By Don Heckman
In early 1972, I was covering pop and rock music for the New York Times, and Paul Simon had just released his first, eponymously titled, solo LP. Two years earlier, Simon and Art Garfunkel had produced the extraordinarily successful album (and song) “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – a recording that would (except for 1981’s live “Concert in Central Park”) be the last from one of the iconic pop music acts of the ‘60s, as each member of the duo embarked on a solo path. In the course of writing an NYT feature, Simon and I had a discussion of topics ranging from ‘Bridge’ to the new solo album, from the break-up of the duo to Simon’s first steps into his career as a solo artist. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
DH: Looks as though you and Art Garfunkel took the old saying, “Quit while you’re ahead,” to heart. You’ve decided to break up the act after having produced “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a hit album and a huge hit song.
PS: That song was bigger than anyone expected, especially me. I hear it now and sometimes I can’t even remember when I wrote it. It doesn’t feel attached to me at all. But at the time there was no sense that it would be a hit of such enormous proportions. We were just working on a record, and we were fighting. Our patience was running out and there was sort of vaguely the presence of Mike Nichols around, which was disconcerting to me.
DH: Artie was working at the time on the film “Catch 22” for Nichols, getting his acting career under way?
PS: And half the time he was flying off to Rome, so it was an extremely tense time, not pleasant at all. I wrote the song up high for him to sing it, and when he came back I played it for him. He said, ‘Well, I like it, but maybe you should do it.’ And I said, ‘No, I insist that you do it.’ I don’t know why I insisted so much. Maybe I should analyze myself to find out why I insisted to that degree. I thought possibly it wouldn’t even be a good single. I thought maybe it was too long. You know, you work on these things and you don’t play them for anyone but your friends, and sometimes you don’t hear another opinion from anyone until the album comes out.
DH: But you found out pretty quickly when this one came out, didn’t you?
PS: Oh, yeah. Later on, when we did our last tours, I remember many times sitting out of the spotlight watching Larry Knechtel playing piano and Artie singing ‘Bridge,’ with people screaming and going wild, and saying to myself, ‘Well, I wrote that song.’ But it became like Artie’s song.
DH: Well, not exactly. But you did say that ‘Bridge’ had been inspired by several offbeat sources.
PS: Right. A part of it came from a country song called ‘Long Time Gone’ And that was actually the thing I had first.
DH: Then what?
PS: I was playing a lot of gospel changes around that time and I was listening to the Swan Silvertones. They’re a gospel group that works with a guitar, which is kind of unusual, but it made it easier for me to hear what they were doing. Anyhow, they have a line in a song called ‘Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep’ that goes ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water, if you’ll trust in my name.’ It’s really just a scat line the way they use it.
DH: A country song and a gospel song. Interesting. Anything else?
PS: Another two bars came from a Bach chorale. [He hums the Bach melody.] But my version was – [He hums the phrase that begins “When tears are in your eyes…”]
DH: All of it filtered through your own perspective, of course. But what about that last verse. “Sail on, silver girl.” I’ve always wondered about that.
PS: It was actually written in the studio. And I never intended it to be in the song because, in my opinion, it doesn’t fit. It’s about my wife Peggy – who was not my wife at the time. She was starting to get prematurely grey hair. And that’s why I wrote the ‘Sail on, silver girl’ line for her.
DH: So this huge hit song has a verse that you added at the last minute, that you didn’t really want to be there?
PS: The song, as I originally wrote it, was just the first two verses. I just wanted it to be Artie, singing it with the piano accompaniment. But when we finished those two verses, it felt as though you wanted to hear more. So we decided to do a third verse. But I didn’t have any words, and I’d already said what I wanted the song to say in the first two verses. But now I had to come up with this third verse, which sounds to me like the Righteous Brothers or something like that. I mean, it fits in a record sense – it makes the record happen – but, as a song, the metaphor got ruined
DH: But the song thrived. To the tune of 25 million dollars in sales, and counting. While the two of you were peaking as an act, but coming apart as a partnership.
