You listen to the opening riff, and it sounds familiar.
You reach back into your musical memory, and it becomes clear.
Those are the opening notes of “Anji,” an instrumental guitar piece that appeared on “Sounds of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 album. Those notes re-appear on the same album as the opening notes of “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me.”
At the age of almost 82, Paul Simon is re-playing the notes of his life.
That puts his latest work, “Seven Psalms,” into spiritual perspective. Entirely acoustic, it is less of an album than a suite of songs. The listener should engage the 33-minute, seven-movement composition as one continuous piece. Paul says that the work was inspired by a dream that he had — a dream in which he came to understand that this was now his mission — to create this great work. A dream that tells us to create; that is about as biblical an image as you will find.
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At the age of 82, Paul Simon has created a Jewish liturgical work.
Is it solely Jewish? No.
But, it is innately Jewish.
“Hoping that the gates won’t be closed before your forgiveness” — that’s called Yom Kippur.
“The sacred harp that David played to make his songs of praise — we long to hear those strings that set his heart ablaze.” Paul creates his own midrash to the late Leonard Cohen’s famous words about David in “Hallelujah”: “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” Wow. Just wow.
But, most important: Paul Simon is offering us new metaphors for God.
“The Lord is my engineer; the Lord is the earth I ride on; the Lord is the face in the atmosphere, the path I slip and slide on” (an echo of his song “Slip Slidin’ Away“); the Lord is a virgin forest; the Lord is the music I hear; the Lord is the train I ride on; the Lord is the coast, and the coast is clear; the Lord is a forest ranger; the Lord is a meal for the poorest of the poor; a welcome door to the stranger…”
Paul Simon is saying this: The Psalmist has no monopoly, and no final say, over metaphors for the divine. They are human constructions. When we no longer live in pastoral times, “the Lord is my shepherd” might very well, in the soul of a master musician, become a record producer.
Throughout my career, people have told me that they don’t believe in God. I listen to them, and we talk about their images of God. I often discover that they have limited their view of God to the metaphors that they already know, and have already rejected.
But, sometimes. we study together. I show them metaphors and images that are native to our sacred literature, but that they have never encountered.
Sometimes, those acts of study and encounter open their eyes, minds, and most important, their souls to a new spiritual reality.
That is what Paul Simon has done for the listener, especially the agnostic. His metaphors for God belong in a new, barely imagined Jewish prayer book of the future. With this work, he takes his rightful place next to the late Leonard Cohen as a master Jewish liturgist (may I say payatan, a liturgical poet?) for our time.
For me, this is the latest installment in a musical crush that I have had since I was 12 years old, and first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.”
That album changed my life. Simon and Garfunkel became my favorite popular music artists — yes, surpassing the Beatles, who up to that moment, had been my Number One.
I wore out the grooves of “Parsley, Sage.” Two years later, when their album “Bookends” came out, I wore out the grooves on that album as well. Simon and Garfunkel’s hymn to our national yearning, “America,” became my favorite pop song.
Paul Simon grew up in Queens. The Simon family belonged to a synagogue, but they were not especially religious. Simon once told an NPR reporter, “I was raised to a degree, enough to be, you know, bar mitzvahed and have that much Jewish education, although I had no interest. None.”
And yet, there had been glimmerings of Jewish identity in his music.
Consider “Silent Eyes,” on his 1975 album, “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
Simon longs and weeps for Jerusalem, in prayer-like phrases: “She is sorrow, sorrow/She burns like a flame / And she calls my name.” It envisions a time when all will be called to account — “We shall all be called as witnesses / Each and every one / To stand before the eyes of God / And speak what was done.”
So, today, Paul Simon’s musical elegy has dropped.
And, why now?
The clue comes in the first words of the new work. “I’ve been thinking about the great migration…”
He is not referring to a geographical migration, nor an enforced exile.
He is singing about that great migration into old age.
Paul Simon will turn 82 years old this autumn. This puts him in the upper age echelon of aging popular artists: Ringo Starr, 83; Bob Dylan, 82; Paul McCartney, 81; Carole King, 81; the Stones, all pushing 80; James Taylor, 75; Bruce Springsteen, 74.
Paul Simon epitomizes the plea of the psalmist: “Do not cast us off when we are old.” At an age when many peers in his age cohort would have settled back into retirement, he is still growing creatively.
But, nevertheless, you sense a flirtation with the Angel of Death, and your thoughts turn to eternity.
As Paul Simon puts it: “The Lord is my record producer.”
God is the record producer. God takes the tracks of our lives, and lays them out in order, and re-mixes them, and brings certain sounds and textures to the front, and pushes others to the back.
If we are truly blessed, God, the record producer, helps us figure out what our final track will be.
If this work turns out to be Paul Simon’s last (and may he continue composing and recording until the age of 120!), we might say, in the words of Passover: Dayeinu.
It is enough. It is a triumph.