Singer/Songwriters Midstream and Renewal: Paul Simon

Louis Rosen under the aegis of the 92Y

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel met at age 11, sang together, and broke up. Between 1957 and 1964, Simon wrote, recorded and released more than 30 songs, occasionally reuniting with Garfunkel as Tom & Jerry. The two then met again in and recorded Wednesday Morning 3AM, (2 folk songs, five of which were written by Simon) largely ignored by press. One, “The Sound of Silence,” however, garnered traction. The next two albums, Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, were hits. Even then, Manager Mort Lewis noted signs of rivalry. Garfunkel’s film aspirations (he acted in Catch 22 and Carnal Knowledge) further exacerbated relations.

“Artie would write a harmony that he really liked, and I would say, “I don’t like that harmony,” and he’d say, “Well, that’s the harmony,” and I’d say, “No, you can’t just write the wrong harmony to my song… the truth is, I think if Artie had become a big movie star he would have left. Instead of just being the guy who sang Paul Simon songs, he could be Art Garfunkel, a big star all by himself. And this made me think about how I could still be the guy who wrote songs and sing them. I didn’t need Artie.” Paul Simon- Robert Hilburn, UK Daily Mail Online

Collaboration on the score of the film The Graduate expanded popularity, 1968’s Bookends went platinum. Two years later, Bridge Over Troubled Water was a phenomenal hit, but the pair had by then split up. With some trepidation, Simon struck out on his own with Paul Simon (featuring “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard.”) John Landau of the Village Voice said, it’s his “least detached, most personal and painful piece of work thus far — this from a lyricist who has never shied away from pain as subject or theme.”

The record was followed by There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (featuring “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock”) and Still Crazy After All These Years. Each spawned a hit or two separately on the charts. The third won a Grammy. Accepting the award, “he had the sense to thank Stevie Wonder for not having made an album that year,” Host Louis Rosen comments. “Simon said pop music was in a terrible state. He mourned the loss of sophisticated songs with sophisticated melodies.  The next album would not be ten isolated pop songs.”

“1976 was a moment of profound change,” Rosen continues. “The end of the 1960s was really 1975 when the last copter pulled out of Vietnam. One way to measure the level of exhaustion is to look at what’s going on in pop music. Bob Dylan took a deep dive into Christianity, no longer speaking to popular culture. John Lennon stopped making music, not returning till 1980. Randy Newman put out nothing for three years. Joni Mitchell was leaving her audience behind with rarified work.”

Personal, intimate material was out of step with a culture that wanted to dance. And the alternative was punk. Simon started to think about making a movie. At Columbia, artist-nurturer Clive Davis was replaced by bottom line man Walter Yetnicoff who alienated musicians. His contract up, Simon moved to Warner Brothers which produced the film and subsequent album. One Trick Pony “touches on the problem of prolonged adolescence. Somewhere in your thirties, the garment of your youth gets frayed,” the artist said in a television interview we watch on video. Reflecting his own life, the film centered on a singer/songwriter (not as successful as Simon) struggling against a record company wanting him to churn out hits and keeping his marriage together.

The initial idea was to just provide the idea and score, but encouraged, Simon wrote the screenplay, then starred in it. The film tanked. The first part of tonight’s class will look at overlooked songs from the film recording. Eric Gayle-guitar, Richard Tee-keyboard/vocals, Tony Levin-bass, Steve Gaad-drums.

We start with “Late in the Evening”: “First thing I remember/I was lying in my bed/ I couldn’t have been no more than one or two/And I remember there was a radio/Coming from the room next door…” It’s rhythmically, infectiously UP. The Host has worked with musicians from Simon’s bands. His modus operandi, Rosen was told, is to sing what he wants, ask the musicians to explore, then nail down preferences. We then hear “Jonah,” which is gentle, sincere, rueful: “Here’s to all the boys that came along/Carrying guitars in cardboard cases…” “There were a lot of people who still wanted to hear Simon and Garfunkel or “Kodachrome.” Performing these songs was bold,” Rosen reflects.

