Musician Paul Simon drew a crowd of nearly 1,000 students, faculty and city residents of all ages to Battell Chapel on Tuesday afternoon for a public conversation with his niece Emma Simon ’16.
Paul Simon — a 12-time Grammy Award winner and former member of the hit duo Simon and Garfunkel — was the third and final speaker invited to campus this year by the Yale Chubb Fellowship, which is administered through Timothy Dwight College. The fellowship encourages Yale students to think about public service and leadership by bringing in prominent figures in those fields. Program director and Timothy Dwight College Master Mary Lui said over recent decades, the fellowship has expanded to include leadership in arts and music as well.
“Paul Simon isn’t out of line for us as a Chubb, but the early vision didn’t necessarily think about performers,” Lui said. “He’s a musician who has a sense of broader engagement with the world, and that is very interesting and worthwhile to us.”
This was not Simon’s first time on campus: He received an honorary degree from the School of Music in 1997 and performed at the University’s tercentennial celebration in 2001.
Emma Simon introduced her uncle as both her role model and her musical inspiration, mentioning his musical accolades, his philanthropic work with the Children’s Health Fund and his characteristic quirks, such as being the “ultimate” Yankees fan and dressing up in a banana costume on Halloween.
Paul Simon answered his niece’s questions via a series of anecdotal tangents, discussing topics from thinking that he had to go to law school after college to name-dropping with the Dalai Lama. He also explained how he decided to become a musician at the age of 12: While he “loathed” pop music as a child, he would always listen to the end of a music program that played before Yankees games in order to ensure that he did not miss any of the game. After hearing an R&B album and realizing that there were genres of music beyond pop, he decided to pursue music.
He added that his father, who played the bass, bought him a guitar and taught him chords — but all 1950s songs had the same chords, he added, demonstrating by fiddling around with the guitar next to him on stage.
“I certainly didn’t think I’d be making music 50 years later and that the songs would last 50 years,” Paul Simon said. “You do what you do for the pleasure and the mystery of it, and that can last a lifetime.”
Paul Simon told the audience about his transition from law school — where he “did nothing and got virtually all Bs” — to traveling across Europe, focusing on music and eventually failing out of law school. When he left law school, he had already written and recorded one of his best known songs, “The Sound of Silence,” with Art Garfunkel — a fact to which the audience reacted with audible excitement. Paul Simon said the original acoustic version of the song did not do well on the charts, but the overdubbed version became a hit thanks to his record producer. He joked that he did not feel responsible for making the hit because he was not even there, as he was living in Europe at the time.
Paul Simon also described the process of songwriting. He said he did not know during the writing process that songs like “The Sound of Silence” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” would become the hits that they did; he simply knew that they were better than the songs he had written before them. Towards the end of the talk, he went step by step through the lyrics of “Darling Lorraine” and analyzed each part, commenting on which words and phrases were private jokes and explaining how he did not create the plot of the song’s characters so much as follow it.
He also discussed how the definition and role of art have evolved over the years in response to what is going on in world.
“The definition of art is always changing, but there are constants in what is beautiful,” Simon said. “No one looks at a waterfall in a mountain and says, ‘Oh, that’s so 1400s.’”
Toward the end of the conversation, Paul Simon took several questions from the audience and then left the stage to take a break. During this time, the sound system played two songs from his new album: “The Werewolf” and “Insomniac’s Lullaby.” When he returned, Paul Simon played “America” on his guitar, to which the entire crowd gave a standing ovation.
After the talk, attendees interviewed said they were impressed with Paul Simon’s genuine personality as well as his musical talent. Elliah Heifetz ’16, who wrote a musical in which some songs were inspired by Paul Simon’s music, said he was excited to hear in person the man who influenced him.
“His songs are so timeless, which is amazing,” Maia Eliscovich Sigal ’16 said. “Even in this room, there are people of all ages.”
Stephanie Smelyansky ’19 said that one of the first vinyl albums she ever bought was one of Simon and Garfunkel’s, adding that it was also great to hear Paul Simon speak about his “prolific” solo career.
“I think this was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Timothy Dwight Fellow Grayson Murphy said. But Murphy also added that he has seen several prominent political Chubb Fellows during his time at Yale, and wishes there were more political fellows, such as in the “early days.”
Lui said that although Paul Simon never held political office, his longevity as a musician and his multigenerational audience make him unique. She added that his work in philanthropy and public community service also make him a desirable Chubb Fellow, even though the fellowship may have been traditionally more politically oriented.
Paul Simon himself spoke modestly of his accomplishments, emphasizing the importance of pursuing one’s passions and hoping for success.
“You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, but you follow it because it feels right,” Paul Simon said. “If that’s the case for you, then you’re on the right track and you can see where you go and where it takes you. I can tell you, it takes you to infinity.”
The fund for the Chubb Fe-llowship was established in 1936.