Monday 4 June 2018

Simon and Garfunkel Essay: Writing Songs That Voices Never Share

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‘Hello darkness my old friend. I’ve come to talk to talk to you again. Because a vision…wait a minute, what are you doing here Arty?’ ‘I sing with you, Paul. That’s what we do, we’re partners. We’re called ‘Simon and Garfunkel’, not Paul and backup singers’. ‘But I wrote this song when I was on my own, to perform in clubs on my own, about feeling all alone’. ‘That’s nice Paul. But you’re in a duo now. Shove your voice over a bit and let me sing harmony.’ ‘But this is a song about isolation – I should be singing it on my own’. ‘Paul, all your songs pretty much are about being on your own. Another song you wrote in this same batch of songs in 1964 is entitled ‘I Am A Rock, I Am An Island’ for goodness sake’. ‘But if I don’t sing this on my own maybe I will lose the integrity of the song? Maybe I should go solo?’ ‘Paul, have you ever noticed what happens when we sing together? The audience get a frisson of a connection they wouldn’t get if you just sang alone. You’re not just singing for yourself here but for a generation, maybe more – it makes sense that there should be another voice here’. ‘I guess you’re right Arty. But just in case, when are you next booked to make a film again? And what is it called?’ ‘It’s Catch 22 Paul. You need me to give your songs of isolation and loneliness wider appeal and sales, even though they’re about isolation and loneliness, like a secret kept to yourself’. ‘If you say so Arty, but what was the name of your film again?’
This conversation is, of course, fictional. As far as I know, neither Simon nor Garfunkel have ever seen the contradiction in singing songs about loneliness in pure harmony. And maybe it isn’t one. But it does make Simon and Garfunkel unique. There are, you see, lots of other acts who did songs about isolation. Leonard Cohen, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Gary Numan, Elton John – they all did songs about isolation and alienation too. The Smiths turned it into a career. John Lennon for one even wrote a track called ‘isolation’, which is so Simon and Garfunkel all its missing is the folky guitar work. But do you notice what’s missing from that list? There’s no other act that I can think of that use harmonies to tell the struggle of loneliness, isolation nor despair. Equally there are millions of glorious groups who also sing in harmony the way that Simon and Garfunkel do. Many of them are part of our AAA series too: CSNY, The Moody Blues, The Beach Boys, The Beatles. Do you notice what they have in common though? They were, by and large, utopian bands who believed in a brilliant future for all humanity somehow if only we can overcome what we’re going through now. They didn’t really sing songs about isolation but carrying on because love is coming, that its lovely to see you again my friend, of having fun fun in the summertime or asking someone to hold your hand. There are exceptions – and things get very weird near the end of The Moodies original run when they stop speaking to each other on ‘Seventh Sojourn’ (which barely features any harmonies) – but by and large harmonies = happy blissful utopia where we all get along and songs of isolation = a low-key acoustic performance with just your guitar, your thoughts and only occasionally your backing band.
It’s worth diverting a little bit here to explore the Simon and Garfunkel friendship. I have had lots of good friendships in my time, dear reader, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had a relationship like the one each had with the other. They each treated the other like a sibling they couldn’t live with but couldn’t live without either, perhaps because they’d both been in each other’s lives for so very long. Both had a lot in common: they were loners obsessed by music, the odd ones out in the class who were very bright and expected to do well outside the classroom but who dreaded the 9-5 curse and the shutting steel doors trapping their imaginations. Neither kid was conventional at all. But that was where their similarities ended: Paul was short, anxious, cared deeply about what people thought and felt about him but couldn’t help telling them the ‘truth’ because that was important to him. Arty was friendlier and suger-coated things more but he was odder, a natural eccentric who didn’t notice what people thought about him and delighted in the fact that he was an oddball. Their rough jagged corners didn’t really fit together, but a love of Everly Brothers and an early discovery at how great their voices sounded brought them together. They met, as we’ve recounted many times in this book, during a school play, which was actually a musical, based on ‘Alice’s Adventure’s In Wonderland’. Though the same age Paul and Arty were in different classes and had never met until, aged six, Paul passed an audition to be a ‘White Rabbit’ and Arty a ‘Cheshire Cat’. On singing together they discovered how great their voices sounded and after a school year of thinking they were the only kid in class who understood music and how harmonies went together, they discovered there was another kid who thought the same.
