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“1970 is a year when I think some of the greatest songwriters of the generation were starting to hit their stride,” begins host, Louis Rosen. “In terms of mainstream, I believe that’s when the term singer-songwriter came into play.”
Over the next six weeks, Wednesdays at 7:15 p.m., Rosen will focus on albums that presented a unified whole, rather than individual cuts and on artists who sustained their craft including: James Taylor, Randy Newman, John Lennon’s first album, Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, George Harrison’s solo effort, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison …Subscribe at https://www.92y.org/
While some lecturers take emotion and imagination out of creative efforts with examination, Rosen, a singer-songwriter (composer/educator) himself, enriches listening experience with musical underpinnings, sources of inspiration, lyrical references, and historical anecdotes. Well researched classes are often revelations.
Paul Simon and Bridge Over Troubled Water
Born in 1941, Paul Simon was raised in Kew Gardens, Queens. His father was a bass player whom he often accompanied to gigs. The boy first noticed Art Garfunkel singing in a 4th grade talent contest. Later, they formed a doo-wop group called The Peptones and then became Tom and Jerry (Garfunkel was Tom, Simon, Jerry). The duo achieved success with “Hey Schoolgirl,” emulating The Everly Brothers, recorded for $25 at Sanders Recording Studio in Manhattan. They appeared on American Bandstand, but popularity didn’t build.
Simon also earned $25 a pop making demos, often with school chum, Carole King, and became, like George Gershwin, our host points out, a song plugger. When Columbia Records picked up Simon and Garfunkel after a demo tape, they were marketed as clean cut folk singers, mostly performing covers.
At this point, Rosen notes, personal songwriting was entering an arena where generic Brill Building songs used to hold sway. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan opened a door. Simon and Garfunkel’s Wednesday Morning 3AM premiered in Greenwich Village, but left the audience cold.
Assuming things were over for him here, Simon left for England where he started to build a career. Though he worked, it must’ve been a discouraging parenthesis as his parents talked him into coming back and going to law school. He lasted all of a month before returning to the UK. The period was one of flexing songwriting skills.
Rosen plays us a UK recording of “April, Come She Will,” solo Simon – a lovely, flannel vocal with nimble, multi-layered guitar. Our host comments that the musician thought this would be the shape of his musical life going forward.
“What happens next is something that if you wrote it would seem a bit much. Radio play of `The Sounds of Silence’ from the unsuccessful album created a ground swell among college students. Bob Dylan’s producer, Tom Wilson, decided to turn the song into then popular folk rock by overdubbing existing tracks. No one told either the performers or the record company. Columbia probably would’ve said, ‘Don’t waste your time’.”
Simon was playing one-nighters abroad when he received a call about the record gaining traction. He couldn’t help but check Billboard and Cashbox (music publications) to see where it might fall on playlists. Suddenly it was #59 with a bullet. He knew his life would change. In a few weeks, it was #1. “Talent, discipline, and persistence contributed to his taking advantage of good luck,” Rosen notes with admiration. Garfunkel dropped out of architecture school. They were on their way.
When Columbia wanted a follow-up album, Simon already had the songs. It took only three weeks to record The Sounds of Silence capitalizing on unexpected reception. The collaborators assumed more creative control. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme and Bookends followed. In 1967, Simon provided the music for The Graduate, one of the year’s most successful films. The team was incredibly successful.
At this point, director of The Graduate, Mike Nichols, asked both Simon and Garfunkel to act in his upcoming film Catch 22. Before shooting began, Simon’s character was cut. He generously encouraged Garfunkel to take advantage of the opportunity. “Scheduled for three months, production took nine. Simon barely saw his partner. He felt he was bearing unreasonable burdens. The composer also became aware that most people thought the two were collaborating on songs. Tension formed in the relationship.”
Recording of Bridge Over Troubled Water began under poor circumstances. Nichols then asked Garfunkel to be in the film, Carnal Knowledge. “From the actor’s perspective, taking the role would heighten the brand. Still, he didn’t tell Simon until after the album was completed. The latter felt understand- ably betrayed. So that was it for them. In March, they’d win all these Grammys, but the relationship was over. Additionally, Simon knew he wanted to go in directions with which Garfunkel would be uncomfortable.”
