Paul Simon tells the stories behind his songs
Paul Simon is adamant that he has no desire to write a dissertation. However, he was intrigued when writer Malcolm Gladwell approached him with a different idea: to record an audiobook exploring his creative process as one of the world’s most popular and prolific singer-songwriters. . “The idea of discussing my music in an audio forum was appealing because I had never done this before,” said Simon, 80, in a recent telephone interview. “It’s always in prose, which never captures what’s going on in my musical thought. Audio gives me the opportunity to show what I think, what influenced me, the choices I make.
The result of Mr. Simon’s collaboration with Mr. Gladwell and co-author Bruce Headlam is “Miracle and Wonder: Conversations With Paul Simon,” released last month by Pushkin Industries. It was recorded in nine long sessions at Mr. Simon’s in Connecticut and in a studio in Hawaii, during which he often held a guitar, playing songs like “Mrs. Robinson,” The Boxer “and” Slip Slidin ‘Away. In casual but captivating solo acoustic interpretations.
Mr. Simon’s memories of how he created songs almost 60 years ago are incredibly meticulous. It shows how “The Boxer” was born from Travis’ picking, a style of guitar playing at the heart of countless folk and blues songs. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” began with a Bach guitar exercise that went into gospel mode, inspired by a line – “I’ll be a bridge over deep waters if you trust my name” – in “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep ”, a gospel classic sung by Claude Jeter with the Swan Silvertones.
““This is a musical biography: conversations with Paul Simon plus some ruminations. ” “
The singer provides many of the similar ideas in interviews with Mr. Headlam, a guitarist who handles much of the musical questioning, and Mr. Gladwell, who serves as the book’s narrator. This makes “Miracle and Wonder” quite revealing even though it is “not a biography, where you would expect a reasonably complete picture of someone’s life,” says Gladwell. For example, there is no discussion of Mr. Simon’s three marriages, including his current 29-year union with singer Edie Brickell, or his four children. As Mr. Gladwell says, “This is a musical biography: conversations with Paul Simon with some ruminations added. ”
One relationship Mr. Simon examines is with his father Louis, a professional bass player who bought Paul his first guitar at the age of 13 and taught him a handful of chords. It would remain a key songwriting tool: “I always start with music, with guitar,” he told me. “Words first come as sounds. I improvise a melody on the guitar then I sing sounds starting with oohs and ahhs and weary. They become words, and sometimes the words are interesting and I keep them … Little by little, almost like a skin graft, a room starts to take shape. Somewhere around two-thirds of the way down the line, I’m like, ‘Ah, I see what the song is about.’ ”
Around the same time he got the guitar, Mr. Simon befriended Art Garfunkel, who was known in their neighborhood of Queens, NY, for his golden voice. In 1957, under the stage name Tom and Jerry, they released the original song “Hey Schoolgirl”, which was a big enough hit to bring them to “American Bandstand”. However, they were unable to replicate this success and Mr. Simon enrolled at Queens College to study English Literature. After class, he took the subway to midtown Manhattan to write songs for a music publisher, recording demos in which he imitated popular singers like Frankie Avalon. Her recording partner was Carole King, who then still used her real last name, Klein.
When Mr. Simon wrote “The Sound of Silence” in 1964, he knew it was the best thing he had ever done and decided to quit his job and keep the song to himself. This helped get him and Mr. Garfunkel signed to Columbia Records, but the original acoustic recording failed and Mr. Simon went to London to heal his wounds. After the Byrds had a hit with a mellow rock version of the acoustics “Mr. Tambourine Man”, producer Tom Wilson released a new version of “The Sound of Silence” with added band support, without letting them know. artists. The new version became a number one hit, making Simon and Garfunkel one of the biggest bands of the 60s.
After the duo split in 1970, Mr. Simon launched a solo career which produced hits like “Still Crazy After all These Years”, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”, “Something So Right”, “Kodachrome” , “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” “Loves Me Like A Rock,” and “Graceland.” “Miracle and Wonder” traces Mr. Simon’s development as an omnivorous listener and experimenter, illustrating how he worked through “ trial and error ”to incorporate different influences into his work: gospel, doo wop, folk guitar, Bach, New Orleans Mardi Gras songs, Brazilian rhythms, African pop.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
What is your favorite Paul Simon song? Join the conversation below.
Mr. Simon notes in the audiobook that one type of song he has rarely written is the love song. “When I start most of the songs, they are very negative or angry. And I’m slowly pulling that back because I don’t think there’s much fun in hearing a song that criticizes something or someone, ”he says. “I don’t think that’s who I really am originally.”
Mr. Simon’s last full-scale concert was in 2019 in Hawaii. He says he won’t be giving big gigs anymore, but he remains creatively vital and continues to enjoy small, intimate shows, usually with just one other guitarist, and usually for charity. This minimalist approach is featured on “The Seven Psalms”, the new album he is currently working on and hopes to release early next year.
“There is something about the simplicity of a recording like this that brings you back to the heart of the purpose of the song or the emotion it contains,” he says. “I took advantage of the year of confinement to continue writing. It was a calm moment, without pressure. And I think writing is probably what makes me really happy.
In “Miracle and Wonder”, Mr. Simon says that the title “The Seven Psalms” came to him in a dream on the anniversary of his father’s death. But he rejects the idea that the album is a eulogy for his father. “It could be a subtext,” he says. “But the thing with the subtext that you’re not aware of is that it’s good that you aren’t aware of it.”
Corrections and amplifications
Paul Simon’s last life-size concert was in 2019 in Hawaii. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it was 2018, at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. (Corrected December 10.)
Copyright © 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8