The entire time we talked, I glanced at Peter’s wrist, where the dark whorls and edges of a tattoo crept up from the edge of his sleeve. Curious, I pointed to it and asked him what it was. The move was bold, his eyebrows raised, but after a moment of his steady gaze on my face, he turned his wrist to the light and shifted down the edge of his sleeve. Dark script formed the word “Graceland” across his wrist. I stared blankly at the dense script under the light.
“It’s where Elvis is from, and it's a Paul Simon album,” he offered, watching for signs of recognition. I nodded, completely lost. “Don’t know how much your generation listens to Elvis or Simon.” He shrugged, pulling the sleeve up again. “It’s all, you know,” he paused, with a self-aware smile, “dad rock.”
Dad rock. Please. I smile at the memory now, but I remember how anxious I was at that age having a conversation with someone like him. His name was Peter, and he was my second cousin. I met him for the first time at a Thanksgiving dinner when I was 14. He was visiting from California, and we’d sat next to each other in the parlor after dinner. Sitting together in a long lull out of earshot, we started up a conversation.
Looking back, I don't remember what exactly initiated the discussion, but I imagine the lull was probably pretty serious for Peter to attempt to make conversation with a 14-year-old kid. Yet, when he did, he was immensely generous and kind. He told me about himself, how he was a psychiatrist with a newborn on the way. And in return, at his behest, I cringingly told him inane details of my middle school life. It was great, and the most important part was that I thought he was indubitably cool, a type of adult I had never met before. Before that moment, I’d never met a psychiatrist, much less a psychiatrist with tattoos. I’d never heard of Paul Simon, and I had no idea where or what “Graceland” was. When I witnessed the way Peter lit up after I asked him to give me some song recommendations, I realized I was encountering a depth of perspective towards music which was all-around foreign to me and radical. While I liked music and knew many people around me who liked music as well, I’d never met someone whose relationship with music was so important as to manifest itself in a tattoo, much less in an articulated way of life. But that’s what Peter embodied as he explained the significance of the album “Graceland.” Which was for him, he said quietly, a story of forgiveness and universality, of the possibility of redemption after a life of mistakes, of sin and general ordinariness. “General ordinariness?” I asked. He laughed and said, “Listen to ‘Graceland’ — you’ll understand what I mean.”
I didn’t understand, but I wanted to. After that moment, I didn’t forget my second cousin Peter. I emailed him, as I’d promised a few months earlier, my thoughts on the different Simon albums he recommended. Eventually, after a year or two, we lost touch, and while I kept listening to the music and still remembered Peter, I increasingly felt his face and the details of his person fading from my mind year after year. It wasn’t until five years later, when I was 18, that we came into contact again.
My love for Paul Simon was well-established by that point, and like many fans, I didn’t just love Simon’s music, but I also loved the interaction of his music across the timeline of his life. When Peter said Paul Simon is classic “dad rock,” he meant that Simon tends to appeal to the middle-aged, those halfway down the road who are questioning the paths they have long left behind and who are starting to think about the final one coming up ahead. That state of things can seem depressing, but it’s an age that can actually liberate much humor and catharsis, as there’s debatably as much experience to let go as there is to be had. It’s a particular vantage point with which Simon himself seems to have been born — a jaded Jewish-American jokester, even in his early twenties, knowingly square and persistently uncool, resisting the promises of eternal youth abounding in the rock and roll of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Yet, amidst the seemingly dorky inelegance of his everyman persona, Simon made deeply elegant and graceful folk music, balanced with extraordinarily deft songwriting. At the heart of this reconciliation between schlubby middle age and sleek folk was Simon’s devotion to rhythm — both technically and philosophically. To keep rhythm, Simon’s music propounds, one must let go of the last beat and embody the next one, accepting and participating in a greater rhythm than oneself. This is a theme throughout much of Simon’s music as he considers how the passage of time characterizes life far more than any other quality (such that considering your ordinary existence in the midst of those grand mechanics is a common comedic premise in his songs).
When I re-met Peter, I was going through a difficult time. I was relapsing through an illness, and I had left college to receive extensive treatment. Relapse, as I know at least a few fellow recovering souls can affirm, can deeply distort one’s sense of positive progress. In my experience, when a clearly illustrated path of betterment was laid before me, the sense that my mind and body were failing and re-failing to realize a more ideal path was profoundly disheartening. The compound result was that the faith I had in myself to advance my life meaningfully was increasingly compromised.
I’d heard a rumor that Peter was visiting again for the holidays after many years, a surprise to my family as he’d been on the West Coast for some time . But the rumor proved true when he stopped by on Christmas Eve for a catch-up with his mother and, as it turned out, me.
