Cracks in the Door: Simon on Two Georges – Gershwin and Harrison

Occasionally this blog will look “back through the cracks in the door,” taking a moment to revisit some overlooked aspects of Paul Simon’s career. To get things started, here’s Simon discussing two musical legends: George Gershwin and George Harrison.

The essay on Gershwin comes from the New York Times, which ran a series of articles about the prototypical New York composer on the centennial of his birth ten years ago. In it, Simon examines how Gershwin succeeded at both the high and low ends of the cultural spectrum before drawing parallels to the challenges he encountered when crossing musical boundaries: “No rock composer has crossed the lines between popular and serious music with anything near the results that Gershwin achieved… Eclecticism, however, will always have its detractors, and critics will cite a lack of purity as the weakness in cross-cultural work. At Howard University, I was told that my ”Graceland” album (which drew upon various South African musical styles) was neither Zulu, Xhosa, Shangaan or American.”

In his remembrance of George Harrison, with whom he performed stunning renditions of “Homeward Bound” and “Here Comes the Sun” on Saturday Night Live, Simon reveals that his prose is on par with his poetry, excelling at short-form literary journalism: “The three of us paused for a minute at the crest of a hill to let George catch his breath. Gazing down at the black pond, he told us that there were interconnected caves beneath the water’s surface, caves that he’d explored before his lung capacity had been diminished by his battle with cancer and a madman’s deranged obsession with celebrity. Every gardener knows nature’s random cruelty – frost, drought and predators – but most of us are shocked when jagged violence lunges from the shadows and reveals our own vulnerability.”

Highbrows and Hits: A Fertile Compound – The New York Times, August 30, 1998

”INCIDENTALLY, rumors about highbrow music ridiculous. STOP. Am out to write hits.” So George Gershwin wired his agent early in 1936. Hoping to land a contract with RKO Pictures for the new Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie ”Shall We Dance,” Gershwin was annoyed at a Hollywood studio executive’s suggestion that he might have lost some of his legendary gift for writing hits.

To put his defensiveness in a context, Gershwin had seen his folk opera ”Porgy and Bess” open to mostly poor reviews the year before and close after only 124 performances. Its entire investment of $70,000 was lost, including $10,000 that the Gershwins had put in. The composer Virgil Thomson, doyen of serious music critics, described the work as ”falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed . . . [with a] . . . libretto that should never have been accepted, on a subject that should never have been chosen, by a man who should never have attempted it.” For Gershwin, an artist who crossed musical boundaries as no other before or since, it must have been doubly frustrating to be attacked by the serious music press as inept and by the Hollywood studios as too sophisticated. His ”highbrow” music was regarded with disdain in Hollywood, while his popular melodies contaminated his concert pieces in the eyes of Eastern critics.

Hollywood, of course, needn’t have worried. In the less than two years that remained in his life (he died of a brain tumor at the age of 38), George and his brother Ira collaborated on three film scores, ”Shall We Dance,” ”Damsel in Distress” and ”Goldwyn Follies.” The songs from those films, as melodically inventive and lyrically sophisticated as anything the Gershwins had done, include ”They All Laughed,” ”Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” ”They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” ”Nice Work if You Can Get It” and ”A Foggy Day.”

In time (though not in his lifetime), ”Porgy and Bess” has come to be considered the great American opera. ”Rhapsody in Blue” is one of the most popular and frequently performed symphonic works and, despite critics who find his concert work structurally flawed and naive, Gershwin has joined the pantheon of great 20th-century composers. He stands, with Irving Berlin, at the pinnacle of American popular music. What, then, does his legacy say to those rock-and-roll songwriters who emerged in the 60′s and 70′s and who are now in their mature middle years?

There are parallels, perhaps coincidental, with Gershwin’s career and lessons to be pondered as we celebrate the centenary of his birth. The music that John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and I grew up with was not the Broadway show tunes of Gershwin, Berlin, Porter and Kern. It was the gospel-influenced doo-wop of the Orioles, the blues and church-tinged rhythm-and-blues of Ray Charles, the rockabilly of Elvis Presley and the effortless rhymes and rhythm-guitar lines of Chuck Berry. That music, drawn from African roots and Appalachian modalities, was as far from the sophisticated harmonies of George Gershwin as Tupelo, Miss., is from Manhattan. Rock had its own sophistication, rhythmic and street-wise, but its shallower harmonic well has never provided even its best songwriters with the abundance of great melodies that Gershwin poured forth in his less than two decades of work.

