On the 28th of March, someone I thought was just a mythical figure of a surreal musical landscape walked right on to a stage some twenty metres away from me. He stood at around five-foot-nothing in a blue velvet blazer and fedora.
It was Paul Simon.
It was the backbone of harmonic saints Simon and Garfunkel, known in their teenage years as Tom and Jerry, who fifty years ago took the world into a tender embrace with a single called The Sound of Silence. From there they conquered the world, moving from tongue-in-cheek tap-alongs like Mrs. Robinson to dainty jaw-slackeners in Scarborough Affair. It was the man who wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water, You Can Call Me Al, Graceland, and some hundred other tunes. And there he was, skidding onto the stage in all his seventy-one glorious years.
Yet something wasn’t quite right.
Squeezing in around thousands of other devotees, somehow the utopian sequence of events that I imagined didn’t fit with the vibe of the arena. As much as I’d readied myself for the moment, something about the public atmosphere, the blokes spilling beer on my feet from the row in front, unsettled me.
Paul started on a strange note, casting off a new number from his recent album. But Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard got the crowd going. The group in front of us, more at home with our MCG crowd neighbors, paid no attention to the music whatsoever. They bantered, they texted, they were restless; their spilled beer seeped through my socks. Every time one of them stood up the brigade of very-serious-middle-aged-men behind us would roar them down, “I paid good money for this!” someone protested. This only encouraged them. As Late in the Evening started, the ringleader turned around, and complained loudly how un-Australian we all were for sitting down. The tension distracted us from a good chunk of songs.
As the two sides shouted condemnations as vague as “un-Australian” at each other, I realized what was happening: I wasn’t in Central Park in the eighties, I was at Rod Laver Arena. Naturally my my inner cynic started sooking about failing to escape from Southern Cross tattoos at a Paul Simon concert. When Paul himself started playing The Sound of Silence, the crowd subsequently went silent. Except the ring leader, who was now on the phone. My friend next to me, at the end of his patience, leant forward, asking in the most reasonable of voices: “could you be quiet for just this song? Please?” The response? A series of “fuck-offs” and a moment ruined.
Eventually, he and his friends found a place to dance somewhere out of earshot, and we enjoyed the last few numbers without them. Still, I couldn’t work out quite how I felt about the whole thing, even while bopping along to You Can Call Me Al. But I looked around at one point and saw something that brought me back to life: a man in his seventies, arm-in-arm with his forty-something year old son, arm-in-arm with his teenage son. All silent, looking on at a man whose musical touch had trickled from Baby Boomer to Gen Y. That’s what it was. I wanted Paul Simon to myself, the way I had pictured it. But something bigger than that was going on: fifty years’ worth of music and three generations of fans wanting something slightly different – and after two hours, we had just that.