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Paul Vallely: Troubled waters, but no bridge

20 July 2018

Paul Vallely reflects on the elegiac songs of Paul Simon


Paul Simon

Paul Simon

STRANGE times, Paul Simon said at his farewell concert in Hyde Park on Sunday. It was a veiled reference to Donald Trump, who had just headed off to meet Vladimir Putin after his peculiarly chaotic official visit to Britain.

The President’s trip to the UK had begun with his dissing the Prime Minister in The Sun, then un-dissing her and attacking the newspaper instead; saying that a trade deal with the UK was unlikely, and likely; and finally declaring, in advance of the Russian summit, that it was the EU that he now saw as the “foe”.

His extraordinary cascade of diplomatic incompetence ended with his failing to upbraid President Putin for Russia’s cyber interference in the 2016 US presidential elections — an omission that was “nothing short of treasonous”, according the former director of the CIA.

Perhaps the Russians have some compromising photographs of him. Perhaps he is doing some secret personal business deal there. More probably, he just does not want to cast a shadow on the validity of his own election victory.

But back to Simon. His two support acts also sought to counter the impact of their President. Bonnie Raitt played a song which began: “I can’t believe the things I’m seeing.” James Taylor declared: “There is an America different than the one represented by that guy. . . It is bigger than that, it has soul and will be back.” He then sang a song about Martin Luther King.

Paul Simon is 76. James Taylor is 70. Bonnie Raitt is 69. They are the musical heroes of an ageing hippie generation who, on the back of the prosperity built by our fathers in the 1950s and ’60s, felt that the world was open for spiritual regeneration. Our generation subscribed, intuitively at any rate, to the old Whig interpretation of history, with its confident belief that things could only get better as humankind became more enlightened.

Trump is proof of how wrong we were. We might hope that the venal narcissist, with his toddler tantrums and naked egotism, was just an aberration. But dark populism is on the rise all over the world, as Brexit has shown in this country, too. It is all a revolt against the progressive self-certainty of the liberal elite, to whose relentless political correctness President Trump is the barbarian antidote.

Simon’s whole farewell performance felt like an elegy to a vanishing world. He began with his song “America”, a Sixties tribute to the yearning optimism of young love. But its famous lines: “It took me four days to hitch-hike from Saginaw I’ve gone to look for America” were tinged with irony. Saginaw was one of the traditional Democrat cities. It voted for President Trump in 2016 after the gradual loss of 26,000 car-manufacturing jobs.

Towards the end of the performance, Simon sang his “American Tune”, which speaks of battered souls and shattered dreams, and “the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea”. One of its refrains is: “I wonder what went wrong.” The singer did his best to offer a corrective as the notes faded away: “Don’t give up,” he told the audience. We’ll do our best.

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