Simon and Garfunkel were popular with my youth group crowd during high school in the 1980’s. S&G were melodic and safe, gently quirky. We giggled at the line in Cecilia, “Makin’ love in the afternoon with Cecilia up in my bedroom; I got up to wash my face, when I come back to bed, someone’s taken my place.” (Why’d he need to wash his face?) We earnestly discussed the idea that Art Garfunkel was the creative genius in the group, and maybe Simon wasn’t much without him. It’s true Arty had brains – he earned a master’s degree in mathematics from Columbia in 1967. Simon was touchy on the subject. When the two were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, Garfunkel thanked Simon, “the person who most enriched my life by putting those songs through me…” Simon continued, “Arthur and I agree about almost nothing. But it’s true, I have enriched his life quite a bit.” When Simon was inducted as a solo artist in 2001, he said, “I regret the ending of our friendship. I hope that some day before we die we will make peace with each other.” Pause. “No rush.”
Paul Simon’s songs, more than any other artist’s, have formed the backbone of my life. We studied the lyrics to I Am a Rock in 8th grade English, which taught me about metaphor and irony. (It’s still the funniest song I know about teenage petulance.) He frequently writes about aging (Leaves That Are Green, The Boxer, April Come She Will, Old Friends, Still Crazy After All These Years, That Was Your Mother, Rewrite, and others.) He seems to have been a petulant teenager himself, knowing he contained talent and intelligence, irritated not to get his due; it comes across in the music. Simon and Bob Dylan had a longstanding feud. Accounts of this vary, but the difference is clear in their styles. Dylan wrote and sang like he didn’t give a shit, while Simon was (and remains) fussy to a fault, always looking over his shoulder and around the room. Some of us relate to that! My list of favorite songs includes four by Paul Simon, only three by Dylan. (Simon’s: Leaves That Are Green, Kathy’s Song, American Tune, Hearts and Bones.)
Simon is an unheralded guitar player, but you’ll find him listed at #93 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. His fingerpicking style is deceptively brilliant (Amulet, from his latest, is a recent example. I once tried to learn American Tune and found that even my guitar teacher couldn’t get it.) As a songwriter, he’s a craftsman with few peers. Like Stephen Sondheim, Simon prefers a perfect rhyme and will rework a song until he gets it. Also like Sondheim, Simon is sometimes regarded as too intellectual, which might be inevitable with titles like A Simple Desultory Philippic (it’s the best thing about that song, notwithstanding a terrific masturbation reference.)
In 1965, Simon and Garfunkel were on hiatus, having released their first album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM to just 3,000 purchasers. Simon played the troubadour in England, performing solo in coffee shops and small clubs. He recorded The Paul Simon Songbook for CBS Records in a single session with just one microphone on both guitar and vocals. The album included songs that would later become S&G staples, leading some to retrospectively dismiss it as just “demo versions” of those songs. The album sank without a trace, and Simon was reportedly unhappy with its poor audio quality; he refused to allow its re-release even after Simon and Garfunkel became successful. Sometime in the past year, iTunes released a “Mastered for…” version of the album with no fanfare. It’s wonderful.
Paul Simon’s liner notes on the original release state, “I start with the knowledge that everything I write will turn and laugh at me.” He continues, “This LP contains twelve of the songs that I have written over the past two years. There are some here that I would not write today. I don’t believe in them as I once did. I have included them because they played an important role in transition. It is discomforting, almost painful, to look back over something someone else created and realize that someone else was you. I’m not ashamed of where I’ve been and what I’ve thought. It’s just not me anymore. It is perfectly clear to me that the songs I write today will not be mine tomorrow. I don’t regret the loss.” Ah, youth.
If you love Paul Simon’s music, or even if you sort of like it, buy this most recent edition of the Paul Simon Songbook. I listened to an older copy that was muddy and indistinct – it sounded like a home demo. The iTunes version is crisp, lively, intimate. The album opens with I Am a Rock, just Simon and his guitar. No cheesy production to distract, and there’s a pleasingly ragged edge to Simon’s voice when he sings the chorus. Next is the achingly lovely Leaves That Are Green. “I was 21 years when I wrote this song; I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long.” Again, if you’re only familiar with the S&G version from Sounds of Silence, you’ll be amazed at how un-cheesy the song really is. (And you won’t miss Art Garfunkel, which might have been a revelation to my teenaged discussion group.)
A Church is Burning might be a textbook anti-Dylan Dylan song. The lyrics compare the flames rising from a burning church to hands lifted in prayer – at once lovely and naive, and entirely optimistic (something Dylan was never accused of.) April Come She Will features lovely guitar, and what some might call childish lyrics (that’s basically the point – it’s a kid’s rhyme.) Next is The Sound of Silence, which also appeared on Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, and turned out to be the song that broke Simon and Garfunkel to the world. Producer Tom Wilson, inspired by the folk rock sound of The Byrds, used the band from Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone to dub a new backing track on the song; when Simon first heard it, he was horrified (rightly so). The rendition on The Paul Simon Songbook might be the best version ever released of this masterpiece. The lyrics are astonishing, predicting Ronald Reagan’s America twenty years before the fact. Simon stomps his foot in time with the music; it’s an angry, gritty song.
A Most Peculiar Man also benefits from Garfunkel’s absence. The song is a quirky poem, too cute in its more-familiar version on the Sounds of Silence album. This one is lovely and heartbreaking. He Was My Brother is another surprisingly optimistic protest song, cousin to A Church is Burning. I doubt anyone would credit Simon with these songs, even fans long familiar with S&G. This one also appeared on Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, but again, I prefer this interpretation. Somehow, the absence of folky harmonies prompts one to reconsider the song’s content.
Kathy’s Song is next, a beautiful, autobiographical love song. (Kathy Chitty, Simon’s girlfriend at the time and the song’s inspiration, is pictured on the album cover.) I cherish these lines:
And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you
And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and I
I know that I am like the rain
There but for the grace of you go I
Simon’s fingerpicked guitar on this song is among his best recorded work.
Next is The Side of a Hill, a story about a child lying in a grave while “a soldier cleans and polishes a gun that ended a life at the age of seven years.” The situation is ambiguous, but the message is anything but. Generals order their troops to “fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten,” as anti-war as anything that came out of the 1960’s, its sentiments similarly long-forgotten. A Simple Desultory Philippic is amusing but too indebted to Dylan; it’s the collection’s weakest track. Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall is another quiet stunner, again superior to the later over-produced version. “So I’ll continue to continue to pretend; that my life will never end; and the flowers never bend with the rainfall…” The album closes with Patterns, a lovely minor-key rumination that mirrors I Am a Rock (this time comparing a young person’s life to that of a rat in a maze.)
In retrospect, Simon was right that he brought a lot to Garfunkel’s career, even if he was inelegant in conveying the message. For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her is a peerless love poem that Garfunkel was able to send soaring (find a live version); likewise, it’s hard to imagine Bridge Over Troubled Water without Garfunkel’s lead (my friends and I were convinced that the song’s bridge was about shooting heroin: “Sail on, silver girl…”) Simon could be a jerk. I saw him in Cooperstown on the Fourth of July, and he responded to an audience request with, “I’ll play. Whatever. I want.” The Paul Simon Songbook, once again available and indisputably better than ever, makes some of that bitter history beside the point. Trust me: these songs are all about the music, and this collection stands as the strongest album Paul Simon ever released, bar none.