Paul Simon’s songs like a bridge back to my father in 1960s Vietnam

Four years later I returned, changed a hundred times over, to hear those songs performed live for the last time, as Paul Simon played the final shows on his 2018 farewell tour. Walking the same restless streets, I wondered if my younger self was walking beside me, or if she’d disappeared after New York taught her what it needed to.

That first night watching Simon perform, I sat alone in a crowd of 21,000 at Madison Square Garden. A woman behind me screamed her appreciation after every song. The man beside me googled Simon’s band members. On my other side an elderly couple sat, and I was afraid I’d bother them with my dancing. My dad was back home in Sydney, but I imagined him next to me, too.

It felt like a beginning as much as an ending, a farewell to someone whose music raised me, and a welcome to a new period of my life. New York is kind of like that: we project meaning onto everything that happens there, the city that never sleeps, where if you make it you really make it. Maybe the profundity doesn’t actually exist. Maybe it’s just the invigoration of an intangible feeling of possibility that comes alive in a place so vast and unknowable.

The next night, my cousin and I went out to Queens to see Simon play again in Flushing Meadows Park, two miles from where he grew up. “Welcome Home” read a banner beside the stage: the prodigal son, back again for his last-ever show. We danced and we sang and we cried. There was no mention of it being the final performance, but when the lights came back on at the end, I knew it was over.

I wonder what my dad thought about when he was on the boat, leaving Vietnam for Malaysia before coming to Australia. He didn’t know that I’d exist, then, or that almost four decades later I’d be standing in a park in New York City, mouthing the words to the songs he clutched like a Bible. He didn’t even know what tomorrow meant, if he’d ever see it. The clash, the discord between my privilege and his struggle, made me cling all the tighter to these last hours of song.

There are so many things that happen in a lifetime. When Simon was 26 years old – the same age my father was the day South Vietnam fell – he sang, “How terribly strange to be 70.” Simon has passed that milestone now. So has my dad. I’ve just turned 30. My life has been so different to theirs, so devoid of struggle, but somehow being in this place with one I’ll never meet, the other as intrinsic to my body as a heartbeat, felt like a new rite of passage that couldn’t be possible without both of them.

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