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Paul Simon: The Rolling Stone Interview

An inside look at into the life of the cautious half of Simon and Garfunkel

singers, musicians, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel

(L-R) American singers and musicians Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in New York City in June of 1972.

Hulton Archive/Getty

The interview with Paul Simon took place on three days during late May and early June. It produced 13 hours of tape for some poor soul to transcribe, a task made more difficult by the similarity between mine and Paul’s New York accents.

Paul divides his time between a farm in Pennsylvania and a triplex, once owned by guitarist Andre Segovia, in New York’s Upper East Side, where the interview was taped. Peggy, Paul’s wife, was present only briefly. She and Paul are expecting their first child in September.

Paul had just completed production on the first album of his friends Los Incas, whom he used for the background track on “El Condor Pasa.” In September and October he plans to produce his second solo album and in November will embark on a national tour.

We had not met before and so found ourselves getting to know each other while doing the job. I found him open on virtually every subject, but always deliberate and intent on saying exactly what he meant. At times, as his voice and pace would become more measured when the subject became more important, I realized he really did approach this interview the same way he approaches writing, recording, performing – as a perfectionist.

-J.L.

***

How would you describe your current relationship with Art Garfunkel?
Cautious. We get along by observing certain rules.

You’re aware of what irritates each other?
We’re aware. We try not to do that.

Was there a specific confrontation or meeting or decision that finalized the breakup?
No, I don’t think there was. During the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water there were a lot of times when it just wasn’t fun to work together. It was very hard work and it was complex, and both of us thought – I think Artie said that he felt that he didn’t want to record – and I know I said I felt that if I had to go through these kind of personality abrasions, I didn’t want to continue to do it. Then when the album was finished Artie was going to do Carnal Knowledge and I went to do an album by myself. We didn’t say that’s the end. We didn’t know if it was the end or not. But it became apparent by the time the movie was out and by the time my album was out that it was over.

What were the immediate feelings brought on after the split?
Having a track record to live up to and the history of successes had become a hindrance. It becomes harder to break out of what people expect you to do. From that point of view, I’m delighted that I didn’t have to write a Simon and Garfunkel follow-up to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which I think would have been an inevitable let-down for people. It would have been hard on me, hard on both of us. But more hard on the writer, because he takes the responsibility. If an album stiffs, I think to myself it stiffed because I didn’t come up with the big songs.

So dissolving Simon and Garfunkel was a way of unburdening yourself of a lot of pressure.
Yes. And it left me free to do what I want. I wanted to sing other types of songs, that Simon and Garfunkel wouldn’t do. “Mother and Child Reunion,” for example, is not a song that you would have normally thought that Simon and Garfunkel would have done. It’s possible that they might have. But it wouldn’t have been the same, and I don’t know whether I would have been so inclined in that direction. So for me it was a chance to back out, and gamble a little bit; it’s been so long since it was a gamble.

When Simon and Garfunkel was most active doing concerts – around ’68 – what was the day-to-day relationship like between the two of you? How did you function on the road?
On the road I remember things were pretty pleasant from the point of view of us getting along. It was hard and boring to travel so much. But at the end, during the concerts in 1970, I would go with Peggy and everyone would bring whoever they wanted and it was more like festivals, because we didn’t go out too much, and when we did go out, we went to places we wanted to play, Paris, or London…

How did you feel on the road?
I always felt weird on the road. I was in a state of semi-hypnosis. I went into a daze, and I did things by rote. You got to the place, you went to the hall, you tested out the microphones, changed your guitar strings, read the telegrams, found out who was coming to the concert that you knew and planned out what you were going to do after the show and usually tried to find a decent restaurant in the town and that was it. Just sort of hung out with friends, assuming that there were friends in a place.

Anything on the road contribute to the breakup?
I don’t think the road had much to do in exacerbating our relationship because, first of all, we weren’t on the road that much in the end. The breakup had to do with a natural drifting apart as we got older and the separate lives that were more individual. We weren’t so consumed with recording and performing.

We had other activities. I had different people and different interests, and Artie’s interest in film led him to other people. His acting took him away, and that led him into other areas. The only strain was to maintain a partnership.

Because it was unnatural?
You gotta work at a partnership. You have to work at it, you got to…

But at this point it was not a natural one.
At this point there was no great pressure to stay together, other than money, which exerted really very little influence upon us. We certainly weren’t going to stay together to make a lot of money. We didn’t need the money. And musically, it was not a creative team, too much, because Artie is a singer and I’m a writer and player and a singer. We didn’t work together on a creative level and prepare the songs. I did that.