PS: Simon and Garfunkel had become so big it was scary. But we were still two individuals, and after a certain point, it became very hard to take criticism from each other. I used to feel, ‘I don’t have to audition my songs for anyone.’ I didn’t want to have to say to Artie, ‘Would you like to sing this song?’ I wanted to say, ‘Here’s the song; let’s do it.’
DH: But Artie obviously had a different point of view.
PS: Yeah. He felt, and rightly so, ‘If I don’t like that song, I don’t have to sing it.’
DH: Which must have created some thorny situations.
PS: Sure. We’d go through dialogues like ,‘Well, I just don’t like it.’ And I’d say, ‘How can you say that? It’s my favorite song.’ And he’d come back with, ‘Yeah, but I just don’t want to sing it.’ Stuff like that. Look at what happened with ‘Bridge.’ There were originally supposed to be twelve songs on the album. We ended up with eleven because we fought so much over what the last one should be. Finally we said, ‘Screw it. Put it out. Eleven songs.’ I was really tense.”
DH: So it’s over – Simon and Garfunkel?
PS: I don’t think Artie and I will work together again, although I’m not opposed to it, if something comes up that’s really interesting.
DH: And you feel content being on your own?
PS: I’m really happy to be by myself and not have to share the decisions. Now I do things almost entirely to my taste. That’s not to say I don’t listen to other opinions. But the new album is probably the most accurate one I’ve ever made, in the sense that it sounds the way I want it to sound.
DH: Which is, in many respects, very different from the way Simon & Garfunkel sounded. So, since we talked about the crafting of ‘Bridge,’ let me ask you about some of the tunes on “Paul Simon.” Like, for example the use of reggae rhythms on “Mother and Child Reunion?” That was pretty unusual.
PS. It didn’t seem so radical when we did it. It just seemed right. I did the track and then wrote the words. That was it.
DH: What about “Duncan,” with those Peruvian pan pipes? You’d already used them on “El Condor Pasa” on the “Bridge” album.
PS. Right. But the song, well, it was actually a whole other song when I made the track. And then I changed the words around. We did it in Paris at the same time as “Hobo’s Blues,” which we did with Stephane Grappelly, the French jazz violinist. Originally I just wanted Grappelly to play. I can’t do what Django Reinhardt did on guitar when he played with Grappelly. So we made up a chord structure and we just wound up doing this jam….I thought it had great possibilities. And if not, well, then I had a great time and I met Stephane Grappelly
DH: How about “Me and Julio?” It got a lot of airplay off the album very quickly.
PS: I had been working with some Puerto Rican musicians who were playing something called plenas. But it didn’t work. They played great stuff, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Then I noticed what the conga player, Victor Montanez, was playing. So I picked that out, made a tape loop out of it, let the loop play for three and a half minutes and wrote the song to it.
DH: Performing on your own, you’ll surely be doing songs from the new album. But what about the Simon & Garfunkel repertoire?
PS: Obviously I can’t sing songs like “The Sound of Silence,” “I Am A Rock” or “Homeward Bound.” Maybe “The Boxer.” And I might do “Bridge,” but I would feel extremely anxious about it, because I don’t have the same vocal instrument Artie does, and it’s a song so associated with his rendition.
DH: Are you nervous about going out there without someone – Artie — by your side?
PS: You know, when we performed a lot, I was never nervous. But when you lay off for two years, your situation has changed, and in the meantime your reputation puts you right up there, people can become super critical.
DH: So I guess you can’t help but be a little curious about the reaction you’re going to get, about how “super critical” your audiences are going to be.
PS: Well, yeah, I sure am. In fact, it’s a subject of tremendous interest to me.
Elements from the above interview were incorporated in the 1972 New York Times copyrighted story, ‘The View From Simon’s Bridge,” by Don Heckman