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.'”
My sweet friend talks about his song from his latest album, So Beautiful or So What.
Dunno about you, but after this Thanksgiving, I’m ready for Christmas day.
Lest we wander into maudlin territory, here is a little gem from memory lane:
What Mr. Simon was doing on Thanksgiving, 36 years ago. Still crazy wonderful after all these years…
The morning we drove to O’Hare to meet Vasco after his 30-plus-hour journey from Malawi to Chicago, my husband and I turned on the car stereo and hit play on the CD in the six-disc changer. What came up was Paul Simon’s album, “Graceland.”
These are the days of miracle and wonder,
This is the long-distance call,
The way the camera follows us in slow-mo
The way we look to us all
Those are the words from “The Boy in the Bubble,” the first track on Simon’s 1986 album, long a favorite of mine. It seemed appropriate — prophetic, even — traveling music for the short trip to the airport that ended a 20-month effort to bring Vasco Sylvester, the 10-year-old AIDS orphan we had met in Blantyre, Malawi, to Chicago for life-saving heart surgery.
On our way home from O’Hare, while Vasco rode in the back seat, watching wide-eyed as this strange, new land passed by, the words of the album’s eponymous song, “Graceland,” took on a new meaning for me.
Poor boys and Pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland . . .
In those first days with Vasco in our home, we had very little common language, but we did have music. When Vasco arrived, he knew two “American” stars and asked about them: Barack Obama and Bob Marley. (He sometimes confused the two, pointing to the late dreadlocked Jamaican musician and asking, “Obama?”)
One night at dinner a few weeks ago, apropos of nothing and clear out of the blue, Vasco pounded a little fist to his narrow chest and said, “Jah Rastafari!” saluting the air. “Where did that come from, little man?” I asked.
Mac, Vasco’s caregiver from Malawi, explained that many of the street children in Malawi idolized Marley and Rastafarian culture in general. Vasco, who lived on the streets when he was 6 or 7, after his mother and father died from AIDS, picked it up there.
He knows Marley’s music, that’s for sure. Whenever Vasco hears the strains of “One Love,” “Buffalo Soldier,” or “Natural Mystic,” he nods and bops around, and, when he’s got it slung over his shoulder, strums his three-quarter-size acoustic guitar and sings along. Music is pure joy for this magical little boy. It’s the language we both know by heart, even if we can’t find the right words to say so in English or Chichewa.
When he cried inconsolably, coming out of a haze of general anesthesia after a cardiac catheterization last week, I quietly sang a few lines of Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” into his ear, and when he went back into the hospital three days later, feverish and listless, I played a recording of Marley’s “No More Trouble” from my laptop next to his hospital bed. The music is comfort. A salve. For Vasco and for us.
Vasco’s cardiac catheterization nearly two weeks ago showed, blessedly, that his damaged heart still has structures well enough to rearrange into working order. His doctors had worried that his heart, battered by years of compensating for the large ventricular septal defect with which he was born, might not be strong enough to handle the open-heart surgery they hoped to do. But what they found showed that his heart is as strong and fierce physically as it is spiritually.
A few days later, though, when he spiked a fever and became violently sick, we rushed Vasco back to Hope Children’s Hospital, where his team of incredible physicians (who are treating him for free), discovered that the wee man has a bad case of malaria. He also has two different parasites in his digestive system and bladder, and has been exposed to tuberculosis, though thankfully his lungs are clear and he’s not contagious.
Vasco’s on a number of medications to treat the various infections and is feeling much better, dancing and singing and strumming on his guitar. These infections, however, have pushed back his open-heart surgery a few weeks. If all goes well, he should undergo the surgery to repair his broken heart, once and for all, in about a week.
Meanwhile we’re passing the time playing soccer and T-ball in the back yard, watching movies, going fishing and listening to music.
Just last week we discovered a marvelous new CD and DVD set of music called, “Playing for Change: Songs Around the World.” Released at the end of April, the set contains video and audio recordings of songs performed — simultaneously — by musicians from around the world. The songs include the popular standard “Stand By Me,” Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” and Marley’s “One Love.”
From buskers in Santa Monica, Calif., sitar players in India and a mass teen choir from Omagh, Northern Ireland, to a traditional singing group in South Africa, street musicians in France, Congo, Nepal and Cuba, Bono in his studio in Dublin, and a Native American drum circle, they all perform the same song, which producer Mark Johnson then mixes into a seamless global collaboration.
Some of the proceeds from “Playing for Change” are helping to build music schools in Africa for children much like Vasco. He has watched the DVD of the performances dozens of times (you can find them on YouTube or at www.playingforchange.com), and we listen to the music daily.
On bad days, it makes us all feel better.
On good days, it reminds us of how much we share, even when our language, culture, religion and skin color are different.
One love, One heart
Let’s get together and feel all right!