MAYVILLE – If all they had done was read “The Lanyard” and sing “The Sounds of Silence,” Billy Collins and Paul Simon would have left their audience more than happy Friday night.
Needless to say, they did much more.
Chautauqua Institution’s evening with the two friends – one a wildly popular poet (yes, there is such a thing) and the other one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the last 50 years – was a well-orchestrated peek behind the curtain of creativity, the kind that operates at the highest level.
And they made it seem like so much fun. Perhaps it is because, as Collins wrote in one of the poems he was to read later, they are both “older than Cheerios.”
At a certain age, you know what works and what doesn’t, you can pinpoint what made your songs hits, and where to pause in a poem for the audience’s laughter.
The first hour was a combination of conversation and demonstration, with Collins doing most of the interviewing and Simon playing it semi-straight.
Collins has spent a bit of time at Chautauqua and is quite at home on stage in the open-air amphitheater. He welcomed the audience by mentioning that moments before, Simon had committed one of the best “name-drops” he had ever heard.
“Paul told me as we were being driven over in a golf cart that he had interviewed the Dalai Lama,” Collins said, “and the first thing he asked him was, ‘Do you work out?’ ”
As Simon smiled and shook his head, and the audience laughed, Collins looked at Simon and finished with, “Apparently neither of you do.”
Simon quickly countered that the lama himself had trumped him.
“He said to me, ‘I remember once when Mao Zedong said to me. ...’ ”
And so it went, with clever thoughts on forthcoming obituaries – which Simon said are all mixed reviews: “They always have to put in that ‘thing’ that you did” – and reflections on working with Art Garfunkel. Musicians in particular enjoyed his detailed and clear explanations of harmony and tempo. Artists of all kinds could relate to the discussion of how a good work comes together.
They agreed that most popular music lyrics don’t come close to actual poetry, and that a lot of poetry works against itself, too.
As Simon put it, when most people open a book of poems, the language gets in the way of the art.
“They’re going to think, ‘What the … ? I’m outta here!’ ”
“That’s putting it mildly,” agreed Collins, a former poet laureate of the United States. “Sometimes in the first few lines of a poem you feel like you’re in an ambulance, with the poet, on the way to the psychiatric ward.”
On the other hand, being popular isn’t the be all, end all. Asked about whether he had ever written a song he thought was pretty good but lacking that “hook” that catches listeners, Simon said he had indeed.
“Over time I’m less interested in that ‘hook’ form, but I was in the beginning – and those are all my hits. Now I see it coming and it’s, ah, well. …”
He also talked about playing to massive audiences, with and without Art Garfunkel in Central Park and, about 10 years ago, outside the Colosseum. The first time they played before half a million people, he said, he was nervous. The second time, he said, he felt he was ready and it didn’t bother him.
The third time, a free concert in Rome that drew more than 600,000 people, he said that, at one point, “Artie was singing and I was kind of in the background, and there were all these people – people were hanging out on balconies above the square – and, as I said, Artie had the stage and I’m thinking, I wonder what an apartment like that would cost?’ ”
After a brief question-and-answer period, each artist performed a sample of his work. Collins was received with joyous applause as he read “Another Reason Why I Do Not Keep a Gun in the House” (about a barking dog), “Cheerios,” “Consolation” and “The Lanyard.” Those unfamiliar with these poems can see him read them on YouTube.
Simon opened a brief set with a haunting “Sounds of Silence,” and when a man who has turned 70 sings “Hello darkness my old friend,” it hits you in your heart. The same with “Slip Sliding Away.”
He also performed a solid “Me and Julio” and cracked up during “The Boxer.”
Here could have been more music. There could have been more poetry. But for those, we have books and iTunes.
Friday night, what the packed house on Chautauqua Lake got was a rich encounter with the poet and the songwriter, and plenty to take home and think about.