This made them friendly – but also competitive. They didn’t stick up for each other through thick and thin; they ridiculed the other before making amends and going out for ice cream anyway. They proudly played each other their new musical acquisitions – but would never get round to actually lending them out. In many ways it was a character thing that rubbed each other up the wrong way: I bet whichever teacher cast the two young boys in that play was a great judge of character because he or she got their characters spot on. Paul is a White Rabbit, anxious, with a vision he tries to pass on to the world who never quite listen to him, afraid that time is passing him by (this essay was nearly one about the use of ‘time’ and running out of it in Paul Simon songs, from [  ] ‘A Hazy Shade Of Winter’ through to the lifetime-in-twenty-minutes of [‘Bookends’ and his more recent songs about the afterlife). Arty is a Cheshire Cat, grinning whatever life sends his way, not always there to cope with the realities of life but disappearing when it suits him, leaving his big grin fading in the air. The White Rabbit and The Cheshire Cat are not bosom buddies. It’s hard to imnagine Lewis Carroll sitting down to write a sequel in which they take up a singing partnership and go out on the road together. And yet they play similar roles in the book, ‘waking up’ Alice to the realities of the Wonderland world without being as ‘mean’ as the other characters and helping her by throwing a light on how the world works in their own bizarre ways. The pair clearly inhabit the same world – they just have very different ways of going about it.
That was true from the first when Simon and Garfunkel got into music under the nicknames ‘Tom and Jerry’ and found to their shock that they somehow got a hit single at the age of fifteen. Their second single flopped. Any other teenagers in such a position would have clung together for dear life, replicated their big hit and tried twice as hard to get another. Paul decided his partner was holding him back and cut a deal on the side to go solo. The first Simon and Garfunkel split in 1958 was in many ways the deepest – Arty still speaks now, in his own roundabout way, about the ‘betrayal’ when Paul decided to have two gos at a career and see if he could go solo as Elvis impersonator ‘True Taylor’. As far as Paul was concerned, he was in a duo because his friend had a cool voice that went well with his, but it wasn’t all for two and two for all – Paul wanted to make it whatever it took. As it happened, it took Simon and Garfunkel. That would probably have come as a shock to the young Paul (if not a young Arty), but it wasn’t until the pair had gone their separate ways and Garfunkel was studying architecture in college that they decided to try again. Interestingly it was a shared love of the folk boom that brought their friendship back together again and ironed out the kinks in their personal differences – once again the other was the ‘only’ person Simon or Garfunkel knew who ‘got’ it, albeit for different ends. When their folk debut ‘Wednesday Morning 3AM’ died a death Simon and Garfunkel thought nothing of going their separate ways again – only their loyal producer Tom Wilson who adored ‘The Sound Of Silence’ and overdubbed some Beatley overdubs without their knowledge or permission brought them back together again.
Though I’m not one of those many fans who love pestering Simon and Garfunkel every five minutes because I think they can only do their best work together (they both outgrew their signature sound, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go back there for an album – or find a new one together), it is true I think that their work together stands out. Much as I adore the Paul Simon ‘Concert In Central Park’ in 1991 (which is a lot more ‘fun’ and pioneering than the nostalgiafest with Garfunkel ten years earlier) there’s something missing about those Simon and Garfunkel songs when heard alone. ‘I Am A Rock’ just sounds like a bitter old man. ‘America’ sounds like hopeless naivity. ‘The Sound Of Silence’ sounds bleak and dark. The same goes for Arty when he sings these songs solo. There’s something missing and it’s taken me a long while (and writing several hundred pages to boot) to work out what that something is; I now realise that it’s hope.
There’s something about harmony that’s comforting. Many of the songs from the original five album Simon and Garfunkel run are bleak - one of them is even set in the pun-dimensional ‘Bleecker Street’ where they serve lovely pizzas incidentally – but they come out that way more on the page than in the sound. When Arty joins in with that pure two-part harmony (not a more challenging three-part harmony, a la CSN or Beach Boys or most Beatle songs, that’s always moving and often comes with a darker edge) it lightens the load. ‘I Am A Rock’ isn’t quite as despairing and isolated and grumpy as he sounds because Paul has his friend singing alongside him, coaxing him out of his prison; this doesn’t dilute the fortress but it does add in a drawbridge there. ‘America’ gains aeons thanks to the shared vision that the world can be a better place – its not one person come to look for a better America, but a whole generastion with Arty playing the part of everyone in his generation. And ‘The Sound Of Silence’ offers a flash of light in the darkness, because this isn’t just one man singing this song of realness in despair at a world lit by neon signs, but the sound of at least two men singing in the darkness who don’t realise the other is out there somewhere, maybe more. It’s a powerful sound because even at Paul’s bleakest, saddest, maddest, angriest and most isolated he always has at least one person to share his despair. Paul on his own tells the truth the way he sees it. Arty, just by virtue of that voice, makes it sound a better place. Seperately that doesn’t always make for easy listening – put them together, with both layers working, it’s glorious; the sound of someone who trusts you enough to confide in you how bleak the world is, but also offers a hand to help you start putting it right.
