The first part of our series about the enigmatic singer; this one on his partnership with Paul Simon, and the unexpected, gradual emergence of ‘The Sound of Silence.’
Not only is he one of this planet’s greatest singers, he’s also one our greatest song champions. Long before the world had awakened to the ongoing songwriting brilliance of Paul Simon, there was one who was thoroughly aware of this phenomenon before any others. Artie. He knew not only of his friend’s great talent in writing songs, but also his potential to expand the scope of songs as we know them.
Since he was a kid, Simon had worked hard at crafting conventional pop-rock songs, always with the hope of scoring a Top 40 hit. The guy didn’t set out to be one of this world’s most ambitiously artistic songwriters. He wanted to be a hit songwriter. Back then the idea of being both commercial and artistic wasn’t the aim.
Simon succeeded at writing a hit song when he was 16. With a little help from his friend Artie. Back then they were juniors in high school, and had been singing in a doo-wop vocal quartet with the two Pellegrini sisters. But the greatness of The Everly Brothers showed them that they didn’t need the sisters, and they became a duo for the first time. But rather than use their real names, they adopted instead the names of cartoon characters, Tom & Jerry. (Paul was Jerry Landis. Artie was Tom Graph. Tom’s surname was chosen for Artie’s love of charting pop records on graphs.)
That Simon & Garfunkel elected to be known as Tom & Jerry is funny and ironic for many reasons, not the least of which is that their namesakes were not human, or even the same species as each other. They were cartoon creatures of unequal abilities, famously linked forever as partners although locked in endless existential opposition. The original Tom & Jerry, as cat and mouse, didn’t sing harmony. They sang of endless, elemental cartoon conflict.
Simon always knew music was his calling, and never spent much time considering other pursuits. It wasn’t so for Artie, whose love of numbers and statistics could have led him easily to whole other lives. He had many talents he could have followed and developed more. One of which was writing songs, which he and Paul did together at first. Both Tom and Jerry wrote their first hit, “Hey Schoolgirl,” as Artie recalled in our first interview from 1991:
“Hey Schoolgirl,” he said, “with its phrase `Woo-bop-a-loo-chi-ba‘ was taken from “Be Bop a Lula,’ Gene Vincent’s hit; it was our attempt to remember an Everly Brothers song that we had both heard one summer. And we were getting it wrong!”
Their record became a modest pop hit – rising to #49 on the pop charts after the duo, at the age of 16, did a performance on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”
It was the first and final time that Tom & Jerry would have a hit. When it became sadly obvious that they had no record to follow-up their hit, they broke up again. Paul went to England, where he lived the life of a romantic folksinger-songwriter. Under the spell of poetry, Dylan, love and more, he reinvented himself as a new kind of songwriter.
Many years later he would write “I don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard,” (in “You Can Call Me Al”) which can be taken as a nod to their cartoon cat & mouse days.
When Paul and Artie teamed up again following Tom & Jerry, they decided to do it with more substance and less cartoon. It was about being real. Being honest. This purity was reflected even to the extent of making music under their own names. This was when The Beatles were still The Beatles; Bob Dylan had obscured Bobby Zimmerman in conventional American show-biz tradition, just as so many movie stars did. But unlike Bernie Schwartz, who became Tony Curtis, or Bette Persky, who became Lauren Bacall, Simon not only stayed Simon, he did it with a Garfunkel attached. For many this was a signal of something shifting in America, that the need to conceal one’s true ethnicity was gone.
Their songs, though, also reflected this shift. Suddenly the solitary Simon had helped to expand the scope of popular songwriting. The shift from “Hey Schoolgirl” to “The Sound of Silence” wasn’t some subtle, incremental evolution; it was an immense, real-time leap. It defined him forever.
Artie composed the thoughtful liner notes for their debut as Simon & Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning 3 AM, which featured “The Sound Of Silence.”
The song wore different clothes at first. The writing was all there – that simple but haunting melody. And those words. The production was elemental in its folk purity: two voices in perfect harmony, an acoustic guitar and a powerful song.
What else was needed? It was all there. It was already a great song, after all. But great songs, as we’ve come to know, are not the same thing as hit records. They’re not even the same species.
To allow the song potential ascension up the charts of radio hits, it needed more. It needed a new coat of paint, sonically. After a deejay added electric guitar to the acoustic version, which people loved, their producer Tom Wilson set out to frame it himself with the new folk-rock sensibility. He added that distinctive Byrds sound of electric 12-string Rickenbacker, finger-picked like folk guitar as Roger McGuinn has famously done on their hit version of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” That soulful, electric folk-rock texture was ideal for this folky, minor-key tune finger-picked by Simon, and sung in two-part harmony.
Wilson also added electric bass, keys and drums, and remixed it all to articulate these new dynamics. It worked. It was the perfect song at the right moment with these two singers who, like The Byrds, brought the beautifully human harmonies of folk music to this new electric world. It was modern and brave, yet rooted in the world we all knew, and had not yet forgotten.
