Our nation turns its lovely eyes to Paul Simon, the nice young man from the upper echelons of the counterculture who has been so assimiliated that he now is ready for his own network TV special. Bob Dylan, the well-know milionaire, beat him to it, but it still means something that rhymin' Simon has crossed over into prime time.

Yet one must draw ines. He agreed to do the NBC special but declined to go on the "Tonight" show to plug it. "Some day it'll be appropriate to do that," says Simon. "You have to pick the right moment to sel out, you know? There are a certain amount amount of sellouts available, and you cash them in at the right time. Those little - those tiny, little selouts."

Simon's pace in th scheme of things? In the '60s, he and former partner Art Garfunkel were the soft rebels it was safe to like. With their musical role in "The Graduate," they were certified safer still by Holywood. They came to represent demonstrative but mannerly soulful sensitivity; "And you read your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost," and all that. And yet they hung on to a musical integrity that none of those tiny little sellouts could ever realy threaten.

And then we all crossed the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" they sang about. The song now turns up on Muzak.

There have been other changes for Simon. He confesses he hasn't been in a supermarket "in years" (his housekeeper goes), and that, when in Los Angeles, he often stays at the Bel Air Hotel a fortress so posh it is continually under siege from limousines.

And now, the troubled water well behind him, and his 10-year partnership with Garfunkel dissolved, now, as it must to all men - as sleep came to the prospective pod people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" - television comes to Paul Simon. And vice versa.

Television. People watching without seeing. People listening without hearing. People wanting without needing. "Television," says Paul Simon, doesn't appeal to me at all.

Tonight's the night of his fist solo network special.

Simon has been a stranger to TV on purpose. It gave him and Garfunkel a hard time even as the '60s choked on tear gas nd died. The team's first and only special, on CBS in 1969, was "a tragedy," Simon says and he was TV-shy for years after, until Lorne Michaels, producer of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," coaxed him into a few appearances on the program and even talked him into a turkey suit.

Simon's '60s memories include his first appearance on network TV, which should have indicated to him the relationship would not be a happy one.

"This goes way back, '66 or '67, something like that," he says."It was when Simon and Garfunkel first got popular. We were booked on The Red Skelton Show. Nobody asked us, do we wanna go the The Red Skelton Show. I of course didn't want to go on The Red Skelton Show. I always hated Red Skelton. But we had an agent, he booked us on it, so we fly out to California, we come in and they give us this dialogue to read and, you know, it was just awful, basically just making fun of the name Garfunkel.

"So we're looking around and there's no one to tell we don't want to do this. No one, You can't tell the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of the show, because he [WORD ILLEGIBLE] no! It's wonderful! People will love this! Red is really happy you guys are on the snow." Red, of course, never shows up or says a word to you."

On tonight's Simon special, this sort of show biz sensibility is heartily spoofed. The opening finds Simon playing to an audience of about 12 people in a huge empty theater (actually a Passaic, N.J. movie house), but a gung-ho glad-handing producer tells Simon it will all look perfect on TV, because reality will be manipulated into fantasy. And it is, tooo. A little later Simon finds he was actually singing to a stadium full of wildly approving Chinese.

Chevy Chase and Lily Tomlin appear fleetingly on the show, and satirically it's pretty bright, but the best parts are musical. Simon's performance of "Something So Right" in a TV studio stalked by encircling cameras and technicians is something so right, it's practically breathtaking. Director Wilson has another virtuose field day when Simon's "I Do It for Your Love" is shot off three color monitors by a single camera. This is inventive and expressive personal television, and it reflects care and thought.

The producer on the show played by Charles Grodin of " The Heartbreak Kid" and the "King Kong" remake is depicted as a bumbling boob for whom the conept of sensitivity is as remote as Jupiter. Michaels says the character is based on people he worked with in television, especially in Los Angeles. Grodin plays the part all well, however, and wears out his welcome quicklyl. But he and Simon are friends in fact. Grodin directed that "tragic" Simon and Garfunkel special which CBS showed in 1969.

"It was terrible," Simon recalls, 'because the original sponsors of the show. Bell Telephone, withdrew their sponsorship after they saw it, in very unpleasant circumstances, at a very rancorous meeting. They thought the show was political, and in a way they didn't like.

"I'll tell you exactly the quote. They said, 'It expresses a political point of view which is yours, but which is not necessarily ours." We said, what political point of view - that people are hungry? We had footage of the march on Washington for hunger. We said, what is this political point of view that you see represented? And you know what they said? They said, 'Humanism.' I swear to God. Humanism.

So there was no particular temptation in later years to appear on concert-type shows like "Midnight Special," either. "They're just awful," says Simon. Everything about them is awful. They're shot so that every light looks like a star. They scream at you, and the music I find loud and unmusical and stupid."

The best thing about Simon's special may be that it has been fitted to Simon, and not the other way around; he hasn't been dropped into a show-case like an interchangeable mannequin.

The show also is fairly funny. Michaels has long maintained that Simon is a funny guy, and was the first to bring this out in public, on "Saturday Night." It led to Simon's recent appearance in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and to the fact that Simon is now writing his own movei - though it's not entirely comic - and a group of songs for it.

It 's easier to picture Simon causing laughter than collapsing in it himself, considering the melancholy strain in his work. Does he ever double over in stitches?

"Oh yeah," he says. "But, it's true, people cannot picture me like that. I've always been like that. Arty and I were always in hysterics laughing. I can remember once when we had to cancel a concert because Arty laughed so hard he threw his back out in a hotel room.

"We always laughed, always made fun of ourselves. We made up album titles to parody ourselves. "So Young. Yet So Full of Pain' - that was our favorite album title."

Garfunkel appears on the special, singing "Old Friends" with Simon. And Simon spent part of this week recording a track with his old partner for Garfunkel's forthcoming album. Some people in The Business still insist they hate each other - but who really cares? They had a moment and they made the most of it.

James Taylor, Gilda Radner and Shelley Duvall showed up for the press screening of Simon's special last week. Duvall may be in Simon's movie, about which he won't say much (Woody Allen told him to keep the title secret). Simon wants to start filming in springs; if there's a delay, he'll go to China as part of an entertainers' delegation, though they're not supposed to do any actual entertaining while there.

Still, he plans to take his guitar along if he goes. "I can't imagine spending three weeks without my guitar."

Some may find a certain solemn pretentiousness to Simon's work, but there may not be another pope composer whose lyrics more often approach poetry. I still haven't quite gotten over "'Kathy, I'm lost,' I said, though I knew she was sleeping," from "America." His personal songs have become personal to millions; he's been able to achieve enormous commercial success without the usual compromises one has come to expect. And he obviously likes being popular. He even likes it when he hears one of his songs, schmaltzified or not, on Muzak.

"I love it. I love it," he says quietly. "I particularly love Muzak.I was going into West Side Y the other day, and I heard over the Muzak 'Mother and Child Reunion,' which wasn't that big a song, and I got a real kick out of it. In elevators or offices or airplanes, you know, even when the power goes down and the tune gets real flat, I like it.

"It means that you're really in the world somehow, that you're really part of the culture. Now, somebody singing your song on the street - that's the best thing that could happen for a song writer. Aboslutely the best thing."