When we came into the studio I became more and more me, in the studio, making the tracks and choosing the musicians, partly because a great deal of the time during Bridge, Artie wasn’t there. I was doing things myself with Roy Halee, our engineer and co-producer. We were planning tracks out and to a great degree, that responsibility fell to me.

Artie and I shared responsibility but not creativity. For example, we always said Artie does the arranging. Anybody who knows anything would know that that was a fabrication – how can one guy write the songs and the other guy do the arranging? How does that happen? If a guy writes the song, he obviously has a concept. But when it came to making decisions it had always been Roy, Artie and me. And this later became difficult for me.

I viewed Simon and Garfunkel as basically a three-way partnership. Each person had a relatively equal say. So, in other words, if Roy and Artie said, “Let’s do a long ending on ‘The Boxer,'” I said, “Two out of three,” and did it their way. I didn’t say, “Hey, this is my song, I don’t want it to be like that.” Never did it occur to me to say that. “Fine,” I’d say.

It wasn’t until my own album that I ever started to think to myself, “What do I really like?” Roy would say, “That’s a great vocal, listen to that.” And I would listen, and I wouldn’t think it was great but he said it was great, so I believed it was great. I just suspended my judgment. I let him do it. On my own album I learned every aspect of it has to be your own judgment. You have to say, “Now wait a minute, is that the right tempo? Is that the right take?” It’s your decision. Nobody else can do it.

You said that more and more on ‘Bridge’ you were exercising the judgment and making the plans. Is it that Artie wasn’t that interested?
It’s hard to say, but I guess that’s true – no, I can’t say that. He had other interests that were very strong. But he certainly was interested in making the record. From the point of view of creativity, I didn’t have any other interests than the music, I had no other distractions. On several tracks on Bridge there’s no Artie on it at all. “The Only Living Boy in New York,” he sang a little on the background. “Baby Driver,” he wasn’t there. He was doing Catch-22 in Mexico at that time. It’s a Simon and Garfunkel record, but not really. And it became easier to work by separating. On Bridge Over Troubled Water there are many songs where you don’t hear Simon and Garfunkel singing together. Because of that the separation became easier.

Was he there most of the time?
He was there most of the time. This would be an example of how it worked: Artie would be away for maybe three months. He’d come back and I’d say, “I wrote the lyrics to ‘El Condor Pasa.’ We’ll do this. Here, ‘The Only Living Boy in New York,’ Okay? ‘Baby Driver’ is finished. Me and Roy mixed ‘The Boxer.'” So, to a degree, there was a separation without there being a lessening of musical quality.

What was his reaction when he’d come back and you’d show him all this stuff?
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” was written while he was away. He’d come back and I’d say, “Here’s a song I just wrote, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ I think you should sing it.”

It seems like his absences would tend to make you more resentful if he were to reject any of your ideas. Did they?
That’s true. If I’d say, “We’ll do this with a gospel piano and it’s written in your key, so you have the song,” it was his right in the partnership to say, “I don’t want to do that song,” as he said with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

He said that?
Yes.

He didn’t want to do the song?
No, he didn’t want to do it.

He didn’t want to do it altogether, or he didn’t want to sing it himself?
He didn’t want to sing it himself. He couldn’t hear it for himself. He felt I should have done it. And many times I think I’m sorry I didn’t do it.

Would you ever record it?
No. I think it’s too late to record. Many times on a stage, though, when I’d be sitting off to the side and Larry Knechtel would be playing the piano and Artie would be singing “Bridge,” people would stomp and cheer when it was over, and I would think, “That’s my song, man. Thank you very much. I wrote that song.” I must say this, in the earlier days when things were smoother I never would have thought that, but towards the end when things were strained I did. It’s not a very generous thing to think, but I did think that. I resented it, and I must say that I was aware of the fact that I resented it, and I knew that this wouldn’t have been the case two years earlier.

Do you mark the strain from ‘Catch-22’ or does it go back before that?
I think it started before that.

When did you become aware of it?
There was always some kind of strain, but it was workable. The bigger you get, the more of a strain it is, because in your everyday life, you’re less used to compromising. As you get bigger, you have your own way. But in a partnership you always have to compromise. So all day long I might be out telling this lawyer to do that or this architect to build a house in a certain way and you expect everything. You’re the boss. When you get into a partnership, you’re not the boss. There’s no boss. That makes it hard.

