It's strange to think of Paul Simon as sixty four years old; no doubt it will be
even more 'terribly strange' to be seventy. I trail him by ten years, leading a far less accomplished life. But the two lives do seem to intersect from time to time. The most critical occasion happened fourteen years ago, as I was lurching through the first months of an ugly divorce. There's a line from Maugham's THE CONSTANT WIFE, where the heroine comments that she and her husband had a lucky marriage because they happened to fall out of love with each other at exactly the same moment.
I had no such luck. I was unceremoniously dumped and it took a while to appreciate my good fortune. At first I was miserable. I experienced authentic insomnia for the only time in my life during those cold autumn nights. Reading didn't help; talking to people didn't help (I was talked out and they were bored senseless by the same old primal whimper). TV grated on me. I tried long walks but the small island where I live seemed more than deserted on a midnight in November. It had an interrupted, concluded quality -- a town after the evacuation, but before the bombs start falling. The silence felt like a preview of annihilation; or maybe it was just my mood.
The only thing that helped was the moment when the guitars and drums kicked in on DIAMONDS ON THE SOLES OF HER SHOES. Some reviewer said that the song 'lilted to the stars' and I couldn't agree more. The charge of sheer energy and joy as that song took off never failed to quiet my jangling nerves and release my clenched spirit. By the time the time the characters in the song were 'sleeping in a doorway /by the bodegas and the lights of upper Broadway', I was fast asleep, also.
I often speculated about what the song might mean. Paul Simon said in numerous interviews that he wasn't sure himself and in any case, lyrics were less important than the 'track' -- the beat and the melody. That may be; certainly this song makes a stirring case for the primacy of rhythm and music over the word. But I couldn't help pondering it anyway, and it occurred to me one morning after a startlingly good night's sleep, that the diamonds represented a state of grace, an incalculable wealth that didn't need to be flaunted, that turned walking into a mystery and made a kind of secret society out of everyone who understood that sorrow is incidental and joy is within your grasp.
I still feel that way when I hear the song -- despite my ordinary shoes -- remembering how it floated me over a shallow patch by a rocky shore during the lowest tide of my life.