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How music moved me from India to America

by Gaurav Sethi

And it had everything to not feeling groovy
On May 28, while strolling through the internet, I learnt that Gregg Allman had died the previous day. It was something I would’ve liked to unlearn. Allman, along with the others who left over the last year, all appeared quite indestructible. It was sad as it was puzzling. Allman, possibly even more than some of the others. Allman, possibly most of all. Maybe it was a cumulative musical death interest that had just shot through my mental roof.
I was sitting by myself when my wife walked in and I broke the news to her, like some close friend had died. It was then that she said, “It’s decided, we’re going to watch Paul Simon next month." We had a 10-year US visa, and Paul Simon was playing all of June, through the US. That much was sorted.
Sometime back, music lover and writer, Sanjoy Narayan, wrote about The Allman Brothers Band making an entrance at their gig – a gig packed with geriatrics, who transformed into wolf-whistling groupies and herbmen at that precise entry point. The Allman Brothers had possessed me ever since their "Eat a Peach" had fallen into my lap as a kid. One of my first overseas CDs ever purchased was The Allman Brothers Fillmore East. Reading Narayan, I had already sat myself at the gig, it had to be done, it was pretty much done.
While Simon & Garfunkel belonged to everybody, it was Paul Simon’s solo stuff that I built a camaraderie with. When I met Shridhar Chitale at Siri Fort, he told me how he’d just ticked Billy Joel off his bucket list. Mine seemed to be more a mug list, and Paul Simon was way up there. He said, “you should go”.
Rhyming Simon had started to possess me some more; the possibility of a gig in London, around October, why not? Friends and family, of which we all have plenty of in London, were darted with loose plans that never came to fruition. While I walked and jogged through winter listening to Paul Simon’s latest, "Stranger to Stranger". A confession, I was no stranger to the same when it came to the gym either. Needless to say, it was a very light weight gym routine, sometimes abruptly stopping midway through a set, just to nod and listen to the lyrics again:
"Stranger to stranger
If we met for the first time
This time
Could you imagine us
Falling in love again
Words and melody
So the old story goes
Fall from summer trees
When the wind blows
I can’t wait to see you walk across my doorway
I cannot be held accountable for the things I do or say
I’m just jittery
I’m just jittery
It’s just a way of dealing with my joy
It’s just a way of dealing with my joy
It’s just a way of dealing with my joy
It’s just a way of dealing
Words and melodies
Easy harmony
Old-time remedies."
And then we found ourselves on the day after Gregg Allman’s death day. Suddenly, Paul Simon seemed real but there was little joy to it. I was just jittery.
On a walking tour in Greenwich Village, the guide had in a matter of fact way mentioned, “Oh, and Paul Simon lives around here, and can be seen walking around and catching a coffee…”. From a relative backbencher, I nearly sprang for her throat, “Oh yeah, where? He lives here? He comes around here? Is there a chance, we could see him?” I was already doing my bit of visualisation of how I’d go up to Paul Simon and chat him up, but it passed.
Next, buying the concert tickets – Paul Simon was performing in Summerfest, Milwaukee on Friday, June 30. With less than a month to go, and much deliberation, looking for better tickets, better deals, we belled the seats on May 31. A week later, my brother, Gautam, said he’d drive us down from Chicago. Tickets were still available. And I was beginning to wonder what sort of ears these Americans have.
We drove out early from Chicago, it was no less than going for a pilgrimage. Just that I hadn’t ever been for one, but yeah, still. And like every pilgrimage, there was a high level of difficulty – heavy snarls, Chicago wasn’t letting us go. Highways were closed, detours were made, raincoat was purchased, Walmart was approached. And just like that, the highways opened up, the skies though, continued to threaten. After we knew it, we were in Milwaukee, and were googling our way to Summerfest on the lake, but before that, our parking spot, which I was told, is a big deal.
We were in early. In my excitement, I left my jacket behind. In my excitement, I went back for it. We nourished ourselves with food, so as to only drink, groove and listen when Simon says whatever it is that Simon says.
Everything appeared to be delayed, and when we got to the Amphitheatre Section 6 Row L Seats 51 and 52, I needed to just stand there and soak in the reality of what was about to happen. Which is when my wife instructed me to go check on my elder brother who was sitting by himself in the same row on seat 4. Obviously she hadn’t quite fathomed that this was all about Paul Simon and me. I instructed her to check on big brother. Later, at peace with my beer, I did go say "hi" to the occupant of seat 4.
There was an excellent opening act, Brandi Carlile, a folk rock singer-songwriter accompanied by two twins on guitar. What endeared her most to me, and the crowd in general was her repeated, “Can ya believe it, Paul Simon is gonna be playing next???”
And then Paul Simon was playing next.
And all those years of listening to "The Boy in the Bubble (Graceland)" and knowing that, that is the opening act of opening acts – and I whispered to her, what if he plays "The Boy in the Bubble" first up, he gotta; and he did.
It was mellower than the full throttle Central Park version that seems like it’s being sung perched on a drone, hovering above us all, but hey, Paul Simon had opened.
After which, I told her, what if he plays, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover", next. And he did just that. I was thrilled, making secret requests or knowing what to expect, wanting it, prompting it, grasping it.
"The problem is all inside your head, she said to meThe answer is easy if you take it logicallyI'd like to help you in your struggle to be freeThere must be fifty ways to leave your lover
She said it's really not my habit to intrudeFor the more I hope my meaning won't be lost or misconstruedSo I repeat myself, at the risk of being cruelThere must be fifty ways to leave your lover, fifty ways to leave your lover
Just slip out the back, Jack, make a new plan, StanDon't need to be coy, Roy, just listen to meHop on the bus, Gus, don't need to discuss muchJust drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free
Just slip out the back, Jack, make a new plan, StanDon't need to be coy, Roy, just listen to meHop on the bus, Gus, don't need to discuss muchJust drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free..."
What is it about Paul Simon’s choruses, even before a song takes off, you get jumpy, all set to blurt out the chorus, certain parts of that chorus – “You don’t need to be coy, Roy” which for some strange reason, I always blurted out as, "you don’t need to corduroy".
The day before this, there were plenty of choruses to sing along at the much larger Wrigley Field, for Tom Petty’s mega gig. That was enjoyable, this for me, was intimately enjoyable.
When the opening chords of "Stranger to Stranger" played, I sprang out of my chair. Grooving to your music, whatever it is, is easy, just as it is pumping iron or running to it. And just like Paul Simon, “I cannot be held accountable for the things I do or say, I’m just jittery, it’s just a way of dealing with my joy, it’s just a way of dealing”.
Paul Simon went on to sing for everyone too. There were encores, so many of them. He went off early, so he could keep coming back later and later. He changed guitars early song. After wrapping up "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" to rapture, he asked, “You want me to play that again?” And he did, for about half-a-minute or so. He asked, “Do you have any requests?”
Paused and then snorted, “We don’t do requests. But we’ll do Graceland." He was doing goosebumps too. 
Towards the last few songs, he’d hold up his guitar over his head, there was a bit of Springsteen in him there. There was so much that was cool America about him. And thoughtful and kind, almost warm in a New York sort of way.
After knowing him for so long, it felt nice to make his acquaintance. To hear him talk about the times we live in, and the anger in all of us.
He spoke as he sang, with cool wisdom, that doesn’t come with age or time, it’s just there. Appears Paul Simon has had it for most of his 76 years.
And then he finished with "The Sounds of Silence".

First published here

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