Paul Simon has won 16 Grammys for his musical works, but he never could tell when he was writing them if his songs would be successful, he told an audience Tuesday at Ohio State University.
Turns out the world would love them more than he would know.
"I didn’t know if they were hits or not" Simon, 76, told the audience of Ohio State School of Music students, faculty and staff. "I never knew if any of the stuff that I did was a hit."
Hits like "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," for example, started as opportunities to experiment with some new, up-tempo rhythms, he said.
And maybe something else.
"It was just a great opportunity to get the name Julio into a song," Simon quipped to the group gathered in Weigel Hall Auditorium.
Simon, who made up half of the famous folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel until their split in 1970, was on campus to visit Ohio State President Michael V. Drake’s course on music during the civil rights era and speak at the School of Music event.
The visit was facilitated in part because of Simon and Drake’s mutual friend, Karen Redlener. She and her husband Irwin Redlener co-founded the Children’s Health Fund with Simon, while she and Drake are friends from grade and high school.
Drake’s work on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Board of Trustees also has helped him bring Simon and other artists to campus and connect them with students in his class, said Ohio State spokesman Chris Davey. Jorma Kaukonen, one of the founding members of the rock band Jefferson Airplane, visited Drake’s class last year, while Mary Wilson, a founding member of the Motown female trio The Supremes, visited the year before that.
Simon on Tuesday afternoon reveled in his experiences discovering ska music when he was living in England, and later learning reggae styles from Jamaican musicians and incorporating new rhythms and instruments into his own music.
"I was really already in world music without thinking anything other than it’s all pop music to me," he said. "It all just sounds like really interesting pop music."
Simon treated the audience to an acoustic performance of "Questions for the Angels," a song from his 2011 album "So Beautiful or So What," as well as "American Tune" one of his singles released in the 1970s. As a thank-you, Drake invited the audience to perform for Simon in return. Swaying with their arms around one another, the audience sang Carmen Ohio for the famous musician.
Seeing Simon was surreal for Ohio State sophomore Samantha Davis.
"I was kind of in a state of shock the whole time, that I was actually there hearing him," said the music media and enterprise minor from Toledo. "I really loved hearing him talk about collaborating with other musicians and just that idea of world music I thought was really really inspiring and really incredible."
Simon previously announced his last performing tour, "Homeward Bound – The Farewell Tour," which begins May 16 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and includes shows across North America, the United Kingdom and Europe. The final leg, announced earlier this month, culminates with multiple shows in the New York City area in September. (Columbus is not among the tour stops.)
Simon said he doesn’t like being away from home for extended periods of time on tour, but he also wants to experiment with different musical material and dedicate himself to causes he believes in.
The singer-songwriter has been an advocate for biodiversity and caring for the planet, dedicating proceeds from a summer tour last year to E.O. Wilson’s Biodiversity Foundation. His visit to Ohio State Tuesday was also, in part, to hear about the university’s efforts in that field, Davey said.
"After this tour I have no intention of working for money anymore, I’m going to give everything to whatever it is that I feel is very valuable," Simon said. "I’m past 75 now, I’m like coming around third base. It’s time to be giving back."