The album would sell eight million copies. To put this in perspective, Columbia artist, Bob Dylan, signed for prestige, was selling about 400,000. “Simon assumed he’d never have anywhere near that kind of success again, and yet when it came to Graceland…”
Having been emailed lyrics, we at home begin to listen to the album. Title song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” arrives a familiar touchstone. Here’s Garfunkel’s airbrushed tenor. Rosen shares that Simon thought the song was complete when pressed to write a third verse which, if one really listens, doesn’t seem to fit. In his opinion, which I share, more “contained” versions land better than this highly produced rendition.
Later, we’re treated to an excerpt from The Dick Cavett Show wherein Simon explains where every element of Bridge came from. There’s a riff from a Bach Chorale and feel from a gospel group called The Swan Silvertones. “I started to go to gospel changes.” The title came directly from a scat singer who called out, “I’ll be a bridge over troubled waters, if…” Rosen comments that his subject actually likes talking about songwriting as many visits to Cavett attest. The Chorale is apparently used again in “American Tune” from There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.
“El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” was originally released by Los Incas, an Andean folk music group. Simon liked the music track so much, he licensed it intact, adding his own lyrics. The result is authenticity. Rosen calls it “a barely veiled lament for a friendship under tremendous strain.”
Lyrics for the ebullient “Cecelia” were laid on top of a completely improvised, homemade recording created one afternoon when Simon’s musician brother starting rhythmically playing a piano bench, he joined on his guitar case, and other friends/musicians jammed. A tape loop was made in the studio (playing the rhythm over and over). Simon took it home and wrote lyrics. He lobbied to make this the first cut on the album, but was overruled.
“The first three tracks are not indicative of where Simon’s been, but where he’s going. Bridge is affected by gospel music, Condor shows interest in South American music, Cecelia is the first time he wrote to a rhythm track.”
Producer Roy Halee identified two elements of the recordings’ secret sauce, Rosen tells us. “First, with most recordings, you lay down a vocal track, then a lead vocal, then harmonies. When Simon and Garfunkel sung together, they sang together, live. Secondly, they always recorded twice, perfectly syncing voices. You don’t realize they’re multi-tracking, but it adds richness.”
“Keep the Customer Satisfied” is glossed over as talented filler. Rosen refers to its sound as “Stax on steroids.” (Stacks was a Memphis record label known for rough, southern sounds like Otis Redding.) “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” is alluded to as a goodbye message to former architecture student Garfunkel, who idolized Wright. Influence of Antonio Carlos Jobim is apparent on this cut. Garfunkel, possibly denying its meaning, evidently thought the song too “clever.”
“The next song took over 100 hours to record. If you can afford it, great, but one can make an argument that leaner is better,” introduces “The Boxer.” Simon played with Nashville guitarist, Fred Carver until they were totally locked in, adding layer upon layer. A drummer scoured the building for space that would make his instrument resonate like a cannon in the midst of the Lie, La, Lies. Simon thought there should be lyrics, but never found them.
“Baby Driver,” like “Cecelia” offers upbeat, rhythmic relief cushioning more tender material. “The Only Living Boy in New York” is sung to Tom, i.e. Garfunkel of Tom and Jerry, whom Simon was missing. “Why Don’t You Write Me?” indicates first interest in Jamaican Ska, combining elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and R & B. “Bye Bye Love” is, of course, in tribute to The Everly Brothers. “Song For the Asking” is clearly a coda.
Simon and Garfunkel disagreed so strongly on a last song, it was omitted. The writer wanted “Cuba Si, Nixon No,” which the duo performed live, but never recorded. Rosen plays it for us. There are all sorts of non-folk influences, including a strong dose of Chuck Berry.
“The thing to keep in mind is that Paul Simon first recorded in 1964 and last, to date, in 2019, a remarkable career. For years he thought his obituary would read the guy that wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Graceland’s popularity was as much a surprise and shock to him as it was to the recording company.” Simon now had the reputation and freedom to explore on his own terms.
Fascinating and fun.
Top photo of Louis Rosen courtesy of Louis Rosen
Photo of Paul Simon by Dana Nalbandian
All unattributed quotes Louis Rosen
NEXT: Wednesday June 3, 202