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Paul Simon: The Rolling Stone Interview

The Grammy-winning performer on politics, his Plan B, and why Simon & Garfunkel may never play again

Paul SimonPaul Simon

Paul Simon. Circa 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Paul Simon arrived wearing a blue loden coat with the hood pulled up. Beneath it he had on black trousers and a black shirt. He does not seek attention.

He said he preferred to talk at my apartment; his was on East End Avenue, but, you know… He was looking for a brownstone and would be moving shortly anyway…. In fact, his other place, a farmhouse in Bucks County, was no longer secluded enough. He was thinking of getting something up in New England, way out in the woods.

Simon spoke slowly, phrasing each answer carefully, almost painfully, repeating points he wanted to emphasize. He normally doesn’t talk to the press, he said. He prefers to communicate in his songs. He likes to feel interviewers out, see where they are at. Then, if it’s OK, he relaxes. It’s the same way he likes to work in the studio, going over things again and again, until they are right.

At first he sat hunched up in his coat, looking smaller than he really is. (He is sensitive about his size.) Later, as he talked about his part-time teaching career — he conducts a once-a-week class in songwriting at N.Y.U. — he grew more easy and seemed to begin to actually expand. He goes to the same analyst as his friend, Elliot Gould, he revealed, but he has cut down his visits from four to three times a week….

Why has it been 14 months between Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water?
It was a combination of circumstances. In this case Artie went and did the film Catch-22 and that delayed the album about six months. And then since we’re not a band and we produce everything that we do, we have to divide our time. So I write the songs for a certain period of time. Let’s say it takes me four months or five months to write ten or twelve songs. Then it takes about another four months to record them. We don’t have the benefit of rehearsing before we go in because we use studio players. So it takes that long to record. Then it takes another couple of months to mix it. After doing that it takes a couple of months to calm down and then you start all over again. Some people work at a slower pace, that’s all.

Did you have a producer in the beginning?
Tom Wilson did Wednesday Morning and then Bob Johnston did the Sounds of Silence and Parsley Sage albums.

So Bookends was the first one you produced yourselves?
Well, Bookends was the first one that had our names down as producers, but really most artists know what they’re doing and they don’t need anybody. I didn’t need a producer to say here’s a good piece of material to do. And I didn’t need someone to say that’s the take or somebody to say it’s the wrong tempo. Columbia Records just assigned a producer and we just took it, that’s all.

At what point does Art enter into how you decide to record a song?
Artie’s there from the earliest. We decide generally what the arrangements will be — whether it will be a simple rhythm track or strings or horns, or in the case of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” even though I wrote it on the guitar, I always knew that I wanted it played on the piano. So we had to work with that.

In the studio we usually work with the same musicians each time and we’re very friendly with them. I play the song and everybody plays along with me. Artie works with Roy [Halee, their engineer] in the control room or comes outside and says that this isn’t making it or this is making it or try to change this or that. He has the ears that are listening inside and we’re outside so we have it covered. And then we put a track down and after the track is down, we put a vocal down.

Do you overdub the vocals?
We usually do that because it’s very difficult to get a separation when you play an acoustical guitar. When you play an electric guitar and the amp is way across the room, you can sing and the sound of guitar comes from the amp. But if you play and sing the acoustic guitar, it’s right there and very difficult to get a separation between the voice and the guitar. Most of the time we record the guitar in stereo. There’s three mikes on the guitar and the guitar lays across all the speakers.

On the new album the songs are about different topics and the moods are varied too. There doesn’t seem to be one particular thing that you as a writer are trying to get across.
It’s fun to do all different kinds of songs. I tend towards always wanting to write slow, simple songs. That comes easiest to me. I like to try writing in other styles just for the fun of it, just to see what will happen when I do that. We didn’t set out consciously to do an album of all different songs, but it became apparent somewhere about midway that the songs were very different. Tempos were different, instrumentation was different; I think that’s good, I enjoy that.

Did you have all the songs done when you started recording?
No, we had about half of them done. We go from there. In a certain sense I would balance the album, like I’d say I have a lot of uptempo songs. I need a ballad. So working in the studio I would think that when I write I have to do a ballad. Then I wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and that took care of the ballad situation. I’d say now I have a good ballad, it would be nice to have something else.

