Paul Simon’s Spiritual Fascination: The Sonic Inspiration Behind ‘Stranger to Stranger’
While he waits for the Brazilian faith healer to arrive, Paul Simon is supposed be meditating quietly with his eyes closed.
Instead, he’s peeking.
“I want to see what’s going on,” Simon said, recalling his visit to the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola in Abadiânia, Brazil, where, in the summer of 2014, he underwent a “spiritual operation” performed by João Teixeira de Faria — a medium and psychic healer known as João de Deus (or “John of God“).
Eventually, John of God enters the room where Simon and about a dozen other pilgrims, a few lying on gurneys, await with varying degrees of patience, anxiety, and faith.
“He speaks in Portuguese — I assume a prayer — and he leaves,” Simon said. “And then everyone gets up and leaves the room. And I say to my guide, ‘Well, when is the operation?’ And she says, ‘No, that was it. You had it.’ … I felt nothing.”
While in Brazil — a 10-day trip he took at the urging of his wife, the musician Edie Brickell, who had traveled to Abadiânia for her own “spiritual surgery” several months earlier — Simon began writing the song “Proof of Love,” a six-minute epic that is, arguably, the centerpiece of his masterful new album.
I trade my tears
To ask the Lord
For proof of love
If only for the explanation
That tells me what my dreams are made of…
Stranger to Stranger, his 12th solo album, is rich with the singularly vivid storytelling that long ago earned Simon his place in the American music pantheon. He invites listeners on a sonic journey with more than a whiff of spiritual exploration — a familiar theme for careful listeners to his half-century of music-making.
A Half-Century-Long Musical Conversation
Expressed in his music, Simon’s spirituality is experiential, what the German theologian Rudolf Otto might have called “numinous” — it expresses a connection to the “wholly Other” that is deeply personal and awesome (in the literal meaning of that word). In his The Varieties of Religious Experience, the philosopher William James might have described it as “mystical,” as in “mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge … illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain.”
It also is in a sense ineffable, a conversation about transcendent experiences that unfolds as much in the sound as it does in actual words that Simon sings.
Since the 1960s, Simon’s musical dialogue with his audience has been an adventure: through the mean streets of pre-Bloomberg New York City, on a bus across America, with a runaway bride, into the townships of South Africa, Chernobyl, the Amazon, fatherhood, the deep South, the ups-and-downs of enduring love, questions about mortality, and dreams of the afterlife.
That conversation (and adventure) continues with Stranger to Stranger at the velvet rope of a nightclub, with a homeless “street angel,” in a hospital emergency room, at the riverbank, an insomniac’s bedside, and a village in central Brazil that some might describe as a “thin place” — where the veil between this world and whatever lies beyond it is like gossamer.
Simon, who turns 75 this year, hadn’t made the journey to see João de Deus because he was physically ill. In fact, he’s in pretty great shape. But he has suffered from violent nightmares for most of his life and in the months leading up to his unlikely pilgrimage, the bad dreams had become more frequent — sometimes once or twice a week.
“I was kicking and punching in my sleep,” Simon said, “and Edie was saying, ‘You better go down there.'”