What Else Is New?

More flapdoodle in The New Yorker this week. The issue's centerpiece is an 11-page article on Paul Simon that manages to say absolutely nothing. Part of the problem is Simon himself, a brilliant songwriter who is nonetheless a boring man. In recent years, he's honed his touring act to perfection, at the cost of whatever minimal spontaneity he once possessed. Simon is a musician who doesn't jam.

The article does give some sense of this fact, albeit inadvertently. The pull quote -- "Simon . . . says of his career, 'The whole game was: Can I get the sounds in my head on tape?'" -- tells you everything you need to know. And in 11 pages of boring meanderings with Simon, including a rehearsal at which Simon tells the other musicians exactly which notes to play, the basic truth emerges: Simon is a composer, born too late. He runs around, looking for improvisation and musicial innovation, then takes it and bottles it into perfect -- and perfectly static -- pop songs. In this precise sense, the charges of cultural imperialism levelled at him might be said to be true. He's an auteur, a classical composer by birth, but abandoned as a baby on the doorstop of a folk musician and raised by rock-and-rollers. Sure, the kid has rhythm, but does he swing?

But it could never be the case that such questions are asked in the article itself. This, is, after all, The New Yorker. And, in classic fashion, they give their music puff piece to a writer, in this case Alec Wilkinson, who doesn't get music. Take this summary of his years with Garfunkel:

They made five albums and then, in 1970, they split up, partly because Garfunkel watned to act in movies. In 1981, they played a reunion concert in Central Park that was attended by half a million people. They considered making another album.

I don't know what to say. Garfunkel wanted to act? To act? You spend one sentence on the breakup and this is what you say? How about that Simon wanted to break away from folk-rock and Garfunkel didn't? I mean, I have heard both Simon and Garfunkel say sharper, more interesting, revealing, things about the breakup. But Wilkinson's instinct is always to avoid the music, because when he writes about music, he doesn't know what to say beyond the narrow technical descriptions.

Take his description of one song: ". . . starts with his playing a briskly repeated pattern of simple chords." This is a perfectly accurate description of "Old," and perfectly useless. What's catchy about "Old" is the quality of his guitar work. The opening stutters; Simon is slapping his strings and cutting his chords off as quickly as he plays them. It's playful, it's a little bit searing, it sets up the double-quick half-funk groove of the song. Millions of songs start with "a briskly repeated pattern of simple chords," many of them by Paul Simon.

What makes this article so frustrating is the knowledge that sometimes, The New Yorker seems to play at this game of assigning writers to subjects outside their traditional kens, and to get it right. Their profile of Radiohead was written by Alex Ross, their classical music critic, but it remains the best article on Radiohead ever written. But that wasn't really this; Ross, after all, knows his music. His distance from the usual cliches of rock writing gave him the freedom to connect their off-stage actions to their music, but his writing was built around the respect a musical critic offers to musicians.

But such is the exception, rather than the rule. If Paul Simon's music is a metaphor for the man, perhaps its polished but predictable quirks are also a metaphor for the magazine.