- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

Paul Simon sang under a number of monikers before Simon and Garfunkel, from Jerry Landis to Tico and the Triumphs. Now, Rhymin' Simon will be forever known as a Kennedy Center Honoree.

Mr. Simon, 61, has the musical chair for the Kennedy Center Honors' class of 2002, to be awarded tonight at a State Department dinner ceremony. The singer-songwriter replaces Paul McCartney, who became the first honoree to decline the honor earlier this year (because of a personal conflict with this weekend's festivities). Mr. McCartney will pick one up next year instead.

Mr. Simon's body of work makes his selection far more than a last-minute fill-in. From the impassioned folk songs of '60s superduo Simon and Garfunkel to his internationally kissed solo efforts, Mr. Simon has put his unique stamp on modern music for more than four decades.

Mr. Simon's personal representative says the singer was too "shy" to talk about the award, although he bared his creative soul for an extensive article in a recent issue of the New Yorker.

His career is marked by such contrasts.

He is enshrined twice in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both for his solo work and his days with Art Garfunkel. Yet his superstar status, including 16 Grammy wins, never stopped him from visiting the irreverent "Saturday Night Live" program as both performer and bit player.

Mr. Simon, the son of jazz bassist Louis Simon, was born Oct. 13, 1941, in Newark, N.J., but spent his formative years in the nearby New York borough of Queens.

It was at Forest Hills High School where he first heard a wiry-haired tenor named Art Garfunkel singing in a school production.

The pair became friends and recorded their first song "The Girl For Me" in 1955. Later, they enjoyed a modest hit with "Hey Schoolgirl" under the name Tom and Jerry.

Subsequent singles failed to duplicate its success.

Mr. Garfunkel went off to college while Mr. Simon kept on writing songs, some of which he sang solo under the name Jerry Landis. He changed identities twice more, singing as Tico and the Triumphs and then as Paul Kane before reuniting with Mr. Garfunkel in 1964.

Their acoustic release, "Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.," didn't chart until a record producer retooled its "The Sounds of Silence" single with more guitar and drum work.

It wasn't too long before the new "Silence" hit number one on the singles charts.

Howard Kramer, an associate curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, says the divergent influences on Mr. Simon shaped their sound.

"They were huge fans of Little Richard," he says, noting that the duo also incorporated the folk music favored on the streets of New York's Greenwich Village.

The combination "sounded completely different and uniquely beautiful," Mr. Kramer says.

Mr. Simon wrote the songs, but Mr. Garfunkel's contributions went beyond his gorgeous harmonizing.

"There's a symbiosis there," he says. "They've known each other since they were children. Those guys have a very complex relationship."

Their collaborations hovered at the top of the music charts while their score (including the hit "Mrs. Robinson") for the landmark 1968 film "The Graduate" assured the musicians' place in film lore.

Professional differences following 1971's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" album split them apart for the first of what would be several breakups.

Mr. Garfunkel went on to a fitful film career (1970's "Catch 22," 1971's "Carnal Knowledge") while Mr. Simon concentrated on music. His solo career began on a platinum note with his eponymous 1972 release. The next year, "There Goes Rhymin' Simon" yielded such hits as "Kodachrome" and "Loves Me Like a Rock," cementing his star status.

Jack Perricone, chairman of the Berklee College of Music's songwriting department in Boston, says Mr. Simon's knack for keeping in touch with the times ensured his commercial survival beyond the '60s.

"He kept aware of the pulse of teenage tastes," Mr. Perricone says. Songs like "Kodachrome" and "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" proved he was "aware of the tempo, the groove and subject matter that would have a wide appeal."

Mr. Simon suffered his first significant failure with the 1980 semi-autobiographical film, "One Trick Pony," in which he starred and co-wrote.

He licked his wounds the following year by re-teaming with Mr. Garfunkel for the wildly successful concert in New York's Central Park.

The pair considered cutting a new album, but the ubiquitous "creative differences" they bickered over songs that alluded too much to Mr. Simon's divorce from first wife Peggy Harper dissolved the union once more.

Another album, "Hearts and Bones," left the public wanting in 1983, but signaled the beginning of a 3-year-long exploration of international music, particularly rhythms found in South African cultures.

The result, 1986's "Graceland," featured South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo and spawned hits such as "You Can Call Me Al." The diminutive singer teamed with lanky Chevy Chase, an old pal from their "SNL" days, for the song's cheeky video.

Mr. Simon was quite unprepared for the reaction, especially from critics who attacked him for "stealing" from other cultures.

"There are people with political agendas willing to take a swipe at Paul Simon," Mr. Kramer says of the contretemps at the time. "But here we are 16 years later and it still stands up. He took the heat for it and it was an artistic and personal triumph."

Mr. Simon returned to his cultural sampling with 1990's "Rhythm of the Saints," with melodies grown out of Brazilian influences.

Then, in 1993, Mr. Simon and Mr. Garfunkel reunited once more for a brief tour to support a boxed set of their work. Afterward, the friends again went their separate ways.

Their relationship remains rocky to this day.

At the 2001 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for his solo career, Mr. Simon offered a conditional olive branch to his erstwhile partner.

"I hope that one day before we die, we'll make peace with each other," Mr. Simon said, before adding, "No rush."

Mr. Simon may have suffered a sales slump or two in his career, but nothing could compare to the calamitous reaction to his one and only attempt at musical theater.

Dubbed "The Capeman," the Broadway production boasted major talents, including choreographer Mark Morris and Nobel Prize winner for literature Derek Walcott. The show recalled a true-life tale of a 16-year-old Puerto Rican boy who stabbed two people to death in 1959.

Critics savaged it, and the play lost about $11 million before closing after only 68 performances.

Mr. Morris says he agreed to choreograph the show at Mr. Simon's request, in part, out of his respect for the singer's craft.

"Like a lot of good art, it applies to whoever's listening to it," Mr. Morris says of the singer's expansive songbook. "Everyone identifies personally with something personal."

The gig also let him watch Mr. Simon's work behind the scenes.

"He would stop a rehearsal, walk up to one individual and he'd hum something only that person would hear, very softly, or play something on the guitar. 'OK, let's try this,' he'd say, barely audible. It's not secret, it's private. He hears something that maybe not everyone else hears."

Mr. Morris insists the finished product drew an unfair, and prejudged, assessment.

Even a veteran like Mr. Simon felt the sting of the commercial failure.

"He was very, very disappointed and distressed," Mr. Morris says. "He took it personally because it was personal. It was not the money that was lost, but the fact that it was so soundly rejected."

Mr. Simon shook off the failure, in part, by hitting the road with fellow icon Bob Dylan. He followed that tour up with 2000's "You're the One," a critical if not commercial victory.

Beyond "The Capeman's" public drubbing, Mr. Simon's career has enjoyed a mostly sanguine reaction from critics.

Mr. Kramer credits the singer's willingness to defy conventions as one reason for the kind notices.

"He's in a position to say, 'I don't care what you think. I'm going to do what I want to do. You can come along for the ride,'" he says.

Today, part of that confidence may stem from a contented marriage, his third. Mr. Simon married singer Edie Brickell 10 years ago, and the couple has three children. Mr. Simon also has a son from his first marriage. His second marriage, to actress Carrie Fisher, ended in 1984.

Mr. Simon has no current projects on the docket, although friends and associates say he could write another hit song any time he wished.

That said, the Kennedy Center Honors would be the ideal epilogue for a career that started during Mr. Simon's teen years.

"He should take the rest of his life taking bows for what he's done," Mr. Perricone says.

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