Songwriting Legends In Their Own Words

Paul Simon

by Bruce Pollock

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Through his archive of interviews with songwriting legends, renowned music journalist Bruce Pollock tells their stories in their own words. This is taken from his interviews with Paul Simon in 1976, 1980 and 1985.

I interviewed Paul Simon three times. The first time was in 1976, at his apartment on Central Park West, where the maid served us tuna fish sandwiches. It was a cover story for the magazine Saturday Review. Saturday Review went out of business in 1982. Paul Simon recently announced his retirement from touring. All things pass. But I hope Simon isn't retiring from writing songs. My guess is that may be impossible.

"There's something in me that's singles oriented," he told me in '76. "You start to make a track and all of a sudden it's got a great feel to it. A kind of magic happens that you couldn't have predicted. 'Let's pull out all the stops and make a single.' That sentence comes up a lot in the studio. I've been making records for 20 years. That's my profession."

Twenty years before that, he haunted the Brill Building in New York City, a song factory that once housed over 100 publishing outfits. Legend had it, songwriters from all over the city (if not all over the country) would hit the building in the morning, armed with their demo tapes, and walk out by lunch with a contract for a potential million-seller.

Simon made the rounds with a girl named Carol Klein, who would change her last name to King and soon make a go of it collaborating with her boyfriend and then husband, Gerry Goffin. "Carol would play piano and drums and sing. I would sing and play guitar and bass," Simon told me. "The game was to make a demo at demo prices and then try to sell it to a record company. Maybe you'd wind up investing $300 for musicians and studio time, but if you did something really good, you could get as much as $1,000 for it. I never wanted to be in groups - I was only after that $700 profit. I always tried to get my money up front, because you were never sure of getting your royalties if they put the record out. You were dealing with a lot of thieves in those days."

At the end of 1957, Simon and his original singing partner, Artie Garfunkel, recorded under the name of Tom & Jerry and got all the way to #49 on the Billboard charts with an Everly Brothers-inspired novelty called "Hey Schoolgirl."

It wasn't until Simon left law school in 1964, that he and Garfunkel released an album under their own name. Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. was produced by Tom Wilson, Dylan's producer, on Dylan's label, Columbia. Though Simon was a Top 40 diehard, the resulting album was pure folk music, featuring tunes like "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," "You Can Tell the World," Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and several Simon originals, including one called "He Was My Brother," written about his classmate at Queens College, Andy Goodman, who was one of the three Freedom Riders found dead the past summer in Mississippi.

While the Beatles were invading America singing blissful love songs, the Simon & Garfunkel album sank from sight. So, Paul packed his bags and left for England, seeking to become a busker, or failing that, the American Donovan. While Simon was abroad and Garfunkel was studying at the Columbia School of Architecture, unbeknownst to the artists, Simon's catchy folk song, "The Sound of Silence," was doctored in the studio and released as a folk/rock single. It went to #1.

With a title that could have come from Sartre or Camus or Hermann Hesse, "The Sound of Silence" was received with great joy by those intellectual pop fans who were always reading the paperback edition of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, or at least incessantly flaunting it on subways. Before long "Homeward Bound" took its place on the charts, followed by "The Dangling Conversation" and "I Am a Rock." Although songs like "At the Zoo" and "Fakin' It" were among his most insubstantial works, The Graduate revived Simon's profile, opening up the duo to hip mass appeal. Coming out a month later, Bookends showcased what was Simon's best song to date, "America," recounting the story of a very specific all-American malaise, as experienced by a generation of thumb-struck children of Jack Kerouac. Nevertheless, Simon the writer became disenchanted with his body of work.

"For me the significant change occurred around 1969, after I wrote 'The Boxer,'" he said. "At that point I stopped smoking grass and I never went back. I told a friend of mine, a really good musician, that I had writer's block. And he said, 'When are you going to stop playing this folkie stuff, all the time the same G to C chords? You could be a really good songwriter, but you don't know enough, you don't have enough tools. Forget about having hits - go learn your ax.' I started to study theory. I began listening to other kinds of music - gospel, Jamaican ska, Antonio Carlos Jobim. 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' was a gospel-influenced song. It was very easy for me to feel at home with gospel, because it sounded like the rock 'n' roll I grew up with in the early '50s."

"Bridge over Troubled Water," as Simon recalled it, was partially written in the recording studio, at Art Garfunkel's urging. "I wrote a third verse, which doesn't really fit in as well as the other two, and we decided to throw in the kitchen sink on it." It became their biggest hit. "Paradoxically, the album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, was our most intense success, but it was the end of Simon & Garfunkel. As the relationship was disintegrating, the album was selling 10 million copies. And by the time I decided I was going to go out on my own - you can imagine how difficult it was telling the record company there wasn't going to be any follow-up to an album that sold 10 million. But for me it really saved my ass, because I don't think we could have followed it up."

Through the '70s, Paul Simon managed to stay acutely in touch with his audience, as he continued his attempt to transcend terminal adolescence through rock 'n' roll. "I can say things in a song that I would never say otherwise," he told me. "It's a way of telling the truth, but not intentionally. It just turns out that way."

