Monday, October 22, 2012

'Still crazy' for Paul Simon's pop psychology

Emory psychologist Marshall Duke, who is 70, came of age listening to the music of Paul Simon, who just turned 71. As a scientist who studies the importance of stories and rituals to the human experience, Duke is fascinated by what he calls Simon’s “theory of mind,” or his uncanny capacity to understand what it is to be someone else and to tell the stories of people across generations.

“The songs he writes are not necessarily contemporaneous with his own age,” Duke says. He cites “Old Friends,” written by Simon during his 20s, as just one example:

Old friends sat on their park bench like bookends / Winter companions / The old men lost in their overcoats / Waiting for the sunset / The sounds of the city sifting through trees settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends / Can you imagine us, years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? / How terribly strange to be 70

“As I turned 70 a few weeks ago,” Duke says. “I realized how profound the words were, even though they were written by a young man.”

Duke describes Simon’s song “Slip Slidin’ Away” as “a verbal equivalent of the skull that is placed at the bottom of the crucifix paintings in the Renaissance, which says, ‘Be aware, life is temporary, life is fragile.’” A few of the lyrics:

We work our jobs / Collect our pay / Believe we’re gliding down the highway / When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.

“Paul Simon understands that we’re all still crazy after all these years,” Duke says. “He understands that we don’t ever lose the childishness that belongs to us as a gift when we’re little. It’s something that allows us, even when we’re astounded that we’re 70, to hold onto some of the behaviors and fun of being seven.”

Paul Simon will deliver the 2013 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory, February 10-12. The series of free public talks will include Simon's reflections on his early music. Click here for more information.

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