Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – in the rock/soul/pop era, there are many excellent songwriters. But for my money, there are Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon – and then everybody else. And many of the “everybody else” are superior whether it’s Neil Young, Laura Nyro, Becker/Fagen, etc. But those guys I mentioned? Well, they go to 11. For the record, Simon wrote “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” back-to-back. Any songwriter would kill just to have those two songs in their repertoire.
I’ll follow this post up in a few days detailing some of my favorite songs by both Simon & Garfunkel and Paul Simon solo.
I am a total junkie for reading biographies of musicians. I have absolutely no fucking idea why. I just find it interesting, always have. Where are they from? How did they develop their talent? What is/was their life like? Why can’t I be talented enough that someone writes my biography? 🙂
So when I heard that Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn was coming out, I eagerly got my hands on a copy. “Executive summary”- excellent book, very interesting in a “warts and all” sense. By that I mean, let’s face it, Simon is sometimes a big jerk. And the book doesn’t shy away from that at all. In fact, the author says that Simon encouraged him to interview whomever he wanted and even though their discussions sometimes got heated, Hilburn had final editorial control. “It’s your book,” Simon advised.
The book goes through, as one would expect, Simon’s early life and friendship with schoolmate Art Garfunkel. Like so many of the musicians I read about, Paul’s father Lou was a professional musician, a bass player, and bandleader. And so Paul was indoctrinated early into the world of music. (I think that kids who follow in their parents’ footsteps have possibly not only a genetic predisposition but are also surrounded by music or film or whatever so it just seems natural to them.)
Simon, a life-long New Yorker, was born in 1941. An avid baseball lover and player, he eventually realized his height (5’3″) would likely prevent his ever having a major-league career. But in 1954 he heard the song “Gee” by an R&B band called the Crows. “Immediately, I felt,” Simon advises, “that’s my music. It’s not those big ballads you heard on the radio back then: things like ‘See the pyramids, along the Nile, and all that.”*
Simon got an acoustic guitar pretty quickly thereafter. His father, while appreciating and encouraging his interest in music, didn’t much care for this doo-wop or rock and roll or whatever it was called. One of Paul’s favorite songs was “Earth Angel” which Lou Simon declared to be ‘awful,’ a judgment that hurt Paul. (This scenario was, I’m sure, being repeated at households around the country if not the world. And this is BEFORE Elvis.)
From the book: “Paul remembers first seeing Garfunkel in 1951 at an assembly at PS 164 when they were both in fourth grade. Artie, as Paul grew to call him, sang “Too Young,” a ballad that had been a hit for Nat “King” Cole, and Paul was struck by two things: the loveliness of Art’s voice and the strong impression he had on the girls.”
It wasn’t long before Paul and Artie were harmonizing on the era’s hits like “Good Night Sweetheart.” They even wrote a doo-wop song together, played at talent shows and tried to get record companies to notice them, all to no avail.
When Elvis did arrive with “That’s All Right,” Simon (and, one assumes, Garfunkel), was transfixed by this out-of-nowhere singer. But he knew he’d never be able to compete. But what really galvanized he and Artie was hearing the Everly Brothers’ “Bye, Bye Love” coming over the radio. Now here was something they could do, something they could sink their teeth into.
Simon discovered he had a gift for songwriting (not to mention playing guitar) and took over those duties while Garfunkel was more involved in helping arrange vocal harmonies. From the book: “They’d sit nose to nose, looking right at each other’s mouths to copy diction, Garfunkel has said. He wanted to know exactly where Paul’s tongue would hit the top of his palate when he’d sing a certain letter or word to know exactly how to get the harmony right.
Paul and Art both enjoyed singing so much that they rarely had an argument over it. “We would sometimes have a disagreement over something, but we had this thing we’d do where we would say, ‘Let’s just drop it,’ and we would,” Simon said. “We would just completely drop it. I don’t think there was any sense of competitiveness.””
Simon sometimes played as a solo act in Greenwich Village but was never accepted as anything more than a “guy from Queens” by the snobbish Village crowd. One time Dylan attended a show and for whatever reason laughed at some point during Simon’s performance. This pissed the sensitive Mr. Simon off at the time. (Apparently, he got over it. Dylan later recorded “The Boxer” and the two competitors toured together in 1999. For the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t go see this show.)
Simon & Garfunkel eventually landed a contract with Columbia and their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. was released in late 1964. It bombed and so Simon went to England where he – like Hendrix later – was more popular with that country than in his own. There he met a girl named Kathy Chitty who became his girlfriend.
Several songs are written for or mentioning her notably “Kathy’s Song,” one of Garfunkel’s favorites, and “America.” Wikipedia says that “America” was inspired by a road trip Paul and Kathy took. But that particular road trip never happened per Simon. The song is based on his own wanderings and he inserted Kathy into it with a bit of artistic license. “Kathy’s Song” is his longing for his lover when he was back in New York while she stayed in England.**
Paul Simon Songbook LP with Kathy Chitty
And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies
My mind’s distracted and diffused
My thoughts are many miles away
They lie with you when you’re asleep
And kiss you when you start your day
S&G’s career finally started to take off in early 1966 when – without their knowledge or permission – producer Tom Wilson (also Dylan’s producer), added electric guitar, bass, and drums to “Sound of Silence,” hoping to capitalize on the so-called folk-rock craze.
The rest is, I think, history. The duo – despite not always exactly loving each other – went on to worldwide success due to Simon’s songs and those great, great harmonies. Interestingly, their recorded output is relatively meager quantity-wise having released only five studio albums together. The four live albums are, of course, pretty much the same songs recorded live.
The guys broke up in 1970 and both have gone on to successful solo careers. Both did some acting, Garfunkel notably in Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge and Simon in Annie Hall and a self-made turkey called One Trick Pony. And in the Sixties, they of course famously provided the soundtrack for The Graduate.
I won’t go into all the detail here as this will then turn into – and probably HAS turned into – more of a history than a book review. But Simon went on to perhaps even greater success, now having released 14 solo albums. (The Paul Simon Songbook, from which I took “Kathy’s Song,” pre-dated S&G.) His crowning achievement of course, was Graceland.
I found the book interesting and compelling all the way through. It’s interesting to read about the judgmental perfectionist streak in Simon that makes him agonize over just the right word. (And, like his father, turn that critical eye on others.) Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live fame is a close friend. I read elsewhere that he recalls going into Simon’s apartment and there were scattered balls of paper thrown on the floor as Paul tried to pull another melancholy poem from his tortured soul.
As mentioned, Simon seems like overall a decent guy whose overweening ambition and ego led him to make some poor decisions with both Garfunkel and in romantic situations. (By all accounts his marriage to the late Carrie Fisher was a nightmare.) For his part, Garfunkel never really forgave Simon for shutting him out of a recording or contract deal. And this goes all the way back to the beginning of their career!
If you’re a Simon fan, this book is a must-read. If you’re not, then it might be of interest to you as an inside look at how stardom (and records) happens one brick at a time. (Simon had done a lot of demo work in studios long before becoming a star and so, knew exactly how to get what he wanted.)
*Wikipedia says “Gee” is a “song which has been credited as the first rock and roll hit by a rock and roll group.” But then they say the same thing about “Rocket 88.” Also, the “see the pyramids” line comes from a great tune called “You Belong to Me” and it puzzles me that Simon wouldn’t appreciate it.
**To this day, Kathy and her husband come backstage to Paul’s shows whenever he’s in England.
Sources: Paul Simon: The LIfe. Copyright © 2018 by Robert Hilburn. Simon & Schuster, Wikipedia.