There’s 11 songs on Bridge Over Troubled Water but there were supposed to be 12. I had written a song called “Cuba Si, Nixon No.” And Artie didn’t want to do it. We even cut the track for it. Artie wouldn’t sing on it. And Artie wanted to do a Bach chorale thing, which I didn’t want to do. We were fightin’ over which was gonna be the twelfth song, and then I said, “Fuck it, put it out with 11 songs, if that’s the way it is.” We were at the end of our energies over that.

We had just finished working on this television special, which really wiped us out because of all the fighting that went on, not amongst ourselves, but with the Bell Telephone people. We were very tired. It was all happening in the fall. We did a tour in October. We filmed the television special from September until October. We then had to postpone working on the album until the TV special and the tour was over. And then we went into December and we had to stop for Christmas and we didn’t finish the album until like the first week in January. We were really exhausted, and we fought over that. Well, at that point, I just wanted out, I just wanted to take a vacation. So did he, I guess. So we stopped at 11 songs.

You didn’t know when you finished that album…
I thought that was the end. In my mind I said, “That’s the end. It’s good because we had all our strength for this album, and we did a hard amount of work on it,” and now we’ve finished it, and we’d just about cleaned ourselves out. We had no songs left except for “Cuba Si, Nixon No,” which eventually got lost. It wasn’t that great a song anyway. So my ideas were wiped out. I’d used up all my ideas on this album that I’d stored up, and it was time for a resting and a time for thinking up new things, and it was an ideal time to start on something new and less auspicious than a new Simon and Garfunkel album. That’s when I knew that I was gonna do my own album and do it simpler and do it, I hoped, faster.

The obvious question is why didn’t it split up earlier?
That is a really good question. The answer has to go back to me. I always look for partnership, because I probably felt I couldn’t do it myself. I would have been afraid or embarrassed. So I looked to work with a bunch of people. “We’ll all do this. Actually I’ll do it all, but we’ll all take the credit or take the blame.” Peggy brought me out of that and made me feel like I should do it myself and take the responsibility. If it’s good, it’s yours, and if it’s bad, it’s yours too. Go out and do your thing and say, “This is my thing.”

One of the things that upset me was some of the criticism leveled at Simon and Garfunkel. I always took exception to it, but actually I agree with a lot of it, but I didn’t feel it was me. Like that it was very sweet. I didn’t particularly like sweet soft music. I did like sweet soft music, but not exclusively.

You thought Artie was contributing a lot to that?
That is Artie’s taste. Artie’s taste is much more to the sweet and so is Roy’s. Sweet and big and lush. More than me. There’s nothing wrong with that, there’s a place for lushness. It’s not generally the way I go. This is what I’ve said on the new album to Roy. I want the tempo to be right, I want it to be a good tempo. I want to get like the basic rhythm section and one coloring instrument maybe, like in “Duncan,” the flutes and “Peace Like The River.” That has its own coloring…

Simon and Garfunkel were known for their fastidiousness in recording. You seem to be looser on your own.
It was all three of us, but particularly Artie and Roy. Many times I had arguments where I wanted to leave in something that was poorly recorded, because it had the right feel, and they would always end up doing it again. They’d say, “It’s bad, I didn’t like it, I didn’t mike it right, it was the first take and I didn’t really/didn’t get the balance,” and I’d say, “I don’t care, leave it. Leave it.” That was the three-way partnership coming back to haunt me. Everybody has a voice and everybody’s voice is equal. But actually not, there’s an order of importance. The song and the performance. Those are both equally important, and next is the arrangement and next is the sound. That’s the way it goes.

Was Bridge your best album?
Yes. Bridge has better songs. And it has better singing. It is freer, in its own way. “Cecilia,” for example, was made in a living room on a Sony. We were all pounding away and playing things. That was all it was. Tick a long tick a tick a tong tuck a tuck a toong tuck a... on a Sony, and I said, “That’s a great rhythm set, I love it.” Everyday I’d come back from the studio, working on whatever we were working on, and I’d play this pounding thing. So then I said, “Let’s make a record out of that.” So we copied it over and extended it double the amount, so now we have three minutes of track, and the track is great. So now I pick up the guitar and I start to go, “Well, this will be like the guitar part” – dung chicka dung chicka dung and the lyrics were virtually the first lines I said: “You’re breakin’ my heart, I’m down on my knees.” They’re not lines at all, but it was right for that song, and I like that. It was like a little piece of magical fluff, but it works.

“El Condor Pasa” I like. That track was originally a record. The track is originally a recording on Phillips, a Los Incas record that I love. I said, “I love this melody. I’m going to write lyrics to it. I just love it, and we’ll just sing it right over the track.”

