NEW YORK -- Paul Simon is sitting in a small, darkened studio surrounded by buttons and switches and blinking lights, a half-finished bottle of Evian nestled between his knees.
From a pair of speakers behind him comes the rhythmic clatter of Brazilian drums. Then the electric guitar urgently announces itself. Four French-speaking women from Cameroon, in a backup track recorded that day, sweetly deliver the gospel-style chorus, Never been lonely, never been lied to. And now Rhymin' Simon begins to croon in a voice as familiar as rock itself.
Among the reeds and rushes, a baby boy was found/ His eyes as clear as centuries, his silky hair was brown. After a few hip flourishes -- We like to go down to Restaurant Row, spend those Eurodollars all the way from Washington to Tokyo -- he marks time with a little ba ba da ba ba.
"I don't have this part yet," he says. "I just have the chorus, a little bit of the words."
It is a warm summer evening and Simon is rehearsing "The Rhythm of the Saints," an ambitious, many-layered, cross-cultural album that could reestablish him as the global rock statesman of his generation. The Jewish kid from Kew Gardens, Queens, is nearing the end of a 2 1/2-year odyssey in which he brought together artists as diverse as Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini, South African bassist Bakithi Cumalo, American folk-rocker J.J. Cale and a 14-man Brazilian drum ensemble, Bateria do Olodum, that Simon recorded banging away in a public square.
"There's a certain hypnotic quality that comes from this kind of drumming," says Simon, leaning back in a black T-shirt, bluejeans and brown penny loafers. "That's what it was made for. It was attached to religious ceremonies. ... This is about hundreds of years of a rhythm that affected people."
His lyrics frequently soar to the occasion, infused with more religious imagery than his fans might expect: I believe in the future we shall suffer no more/ Maybe not in my lifetime but in yours, I feel sure.
"At the time when your mind has just come out of some zone of a drum, you have to say a phrase that's interesting," he explains. "When you disarm the brain, it becomes vulnerable to a thought, and if you can attach that thought to an emotion, then you're doing what you're supposed to be doing. I think people are so bottled up emotionally. They're so desperate to be able to release a tremendous amount of feeling."
The new album, to be released this week, comes four years after Simon scored big with "Graceland," which sparked a debate over whether he had violated a United Nations cultural boycott by recording some songs in South Africa. What was overlooked at the time is that the worldwide success of the album gave this aging singer a new lease on musical life.
"For me, the lucky part of 'Graceland' was that it defined a way that I could keep going," Simon says. "I didn't have to fight Top 40, which rejected it. It was a big hit anyway."
It is, after all, 25 long years since the strains of Hello darkness my old friend first filled the airwaves, since the diminutive Simon and a tall, frizzy-haired friend were lionized by the campus crowd for singing about Robert McNamara and Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.
Paul Simon is 47 years old. He recently started wearing glasses. His son, Harper, is 17. In an MTV era, Simon's 10 Grammy awards might seem more a sign of longevity than of achievement, the cluttered mantelpiece of a rock-and-roll relic.
"The younger generation says, 'Get out of the way. You guys are middle-aged. It's about us, it's not about you. What are you still doing here?' " Simon says with a grin. "That's why they induct you into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, so you'll go away.
"I'm basically interested in my generation. That's who I'm talking to first. Half of them are asleep already. They no longer think there's any information to be gotten from music -- they don't buy records. I don't expect kids to understand what I'm talking about, but it's got to be interesting enough that they can listen to it."
Until the Words Come
I believe in the future I may live in my car/ My radio tuned to the voice of a star.
Almost every track on "The Rhythm of the Saints" starts with drums, some raucous and demanding, others slippery and seductive. One by one, Simon and his longtime engineer, Roy Halee, add a dazzling mix of sounds -- fluegelhorn, euphonium, piccolo, trumpet, accordion, trombone, glass marimbas, synthesized panpipes, bongos, congas, even water bowls -- as the songs twist and turn toward surprising climaxes.
As Simon fills in the mosaic at the Hit Factory on West 54th Street, the album begins to take shape. One song has a rolling bass and disco-like, 9/8 beat. Another starts with Simon singing softly before a horn section bursts in, loudly punctuating his words. Still others merge African guitar and gospel rhythms with a Simon falsetto, or Portuguese lyrics by Brazilian star Milton Nascimento, or a brief refrain of '50s rock. While the album pulsates with energy, some parts -- with their minor keys, strange time signatures and unorthodox rhythms -- obviously are not destined for commercial radio.
With the sound surging behind him as if he were onstage, Simon closes his eyes, taps his left foot and picks at an air guitar as he sings: My face, my race don't matter anymore/ My sex, my checks accepted at the door.
