Still Paul Simon, after all these years
BY RICHARD HARRINGTON
When Paul Simon visited the Library of Congress recently, he was reunited with the paper that in 1956 secured his copyright registration for ´The Girl for Me,´ credited to P. Simon and A. Garfunkel.
´It´s extremely touching for me because it´s in my father´s hand,´ says Simon, whose father, Louis, played bass in dance bands and TV orchestras. ´He was a musician and he would write the lead sheet up, and then Artie and I would give him the money and we would send it off to the Library of Congress - I think it was $14 to register a copyright at that point.´
Artie, of course, would be Art Garfunkel. They first collaborated as sixth-graders in the P.S. 164, Queens, production of ´Alice in Wonderland.´ Simon was the White Rabbit; Garfunkel, the Cheshire Cat.
An early reel-to-reel home recording - the first true Simon & Garfunkel memento - apparently has been lost to history.
By the time they got to Forest Hills High School, P. Simon and A. Garfunkel were performing as a duo at school dances and taking a first official stab at a recording career. At 16, they recorded as Tom & Jerry; their ´Hey, Schoolgirl´ single reached No. 49 on the pop charts in 1957.
They´d do much better as Simon & Garfunkel.
Fifty years on, Simon last week received the Library of Congress´s first Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, named in honor of George and Ira Gershwin.
As the Mark Twain Prize has done for American humor, the Gershwin Prize will honor an American composer or performer ´whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins,´ the library says.
Garfunkel, with whom Simon has had an off-and-on-and-off-and-on relationship for almost 60 years, was there, along with such collaborators as the Dixie Hummingbirds, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Philip Glass - who 15 years ago argued that one had to look to Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin to find talent comparable to Simon´s. The celebration concert will be broadcast June 27 on PBS.
It´s not as if Simon´s work hasn´t been recognized. He has a dozen Grammy Awards, including three for album of the year, and was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as half of Simon & Garfunkel and later for his solo work.
This one´s special, Simon says, partly because it´s not an industry award but comes ´from an overview of the nation´s culture as defined by the Library of Congress, which is an incredible place.´
Also, he says, it´s recognition of ´the values that the Gershwins exemplified: a sophistication, an exploration of other aspects of American culture, a curiosity about other cultures. I think that was part of the reason they thought the Gershwin name would be what they wanted to represent this award.´
Like that of the Gershwins, Simon´s music runs deep in the American consciousness.
According to James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, ´As our first designee, we made it clear that real musical craftsmanship is involved, as well as a lifetime of achievement, continued growth and diversification.´
Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, Billington is responsible for selecting recordings each year that are ´culturally, historically or aesthetically significant´ for the National Recording Registry, which now numbers 225 pieces of recorded sound. One of the latest additions: ´Graceland,´ Simon´s 1986 album, which fused contemporary songwriting with South African, zydeco and Tex-Mex music sources and performers.
The library music division´s holdings eventually will include many of Simon´s manuscripts and recordings, testament to a career quite extraordinary in its breadth, albeit full of peaks and valleys.
Tom & Jerry broke up to go to college, Garfunkel to Columbia University, Simon to Queens College, where it shouldn´t surprise anyone that he earned a degree in English literature.
Both continued to work separately in the music business, Simon more actively, releasing a series of rock-and-roll singles, often under pseudonym and seldom with success.
They´d eventually reunite in 1964 on a folk-style album, ´Wednesday Morning, 3 AM.´ It was a flop (3,000 copies) until producer Tom Wilson remixed one of the five Simon originals, ´The Sound of Silence,´ overdubbing electric guitar, bass and drums, and rereleasing it as a single that eventually went to No. 1.
Simon had already moved to England to pursue a solo career that was suddenly interrupted as Simon & Garfunkel became one of the era´s biggest-selling and most popular acts before splitting again in 1971.
Simon´s early songs tended toward simple folk or folk-rock melodies, poetically ambitious lyrics and the influence of folk, doo-wop, gospel and jazz.
As a solo artist, he ranged more widely, to Jamaica (the 1972 single ´Mother and Child Reunion´ was a first whiff of reggae in pop), South Africa and Brazil (1990´s ´The Rhythm of the Saints´).
The Library of Congress will receive the extensive works-in-progress archives Simon has been keeping since he began ´Graceland,´ written notes on yellow legal pads tracing how songs were made lyrically and CDs ´of every little phase of a recording that typically starts with a drum pattern, or three or four, then edits and evolution and additions,´ he explains.
´It may go on for months before you start to hear a vocal come down, and by the time you complete the process, you can hear every little nuance of what I decided to change in phrasing. It´s pretty interesting to be able to document it so effortlessly.´
It has been nearly 40 years since ´Bridge Over Troubled Waters´ reigned atop the charts. It has been about 20 years since Simon had a Top 30 hit (´You Can Call Me Al´), 27 since he breached the Top 10 (´Late in the Evening´). Last year´s ´Surprise´ was critically acclaimed as Simon´s best album since ´Graceland,´ but it didn´t sell well.
´I don´t expect anymore to have that kind of acceptance,´ Simon says. ´I don´t think that´s going to happen anymore, and there are a lot of reasons for that.
´The main reason is that I started so young and I´ve been writing songs for so long, the areas that I get interested in, they´re arcane to the average listener.
´The songs that I wrote when I was younger - which were really at the limit of what I was feeling emotionally or what I knew musically - were simpler and easier to grasp.
´That´s one of the challenges as you get older. It isn´t ´How am I going to have a hit?´ but ´How am I going to express myself as clearly as I can while at the same time leading people into a mystery which is always entertaining and possibly moving as well?´
´That´s what I´m interested in. I want to know about the mystery.´