That’s what it is and that works pretty different. “Bridge” is a very strong melodic song.

How was Bridge Over Troubled Water recorded?
We were in California. We were all renting this house. Me and Artie and Peggy were living in this house with a bunch of other people throughout the summer. It was a house on Bluejay Way, the one George Harrison wrote “Bluejay Way” about. We had this Sony machine and Artie had the piano, and I’d finished working on a song, and we went into the studio. I had it written on guitar, so we had to transpose the song. I had it written in the key of G, and I think Artie sang it in E. E flat. We were with Larry Knechtel and I said, “Here’s a song, it’s in G, but I want it in E flat. I want it to have a gospel piano.” So, first we had to transpose the chords and there was an arranger who used to do some work with me, Jimmie Haskell, who, as a favor, he said, “I’ll write the chords, you call off the chord in G and I’ll write it in E flat.” And he did that. That was the extent of what he did. He later won a Grammy for that. We’d put his name down as one of the arrangers.

Then it took us about four days to get the piano part. Each night we’d work on the piano part until Larry really honed it into a good part.

Now, the song was originally two verses, and in the studio, as Larry was playing it, we decided – I believe it was Artie’s idea, I can’t remember, but I think it was Artie’s idea to add another verse, because Larry was sort of elongating the piano part, so I said, “Play the piano part for a third verse again, even though I don’t have it, and I’ll write it,” which I eventually did after the fact. I always felt that you could clearly see that it was written afterwards. It just doesn’t sound like the first two verses.

Then the piano part was finished. Then we added bass – two basses, one way up high, the high bass notes. Joe Osborn did that. Then we added vibes in the second verse just to make the thing ring a bit. Then we put the drum on, and we recorded the drum in an echo chamber, and we did it with a tape-reverb that made the drum part sound different from what it actually was, because of that afterbeat effect. Then we gave it out to have a string part written. I gave the song to – I can’t remember now who it is. But the arrangers wrote the title down as “Like a Pitcher of Water.”

What!
I had it framed. The whole string part – instead of having “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on it – the way the guy heard it on this demo tape was “Like a Pitcher of Water.” So that’s what’s written down. And he spelled Garfunkel wrong. So we did the string part, and I couldn’t stand it. I thought they were terrible. I was very disappointed. It had to be completely rewritten. This was all in L.A. And then we came back to New York and did the vocals. Artie spent several days on the vocals.

Punching in a lot. [Recording in small segments to achieve greater control and accuracy]
Yes. I’d say altogether that song took somewhere around ten days to two weeks to record, and then it had to be mixed.

Were you finally happy with the concluding string arrangement of the third verse?
I would say I was happy. It was changed around quite a lot, and there was a lot of engineering added to it. I think it served its purpose. I don’t think it bears a lot of scrutiny. If you listen to just the string part, it’s not really great, but it did do the job that it was supposed to do, which was to expand the record tremendously, and it feels like one of those string parts that makes things big, and that’s what it’s supposed to do and it did. I was happy. The last note was too long.

“Bridge” was gospel, “El Condor” was South American, “Mother and Child” was reggae – you seem to be incredibly eclectic.
I like the other kinds of music. The amazing thing is that this country is so provincial. Americans know American music. You go to France: They know a lot of kinds of music. You go to Japan, and they know a lot of indigenous popular music. But Americans never get into the South American music, I fell into Los Incas, I loved it. It’s got nothing to do with our music, but I liked it anyway. The Jamaican thing, there’s nobody getting into a Jamaican thing. Jamaicans have a lot of good music, an awful lot.

That one you really pulled off – “Mother and Child Reunion.”
I got that by making a mistake. Because “Why Don’t You Write Me?” was supposed to sound like that but it came out a bad imitation. So I said, “I’m not going to get it out of the regular guys. I gotta get it out of the guys who know it.” And I gotta go down there willing to change for them. I started to play with them. I started to show them the song and play, and we started to work it out, and they were playing, and I would play, but, I couldn’t play with it. Couldn’t fit.

Did you sing it with them when they were recording it?
No, I played the track. I’d sing the song, we’d write down the chords. Now we know the song. Now, I start to play the guitar, a rhythm guitar part. Like I do on almost all the stuff. But it was bad. So I sat down and said, “You play it. Play what you want.” That’s the key thing. Let them play whatever they want, and then you change. You go their way. That’s how you get that.

You didn’t have the words to that song written when you recorded the track?
I didn’t.