Like Gershwin, the second generation rockers matured musically as they passed from their 20′s to their ”don’t trust anyone over 30.” The music expanded from one or two hit tunes on an album to the more fully realized, though sometimes pretentious, ”concept” album. The seismic cultural jolt that ”Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” delivered had its antecedent in the ecstatic response to ”Rhapsody in Blue,” written when Gershwin was only 25 years old. Lennon’s interest in Stockhausen and Cage, McCartney’s knowledge of English music hall melodies and arrangements, Harrison’s study of raga with Ravi Shankar — these are echoes, conscious or not, of Gershwin’s experimentation with cross-cultural forms. Gershwin’s incorporation of ragtime (”Swanee”) and blues (”The Man I Love,” ”Summertime”) helped reinvigorate the Broadway musical, which had been dominated by 19th-century European thinking, while the vibrancy of jazz (”Fascinating Rhythm,” ”I Got Rhythm”) also gave Gershwin’s work its distinctly American flavor and appeal.

Gershwin, who lacked formal training and felt his innate musicality was limited by his technical incapacity, studied harmony and composition with several prominent teachers of his day. He used these studies, incompletely digested though they may have been, to help compose the Concerto in F, ”An American in Paris” and ”Rhapsody in Blue.” Of course, if Gershwin had studied formally at an early age, he would never have spent those years learning popular song forms on Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, and his fusion of high and low culture wouldn’t have been realized. One enters Carnegie Hall from the street, not vice versa.

NO rock composer has crossed the lines between popular and serious music with anything near the results that Gershwin achieved. In fact, rock critics have consistently derided orchestral or symphonic fusions as pretentious and bourgeois, while exalting the nihilism of punk and alternative bands as the best way to purify and revitalize rock-and-roll. Perhaps the deeply ingrained oral tradition in rock has left an indelible mark on the psyche of its musicians: beware the written form, the manuscript paper with notes, clefs and musical direction in Italian. It’s a credo of rock that raw is true, yet in the adjacent world of jazz no such constraints hinder its composers. Similarly, in Brazil, the other great musical culture of the Western hemisphere, composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim have fashioned a rich melodic and rhythmic tradition from a European and African fusion. Gershwin did this for American music in 1925.

Eclecticism, however, will always have its detractors, and critics will cite a lack of purity as the weakness in cross-cultural work. At Howard University, I was told that my ”Graceland” album (which drew upon various South African musical styles) was neither Zulu, Xhosa, Shangaan or American. It was a dilution of cultures, and all I’d really done was a ”Gershwin goes to Africa.” This is a definition of purity that freezes a culture: no new information need apply. In truth, cultures and artistic movements influence each other by osmosis. The proximity of different cultures, magnified by the speed of technology, offers an irresistible challenge to artists to rearrange and reinvent languages, musically, visually and verbally. Cross-cultural dialogue is inevitable as generations, philosophies and artistic movements bang against each other, intermingle, intermarry and interface. There are many versions of the same truth.

As for Gershwin’s greatest triumph and most disheartening failure, ”Porgy and Bess,” he attempted to depict black culture in a way that was as truthful to blacks as whites and to shape from diversity an esthetic unity. His genius, like all genius, was unique, but his all-embracing artistic vision still resonates powerfully today in a world where music is sometimes the only benign avenue of communication between antagonists.

Paul Simon Remembers George – Rolling Stone, January 17, 2002

The rain had lifted and the October sun was warm enough for us to pull on pairs of galoshes and stroll across the meadow at Friar Park. An afternoon with George Harrison and his wife, Olivia, was a treat Jeff Kramer (our mutual friend and manager) and I had promised ourselves to relieve the monotony of airplanes, hotel rooms and sound checks; the everyday humdrum of musicians on the road.

I hadn’t seen George for several years and was anxious to know, in person, how he was faring after the harrowing attack he’d endured just ten months earlier, on New Year’s Eve 1999. “I’m really happy to see you,” he said as we shook hands and embraced, “and these days, when I say I’m really happy to see someone, I mean I’m really happy.”

