Since his first forays into music as a teenager, Paul Simon has set the gold standard for songwriting. This is the backbone of “Paul Simon: Words & Music,” an exhibit that premiered at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2014 and later ran, in abbreviated form, at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. Now, with almost double the original number of artifacts, a 150-plus-piece iteration of Words & Music plus a music lab furnished by Roland Corporation is on display at the Skirball Cultural Center.
“Words & Music” is culled from Simon’s personal archives, which he kept so meticulously that “it’s a historian’s dream,” according to the Skirball’s Cate Thurston, curator of the exhibit. Set up in two somewhat concentric circles in the main gallery, “Words & Music” flows through Simon’s storied career in chronological fashion in the outer ring, while the inner ring focuses on his impact on pop culture. Guitar frets painted on the walls indicate listening stations with headphones, each with two to four songs reflecting a certain point in Simon’s career. A few television screens have five-minute videos of Simon himself speaking primarily about songwriting and his creative process.
The chronological portion of the show boasts such classic items as Simon and then-partner Art Garfunkel’s first recording contract (signed when they both just 15), his first guitar — long thought lost and recently returned by a relative — and a borrowed, moth-eaten jacket from one of his first gigs. There are even more personal items, such as a letter from Simon to Garfunkel over a summer when they were at different camps, on Simon’s letterhead no less, his youthful tone spilling all over the news he was sending to “Artie.” There's a United Airlines in-flight magazine with the lyrics to “The Boxer” scribbled in an article's margins, and a guitar strap with numerous buttons and badges from his seemingly endless touring following the 1986 release of Graceland.
The pop culture portion is centered around a couple of ’70s loveseats, a recliner, tchotchkes and a television broadcasting a clip from a 1970s episode of Saturday Night Live featuring Simon. Simon has been on the show 18 times; some of those appearances are highlighted in this area as part of his influence on popular culture. Also in this area are some of his numerous Grammys and a page from a 1976 copy of Billboard showing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100.
Favorites of Thurston’s that are exclusive to the Skirball exhibit are the sheet music to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” from 1969, here titled “Like a Pitcher of Water” because orchestral arranger Ernest “Ernie” Freeman misheard the title; “We Are the World” sheet music that many of the participating artists signed for Simon; and a Guild F-30 acoustic guitar from 1963, primarily used during Simon’s time working with Garfunkel, including at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967.
Also of note is the Roland E-A7 Expandable Arranger keyboard in the music lab set up to demonstrate the sound of Harry Partch’s Chromelodeon, which features on Simon’s most recent album, Stranger to Stranger. As Simon explains in the liner notes of that album, “Partch heard 43 tones in an octave, in contrast to the 12 tones of the European musical scale. His music evokes an aural response that goes beyond the ear’s perception of ‘out-of-tune’ and into a strange, often eerily beautiful landscape of sound.”
Visitors can interact and create with the Chromelodeon-like E-A7, as well as play with various Roland digital percussion devices, samplers, an effects pedal and a mixer. Each area of the music lab will have various songs from Simon’s career, allowing visitors to pick apart the different ways he explores rhythm and harmony. This space is designed to resemble Simon’s own studio both in design and feel and includes other songwriting artifacts, such as yellow legal pads (his writing tablet of choice, once he moved on from in-flight magazines) covered in Simon’s neat block letters.
“[Simon's] lyrics are so good and so honest and so biting,” Thurston says. “They're not fussy but very insightful. He's not trying to be something he isn’t. He really is a voice of his generation.”
“Paul Simon: Words & Music” runs at the Skirball Cultural Center April 27 through Sept. 3. More information at skirball.org.