Many people have noticed a great similarity between “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” Did you notice this?
That was interesting to me that we both wrote these songs that were very similar. The first time I heard “Let It Be” I couldn’t believe that he did that. They are very similar songs, certainly in instrumentation, sort of in their general musical feel, and lyrically. They’re sort of both hopeful songs and resting peaceful songs. He must’ve written it about the same time that I wrote mine and he gave it to Aretha Franklin which is funny because when I first wrote “Bridge,” I said boy, I bet Aretha could do a good job on this song. It’s one of those weird things and it happened simultaneously.

Do you write a lot of songs that you don’t use on your albums?
I have about four songs that I haven’t used on this album, but usually I use everything I write.

Does that mean that you write only when you are going to record and do an album or do you also write just for the sake of writing? Do you feel a certain need at times to express yourself and therefore write songs whether you have an album coming up or not?
Well, I write songs up until I have enough for an album, then I record it. Then I wait awhile and that’s the way it goes. I’m not writing right now because I have no nails. I broke my nails.

What do your nails have to do with writing?
Well, if I don’t have my nails I can’t play the guitar.

What if you suddenly get inspired for a song?
I did; just the other night I was suddenly inspired.

What happened without any nails?
I had no nails. I couldn’t do it. Someone else got that song that I was meant to write that night.

You could write a song without the guitar.
I’m looking forward to my nails growing in.

Has there been one main preoccupation in your songs?
No, it changes with my mental state.

One theme that ran through some of your songs was the failure of communication between people.
I think that ended about two years ago. You know one of the things that happens with us since we don’t put out a lot of albums, the albums tend to last a long time. People listen to them as if they were current. If somebody were to buy Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme today they’d be buying an album that was released three years ago and made almost three and a half years ago. Some of the songs on that were written before that.

What are you concerned with now?
Now I’m concerned with writing nice songs.

What are nice songs?
Just a song that touches something or it’s funny or it’s sad or it has a nice melody or it has a good line. One of the most important things in popular music for me is songs, not styles. It’s not important to me whether I’m writing acid rock, which was the big thing whenever it was. Now the Band is on the cover of Time Magazine and they call it country rock or raga rock. Anything like that is not important; the only thing that matters is the songs. After acid rock has come and gone, offhand I can think of “White Rabbit” which came out of that. That was a pretty good song, just as “Somebody To Love” was a pretty good song. Dino Valente’s tune was a pretty good song and that’s what’s left. If a song lives for a couple of years then that’s a pretty good thing.

Is that what you’re writing for then, for your songs to live a couple of years?
Well, I would be pleased if something lived longer than a couple of years, but I think if something lasts like three or four years and people still like it or get enjoyment out of hearing it, then, you’ve done a nice thing.

So people should be able to remember the song and hum it?
Right. That would be great if they would. I get no greater pleasure than to walk down the street and hear somebody humming a melody that I wrote. That’s really gratifying if you hear that.

On the Bookends album you have that song about going out in search of America, and your TV show examined America, too. Are you concerned with getting a certain message across in certain songs you write? I don’t want to use the word protest, but do you feel it necessary to comment about the way things are here?
I don’t really think it is necessary to point out what is going on because everybody knows that. You see it on television and you read it in the papers and you see it in the streets and you hear it everywhere you go. So if you live in this society you reflect it naturally when you write. That’s what happens and it’s not that I’m trying to say, “Hey, look at this. Wake up.” Everybody’s woken up. We’re right in the middle of a nightmare; everybody is wide awake. It’s not that message. I’m just writing the way I feel and the way I feel reflects the part of society that I’m in. It’s not a teaching thing or I’m not trying to hip somebody to something they don’t know because everybody knows that.