The conversation, again in another corner, took on a vulnerability miles beyond our first conversation four years ago. Heartbroken about leaving college, I remember I wept a bit. “Are you still listening to Simon?” he asked, in an effort to move the conversation to a lighter note. “Yeah,” I laughed through my tears. “I am. I’ve listened to the early stuff a bunch of times. I’m listening to ‘The Rhythm of the Saints’ now.” He hummed in response. “Sort of his masterpiece, some say.” I sniffled, “Who says that?” He cleared his throat, smiling. “Well, I do.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “Listen, I think from what you’re going through now, the message might mean something to you. Tell me what you think about it.” “Okay,” I said cautiously, not entirely sure what he meant. “I will.”
I never got to tell Peter what I thought about “The Rhythm of the Saints,” because he developed cancer in his pancreas, which aggressively metastasized and killed him about a year later. When I heard he was sick and had so little time, I felt so lost because he was new to me and I already loved him.
In that last conversation I had with Peter, he gave me more album recommendations (he was trying to put me on Leonard Cohen). I’ve listened to many, if not all, of those records, and I sometimes fantasize about having listened to all those Cohen albums before that last conversation, just to have been able to connect with him more. It’s one of those desperate yet illogical pleas to time and life, that somehow things that had to happen in a certain order could happen in a different order. Maybe most strongly, however, and I know it’s silly, I wish that I could talk with Peter about the “Rhythm of the Saints,” which — I’ll be damned if the guy wasn’t right — is Simon’s best.
I’ve come to love the record so dearly that this October I got the phrase tattooed on my skin, as an ode and a thank you to both one personal and one musical inspiration: Peter and Paul Simon — two people who also have grappled with and failed repeatedly at the task of keeping grace in their lives. While the tattoo is a more private memorialization, writing this piece serves as another ode to their memory, as well as an opportunity to try to finally articulate what I think Peter meant four years ago about “The Rhythm of the Saints.”
Of course, I acknowledge that what I think now is likely light years away from whatever Peter was thinking four years ago, and that the meaning of the record to me, at this point, has been highly personalized and regurgitated through the lens of a life that Peter never knew or felt. Yet I have a feeling that Peter wouldn’t disagree that, at the heart of “The Rhythm of the Saints,” is, ultimately, another very simple, Simonan idea about how to achieve grace in such an ordinary life. It is, in short, a mantra, which suggests that grace and holiness have little to do with strict beliefs and much to do with the art of movement and keeping time. For example, in the track “The Coast,” Simon thinks about this “lonely life” in our “echo world” and how dance offers solace and spirituality in its attempt to believe in an other. It is the same, Simon explains in “Cool, Cool River,” as when we pray. He wonders if it is “the memory of God we pray to” in times of pain.
At the end of the day, he doesn’t know, and sometimes there’s no relief. “Hard times / I’m used to them / my life’s so common / it disappears / And sometimes even music / cannot substitute for tears,” Simon sings in “Cool, Cool River.” Yet, even as there are many moments of open sorrow in the record, Simon meets these moments with gentle redemptions of rhythm and perfect harmonies. His lyrics invoke and admit the many sacrifices and gifts felt in any day of being a person. A “broken laugh / a broken fever” (from “Further to fly”) is sometimes all we need to continue, such that all the things that are a part of “overcoming the impossible” share a requirement to “reach into the darkness” (from “The Rhythm of the Saints”). This particular idea of reaching into the darkness is a big key, I would say, to unlocking the message of “The Rhythm of the Saints,” as Simon repeatedly thinks about how prayer, dance, heartbreak and love (all the big activities to him) require not just abstract faith to achieve, but also real movements into negative space. This, at last, is the philosophy of the record: saintliness as a type of dancing, as the creation of rhythm and the keeping of rhythm by being willing to reach into many darknesses. As I’ve shared my disillusionment in the possibility of progress with my illness, it’s probably unsurprising that Simon’s focus on the sheer difficulty of keeping in time with your present has been evocative and inspiring.
Of course, these are deeply spiritual ideas, and not all Paul Simon fans share or care to engage with his music at that level. Nevertheless, I do think that to be a Paul Simon fan tends to mean being a fan of his search and natural affinity with the spiritual. While anyone can choose whether to leave these ideas in the background or not, what Peter exemplified — and, in fact, encouraged — to adolescent me was allowing yourself to think about music very seriously and personally. Encountering that particular vision, and, consequently, using it in my own life, exemplified to me the process of receiving grace by reaching into what may be obscure or hidden to your sight.