For years, Simon sat with a guitar writing his lyrics and melodies, like everyone else, then assembled a band to play them. There were exceptions, such as "Cecilia" and "Mother and Child Reunion," where the tunes came first. Starting with "Graceland," however, he has written all the music and waited for the lyrics to materialize, sometimes for a year or more.
"I play the tracks hundreds of times and I sing and I keep improvising until the words come," Simon says. "I just let it sit there, keep coming back to it."
He is sitting in a straight-backed metal chair, munching microwaved popcorn and musing about his art as if this were an all-night bull session in the dorm and he had nothing better to do.
"When the tracks are good, it's easier to write a good song. Otherwise you're compensating for the track and it puts a big burden on the lyrics. It's easier for the lyrics to take their time and sparkle when they happen to sparkle."
I'm accustomed to a smooth ride/ Or maybe I'm a dog that's lost its bite
I don't expect to be treated like a fool no more/ I don't expect to sleep through the night
Some people say a lie's a lie's a lie/ But I say, why deny the obvious, child
"I had that line really early -- 'Why deny the obvious, child.' It was so abstract I really had no intention of using it," Simon says. "But then when I started to think of these very simple, no-bull lyrics. ... Now I have the abstract against the concrete."
The song started with a little joke: We had a lot of fun/ We had a lot of money/ We had a little son and we thought we'd call him Sonny. Then Simon got stuck, but scribbled a note on his pad: "Sonny returns." Months later, he brought Sonny back in a more serious way.
Sonny gets married and moves away/ Sonny has a baby and bills to pay. Soon Sonny is sitting by his window and thinks to himself/ How it's strange that some rooms are like cages/ Sonny's yearbook from high school is down from the shelf/ And he idly thumbs through the pages/ Some have died, some have fled from themselves.
"I didn't realize I was going to skip a generation and make a song about aging," Simon says.
Sometimes phrases nag at him obsessively. "I didn't want to write a song about Elvis Presley," he says of "Graceland." "I'd never been to Graceland and I didn't know why I was writing this. But it wouldn't go away." Simon made the obligatory trek to Memphis and hit upon using Elvis's shrine as a metaphor for lost love.
During the 1987 "Graceland" tour, Simon used two West African drummers who stretched his vision of the possibilities of percussion. When he heard that the drumming scene in Brazil was equally exciting, Simon asked Milton Nascimento, with whom he had just sung harmonies on a Portuguese-language album, to take him to his native land.
"It became so apparent to me so quickly that the Brazilians were so far ahead in terms of rhythm, sounds, percussion," Simon says. "They would play eight or 10 drummers at once."
Another piece fell into place when Simon was cutting a track in Paris. Florence Gninagnon, a singer from Cameroon, cooked dinner for him one night, and "some of the women in the room started to sing. It was a really interesting sound." Soon he had his backup singers, Gninagnon and three fellow Cameroonians who said the tracks reminded them of singing in church -- a French-accented gospel sound that Simon encouraged.
"We are singing the color of our country," says Dgana Day. "There's a color of Africa that he really wants from us."
Nascimento wrote some Portuguese lines and found himself on a bilingual track called "Spirit Voices." "It's fantastic for me because I'm a big fan of his," Nascimento says. "I like the way he sings. I like the way he writes. He mixes in many experimental things."
After three more trips to Brazil, Simon was homeward bound. He brought in Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds on harmonica, Michael Brecker on saxophone and synthesizer, C.J. Chenier on accordion, J.J. Cale on guitar. Simon says he has never spent so much making an album.
"You pay people a sum of money that indicates you think they're special," he says. "I never asked J.J. Cale how much -- just send me the bill. I'm privileged to get J.J. Cale."
For all his globe-trotting, Simon grew depressed about the album last Christmas. "I thought, just working hard is not going to make a good record. There's like some other thing that has to happen that's not in your control." After months of mixing and remixing in the Hit Factory, he gradually overcame his doubts.
'Naive and Pretentious'
This is a lonely life, sorrows everywhere you turn.
He has been called the apostle of angst, this former Queens College English major who once sang on street corners with his grade school friend Art Garfunkel, who lived three blocks away. A string of hit albums in the late '60s, their 1968 soundtrack for "The Graduate" and the 1970 album "Bridge Over Troubled Water" -- which sold 8 million copies -- linked their names forever, like Lennon and McCartney. Yet Simon says he doesn't like most of the early songs, the words coming back to haunt him in shades of mediocrity.
"They're naive and pretentious," he says. "They're young. I'm adopting a voice that I didn't really own, an attitude that I really wouldn't have at the age of 25 or 26, some kind of world-weary alienation.