Most people think of you more in terms of your lyrics than of melody, but the way you’ve been talking it seems as if the melody is more important to you.
They’re both important because you need them both to make a song. I think that it’s easier work to write a melody for me. It’s more enjoyable; it happens in an instant. And the lyrics I tend to work over. I say I like that line, now I’m going to go from here and I’m going to see where this line will lead me because I don’t know what I’m talking about when I start off. So until I write a few more lines I have no idea what I’m writing about. Then once I realize what I’m writing about then I start to work on the lyric, a change of word here or there. But the melody — that happens. It was as if I were to hear a new Simon & Garfunkel record on the air that I never heard before.

It’s like Artie used to say. He used to go into record stores and ask if they had the new Simon & Garfunkel album. He’d just stick his head in. A lot of the time he’d feel so detached he’d be waiting for it to come out even though he’d know that there was no album coming out. He’d just look in just to see maybe it would be there, would be a surprise to him. He wanted to see what the cover looked like. Well that’s what happens when you write this melody because it’s just such a surprise. It never happened before and here it is.

Does the melody then suggest what your lyrics will say?
Sometimes. Usually I write a melody and a lyric, but it’s a line. I write a melody and a lyric line. Now if you’re writing a song that’s like an A-A-B-A type song, verse-verse-refrain-verse, once you write the melody for the first verse, you know it’s the melody for the second verse but the lyrics change. You have to write three different lyrics in an A-A-B-A song on the structure of the verse, but the melody is the same so you get that instantly and you see the whole structure of the song. Now the lyric has to take me probably a lot longer.

You told me that you keep tapes of your songs from the first time you work on them and you can see how the lyrics change.
Melodies change, too. I heard a tape, the first tape I did of “The Only Living Boy In New York” the other day and it was really interesting. There was a lot of things that I forgot, that I left that were better the first time. The first time you sing anything, you’re so fresh that everything just flows naturally. When you get into a recording studio — if you do a take ten times or 15 times or for a week or a month, depending on your standards, one of the things that you sacrifice is spontaneity. Unfortunately that’s one of the things that we have to sacrifice in our music unless we do something very early on that’s just a guitar and two voices. Otherwise you have to rehearse it with the band so by the time you rehearse it, the melody is not spontaneous.

I understand you’re teaching song-writing and record making at New York University this semester. Can you teach someone how to write a song?
You can teach somebody about writing songs. You can’t teach someone how to write a song I don’t think. But I am dealing with people who already write songs, so what I can do mainly is tell them what I’ve learned and go into the studio and say, let’s do this, let’s cut this song. You see what problems will arise when you go into the studio and cut the song. It sort of prepares you a little bit for going in there. Otherwise you just come in and you’re lost. You’re just in the record company’s hands and you’re lost.

That’s what happened to most of the San Francisco groups in the early days. Fine live groups, but they didn’t know anything about the recording studio and couldn’t figure out why their records were bad. They had to learn the whole thing and they had to learn it while they were putting out an album.

What made you decide to teach?
I wanted to do it for a while. I like talking about songwriting. I like to hear what people are writing and I’d like to spare people some of the grief that I went through by learning by trial and error. Some of the errors can be really costly so maybe I can do somebody a favor.

Nobody teaches anything about popular music. You have to learn it on the street. I’d go to a course if the Beatles would talk about how they made records because I’m sure I could learn something. I was interested in talking to Dylan about how he wrote a song. I wanted to know if he was doing it like I was doing it, but I couldn’t find out what he did.

Have you always written the same way?
I write sound and meaning simultaneously now. I used to write meaning. I’d say what it is I want to say and say it in words. Then I set that with the melody. I don’t like that so much. That period came to an end with the “Dangling Conversation.” You say something specifically. Then I came to realize that you can do it another way. You don’t have to do it that way.

Then I went just straight sounds. Now I try to write simultaneously, sounds fit the melody — the right vocal sound, the word as it sounds right with this melody. At the same time you write the meaning. It’s just a skill that you learn by practicing. As opposed to writing the melody and then filling in the lyrics or writing the lyrics and then filling in the melody, you do it together immediately at the same time. I sit down with the guitar and I play and sing. I’ve been working this way for about a year.

