PHOTO: Nick Elgar
It wasn’t until Paul Simon was an adolescent that he realized his tabletop radio was useful for anything other than listening to Yankees games on. A disc jockey caught his attention one day by stating he was about to play what was, in his opinion, the worst song ever recorded, but when Simon heard the tune—a doo-wop ditty called “Gee,” by the Crows—to his surprise, he liked it. Thus began one of America’s greatest songwriter’s lifelong love affair with music.
That very radio—now a legitimate antique—is on display at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles as part of the exhibit, Paul Simon: Words and Music.
In fact, when you enter the exhibit, that childhood radio of Simon’s is one of the first things you encounter, because the display is organized like a walk through Simon’s life, with all the important artifacts associated with him coming at you in chronological order.
Guitarists will be interested to see several of Simon’s main instruments up close, including the ’54 Stadium acoustic given to him on his 13th birthday (his first guitar); the ’63 Guild F-30 Simon used regularly with Simon & Garfunkel; the ’68 Gibson ES-335 Simon began playing around the time of his fourth solo album, Still Crazy After All These Years; and the ’88 Yamaha LS-400 Simon used on his celebrated solo album, Graceland.
Other cool artifacts include original lyric notebook scrawlings such as “Mrs. Roosevelt” (which became the Simon & Garfunkel hit “Mrs. Robinson”) and a preliminary mini-model (a maquette) of the elaborate faux-rooftop stage the duo used on tour and at their legendary 1981 concert in New York’s Central Park.
ABOVE: Preliminary model of the faux-rooftop stage Simon & Garfunkel used at their famous concert in Central Park in 1981.
Paul Simon listening stations abound in the exhibit, but the real interactive fun begins when you step inside the Roland Music Lab—a room in which you can deeply explore Simon’s music via what is essentially a Roland gear petting zoo.
Roland mixing consoles and headphones allow you to isolate individual instruments or voices on famous Paul Simon songs or create brand-new remixes, and Roland vocal harmonizers (which are set to the tonality of the song at hand) allow you to sing along with Simon and harmonize with him like a pro.
Various Roland percussion devices allow you participate in an electronic drum circle with other Skirball patrons as the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Cecilia” pumps through the headphones. And Paul Simon fans who are also composition nerds will surely be intrigued to try a Roland keyboard re-tuned to deliver an octave in 43 micro-tones à la Harry Partch, a composer who Simon cites as a recent influence. (Yes, it takes 43 keys to span Partch’s octave.)
Overall, Paul Simon: Words and Music puts on display nearly every item that has been integral to Simon’s musical journey. However, guitar players who appreciate Simon’s high-register open-string jangle on songs such as “Scarborough Faire/Canticle” may notice that one simple but crucial piece of gear is missing from the exhibit—one of Simon’s capos!
ABOVE: Paul Simon's 13th birthday present—a '54 Stadium steel-string.
ABOVE: The Roland Music Lab created for Paul Simon: Words & Music exhibit at Skirball Center.