"While I'm not saying I didn't feel some sense of estrangement -- I did -- the songs attempted to explain it in a style that was an imitation of a sophisticated style. ... They just sounded like Bleecker and McDougal Street, what everybody who was a folkie played. They might have had a musical hook, a song like 'I Am a Rock,' which I don't like."
Why, then, were Simon & Garfunkel so popular? "I'm sure a large part of the audience was as pretentious as I was," Simon says.
After the split from Garfunkel, Paul Simon spent the '70s proving that despite his more limited vocal range, he was the musical force behind the duo. His solo albums sold well, his first marriage broke up and he began dating actress Carrie Fisher. Simon also wrote and starred in a movie, "One Trick Pony," that died at the box office.
During a 1982 reunion tour with Garfunkel, the pair announced plans for another Simon & Garfunkel album, but "that fell apart, the way things always tend to fall apart between me and Artie," Simon says. They have "drifted apart," see each other perhaps two or three times a year. Simon says flatly they will never work together again.
The joint album became Simon's solo flop "Hearts and Bones," released in 1983 during the same period that Simon's brief marriage to Fisher was ending. The emotional wreckage of that marriage is exhumed on "Graceland," where Simon laments that "losing love is like a window in your heart, everyone sees you're blown apart."
There are no such haunting confessions on "The Rhythm of the Saints," an album filled with abstract and spiritual imagery. "I'm disinclined to tell personal things," says Simon. "I would if I thought that they had a universal enough appeal. If I needed to say them to say what I had to say, I would, but I don't. There hasn't been any overwhelming emotional event that's occurred that I had to document with a full song.
"It's been a very happy period of my life. ... Things get clearer, I think, as you get older. My son is almost grown, but he hasn't really left yet. He lives with me. Both my parents are alive and healthy. It's one of those times in your life when everything is still intact, and it won't remain that way forever. ... It's not like I have all that much time that I can indulge myself and be unhappy."
'Further to Fly'
Faith is an island in the setting sun, but proof, yes/ Proof is the bottom line for everyone
It is a humid morning a few weeks later at the Hit Factory and Paul Simon is trying to track down a young woman from the Bronx named Myrna.
The album is nearly finished; Simon has put down nine of his own vocal tracks, mixing the best segments from three or more takes. Now he has an idea for a harmony line on a song called "The Coast." It is a small part, perhaps a dozen words in all, but Simon wants to "re-create the sound of doo-wop." An assistant is dispatched to search for the elusive Myrna, whom Simon met while casting a doo-wop musical he is writing.
"I was looking for kids who were young and actually had that sound," Simon says. "She had it. She actually sounded like 1959."
Simon is still struggling with the lyrics on one song, "Further to Fly." It began with a single line -- the open palm of desire -- from an aborted attempt to write a song for Nascimento's album. He saved the line and is trying to flesh it out:
Sometimes I'll be walking down the street and I'll be thinking/ Am I crazy/ Or is this some morbid little lie/ Further to fly.
The songwriter tinkers endlessly with last-minute changes. The name of the title track becomes "A Reach Into the Darkness," although he will later switch back to "The Rhythm of the Saints." Simon crosses out one of the song's strongest lines, Fashion is the rich nations rolling the poor. Instead, he scribbles in, Fashion is rich people waving at the door.
Few of Simon's songs are overtly political. He makes his statements in other ways, such as using South African musicians to give the "Graceland" tour a strong anti-apartheid tone. Simon also makes a point of living modestly, although his eight-room duplex on Central Park West, and the stretch limo he slips into after the recording session, betray his immense wealth.
Simon is deeply involved in the fabric of his hometown, quietly putting up the seed money for a highly successful medical van that ferries doctors and nurses to New York's homeless children. When he concluded that Ed Koch had to go, he held a news conference to endorse David Dinkins for mayor. Last month, Simon did a benefit concert for an endangered lighthouse on Montauk, where he keeps a vacation home.
But if Dylan-style protest tunes are not his strength, even Simon's love songs are peppered with dashes of realpolitik, a bomb hidden in the baby carriage. He describes his lyrics this way:
"Something explodes in the corner of your consciousness, over in some verse, some piece of street business goes on. Sort of the way we think as we walk along the street. You're into your own thoughts and then your mind drifts and you think about homelessness, you think about the government, then you think about your own family. ...
"Your mind is jumping all the time from subject to subject. A lot of that jumping is because the subject that you're on is so tender that you can't stay on it for a really long time, so you run away from it, and then your mind comes back to it compulsively. ... I try to capture that quality in the writing, very odd angles of thinking."
As he ruminates, Simon's own thoughts drift back to his roots in the '60s and what has become of those idealistic days.
"If my generation doesn't reassert the values that they fought for, those values will be lost, and so will the generation," he says. "We will live in a world that is far more brutal than the world we conceived we'd be living in when we were young. I don't want to live in that world."