But whether he's reflecting on the past ("My Little Town"), feeling lost and disenfranchised ("American Tune"), commenting on a marriage gone awry ("50 Ways to Leave Your Lover") or a personality run amok ("Still Crazy After All These Years"), Simon remained attuned to the concerns of growing up in this time and this place. And he managed to do it while reaching the masses through the vehicle of the 45.

As impressive as this achievement is, Simon was still unsatisfied. "Most of the time, what I'm writing is about music, not about lyrics, and critics pay scant attention to the music. I mean, if you're saying something with music and words - if you're saying one thing with words and the opposite with music and you're creating a sense of irony - that's lost. Or if the idea of a song is a musical idea, how to write a song in 7/4 time and make it feel natural, let's say, it's beyond them. I never heard anybody say, Now that was a clever way of doing 7/4 time. Instead, most critics are basically analyzing words. It's English Lit all over again."

In a recording studio not far from the Brill Building, where he kept his publishing office, I next caught up with Paul Simon in 1980, as he rehearsed his band prior to his first tour in four years. The movie he'd been working on during this time, One Trick Pony, and its concurrent soundtrack album with all new songs, was about to hit the streets, and he was enduring a protracted state of panic, although the advance single from the LP, "Late in the Evening," as rousing a song as he'd ever done, was whipping up the pop charts. Its ascent prompted him to remark that he had a shot now to reach #1 in three different decades. Oddly enough, this prompted me to ask Simon, a huge baseball fan, if there was any ballplayer whose career he found comparable to his own. As if he spent most of his days contemplating just such a question, he immediately said "Al Kaline."

A stalwart outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, Kaline was not the flashiest or the most statistically bulked-up guy, but someone steady, someone you could depend on in the clutch, late in the evening, still capable of blowing the room away.

Five years later, we talked on the phone about Graceland, one of his major works. "When I wrote the Graceland album I had a cassette player that had an automatic memory," he said, "and I'd just keep playing it over and over, thousands and thousands of plays. I didn't have a guitar. All I needed was the tracks. A lot of writers write backwards from the tracks, particularly writers who are writing groove records and dance records. They find the groove then they write the song. I'd done it before but never for an entire album. All the elements that became mainstays of this album, juxtaposing music from one culture against music of another, recording with musicians from another musical culture, writing backwards from track to song, I had done in little bits and pieces in the past. So, it wasn't a new move for me. The only thing that was new about it was the proportions. The other thing that was new is that I found it didn't really inhibit what I was writing lyrically. In fact, I think it helped.

"A high percentage of my lyrics are products of my subconscious thinking. Part of the impulse to write is to have a catharsis. As the writing continues you can get into a little pocket where things are coming easily. You find yourself with this inexplicable flow of images, ideas, thoughts that are interesting. You also have to have a very low level of critical faculty operating. The opposite is when you experience periods where nothing comes because the critical faculties get heightened and you won't allow a line to come out without criticizing it. You have to loosen up on yourself to allow things to come. I found that reading different books from people who were writing in the mood that I was writing was helpful. When I was writing 'Crazy Love' I was reading Chris Durang. When I was writing 'Under African Skies' I was reading Yeats. With 'Graceland' I was probably reading Raymond Carver. Actually, I did read a book called Elvis and Gladys, but I don't think it affected me."

In the years since then Simon has released seven more albums (aside from live albums), which have come and gone largely out of the spotlight of his youth, from the critical disaster of Capeman to the retrospective reimagining of 2018's In the Blue Light. He seems to have finally come to terms with his legacy.

"When you do a piece that's good and it becomes a hit, it gets into the mainstream of the culture and has a great impact," he reflected. "'Sound of Silence' has had a greater impact than 'Hearts and Bones' and I wrote 'Sound of Silence' when I was 21 and 'Hearts and Bones' is, I think, a better song. But 'Sound of Silence' was a big hit and it's in the culture.

"When you talk about a popular art, as the writing gets more complex and more layered, it's harder to have a lot of people who really like it. It is easier to have a smaller group of people who are more intensely devoted to you. It's natural that this should happen in my development. I wouldn't have it any other way. I was a rock star at one point. I had many years of being a rock star. I don't want to be a rock star anymore. So, that's not the criteria I apply to my work. I'm interested in the work. I hope that the work is popular. I try and make it popular, but I try and make it popular with my own ears and I know that my own ears are far away from the marketplace at this moment in time, and have been for many years now. Nevertheless, it's still possible that people will find that my work is interesting. If so, I'll be even more gratified because I will have shifted thinking/listening habits, sort of, just a little bit, in another direction."

May 9, 2019
photos: Mark Seliger (1), Louis Goldman (2)

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Comments: 1

  • Lenny Smith from Clarksboro, South JerseyWow! Paul, you have been SO influential in my life and my song-writing! I love that you are continuing to create and express yourself and learn and experiment and try new things. At 77, I have been tempted to hang-up my guitar. I have written over 200 songs since about 1965, but have had only one hit. I think LOTS of my other songs are much better, but my folk/soft rock style seems to have been passed-by. One can only hope it will come back in style. Yet, we continue to continue. I, for one, just love every song your write. You are tapped-into a very deep well :). Drink deeply.
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