There are some Paul Simon fans, especially since the ‘betrayal’ of Arty’s latest grumpy outbursts claiming he’d created a ‘monster’, who reckon that Garfunkel was a friend who got lucky, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time and had no input into any of the duo albums. This is clearly a pack of lies: Arty may not have started writing songs until the 21st century (when ‘Everything Waits To Be Noticed’ becomes a semi-autobiographical work of which even his partner would have been proud), but he wasn’t just along for the ride. [  ] ‘Benedictus’, painstakingly written out by Arty based on what he knew his and Paul’s voices could do, shows an understanding of their harmony in a way few writers ever ‘get’. Arty’s re-working of Paul’s one-key anti-war song ‘On the Side Of A Hill’ into the ‘Canticle’ part of [  ] ‘Scarborough Fair’ is that song’s masterstroke; it may well be the biggest masterstroke in the pair’s catalogue as it contrasts the innocence and longing with the weary sigh of those who have seen war and run scared from it. Garfunkel fulfils this function several times in fact and though he always sings in harmony note-wise, he’s often doing something different just with the ‘feel’ of his voice. Arty is the sweetness to Paul’s sourness several times singing [  ] ‘A Most Peculiar Man’ without the irony that drips from Simon’s mouth, he softens the blows of [ ] ‘The Boxer’ and urges his pal to fight on and on reunion song [  ] ‘My Little Town’ the pair chase each other’s shadows, driving each other out of their complacency. Other singers could not do that. Imagine, say, Leo Sayer or John Denver or someone with an equally sweet tooth singing alongside Paul; it would be horrible. ‘They’ wouldn’t get how bleak the world is – they’d just sing about kittens and mittens and cute fuzzy warm things, which has a place in music but not here. Arty, though, has been bruised just enough by life to know where his partner is coming from, without living there everyday the way he does. Equally Arty’s voice packs a much deeper, darker punch singing Paul’s songs than he does singing anyone else’s, because too many writers make him sound all sweet, instead of adding him as the sugar coating to make a bitter medicine go down. This, I’m sure, comes from their peculiar competitive friendship: they’re alike in many ways and different in so many others.
Many Simon and Garfunkel songs are about contradictions in fact (‘Parsley, Sage’ most magnificently, with its news bulletins performed simultaneously with German carols about peace and its placing of learned cultured songs against working class victims and more). Only at the bitter end, on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ does this change: [  ] ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ has Paul up front and Arty in the distance, a long way away, whilst [[ ] ‘So Long Frank Lloyd Wright’ reverses the trick with Arty up front and Paul only behind. [  ] ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ itself is a rare case of a song that only features one of them almost all the way through (though Arty tended to get one ‘showcase’ song an album, Paul’s guitar usually acted his way his voice would on [  ] ‘For Emily’ or [  ] ‘April Come She Will’, but not here). Garfunkel is much more than a carbuncle on the side of Paul Simon; while he was there Paul shaped his songs around his partner, realising the strengths that came from having songs about isolation and alienation performed by two people not one. It’s a strength that makes this duo stand out even in their gifted generation.
However it is worth comparing and contrasting the arrangements made solo on the ‘Paul Simon Songbook’ compared to the Simon and Garfunkel re-makes on ‘Sounds Of Silence’ and ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’. When Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album ‘Wednesday Morning 3AM’ died a death, his response wasn’t to keep making the same thing over and over. Paul was already gone, heading to London for a whole new life as a solo singer-songwriter writing songs of bleakness with arrangements that were a more natural fit. As far as Paul was concerned in 1965 Simon and Garfunkel was another failed venture to be filed away alongside ‘Tom and Jerry’ ‘Jerry Landis’ ‘True Taylor’ ‘Paul Kane’ ‘Tico and the Triumphs’ and all his many pseudonyms. He had no serious plans to ever sing with Arty again. The songs feel that way too: [  ] ‘I Am A Rock’ [  ] ‘Patterns’ and especially [  ] ‘A Most Peculiar Man’ all come from this period and are clearly songs written for one voice to sing. Over in a bleak London studio Paul sings ‘I Am A Rock’ as if he means it, rather than someone whose temporarily hurt and in agony. ‘Patterns’, a song about being trapped like a rat in a maze without knowing the answers, is a tale of being cornered and never being able to find a way out from fate laying things out in store for you to learn. And ‘A Most Peculiar Man’ is a man so alone and so misunderstood that he kills himself with the gas pipe in his tiny bedsit where nobody ever entered while the people around him all gossip, his personal demons kept secret to the last. Paul rattles off the whole album like he’s just woken from a nightmare and he’s writing these songs down to banish the visions long enough to let him go to sleep.
