The Pre-Grammys: Song-By-Song-By-Simon

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Bono of the pop band U2 rehearses for the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards

Tonight the music industry gathers in L.A.'s Staples Center to award the 43rd Annual Grammys. Even the cavernous space of that arena may not be big enough to contain the gaping chasm that has opened up in a music community split on Eminem and whether it should honor him or try for a restraining order.

And it's not only Eminem that's causing a rift. Baby boomers are finding that they have become those very people they complained about when the 1967 Grammy for Record of the Year went to the Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up And Away" over the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper." That's not to say that "The Marshall Mathers LP" is Beatlesque, or that Paul Simon's "You're the One" is merely Dimensional, but there is a definite musical gap between old and new — and this time the boomers are on the far side.

What has, by the passage of time, become the music industry's old guard may lose out tonight. But those people suckled happily and with undisguised nostalgia Monday evening at the Recording Academy's premier pre-Grammy event — the annual "MusiCares Person of the Year Award," a fund-raiser for the vast number of retired or ill musicians who haven't enjoyed a tremendous amount of financial success.

Paul Simon was this year's honoree, and the biz turned out in force. The evening started out with a silent auction of valuable gifts, many of them donated by musicians. Wandering around the auction room viewing the plethora of autographed instruments, concert programs and CDs, one becomes aware that musicians have handwriting that's even less legible than that of the average physician.

The grand ballroom was stuffed with musicians and record executives. Producer Quincy Jones chatted with Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Rob Thomas (who sang on Santana's "Smooth") was a center of attention. The most visited star was easily Elton John, who held court behind two burly bodyguards, presumably to protect him from those disapproving of his upcoming duet with the pariah Eminem. Incongruous attendee of the night was undoubtedly Hugh Hefner, who sat at his table surrounded by nine pneumatic blondes. I asked him how he still managed to attract such an impressive entourage. "Having the magazine helps," he explained.

Producer Phil Ramone, the man behind many of Simon's solo albums, organized the talent for the evening and deftly matched up some of the industry's premier singers with selections from the Simon oeuvre. Macy Gray started the evening with a blistering "You Can Call Me Al," aided onstage by an amiable Chevy Chase reprising his sax mime choreography from that song's video. Chase then made a few remarks as one of the evening's three roast-masters. He said that it was easy to dismiss Paul Simon as "just another power-hungry little guy" and he made clear that the Simon & Garfunkel duo had only succeeded because "Artie had a good voice." He also revealed the secret of Simon's early lyrics. "He had a thesaurus in one hand — and a joint in the other...."

Panamanian singer/actor/politician Ruben Blades duetted with Danny Rivera on "Born in Puerto Rico" from Simon's unsuccessful Broadway show "The Capeman." The song sounded so much more powerful outside the dimensions of a stage tune. The affinity that Simon has shown for Latin rhythms over the years has evidently endeared him to Hispanic performers, and his "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was delivered very effectively by Gloria Estafan. She explained how the song spoke to her as a child, and played the first verse on the battered acoustic guitar that she had first used to pick the tune as a 10 year-old Cuban refugee.

The broad range of Simon's songwriting was underscored by Shawn Colvin, who sang a spine-tingling "American Tune," Simon's deliberation on the disintegration of the '60s dream into the dark days of Nixon. The power of the lyrics "We come in the age's most uncertain hour, and sing an American tune" seemed even more poignant with the passage of 30 years. Colvin's performance brought the room to its feet.

By now the evening had far transcended the usual schmaltzy tributes to artists, and the bar seemed to be set higher and higher. Cue Stevie Wonder. Perched in front of his customary Yamaha electric piano he pounded out a rollicking "Love Me Like A Rock," accompanied by the legendary Dixie Hummingbirds, the four-piece gospel group who sang on the original Paul Simon recording.

The evening was turning into a baby-boomer's extremely wet dream, and this was further enhanced by the surprise appearance of Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson to sing a haunting "Sounds Of Silence." Joan Osborn, accompanied by The Chieftains, then sang "Homeward Bound." She tried hard but was one of the evening's few performers who didn't catch fire, though the eerie pipes and folky airs of the Chieftains evoked a fitting Celtic mournfulness to the song.

Elton John presented Simon with his award and waxed effusively about Simon's greatness. After a short thank-you, Simon launched into a brief but powerful set. He unleashed a buoyant "Graceland," playing off the house band with an almost spiritual fervor. He segued into an effortless "Late in the Evening," and then left the stage. He was coaxed back for one more song and for a moment looked around at the band as if uncertain what to do. So many of his great songs had been sung by others during the evening — would he perhaps choose something less celebrated?

Then came the familiar chords, and he launched into one of his most admired songs, "The Boxer." The audience became a choir on the chorus and the entire room seemed lifted spiritually. As Simon reached the final verse's defiant lines "I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains..." the hall erupted into a standing ovation for Simon. But it felt as though the room was also saluting the idealism and purpose that has been threaded through Simon's career, and also the very craft of songwriting, melody, harmony and lyrics.

It was clear who the industry's old guard was rooting for. As the room slowly emptied one was aware that Simon had been honored for a career so far spanning 44 years (his first recording was issued in 1957.) One tries to imagine the MusiCares Person of the Year Award in the year 2041 (which will be 44 years into Eminem's career.) Perhaps there will be an evening in which a dozen stars perform their versions of such Eminem classics as "The Real Slim Shady" or "Stan" or even "Kim" in which the rapper fantasizes about slitting his wife's throat in front of their five-year old daughter. The baby boomers just can't envisage that. And that's the root of the chasm between the Recording Academy's generations.