What were some of the songs you did just by sounds?
“The Boxer” was an early song that had a lot to do with sound and a lot of people said they couldn’t hear the lyrics. I knew that a lot of that came from the fact that the lyrics went just one word into another word so that it was hard to separate the words. The end of one sound went into the beginning of another sound. Now everything I do is sort of like that. Then there are some writers who do that. It’s very pleasant for me to hear. Suits my taste. There are other people who cram a lot of words in and they hit you that way. I don’t like that way as much.

There’s a certain softness in your music which is surprising considering you’re from New York.
If you had someone you could sing with like I sing with Artie and you sing together and it goes buzz, you get this sound that’s so nice to hear that’s all you want to do. When I sing with Artie I’d much rather sing a slow simple song than anything else because it sounds so nice to me. It’s such a pleasant soft sound.

Why did you include “Bye Bye Love” on your new album? Was it recorded live?
Yes, that was recorded in Ames, Iowa, mostly because of our fascination with the handclapping. We went out and we said now listen you have to handclap in rhythm; you can’t fall behind like every audience falls behind because we want to have the sound of 8000 people handclapping. It’s going to be a great backbeat. And it was. We did it twice. We sang and said no, too raggedy, got do it again. And that’s why. We sang it in our concerts for a while.

Were the Everly Brothers a strong influence on you in the beginning? Were other groups?
Yes, sure, all the early rock and roll groups. When we were 13 years old, the Cleft-Tones and the Heartbeats and all those groups.

Weren’t you a rock act too?
When we were 15 we were Tom and Jerry. We had a hit record and went on American Bandstand on Thanksgiving, 1957. We were trying to find the kinescope of that to put on our television show, but it’s lost somewhere. They have all those kinescopes, except that month. We were on the same day as Jerry Lee Lewis; he sang “Great Balls of Fire.” Our record was “Hey Schoolgirl.”

What label were you on?
Big — I think they went out of business on the returns from our second record. It was one of those things where the distributor didn’t pay them for the first record and then you put out the second. It wasn’t a hit and they got all these returns and went out of business.

How did you get your recording deal?
We were making a demo in Sanders Recording Studio for $2. They didn’t even put it on tape; they put it directly onto acetate. You had to do it perfectly because you couldn’t wipe it out. We sing the song and this guy came up to us and he said “I’m going to make you guys stars.” He bought us clothes and everybody wore the same outfits. In those days you did that — red jackets or white loafers or something plaid. That was it. I bought my first electric guitar and we played at the Hartford State Theater with LaVerne Baker.

After Tom and Jerry flopped what happened?
Nothing happened. I used to do demos. I’d go into studios and work and do demos. At that time Frankie Avalon was very popular, so everybody was making tunes for Frankie Avalon, so I would sing like him. Or if the Fleetwoods had a big hit, I’d sing like the Fleetwoods. I used to work with Carol King for a while. We’d overdub six or seven instruments. She’d play piano and drums and I’d play guitar and bass and you’d put four voices in the background. We’d get like $30 for the recording. That’s how we learned about the studio.

Take us up to The Sounds of Silence — you went to England for a while didn’t you?
We came to Columbia and went up to Tom Wilson. I was at the time trying to sell some of my songs. The result was Wednesday Morning 3 AM, which was very folky. I think it had only four of my songs on it and mostly other type standard folk songs. Whatever was popular at the time, like “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream,” “The Times They Are A Changin’.” The “Sounds of Silence” was on that album done acoustically. The album was finished around March and I left to live and work in England singing around in folk clubs. I had a lot of friends there and a girl friend there. I could play music there. There was no place to play in New York City. They wouldn’t have me. The album came out and it was a real stiff. I was still in England. Somewhere along the line somebody over-dubbed “The Sounds Of Silence” with electric instruments, electric 12-string, drums and bass. They put it out. I was up in Copenhagen and it became a hit.