The songwriter took his failure really hard. “I just didn’t know what difference it would make if I wrote or didn’t write,” Rosen quotes.  He didn’t put out an album for five years, an eternity in pop music. The artist had writer’s block. Connected to a Los Angeles psychiatrist, Simon was (apparently) told to ‘go home and express what you just told me in song’. He wrote five lines in a west coast hotel: I go to a famous physician/I sleep in the local hotel/From what I can see of the people like me/We get better/But we never get well…all of which would end up in the song “Allergies” on the next album, and our next listening experience, Hearts and Bones. It doesn’t sound like a Simon tune.

In 1981, the City of New York asked Simon and Garfunkel to sing a benefit concert in Central Park. Half a million people showed up. The live album, TV special, and videocassette (later DVD) releases were all major hits. Warner Brothers and Garfunkel wanted the pair back together, but Simon had been writing very personal songs inappropriate to collaboration. When a tour began, the butting of heads resumed immediately. Simon pulled the plug.

“I think I’m a writer who sings,” Simon said in the tv interview. “A man has to be judged just on that level… In the first line of a song, I try to say something true, I mean a fact. You’re less likely to get mired in clichés that way…” He then went on to examine  the title song Hearts and Bones which starts, “One and one-half wandering Jews/Free to wander wherever they choose…” “I thought I’d catch people’s attention bringing them into a story/song,” its author said. According to Rolling Stone magazine, the song was given to then mate Carrie Fisher as a present. Images seem unconnected during this propulsive, moving tune.

From the album, we hear the forgettable “Numbers,” two versions of “I Think Too Much” (in which I found one striking lyric: Have you ever experienced a period of grace/When your brain just takes a seat behind your face), “Cars,” and “Rene and George Magritte with Their Dog After the War,” a song written because Simon was enamored of a newspaper headline.

Three tracks are worth a second (or first) look.“Song About the Moon”: “If you want to write a song about the moon/Walk along the craters in the late afternoon/When the shadows are deep and the light is alien/And gravity leaps like a knife off the planet…Na, na, na, na, na, na/Yeah, yeah, yeah, Presto, a song about the moon…” offers a  lighter take on writing. “Train in the Distance,” with elements of gospel and folk, works beautifully with a nuanced metaphor and its evocative sound.  

“The Late Great Johnny Ace” is loosely about an R & B performer who, in 1954, purportedly killed himself during a game of Russian Roulette. Simon references the John F. Kennedy and John Lennon assassinations. In a Rolling Stone interview, he said that Kennedy and Lennon became the “Johnny Aces” of their time with their subsequent murders. The song ends with an effective one minute coda by Philip Glass.

“So this is Paul Simon midstream, mid career. I think his language took a step forward. The album wasn’t great.  A deeper funk followed. Younger Warner Brothers executives wondered why the artist was still on the label, so they stopped paying attention to what he was doing. This allowed him to pursue a passion for African music.” One day in his car, Simon was so taken with the Boyoyo Boys’ instrumental Gumboots: Accordion Jive Volume II, he decided to write lyrics to it. Now a song, it became the first composition of Graceland. Warner Brothers thought it too eclectic, but released the album which earned two Grammys and became Simon’s best selling solo effort to date. At 45, he was back up front.

“Paul Simon’s been able to sustain his career writing from where he is in his life. He’s talking to us.” (Louis Rosen)

Louis Rosen

The series:

“Having established themselves in the first phase of their career, the most successful singer-songwriters, each in their own moment, faced the same challenge: How to sustain the high level of their work, renew themselves, stretch themselves, all while remaining viable in the commercial marketplace. For those fortunate enough to arrive at this situation, this is the “mid-career” dilemma. This semester we explore how singer-songwriters who had established themselves in the 1960’s faced this challenge in the 1970’s and 1980’s.” Louis Rosen

About Alix Cohen (1105 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.