He looked healthy and his mood was up as we approached a wooden bridge over a pond of waterlilies. I’d never been to Friar Park before, but the rhythm of the wind in the leaves and the cluster chords of autumn’s orange, gold and evergreen made it easy to understand why he’d chosen to spend the last thirty years gradually planting, pruning, editing and reshaping the land while at the time recasting himself from pop-culture icon to master gardener.

The three of us paused for a minute at the crest of a hill to let George catch his breath. Gazing down at the black pond, he told us that there were interconnected caves beneath the water’s surface, caves that he’d explored before his lung capacity had been diminished by his battle with cancer and a madman’s deranged obsession with celebrity. Every gardener knows nature’s random cruelty – frost, drought and predators – but most of us are shocked when jagged violence lunges from the shadows and reveals our own vulnerability.

We walked toward the sun and slipped through a copse of weeping willow. There in the middle of a field of wildflowers were two huge boulders weighing several tons and standing one atop the other like a pair of giant granite acrobats. “Are those the work of a sculptor?” I asked. “No,” he said, “they came from opposite ends of the property, but we moved them here and stacked them in this field. Everyone wants to know about them. In fact, when Ringo came round for a visit last summer, he asked about them as well. I told him that Paul’s record company had sent them as a promo for his new album, Standing Stone. Ringo was really miffed that he hadn’t gotten his standing stones, but I said they’d probably only posted them to A-list people.” Liverpool accents always sound to me like a joke is coming, but Harrison’s wit was deadpan and dead-on.

The roots of my friendship with George Harrison go back to 1976, when we performed together on Saturday Night Live. Sitting on stools side by side with acoustic guitars, we sang “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound.” Though we’re in the same generation and weaned on Buddy Holly, Elvis and the Everly Brothers, it must have seemed as strange to him to be harmonizing with someone other than Lennon or McCartney as it was for me to blend with someone other than Art Garfunkel. Nevertheless, it was an effortless collaboration. The mesh of his guitar and voice with my playing and singing gave our duet an ease and musicality that made me realize how intrinsic and subtle his contribution was to the Beatles’ brilliant creative weave. He made musicians sound good without calling attention to himself.

His songwriting, too, which I always thought to be stylistically close to mine, was gentle and sad with country and skiffle influences rippling beneath his often sardonic lyrics. It all seemed deceptively simple until masterpieces like “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something” made people realize that the Beatles had three major writers competing for the limited space of the vinyl LP. They called him “the quiet Beatle,” but he wasn’t particularly quiet; he simply didn’t demand to be heard. He knew who he was, where he’d come from, what he’d accomplished. He wasn’t humble, but he projected a humility that implied a vision of his fame seen in a larger context. God gives us color and fragrance, the gardener waters and weeds.

At Friar Park, the rain was threatening an encore, and the English sun sets early at that time of year, so we headed back to the house and the warmth of a fire. Nature’s vibrant fall colors are misleading. They imply life and vitality, but they camouflage the muted browns and grays of winter. Soon the leaves will float to the ground and turn to dust, a blanket for a long winter’s sleep.

Sitting by the fire, we drank tea and ate chocolate biscuits while George, to my astonishment, played a miniconcert of Hawaiian music on several ukuleles he’d collected on trips to the islands. His playing was clean and bouncy, his voice sounding like an exact duplicate of George Harrison. I could envision him sitting on a stool side by side with Don Ho, making us wonder how we’d missed the whole Don Ho experience that first time around.

Before we left, George showed us a copy of the new Beatles Anthology book and wrote an inscription to Jeff, deftly adding three perfect forgeries of the other Beatles’ signatures.

“Why don’t you come down and see the show tonight?” We invited him, knowing there was little chance he’d stir from his chair by the fire. “Maybe we will,” he said. “If not, thanks for coming by. I’ll see you soon, I hope.”

On the drive back to London, Kramer told me that George had felt awkward about not offering a copy of the book to me, but he was afraid I might not have great interest in owning one. I said I’d never asked for anyone’s autograph, but I was actually a little disappointed that he hadn’t made the offer. Two months later, the tour ended, I came home to find a copy of The Beatles Anthology sitting on my desk. “To Paul and Edie,” the inscription read, “with lots of love from your pal, George Harrison.”