We came back, even though I loved it over there. I said, I’ll come back and I’ll work at this for about six months and I’ll get enough money to live over in England for about another year. You don’t need much money to live in England and I came back and said now, we’re going to earn $20,000 this year. We figured it out and we decided we were never going to do personal appearances because we were with some agency and they’d send us out to play at dances. You could just imagine us; we were just awful. I remember the day “The Sounds Of Silence” was Number One. We played in Pittsburgh I think. We did a show on the bill with the Yardbirds, the Four Seasons, Chuck Berry, Mitch Ryder, Lou Christie and us. We sang “The Sounds of Silence” and got paid $300 for it. We came out there and we sang with this one little guitar. It was in the Madison Square Garden of Pittsburgh. When that was over we said we’re not ever going to go on stage again; it’s ridiculous. We feel like fools going out on stage. So we said we’ll just make records and that’ll be it. Let’s go split and go back to England and really live high. It never stopped after that.

Have you ever used a band or electric instruments to back you onstage?
The last tour we used the guys who played on the records: drums, guitar, bass, piano. It worked out badly. First of all we came out on stage with the band, and people would yell: “Get the band off, we just want to hear you!” I would say: “Oh, that riff is so old; you said that about Dylan. Christ that’s four years ago that this happened; what are you talking about? Everybody has a band. We’re the only ones around without a band.” Mostly what happened was that we didn’t really rehearse a lot because we were working on the television show then. We didn’t rehearse it to the point of real tightness. But they were soft. That’s one good thing; they didn’t blast out. It was good with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” because we needed a piano for that.

Would you ever try it again?
I’d like to play in a band myself, to play with other musicians. I’ve never had that and I miss it. I like the thrill of playing with somebody else. I don’t know when we will perform again in this country.

What do you mean?
Well, Artie is going to England for the next couple of months, and I’m going to study, relax and do some reading and stay with my friends for awhile. At the end of April we do a short European tour including Moscow. Then Artie starts filming in May for Mike Nichols’ next film with Jack Nicholson, Carnal Knowledge. So really we’re talking about a year.

So whether we go back on the road in a year, I don’t know. It’s possible. We could easily do it. It would depend on whether we said let’s go ahead; let’s go out and perform again. You know it gets very hard singing “The Sounds of Silence,” as you can imagine. This time we went out and sang mostly new songs and people don’t want to hear that. They want to hear the songs that you’re famous for. I was talking to Dylan and I said that’s my problem with going out on the road. It gets boring for me because of this. They want to hear “The Sounds of Silence.” He said, “Well, I’d like to see you and if I came to see you I’d want to see you sing the ‘The Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Scarborough Fair.’ “

When I saw the Rolling Stones and they played “Satisfaction,” I said, “that’s the Rolling Stones playing ‘Satisfaction.’ That song that I know well by the Rolling Stones, there they are doing it.” Knocked me out. I don’t care whether they did it good or bad or anything. It’s just the Rolling Stones playing “Satisfaction.” So I think it’s very hard to ever escape from that.

Won’t you miss the stimulation you get from live audiences?
Probably I’ll come to miss it. It’s very emotional. On really good nights I can get very emotional on the stage; what’s going on between the audience and us. That’s very pleasurable, but on the way to the theater, boy, do I suffer. Oh, no, this again. We always come on late because we’re always saying, ten more minutes, have another cup of coffee, have a smoke and then go out. We did a lot of shows — somewhere between 300 and 400 shows in our career and that’s a lot of shows.

When you say you may not perform again here, does that mean you’ll still be making records?
I don’t say that we will never perform again. There are several things that we want to do before we think about that. It may sound strange, but time is running out. You go to do things because once you get a certain point, you’ve got to ride your energy while you have it. As long as you have energy and curiosity and drive, you use it. And I don’t know when that will end. I hope it will never end, but while it’s here I want to do it and we know how to perform. It’s fun and it’s something that you learn and you get good at it and pleasure out of doing anything well, so you enjoy it more. But I just don’t know; there are so many things I want to learn.

For example, it’s just very frustrating to me that if I want to write a horn part I have to call in a guy and sing a horn part to him and he writes it down and goes outside to the men. I want to learn how to do it and I want to learn all the instruments and about all other kinds of music. I’ve always been playing by my ear and your ears don’t suffer if you know more.

I’ve experienced this performing thing and I can put that aside for awhile. As far as recording goes, that’s a simple matter of saying, let’s make another record, or saying, I’m too busy now, I want to do this thing So we won’t make another record. Probably we will make another record. We’ve always waited a long time in between records so we don’t feel compelled to put out another one in six months or a year from now. If we want to by then; a lot depends on the songs. You get the impetus to record when you get a song that you just have to record and there is none now.

