Paul Simon, The Next Nobel Laureate?



I’ve been a Dylan fan for most my life, and so I was delighted to learn that this year’s Nobel Committee conferred on him the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first time a musician has received the prestigious award. He has been the sweet singer of (North) America for over 50 years, the troubadour beneath our window for three generations, who has managed to both stay true to some indescribable personal essence and yet re-invent himself a dozen times. And then there’s that voice – sinewy, reedy, throaty, cracking, pleading, warning, and inescapably unmistakably his own. You can never hear Dylan and think he’s someone else. Though his songs have been covered, often brilliantly, by multiple artists, from the Beatles to The Band, from Glen Campbell to Pearl Jam, from Clapton to Cash to Cher to Sting to Adele to Hendrix, and a hundred others besides, no one ever does it quite like the bard himself.

But now that the door’s been opened for musicians to receive the Nobel, I’m stumping (what with my massive influence with the committee) for another musician to be considered: Paul Simon. His reign is equal to Dylan’s (Dylan – as a recording artist – debuted in 1962, Simon, along with Art Garfunkel, in 1964). They both, Dylan and Simon, have spent half a century dissecting, documenting, critiquing, and celebrating American culture. They both continue to write music that breaks new ground. They both bring to their craft a poetic sensibility of extraordinary evocativeness. Simon adds to this an exotic musical eclecticism: he has looted virtually every culture’s musical storehouse – calypso, soca, zouk, polka, rumba, conga, mambo, Cajun, blues, bluegrass, soul, rock, folk, lullaby, and on and on – and fused it into something all his own.

As a lyricist, Simon has a knack for metaphor, often taking a commonplace idea and spinning it into something universal, transcendent, metaphysical. Consider 1986’s hit Graceland, which begins as the story of a roadtrip he takes with his 9-year-old son to Elvis’s home in Memphis but ends as a prayer expressing the universal yearning for heaven:


I’m going to Graceland, Graceland

in Memphis Tennessee

I’m going to Graceland.

Poor boys and pilgrims and families

and we’re all going to Graceland.

And I maybe obliged to defend

every love, every ending,

or maybe there’s no obligation now.

Maybe I’ve reason to believe

we all will be received in Graceland.


Or consider his newest hit, Wristband. It starts as a personal complaint about being turned back from a club in which he himself is playing the music:


Wristband, my man,

You’ve got to have a wristband,

And if you don’t have a wristband

You don’t get through the door.


But it moves from there into a prophetic warning about the widening gap between the haves and have-nots:


The riots started slowly

with the homeless and the lowly

and they spread into the heartland

towns that never get a wristband

kids that can’t afford the cool brand

whose anger is a shorthand

for you’ll never a get a wristband

and if you don’t have a wristband

you can’t get through the door.


And this from a man who just turned, last week, 75.

For 50 years Simon, like Dylan, has been our balladeer, our troubadour, our minstrel. He has given voice, often accompanied by infectious hooks and beats and rhythms, to our heartaches and myopia, our longings and our losses, our bigotries, our absurdities, our fears, our hopes, our moments of greatness. Listening to him is often for me a more spiritual experience than listening to worship music or sermons. It confirms hunches, evokes old grudges I thought I’d long ago dealt with, imparts wisdom for things I find bewildering, awakens hunger for things unseen. It faces me with myself, both rebuking me and welcoming me. I want to stop beating myself up, and yet I want to stop making excuses for why I am the way I am. His music makes me want to live better than I do, which is to say, more honestly and faithfully and generously.

Consider this my memo to the Nobel Committee: I think all that deserves a prize.

Giving Good Gifts

Where has the time gone?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? …. you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children….”

(Luke 11:11-12).


My 3 children came home for Thanksgiving. Nothing makes me happier than having all of them under the same roof, even if only for a few nights. Of all the roles I play in the world – writer, professor, terrible cook, kilt-wearing, brogue-speaking, bag-pipe playing Scottish warrior (well, maybe not, but there’s always room for dreaming) – none is more foundational than husband to my wife and father to my children.

I wish I was better at both, husband and father. I have a decent idea what excellence looks like here. I just struggle to attain it. Like Jesus says, I know, despite the evil within me, how to give good gifts to my children. The same could be said of my relationship with my wife: I know how to cherish and honour her. But it seems to me that Jesus’ emphasis here is on the phrase “know how to.” Knowing how to do something does not always lead to doing it. I know how to change oil, too, and fix dripping faucets, and caulk and paint molding installed 2 years ago. But knowing how to do these things and actually doing them are not the same thing.

So my children come home for Thanksgiving, and I want to give them good gifts, heart gifts, soul gifts. And to some extent, I do. But honestly, my vision of the father I want to be and the father I actually am are still too far apart.

And that has me thinking about the Holy Spirit. When Jesus says that fathers, despite our evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, he isn’t really talking about us. He mentions us simply as a point of comparison. Jesus is talking about our Father in heaven:


If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).


How much more.

The whole point is that God always delivers on this request. God the Father knows how to give the gift of the Holy Spirit, and he never fails to give in full when we ask.

And that has me thinking about being a father to my children, a husband to my wife. There is a gap between my vision of these roles and my actual performance of them – between knowing how to give good gifts and actually giving them – but that gap is not closed by trying harder.

It is only closed by asking for more of the Spirit.

O Lord, fill me up.