From that moment on, the former cartoon rock & rollers turned serious folkies became beloved pop artists, propelled in this incarnation forever into pop culture, and belonged to the ages.
It was the first time the fullness of Simon’s songwriting brilliance was introduced to the culture. But it didn’t come from a solo Simon. If it had, it might never have been heard in the same way. Garfunkel’s voice was the better angel to Simon’s in some ways. Simon’s voice always had a more earthbound, rock & roll edge to it, whereas Artie’s had an ethereal, angelic quality. When those two voices merged, a magic, dimensional power was created. It was the sound of a shared soul. Roy Halee, their engineer at first and then producer, spoke of this sound, which he said was only achievable when both sang on the same microphone.
“On two mikes,” he said, “it’s not the same. It’s like you can hear the seam between the two voices.” But sung in real-time on one mike, it was immaculately seamless, and undeniable. It’s the foundation of their music. But like the songwriting, their greatness with harmony singing was not random, but the result of great artistry developed over years with hard work. Since they were kids, both had seriously elevated professional standards, and would spend hours matching each other’s precise phrasing. When he sang harmony, Artie always started by learning the melody and the phrasing exactly, nailing every ‘n’ and ‘t” with exquisite precision. At that level it becomes something which isn’t obviously noticeable. It simply sounds great. It’s the sound of perfection.
On “The Sound of Silence,” it is Garfunkel who sings the melody, to which Simon sings a lower harmony throughout the entire song. That sound is one they used in many songs over the years, grounded in folk and gospel harmony singing. It creates a power which is fundamental and powerful, and speaks to something ancient in our souls.
Artie was the first to champion the song and its songwriter in print, and to frame both with language suitable to its moment. This was a pop song that became a radio hit – it went to number one on the charts. But it wasn’t conceived or created in the pursuit of the perfect pop single, as in the past. It wasn’t informed by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, his first teachers. It was shaped by one of the new teachers. Bob Dylan.
When asked in our first interview what had inspired the big leap from “Hey Schoolgirl” to “The Sound of Silence,” Simon pondered the question for a moment, and then said, “Well, I’m trying to find out if there’s anyone other than Bob Dylan who could have influenced me. But I really can’t imagine that there was.”
Simon was an English major at Queens College, and spent a lot of time reading poetry, which certainly shaped his expression. But Dylan propelled him in new ways. Simon saw in Dylan’s work, as did Lennon and others, a new way of merging pop-rock songwriting craft, which they loved, with something more poetically expansive. Yet Simon’s sensibilities were always rooted more in the pop-rock radio realm than Dylan’s, which were founded faithfully on the folk fundamentals of Woody Guthrie and his pals.
Simon never let go of his fascination with the key ingredients of pop singles, as he merged the enigmatic and visceral abstractions of Dylan’s folk poetry with the pop elements of hit songs. It was the doo-wop early rock hit “Earth Angel,” performed by The Penguins, that triggered his own songwriting he said. He immediately recognized that an oxymoron built right into a title, containing two opposing words, is a compelling dynamic ideal for song. He talked about really ruminating on the meaning of an earth angel – a spirit in the real world – and delighted at the way two single words linked like that created an immediate impact.
Although it wasn’t calculated, he used that same equation, and built his first hit on a new oxymoronic opposition: the sound of silence. It’s a phrase that doesn’t reveal its meaning easily, but invites some thought. Which in itself was a new concept – thought! And in a pop song! This was a new world.
Yet this was just the dawning of this cultural evolution, which would blossom in all directions in the ensuing years. This came at the same time as Blonde on Blonde, which was Dylan’s big leap of going electric, which changed the songwriting forever. It was a full year before Sgt. Pepper.
In his notes for their debut album, Artie was the first to acknowledge their own journey into this new world, galvanized by Dylan’s expansions. Garfunkel was Simon’s first songwriting champion, and the first writer to celebrate the singularity of this song, and, in doing so, the unchained potential and power of songwriting itself.
Art Garfunkel’s liner notes for Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.:
“The Sound of Silence” is a major work. We were looking for a song on a larger scale, but this was more than either of us expected. Its theme is man’s inability to communicate with man. The author sees the extent of communication as it is on only its most superficial and commercial level (of which the “neon sign” is representative).
Paul had the theme and the melody set in November of ‘63. But three months of frustrating attempts were necessary before the song burst forth. On February 19, 1964, the song practically wrote itself.
There is no serious understanding because there is no serious communication – “people talking without speaking – hearing without listening.” No one dares take the risk of reaching out (“take my arms that I might reach you”) to disturb the sound of silence.
The poet’s attempts are equally futile (“… but my words like silent raindrops fell within the wells of silence”).
The ending is an enigma. I find my own meaning in it, but like most good works, it is best interpreted by each person individually. The words tell us that when meaningful communication fails, the only sound is silence.