Are you concerned with singles at this point?
I’m concerned with everything that they put out on us. I’m concerned as to the quality of it. I’m less concerned as to the success or failure from the point of view of the number of records sold. But I care that it’s a good record that comes out. Some of our best records haven’t been real big hits.

What are some of the best?
“Fakin’ It” was never a really big hit, but I always thought it was a really good song and a good record.

Why haven’t you done another film score after the great success of The Graduate?
No one offered anything really interesting to us, and at this point I think we’ve pretty much lost interest in doing another sound track.

How do you feel about the different trends in music?
There have been so many different musics in the last few years. When we started everybody said it was folk rock. Then it became raga rock, acid rock, country rock. It doesn’t make any difference. They don’t make any difference. Either there’s a good song in that or there’s not a good song in that.

Has anyone ever written any criticism that has made you think maybe you were going in the wrong direction?
No, those concepts are all wrong about doing something wrong or doing something right. You must do something wrong. You must make mistakes, and that’s why I find criticisms pointless. For example, every album that we’ve put out has had major flaws in it — songs that didn’t work either completely or to a great degree. And, I’ve never written a song yet that worked perfectly where I say that’s the song, I guess I can stop writing songs now because if you want to know about songs just look at that one. There is none of that.

Do you aim for the ultimate song?
No, it’s impossible to achieve. So if somebody writes this and that about Paul Simon, what does that mean to me? I know my songs much better than anybody knows them. I know when they’re bad and when they’re good. I know the next time around I won’t repeat it; or let’s assume that somebody says something is bad and I think it’s good, well, I’m going straight ahead. The next song I write I’m going to take what I learned and use it and I don’t care who thinks it’s bad. How can I do that then, that means I have to write to please this small group of people who I don’t have any respect for up front.

Are you more concerned with what’s going on inside your own head when you write or do you aim to have a universal appeal in your songs?
Both really. Every artist wants acceptance. You write a song and try to be as true to yourself as possible. Now I think most writers can’t help but write about themselves. They have to, whether they think they’re writing about it or not. You hope people will like it, but you know that some won’t. It’s very rare to have tremendous universal acceptance like the Beatles. I don’t know anybody else who’s got that. Everybody else has their staunch believers, and then those people who say they’re bullshit. Simon & Garfunkel are no different.

Those people who like songs will get some feeling of joy and that will be very gratifying to me and part of my reward in writing the song, aside from the personal feeling of satisfaction of completing something that means something to me. When someone says they like what I do, it’s much more important than if ten people say they don’t like what I do.

What kind of music do you listen to?
I don’t listen to too many records in popular music lately. I tend to go back to older records if I listen to them. One of my favorite records is Songs Our Daddy Taught Us by the Everly Brothers. Then I like Rubber Soul, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, some of the early Otis Redding and the first Aretha album. Then I get into other stuff like a lot of times I get on things for a while. I like Jamaican music. Now I’m into a lot of Brazilian and Peruvian music and I like to listen to that. Also early tapes of me. I have this tape that I did when I was in this club in England about six years ago before I was working with Artie. It gives me a lot of pleasure to listen to that.

You are telling me that you don’t think you’ll do another TV show.
All the mail that came into us was screaming at us: just sing — we love the way you sing but we’re not interested in your political opinion of your view of society — just sing. I used to say to Artie it’s like if you decided to go to the bathroom and somebody said, “Don’t go to the bathroom. Just sing, that’s what you do. Don’t do anything else. Don’t make bacon in the morning. You’re not a bacon maker, you sing.”

As if you had to have some qualifications to say I’m alive today. That’s what you have in television and you don’t have that in film. It seems natural that you go to film and you don’t bust your balls with television. I don’t want to act in films, but I’d like to do a film that treats music right.