Only in Paul’s absence over in England did [  ] ‘The Sound Of Silence’ become a hit, thanks to producer Tom Wilson’s answer to his own question ‘Gee, I wonder what a Beatle rock and roll beat would sound like on top of this great acoustic song?’ That in itself is significant: the original ‘Sound Of Solence’ died a death not because it was poor (it’s beautiful) or that it was wrong for its times (it was as perfect in 1964 as it was in 1965) but because Paul’s songs of bleakness and despair sometimes need a push to make them sound a fraction less bleak and despairing. The re-recordings of all four of the above songs with Arty now in tow aaren’t necessarily better or worse than the ‘Paul Simon Songbook’ ones but they’re noticeably kinder, without diluting too much of the shock value. Life sounds sweeter for Garfunkel’s harmony parts, whose voice shows solidarity with the betrayed lover of ‘I Am A Rock’, who sings from a nearby ‘trap’ throughout ‘Patterns’ and who sings with false sincerity on ‘Peculiar Man’ in such a way that we get swept up in the drama more than the bleakness. The five Simon and Garfunkel albums sound like two men who’ve just woken up from a nightmare, but have talked each other through the lonely night and are feeling better about life the next morning. It’s a subtle difference - few Simon and Garfunkel songs are happy and often go wrong when they are. Most fan re-actions to [  ] ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ are ‘wow those drugs must have been powerful’ and to [  ] ‘Punky’s Dilemma’ ‘woah those drugs have done weird things to Paul’s brain’. He’s just not a naturally happy camper. When Paul is quantifiably happy – when he’s found the right girl, the right muse, the right career path, the songs slow up. He’s too busy enjoying life to endure writing about it and isn’t always in the happy place he hoped he’d have reached by this stage in his life, back when he was writing in the 1960s (his last two albums are dominated by death, religion and school shootings). go wrong when they are – but it’s a key one.
We will never know what might have happened if Paul had stayed in London on his own (would he have turned electric on his own initiative after Dylan did the same in 1966?) but my guess is he would have developed into a Leonard Cohen figure, singing into the darkness for real and taking to wearing shades in every interview. His recordings would surely have the glass all empty; what the Simon and Garfunkel recordings manage to do, quite brilliantly, is ensure that the glas is always somewhere near half-full. There’s hope for everybody when those two sing in harmony, even though its usually hard fought: [  ] ‘The Boxer’ gets to live another round, the suicide victim of [  ] ‘Save The Life Of My Child’ finds a happier tomorrow and at the end of their lives, after all their experiences and rows, Simon and Garfunkel can sit together [  ] ‘Old Friends, sat on a park bench like bookends’. Simon and Garfunkel may be calling out to the darkness on their most famous moment, but they don’t necessarily live there.
Without Garfunkel Paul has struggled to fill that ‘hole’ in his sound that will enable him to do more than just sigh about how mean the world is. He came closest to finding it through world music, the ‘bounce’ of the Muscle Shoals studio band, the African and especially the Brazilian musicians who wore his words on their backs and danced with it, giving his muse a whole new lease of life that sometimes returns to his work thirty years on from ‘Graceland’. Only when writing through the eyes of someone with an even bleaker world view – without the willingness to dilute its message – on the murderous musical ‘The Capeman’  has Paul slipped.
Arty isn’t a naturally happy camper either: increasingly with age (and understandably since his girlfriend Laurie Bird’s death from suicide in the 1980s) he’s become grumpier, carrying grievances and emotional baggage around, shrouded in a mushroom cloud of death.His solo records are a lot darker than you might expect from that gorgeously light voice: unlike many fans I don’t find the dark acerbic wit of Jimmy Webb a good match for his voice, but other songwriters in the Paul Simon avenue are superb finds: Stephen Bishop, Mike Batt, Hammond-Hazelwood and especially Maia Sharp and Buddy Mondlick who brought Arty’s poetry musical life. They allow Arty to pull the trick he used to do so often with Paul, taking a sad sorrowful bleak moment in somebody’s life and making it sound temporaily, fleetingly, better, by soaring in a full voice that nothing in life can ever fully extinguish, without taking away from the power of that darkness at the heart of the song. Only when reproducing hoary old standards without that depth has Arty slipped.
