By the summer of 1970, Simon and Garfunkel had completed their swan song, Bridge Over Troubled Water, which went on to sell eight million copies. Garfunkel was spending a lot of time on film sets. His partner was tired of carrying the heavier load. Despite what they said early on, Garfunkel did not arrange material. Simon had been functioning in a 3-way collaboration between himself, Art, and producer Roy Halee. Democratic voting sometimes meant that recording of Simon’s work went counter to his taste.
In this session in Louis Rosen’s illuminating series, we talk about and listen to Paul Simon’s first self-named solo effort, one that the host still includes on his road trip play lists. We watch a 1973 video from the subject’s first tour after releasing the album. Wearing a white suit, sporting a Buster Brown haircut, he sings “The Sounds of Silence” with considerable back up, burying what we think of as a hauntingly simple song.
“Instead of referencing the biography (by Robert Hilburn),” Rosen tells us, “I’m going to use Paul’s own words from a 1973 Rolling Stone interview with Jon Landau. “It just wasn’t fun to work together… (any more)… It becomes harder to do what people expect. I’m delighted I didn’t have to write a sequel to Bridge Over Troubled Water. It left me free to do what I want…” (PS) “’Much like The Beatles,” Rosen observes.
“The bigger you get, the less you’re used to compromising…We had all our strength for the album. All my ideas were wiped out.” (PS) When Landau asks why they didn’t split up earlier, Simon expresses insecurity.
“Here are some of the things I know,” Rosen tells us, “1. For awhile Paul had writer’s block, he was scared and exhausted. 2. He was interested in stripping things down to his guitar and voice. This is a more acoustic album than those that follow. 3. He had a broad range of taste and curiosity about musical styles.” Simon wanted to sing more. He’d felt restricted because the duo’s format dictated everything sung twice, in harmony, to give the sound body. Phrasing was locked.
Until 2011, Simon would apparently record in an unusual way, playing rhythmic grooves over a chord progression. His major concern was getting that aspect – the underpinning – right. “By the time he’s recording Graceland, he puts the rhythm tracks down first, then writes the song.” (LR)
Simon went to Jamaica to meet indigenous musicians. He started to play with them, heard himself and stopped, saying “you play, I’ll adapt to your style.” Landau wrote the musician “fell in love with ska.” (Ska combines elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues. It’s characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the off beat.)
He also traveled to Brazil (to judge a songwriting contest) and connected with an Andean group he admired called Los Incas featured on cuts like “Duncan.” Flutes, charango (a small Andean stringed instrument of the lute family), and South American percussion were added to his musical vocabulary. Instead of getting Americans to replicate the sound, he went to the source. Warner Brothers could hardly say “no” to the odd approach after the success of Bridge. They thought he’d get it out of his system and maybe get back with Garfunkel.
The title of the first cut on the album, “Mother and Child Reunion,” was the name of a chicken and egg dish on a Chinatown menu. (Really.) We listen. Audience heads bob, some mouth lyrics. Its second track, “Duncan,” was a persona Simon entertained taking on for an entire record. Much like The Beatles Sgt. Pepper, he felt it might free him from public presumption.
“Duncan” uses the same distinct finger style we heard (in another class) on “The Boxer.” Wood flutes dictate sound here. They lift and carry without destination. “I’ve always been very fond of that song,” Rosen remarks. “It has nonchalant wit, a lightness of touch only an experienced songwriter could pull off.”
While singer/songwriters like Carole King and James Taylor performed with core musicians and George Harrison brought in familiar faces, Simon’s “guest” players increased.
“Everything Together Falls Apart” is notable for Simon’s guitar style and jazz inflection. “What Simon wants to hear starting with this arrangement are separate musical colors,” Rosen comments. “Run That Body Down” spotlights muted, twangy guitar. Simon considered “Armistice Day” to be the weakest song included. “Written in 1968, it expressed being worn out by fighting and abuse. I like it because it slides into a 12 bar blues, something he never had the chance to do before. Phrasing is more asymmetrical.” (LR)
Its author called “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” a “confection.” Listen to the Brazilian percussion. It’s buoyant. “Peace Like a River” harks back to national unrest. In “Papa Hobo,” music provides dulcet counterpoint to dark lyrics: It’s carbon and monoxide/The ole Detroit perfume/And it hangs in the highways/In the morning… Rosen points out that Simon deftly wrote “The weatherman lied,” not “it’s raining.” The Paul Simon/Stephane Grappelli instrumental “Hobo’s Blues” is sassy and smiley.
“Paranoia Blues” – There’s only one thing I need to know/Whose side are you on?! is notable for Simon’s playing only percussion. The iconoclastic sound of bottleneck guitar rules (a technique and style of playing, whereby a hard object, typically a steel tube, a steel bar, or a glass bottleneck, is pressed across multiple strings and slid along the fingerboard to produce a smooth, whining sound). It’s reminiscent of a New Orleans marching band. To my mind, “Congratulations” is neither here nor there.
Rosen observes that Simon’s sound is maturing here, that his strengths are not what he put in, but what he left out. “Lyrics have an offhand charm, yet they’re extremely precise and never weighty or dense. There’s a looser sense of songwriting, appealing and surprising. You don’t feel like he’s trying hard to impress.”
The singer/songwriter was exacting in the studio. Rosen knows several musicians who recorded with him. Simon might spend 1 ½ hours on a horn part, a week just getting a drum right. “Not only do you have to be obsessive,” Rosen says, “But you have to have the money, he does, and the authority so guys wouldn’t mutiny. “
“A multi-reed player told me he has a lot of ideas, but wants to see what you bring first. You’d try it six different ways and he’d say go back to number two while a room full of people waited. Once you have it, that’s the way he wants to hear it every time – no improvisation.”
“We’re 50 years from this album, yet it feels fresh because he’s tapping into timeless acoustic jazz, blues, and folk. Our sense of what’s happening in the world has changed. If you go back to 1972 and compare it to 1924, what music would still feel relevant? For something like this not to feel dated is exceptional. The album was a great achievement and for those paying attention, it signaled Simon was not going away.”
Opening Photo courtesy of Mr. Rosen.