What exactly happened with your television special?
We originally were going to do one guest appearance on the Bell Telephone Hour and that guest appearance was to coincide with the time we were going to do our concerts which was sort of like to say to people, “Here we are again. We’re back even though it’s a year later and to prove it here we are on television so come out to see us at the concerts.” But then the show just kept enlarging. Finally they asked us to do the whole show instead of just a guest appearance. They said we’ll give you the whole show if you want. So we said OK, let’s do the whole show.

We called in a friend of ours named Chuck Grodin who worked with Artie on Catch 22. And we said to Chuck, let’s think up some idea for doing a television show because he’s a very smart fellow and we thought we’d ask somebody smart. He said if you’re going to get an hour on television instead of doing the ordinary show, let’s think up something that would be different. So we decided to do a show on America instead of just having a show with duets with Glen and the dance number. We just didn’t want to go through that riff at all.

Meanwhile, Bell Telephone was very happy to have us because they wanted to have some kind of recruiting campaign where they would get young people to join Bell Telephone, which is why they wanted Simon & Garfunkel. But they didn’t know that we were planning on doing a show that had anything to do with real life. They thought that it would have to do with television. The advertising agent, which was sort of the middle man that brought Bell Telephone to us and us to them, never said a word.

A week before airtime, we showed it to Bell Telephone and they said, “That’s out of the question; we’ll never allow that to go on.” We had a sequence with the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King that was played while we did “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and they objected to that. And we said “why?” And they said they were all Democrats, there’s no Republicans in there. And we said, “Is that what you get? How about that they’re all assassinated?” Well, it was really like our first contact with… I don’t know what term to use. I hate to use the word “the establishment” because it doesn’t have any real meaning. You can’t be more establishment than the telephone company. They would tell us incredible stories. They said if we showed this film where you have Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy and Bobby Kennedy in it, if we showed this film in Alabama, we will be in tremendous trouble because the man who is in charge of setting the rates for the State of Alabama for the telephone company is Bull Conners.

They said we can’t ever sell the show to Bell Telephone in California, Western Bell; they will not chip in for their part of this budget because you’re showing the situation with the boycott in Delano and Cesar Chavez. They said what you’re doing is you’re taking Bell Telephone’s money to propagandize your own political philosophy, because we didn’t think that it really was a very political show. And they said your political philosophy is humanism, liberal humanism. So we said you mean to say that there are people who will object if we say you must feed everyone in this country? You mean to say that someone will say no, you should not feed everyone in this country? And they said you’re goddam right, someone would object. So they said you’ll have to change this; it’s not going on. And we said well, too bad then, it’s not going on because we’re not changing anything.

You know we had to go up and have meetings with the people, the censor people at CBS, and they had their own riffs that they ran. But for the most part the people at CBS were on our side. In fact, it was they who forced that show on the air because Bell Telephone would have killed it. And it was a terrible experience. Really awful. One of the most frustrating things I ever did in my life was to work for hours and hours on that television show and to hear somebody just put it down in the worst terms possible. They vilified the show. There was no talk about whether we did it artfully or not. They just couldn’t bear to look at King, couldn’t bear to look at the Kennedys, couldn’t bear to look at Chavez. They said they didn’t want the Woodstock footage in there, no footage of Woodstock, no footage of Vietnam, they said they could live with the Lone Ranger. If we wanted to keep that in, it’s all right.

Someone told me that he thought when he became successful, he’d be happy, but he wasn’t. Now that you’ve achieved success, are you happy?
Yes I am. I’m less confused and more willing to accept things. Maybe it’s just because I got older. It takes time to put yourself and your achievements into some kind of perspective and to understand what there is to value in life. I’ve tried hard and I’ve had more success than most people and I’m happy. It should be enough. You just go on working then. That was the other thing that Nichols said. Soon as they put you up there and they put the knife in your back, you’re getting to the best period of your life. Up until that point people have been saying you were great, when half the time you weren’t. And now they’ll say that anything you do is bad when it’s not true. The pressure is off you and the spotlight is off and you can proceed along with your work. That’s the thing new fame does to people — intense pressure, spotlights. So when it gets off you a little bit, it’s cooler, just a little bit cooler.

What would you like to be if you weren’t a songwriter and singer?
A relief pitcher.

In This Article: Coverwall


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