It’s for this reason that the one needs the other, or at least someone like them. That’s not to say that Paul doesn’t great singing alone (he does) or that Arty would only sound great singing a Simon song (there are dozens of exceptions in his under-rated solo catalogue). But together they were two conjurers working the same magic trick, whether consciously or not. Paul wrote about the bleakness of the real world in with all its many faults and bitter blows, haunted by demons he caouldn’t quite shake off. Then Arty joined in, empathetic enough to relate to these songs but with such a pure angelic voice that he couldn’t help but make the world a better place. Both men learnt how to make the most of this trick working alone, but they did it together best of all. As an aside, there’s a fascinating parallel history to be had listening to the 1981 ‘Central Park’ concert or the 2004 ‘Old Friends’ live reunion album where both men revive songs from their own back catalogue which the other then sings on. [  ] ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, the weary sigh of frustration Paul released in 1977 as a standalone single, sounds so much better with Arty taking a verse and softening the blows raining down on its author’s head. [  ] ‘A Heart In New York’, oddly, sounds all the more hopeful and longing for the subtle Paul Simon harmony part. However Paul also throws a few of his bouncier songs in, perhaps underestimating that it’s the bleakness the crowds have come to hear. [  ] ‘Kodochrome’ [  ] ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ and [  ] ‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’ all sound a mess when Garfunkel joins in. Though ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’ period was very much written for one voice, it was adaptable enough to be built around two voices and given a ‘new’ meaning. I’m not so sure the same is true once the pair split, as these songs are very much not meant for sunny harmonies, which makes them sickly sweet in all three cases.
It seems to remain a quirk of fate that acts which sing in harmony don’t seem to be able to stay that way. At the time of writing The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Moody Blues and especially CSNY to some extent all hate each other’s guts. The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Moody Blues and especially CSNY made it their life’s work to sing utopian songs about the whole world getting it together, with the great irony that they couldn’t get it together long enough to make a full career singing songs about how wonderful it would be if the whole world got along – because they couldn’t get along. Oddly the opposite seems to be true for bands who hated each other on first meeting: The Rolling Stones and The Who, that were always at war, to some extent still are but find ways round it to still play all these years on. Simon and Garfunkel, though, are this dichotomy in a nutshell: the sound of two great schoolfriends who latched onto each other to avoid being the only ‘weird’ music-obsessed kid in class, somehow turned that friendship into recordings that simultaneously explored how bleak and dark the world is – and how much easier it is to live through it when you have someone who understands that too at your side. For those of that didn’t have ‘old friends’ of our own, Simon and Garfunkel were those soulmates who reached out a hand in the darkness to turn the light on and made us feel better about cocooning ourselves from a world that got too much for us. Ironically, the more Simon and Garfunkel sang songs about isolation and alienation, the less alone we felt it. The amazing things both men have done in their solo careers notwithstanding, that magic spell was broken the day they split and the world without a Simon and Garfunkel partnership in it is a lonelier place. When sitting on a rainy Widnes train station in 1965 Paul wrotw [  ] ‘Homeward Bound’, a song about longing to be back home with his girldriend. But I wonder, too, if he was thinking about the old schoolfriend he’d left behind on the other side of the world and assumed he would never see again. ‘Like emptiness in harmony’ he sighs, ‘I need someone to comfort me’. Little do either of them know it, but in less than a year’s time its exactly the ‘comfort of harmony’ that Arty will be bringing Paul. Of course Paul also wrote a line in [  ] ‘You Don’t Know Where Your Interest Lies’ that ‘I won’t let friendship get in my way’, which in retrospect seems like a warning! Maybe the differences, then, were just too any for the dynamic duo to last – but while they were together Garfunkel gave the gift of light to Simon’s darkness and Paul gacve the gift of depth to Arty’s sweetness. Neither have ever sounded quite as good without the other there.


'The Paul Simon Songbook' (PS, 1965)

'Sounds Of Silence' (SG, 1966)

'Bridge Over Troubled Water' (SG, 1970)

'Paul Simon' (PS, 1972)

'There Goes Rhymin' Simon' (PS, 1973)

'Angel Clare' (AG, 1973)

'Watermark' (AG, 1977)

‘Scissors Cut’ (AG, 1981)

'The Animals' Christmas' (AG, 1986)

'Songs From The Capeman' (PS, 1997)

'Stranger To Stranger' (PS, 2016)

Every Pre-Fame Recording 1957-1963 (Tom and Jerry, Jerry Landis, Artie Garr, True Taylor, The Mystics, Tico and The Triumphs, Paul Kane)

Live/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part One: 1968-1988

Landmark Concerts and Key Cover Versions

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