That’s amazing.
Know where the words came from on that? You never would have guessed. I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called “Mother and Child Reunion.” It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, “Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.”

I read a lot into that one.
Well, that’s alright. What you read in was damn accurate, because what happened was this: last summer we had a dog that was run over and killed, and we loved this dog. It was the first death I had ever experienced personally. Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss – one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, “Oh, man, what if that was Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can’t get it.” And there were lyrics straight out forward like that. “I can’t for the life of me remember a sadder day. I just can’t believe its so.” Those are the lyrics. The chorus for “Mother and Child Reunion” – well, that’s out of the title. Somehow there was a connection between this death and Peggy and it was like Heaven, I don’t know what the connection was. Some emotional connection. It didn’t matter to me what it was. I just knew it was there.

I still don’t see why you would do the track, before you had written the words. Why did you do that?
I had no words. The words I had I never intended to use. But sometimes you get a very good record that way because you fit the words right to the track. You play with the feel of the track and the words. What happens then is when you go to sing the song without the words, like when I go to sing “Mother and Child Reunion,” for example, I go back and play it the way I originally played it in Jamaica, which is not Reggal, it’s Ska. There’s a difference in rhythm. But they said Ska’s old. They’re always doing Reggal, so I said, “Well, what’s the difference between Reggal and Ska?” I thought it was the same thing. So then they started to play. “This is Reggal. This is Ska. This is bluebeat.” Each was a different style.

What were these guys like?
They were nice guys. They were Jamaican guys.

Did they get into it?

They got into it. At first it was awkward I was the only white guy there and I was American – American, white guy, famous, coming to them…

They knew who you were.
And the funny thing is like they do sessions down there. They get paid like $7 or $10 per tune. That’s how they do it. And I worked all day and the next day. So I had to say to them, “Look, just assume I’m doing three tunes a day, okay? So I’ll pay you like three tunes a day,” ’cause otherwise they get dregged. “Forget about that,” I said. “Let’s get it right.” And even then I had changes to do. I had to put the piano on later, I had to put the voices on later, that was done in New York, and the vocal was done later.

The humor on Paul Simon is elusive.
Yes. For example, at the beginning at “Papa Hobo,” it opens light because it’s stylized. It’s an obviously constructed line. It’s not a cry of anguish. It’s too thought out. It’s carbon monoxide and the old Detroit perfume. It’s satirical. The “basketball town” line. It’s got a little bit of bitterness, but it’s also, it’s in its own way, an element of humor and a putdown of a place, a basketball town. It reminds me of a Midwest thing. The “Gatorade” line…

I hate that word “gatorade”…
That’s why I use it. That word doesn’t belong in a song. It comes out, and there it is. It’s the whole thing. It’s where that guy came from.

You have said that “Run Your Body Down” had a comic intent. But the title line is a very real thing to many people.
It is true. I don’t mean it to be any less serious by the fact that I feel that there’s humor in it. I think that that’s a delicate combination. If you can get humor and seriousness at the same time, you’ve created a special little thing, and that’s what I’m looking for, because if you get pompous, you lose everything. If I should write a preachy song about “for God’s sake take care of your health” it would sound like a Nichols and May bit: “My God, your mother and I are sick with worry.” You can’t do it in a song. Even “Me and Julio,” it’s pure confection.

What is it that the mama saw? The whole world wants to know.
I have no idea what it is.

Four people said that was the first thing I would ask you.
Something sexual is what I imagine, but when I say “something,” I never bothered to figure out what it was. Didn’t make any difference to me. First of all, I think it’s funny to sing – “Me and Julio.” It’s very funny to me. And when I started to sing “Me and Julio,” I started to laugh and that’s when I decided to make the song called “Me and Julio,” other wise I wouldn’t have made it that. I like the line about the radical priest. I think that’s funny to have in a song. “Peace Like a River” is a serious song. It’s a serious song, although it’s not as down as you think. The last verse is sort of nothing, it sort of puts the thing back up in the air, which is where it should be. You end up, you think about these things that are, something to do with a riot, or something in my mind in the city. [Q] The middle part was very surreal.

Part of the reason the thing sounds surreal by the way, is that there’s a sound effect in that record which I don’t think you can hear, but it’s there, and it creates a very real effect. What I did was to take a piano, hit the bottom notes of the piano with a hand, like with my fist, like that, played it at half speed backwards, and took a middle section out, which sounds something like Rrrrrrrrr. It’s just a low level rumble, but it creates a tension, and that thing is just in there. It’s in the