reunions, and we're done. There's nothing really much to say. You know, the music essentially stopped in 1970.

And, you know, I mean, quite honestly, we don't get along. So it's not like it's fun. If it was fun, I'd say, OK, sometimes we'll go out and sing old songs in harmony. That's cool. But when it's not fun, you know, and you're going to be in a tense situation, well, then I have a lot of musical areas that I like to play in. So that'll never happen again. That's that.


SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) And whispered in the sounds of silence.

GREENE: I sense a real peace - sense of peace from you with this new album.

SIMON: Really?

GREENE: You can tell me if I'm wrong.

SIMON: It's not any different from the other albums. No, I guess it is. I really don't have a perspective on that. I don't know that any of the other albums had a sense of angst or, you know, maybe darkness. There's darkness in my personality, no question about it. And, you know - but I really try to keep that out of the music. I'd rather take the dark subject and touch on it and then say something funny or, you know, back away from it.

When you really get into tender areas in people's lives, you don't have to, you know, put a stick in it. You just - if you just touch it gently, it hurts enough. And then you move away and - just to indicate that you have some compassion for how tough it is for just about everybody to make it through this life.

GREENE: Paul Simon, it's been an absolute honor and pleasure. Thanks for spending some time with us.

SIMON: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: That is the one and only Paul Simon. His new album is out today. It is called "Stranger To Stranger."

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