The long and winding genius of the Pauls (McCartney and Simon)

While trolling for something to read on Hoopla, I came upon Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon. It’s only available as an audiobook (or “audio biography”), and wisely so since so much of it depends on hearing Simon play his songs amidst his conversations with Gladwell. In that way it’s more like a limited podcast series than a book.

Whatever you call it, Gladwell’s intention was to interrogate the phenomenon of creative genius, and pinpoint how and why it applied to Simon, whose long and wide-ranging musical career set him in contrast to other contemporary artists who may have had higher peaks (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) but didn’t produce at the same level of quality over decades as Simon has.

As Gladwell writes:​

We tend to be much more caught in the peaks of an artist’s career. But why? The true definition of creative genius—to my mind, at least—is someone who is capable of creating something sublime and then, when that moment passes, capable of reconfiguring their imagination and returning to the table with something wholly different and equally sublime.​

Whether Simon meets this criteria is debatable, though Gladwell makes a good case for it.

The other Paul

Regardless, the book found me at a propitious time since I just finished watching and listening to the other famous ’60s singer-songwriter Paul in the documentary The Beatles: Get Back. The film captures McCartney in his first sublime period, which coincided with the transition between The Beatles and his solo work.

His career as a whole is eerily similar to Simon’s: incredible creative and commercial success within a popular group throughout the 1960s, followed by an acrimonious breakup in 1970 and then decades of steady solo output of variable quality.

(Conan O’Brien even had a bit involving Lorne Michaels called “Which Paul is he talking about?” since Lorne is friends with both.)

Per Gladwell’s formulation, both men created something sublime within a relatively condensed cultural moment, then reconfigured their output after that moment passed. Whether those later albums were “wholly different and equally sublime” depends on where you look.

If it’s a choice between The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, I choose the Fab Four all the way. (My cheeky Better The Beatles series notwithstanding.)

But solo-wise, I think Simon’s exceptional ‘70s work combined with the highlights of Graceland (1986), The Rhythm of the Saints (1992), and So Beautiful or So What (2011) give him the edge over McCartney, whose early solo work was definitely the best of all the ex-Beatles (though not perfect), but didn’t approach the sublime until Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005) and Memory Almost Full (2007).

Seeing Paul McCartney at Wrigley Field just over 10 years ago remains an all-time life highlight. (By seeing I mean standing outside Wrigley listening and singing along and barely catching a glimpse of him on the Jumbotron. But still.) I regret not being able to see Paul Simon live, as I imagine it would have been just as good but delightfully different. Which, perhaps, is what Gladwell would consider it too.

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