So this is Paul Simon. Utah hasn't seen him in 25 years; and my hasn't he grown. Twenty-five years ago he was a folky; now he's America's international ambassador of good music.
The only living boy in New York made good.The reason? Genius. Since the '60s, pop music seems to have split into two camps: sophisticated rhythms (Phil Collins) and sophisticated messages (Tracy Chapman.)
Simon's genius lies in wedding the two. Percussion and Poetry, a rock music miracle on a par with St. Martin getting cats and mice to drink from one dish.
And the "Born at the Right Time" tour is the wedding party. Wednesday in Salt Lake City - an early stop on a 40-city tour - the invited guests almost seemed hand-picked: studious, earnest, articulate; people in tasteful haircuts who demand quality and usually get it.
In other words, Baby Boomers. Like Mike Stephens of Striders Inc. When asked how long he'd been a Paul Simon fan he replied, "Always. We don't come to many concerts, but tonight's worth the money."
And Salt Laker Grace Clayton: "This is my first Salt Palace concert. The acoustics here aren't all that great, but I love the sound. I even bought the `Graceland' video."
The singer, too, demands quality. Showing up with a 17-piece band (including a half-dozen percussionists), Simon kicked things off with several cuts from his new "Rhythm of the Saints" album, then slowly began seeding in old favorites.
But even there he'd juiced up "Cecilia," "Me and Julio," "Kodachrome," and "Loves Me Like a Rock" so much they were practically unrecognizable.
Paul Simon may be the only musician working today who does cover versions of his own hits.
Because most of us learned early in life to go with Simon's instincts. And there are levels for every listener. Little things. On a line like "Everybody loves the sound of a train in the dark" music majors could hear the twin saxophones moaning augmented fourths. Train whistle.
Even the tune "Graceland" with its African drive pauses on the suspended seventh of a three-chord progression here and there as a small tribute to Mr. Presley.
And even better stuff in the lyrics.
Composer Philip Glass claimed Paul Simon taught him how to use words like "refrigerator" in songs. I'm not sure who taught Simon, but his flat, bald American phrases - phrases pulled from the mouth of middle America - have the kick of good "found poetry." Who else could weave three stock expressions like "the boy in the bubble," "jump shot" and "jump start" into three short bars?
At their best, Simon's lyrics have the straight-talk impatience of good newspaper editorials (". . . no times at all but the New York Times," remember?).
And "You Can Call Me Al," which he did twice on Wednesday, may be the best pop lyric in 20 years.
And that creates a problem.
Back in the '60s when Bob Dylan "went electric," the thinking was he'd soon return to simpler accompaniments because the music was fogging up the words. Simon must feel the same frustration. In a sound studio where masters and mixers abound, the singer's mile-a-minute lyrics are clean and clipped. On stage they're muddled and muddy, bustled along by the beat. In time, Simon's love of language may force him back to simpler side effects.
For now, however, just how this small Jewish boy dressed in a blue blazer - a guy who's little more than a "singing head" - can generate more sensuality than the Stones is, well, just one of the mysteries - like cats and mice becoming drinking buddies.