Tonight I am seeing Paul Simon at Summerfest. This will be the fourth time seeing Paul Simon there: 1999, 2001, 2006 and 2017. I also saw Simon and Garfunkel in Chicago in 2003. A totally bonkers show where you could tell they don’t get along, but that didn’t stop me from getting tickets to their 2010 reunion tour. Sadly, that show got canceled—and seven years later—it still hasn’t been rescheduled. I saw Paul Simon two weeks ago at Eaux Claires Festival. I missed him on his 2011 tour and I opted not to check out the Paul Simon/Sting double bill in 2014. I have regretted missing both shows. Otherwise, I have seen him on every tour since I was an adult. And recently he’s discussed not doing music anymore, so I’m concerned tonight might be my last time seeing him.
Why is this so upsetting to me? Why have I seen him so often? Because Paul Simon is in my music holy trinity.
If music is a religion, the music holy trinity is the culmination of all the music you listen to defined by three artists.
They are your baseline. They are the three artists you can give to anyone and they have a general snapshot of what defines your musical preferences. They were active during your formative years which helped shape your music vocabulary. They represent the music that influenced them and you can hear the influence they had on artists you dig today.
Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Prince: my musical holy trinity
All the music I love can be traced back to these three artists and the influence they had on my musical sensibilities. How so? Let me explain:
Paul Simon represents not just the obvious singer/songwriter trope—he’s the first recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (Created by the Library of Congress) for goodness’ sakes!—but his attention to harmony is insane. And in those harmonies you can hear the music of his youth: doo wop. Doo wop is basically the first time R&B music crossed over to mainstream audiences on the radio. Paul Simon’s use of intricate harmonization in both vocal parts and complex orchestrations can easily be credited to the doo wop music playing everywhere when he was growing up in New York City in the late 1940s-1950s. My love of Paul Simon and his inclusion in my holy trinity shows my appreciation to lyricists and storytellers but also represents my absolute obsession with the interesting harmonies found in doo wop music, the backbone of mainstream R&B music that fills my playlists today.
Peter Gabriel’s influence on my other favorite artists isn’t hard to spot. Most of my favorite bands from the past ten years like Bon Iver, Radiohead, Animal Collective, MGMT and Arcade Fire all echo the musical blueprint intricately developed during Peter Gabriel’s career. (and the feeling is mutual. gabriel famously takes long breaks between albums but found time to do a covers album called scratch my back featuring songs from his peers–including paul simon–and new artists including radioheard, arcade fire and bon iver.) From his early days in Genesis that featured wild costumes and performance with theatrical flourishes in dive bar rock and roll locations, to his early solo work showing experimentation with noise as an instrument mixed with expert technical musicianship, and his mid-career embrace of world music through WOMAD that frequently juxtaposes synthesized sound from machines against handmade tribal percussion, Peter Gabriel was constantly blending two worlds together to create musical magic. But he wasn’t the first. The Beatles’ longevity as a cultural phenomenon is certainly a result of their shapeshifting musical styles and fearless incorporation of new sounds and spirituality. While the essence of The Beatles sound—heartfelt lyrics, catchy melodies and genre-blending styles—is apparent in all of their albums, the progression from Please, Please Me to Let It Be with each album introducing new sonic elements and education is what made them special and always relevant. Can you imagine if they were still putting out recycled versions of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” four years later? Nope. Neither can I. But can you imagine what The Beatles would’ve sounded like if they had access to a Minimoog or Fairlight CMI? Maybe something like this:
So much has been written about Prince since his passing. What always struck me about him was no matter the time or place, Prince made people pay attention. It would be one thing if it were for the showmanship on stage, because that was real and always present. But there are plenty of performers who are magic on stage, but flash out quickly. It could’ve been for his mastery of every instrument imaginable. I have a copy of Drummer Magazine talking about his skills on the skins—and he’s considered a guitar player. His lyrics made people take notice, whether he was the messenger or he handed them off to someone else to deliver. But it was all that and more. He somehow was all things in one person. He represented so many styles and none of them tripped him up. And a trip to Paisley Park drives this motivation of this point home.Prince was a music fan. Period. One of the most profound moments of the Paisley Park tour is seeing the mural called the Influence Wall that covers the hallway leading to the main recording studio representing his musical influences: Joni Mitchell, Sly and the Family Stone, Carlos Santana, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, Earth, Wind & Fire, and James Brown, to name a few. With influences as vast and varied as that list, it’s no surprise his music captures the best of so many genres that also found their way into my music collection.
While each of these musicians has a slightly different feel, there are also incredible similarities to them that pushes all my buttons. I’m a sucker for tons of percussion, attention to lyrics, wall of sound production, pop sensibilities, and falsetto singing. And these are well used tools in their kits.
Finally, you could easily say they also lean heavily on jazz as a source of inspiration. I would not call myself much of a jazz aficionado. I can’t think of a single time I’ve turned on anything other than jazz’s distant cousin, Big Band which I like lots. I’m not playing Coltrane or Davis or Bird. But clearly, without them, many of my favorite elements of my music holy trinity’s sound would be missing. It’s the evolution of that sound mixed with the most mainstream of music, pop music, that works for me.
In the end, I’m a pop music girl. And when pop music incorporates dance, rock, folk, R&B, world music and jazz, I’m probably all in. My music holy trinity is a trio of pop musicians that blend a variety of genres to create a musical melting pot that completely hits my sonic sweet spot. If music were a religion, I would pray to the 3 Ps: Peter, Paul and Prince.
Who’s in your music holy trinity? I wanna know!!! List them below.
All photos are terrible and mine.
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