A new Skirball Cultural Center exhibit invites visitors to take a trip on the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to “Graceland,” with “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Boxer,” and “The Boy in the Bubble” to remember Paul Simon’s prolific prose and musical career. Spanning more than 50 successful years as a recording artist, both with Art Garfunkel and alone, the “Paul Simon: Words & Music” exhibition in Los Angeles showcases his influences, illustrates anecdotally his songwriting process through the years, and more about what inspired him in various phases of his long career.
Curated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, “Paul Simon: Words & Music” offers a comprehensive exhibition of the singer-songwriter’s work and impact on social and cultural ideals. The exhibit features instruments, rare archival photographs, album art, sheet music, and other period-specific artifacts, as well as his songs to hear and performances to watch. Additional never-before-exhibited items from Simon’s private archives and an interactive music lab at the Skirball expand upon the original Hall of Fame exhibition and add context.
As half of Simon & Garfunkel and on his own, Simon is a monumental figure in American songwriting. Born in 1941 in New Jersey, and raised in New York, he got his first guitar (seen at the exhibit) at 13 and began developing his talents at pop hooks, poetic social commentary, and catchy tunes.
His eventual commercial success and accolades earned him 16 GRAMMY Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002, and recognition as the first recipient of the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2007. Simon is also one of the two-time inductees into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame recognizing his success with Garfunkel and as a solo act. Many of these and other awards are on display at the Skirball.
The exhibition probably will appeal more to those who have used “Kodachrome,” but so many of his songs have been featured in movies and TV shows that younger visitors will know his work. It is rare for a memorial or tribute event to not feature “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “The Sounds of Silence.” (Then there is that current ad that features his song, “America” for German car company Volkswagon.)
Things to See
The artifacts span Simon’s life, including a letter he wrote to Garfunkel at summer camp in 1957. Throughout the exhibit, there are handwritten manuscript versions of his lyrics. There are even lyrics for “The Boxer” that he jotted in the margins of an airline inflight magazine piece.
There are also explanations behind some pieces. For example, “The Sounds of Silence” was inspired by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “Graceland” was inspired by a visit to Elvis’ home, but is viewed by Simon as a metaphor versus a destination.
While his early solo career incorporated pop pieces reminiscent of his collaboration with Garfunkel, the songwriter’s style evolved later. As noted in the exhibit, it expanded to incorporate countless styles and rhythms from other genres. There is the Jamaican reggae sound “Mother and Child Reunion,” gospel on “Loves Me Like a Rock,” Brazilian percussion on “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” Andean music on “Duncan,” and adding backup vocals from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African male chorus singing in Zulu, on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
Sights and Sounds
Many museums incorporate audio and video stations in exhibits, but those here add greatly. The videos feature interviews with Simon talking about his career and its milestones. They also include concert footage and excerpts from his numerous appearances on “Saturday Night Live.” The audio stations allow visitors to hear songs featured in that section of the exhibition. There are smiles as visitors listen to old favorites or notice new subtleties or aspects of other tunes.
One section sure to be popular is the music lab that lets visitors to play and sing along with the artist’s songs. Developed by Roland Corporation U.S. for the Skirball, the interactive stations present an opportunity to really get to know the music. There is a communal drum circle to beat along with “Cecilia,” microphones to harmonize with Simon on “’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and other stations to manipulate tracks, play keyboards, drum along and more.
After debuting in Cleveland, Ohio, and stopping in Baltimore, MD, the traveling exhibit on Paul Simon’s prolific musical career came to the Skirball. It will be in Los Angeles until Sept. 3, 2017, before “Slip Slidding Away.”
By Dyanne Weiss
Skirball Cultural Center
Jewish Journal: Here’s to you, Paul Simon: Skirball showcases his ‘Words & Music
Photo of Simon by Matthew Straubmuller , via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license
“The Boxer” early lyric development, handwritten by Paul Simon on United Airlines Mainliner Magazine, Volume 12, N0.11, November 1968. Collection of Paul Simon.