Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again.
Those words are so haunting even after all these years. They are of course from “Sounds of Silence” and they still have to be among the best opening lines ever for a rock/pop song. They could also be the opening of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe for that matter.
But Paul Simon, a boy from Forest Hills, Queens, wrote them and last night, he talked about songwriting at the New Yorker Festival. I was lucky enough to get one ticket for the venue which held only about 300 people. Simon, who turns 72 years old in a week, was accompanied by his guitar that he picked up regularly during the 90 minute talk to make a point about this of that song.
When pressed about the artistic process of writing a song, Paul said he thought that, almost above all else, you had to be “looking.” “It’s really a character trait,” he said, and told how, when he was just a kid, he would always look down when he walked because “sometimes I would find a quarter and one time I found a dollar. Oh the amount of baseball cards one could buy with a dollar.”
But the point, he said, is that you have to be looking to find those nuggets. I’ve heard a lot of artists over the years describe that trait as curiosity. I personally call it “having your antenna up.” You need to be aware of things around you to see the little oddities and weird connections.
I’ll just list some of the points he made along the way. They were all new to me:
— The inspiration of his song “Mother and Child Reunion” came from a Chinese menu. It was a chicken and egg dish and that was actually ‘mother and child reunion’ is the name the chef gave to it. I’ve heard this kind of thing before. Paul McCartney got the title of “Golden Slumbers” from an ad.
— Paul Simon keeps a notebook (a cheap spiral one) around all the time to jot down a phrase he sees or a thought that pops into his head.
— The song he’s most embarrassed by is “Dangling Conversation” but he didn’t say why.
— “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” is not about gay sex, as Truman Capote speculated. Paul said he doesn’t know what the song is about and titled it that just “to get the name Julio” into a song.
— He had only four heroes in his life: JFK, Lenny Bruce, Mickey Mantle and Elvis who wound up recording “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
— When Paul was in South Africa recording the album that became Graceland, he came up with the lyric “I’m going to Graceland” because the music, which came first, reminded him of a song that might come out of Sun Records. But he’d never been to Graceland so, when he got back to America, he drove down without telling anyone he was going and just waited on line and bought a ticket. Later, the lyrics of the rest of the song about the Mississippi delta and all of that came to him on the ride back.
I had the feeling he could have talked much longer but he ended the night by playing a new track for an upcoming hour and then he finished off with “Songs of Silence.” It was mesmerizing hearing it in that small venue. What a great artist he’s been over all these years. Those of us who grew up in the ’60s were truly blessed with a host of great artists. The sheer number of them working during that decade has never been matched since IMO.