The Angels Never Show
352 · 25 October 01
Simon & Garfunkel: The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970
Halfway to Ipswitch, Girl Versions finished. If I'd been more organized, I'd have restocked the changer in specific anticipation of an hour-long drive with my mother. Our tastes have ample common ground, and there are no shortage of records I could have brought along for play-and-tell. But I seem to have temporarily lost the ability to plan ahead. At least, I hope it's temporary. I would set a date by which I should have returned to my full pre-11-September functioning condition, so as to bound this strange period of limbo, but setting a reasonable date would entail planning ahead, and at the moment I can't do that. So the changer clicked over to Clayton Park, by Thrush Hermit, a brash rock album I tracked down because it contains one of the songs Emm covered on Girl Versions. It begins rather abruptly. Mom flinched a little, politely but unmistakably. Girl Versions was in slot four of the six-disc changer, Thrush Hermit was five, and one through three were all variously unsuitable. I could certainly have just turned the music off; we don't need to be distracted from each other. But as it happens, for totally unrelated reasons, I was traveling with perhaps the trump-card of parent-friendly music, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme by Simon & Garfunkel. My parents, who met folk-singing (Dad was Mom's guitar teacher), were thus required by law to own at least four of the five S&G records (in my fuzzy memories they were missing Bookends, I'm not sure why), and I'm pretty sure they constituted the only points of intersection between my collection and theirs as of my departure for college. So I punched six, Thrush Hermit shut up, and I settled into the driver's seat to enjoy a bit of cross-generational nostalgia and perhaps even a two-part sing-along in which Art's parts, falling to Mom on the basis of range, would fare rather better than Paul's, which I would undoubtedly butcher, myself. I hadn't said anything to Mom about what was coming, so I waited for the opening bars to register, and then glanced over, slyly, to see her reaction.
She was sobbing. The last time I'd looked over, just seconds before, she had been fine. For a moment, random neurons in my brain fired in a miniature panic, trying to imagine what could have suddenly infiltrated the car. We hadn't driven past an accident scene, or any landmark with scarring emotional associations. Only when she whispered, frantically, "Turn it off, turn it off", did it even occur to me that the music could be related. I hit the power switch like we were being electrocuted. In my old car, the music would keep going for a couple seconds after you turned it off, as the system reluctantly conceded defeat. In this one, it shuts off right away.
"It was as if for a second", Mom explained later, "I was me then, with all the hopes and expectations of that time, and then me now, realizing that except for you and your sister so little of it came to be. Music is powerful stuff. Imagine what Faust would have written if he'd had as much music as madeleines." And, in a follow-up email the next day, "Proust, not Faust!", which of course I knew, although I think it's fair to wonder what a strict regimen of music and madeleines could have done for Faust, too.
I have been listening to those Simon & Garfunkel records again, after quite a long time away from most of them, because they were all just remastered and reissued, with a few bonus tracks, in a nice, big, annotated box. (Or separately, but what fun is that?) I was born in 1967, into the middle of the series, and was thus far too young to have meaningful first-hand impressions, so my retroactively constructed feelings are a tangle of individual musical snippets, memories of S&G's role in my own slow emergence from the safety of the folk music that could be extracted from my parents' hulking turntable into the strange and exciting world of the left-speaker-only FM radio in our mucus-green Toyota Corona, and the indelible impression that in some extremely roundabout way, certainly not involving anything as literal as height differences or personality types, my parents are Paul and Art. But hearing these songs again, in what has unexpectedly re-become a world charged with deeply personal political energy, I can at least try to imagine some fraction of how it must have felt.
If you have only an ambient awareness of Simon & Garfunkel, you probably don't know the first album at all. It is called Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., and you might pick it up, initially, in the store, on the grounds that "The Sound of Silence" is listed on the back, but then you'd notice that there's also an album called Sounds of Silence, which has rather more song-titles you recognize. Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. is, for most practical purposes (or most of my practical purposes, anyway), the final album of the old wave of folk music. Of its twelve songs, six of them are traditional or written by other people, with the banjo-driven "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream", the frivolous "Peggy-O" and the exuberant "Go Tell It on the Mountain", in particular, straight out of the standard campfire repertoire. Maybe you've heard the hushed "Bleecker Street", Paul's first great New York song. Maybe you've even heard this version of "The Sound of Silence", before it occurred to anybody to dub some drums onto it. But Paul's "Sparrow" is not the song that starts "I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail" (that's "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)", four albums later), "Benedictus" is a hymn, "He Was My Brother" is a protest-song still clearly descended from bluegrass and spirituals, and "The Sun Is Burning" is a subtlety-free bomb song worthy (especially in the solemn delivery of the couplet "Death comes in a blinding flash / Of hellish heat and leaves a smear of ash") of Joyce Kilmer on a break-up bender. The cover of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" was rather decisively superseded by the Byrds' version the following year. "Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M." itself, an imminent fugitive's meditation as he watches his lover sleep in the last hours before his flight, may be the most interesting song here on musicological grounds, adapting elements of country and Celtic balladry to carry an unmistakably modern narrative. It's easy enough for me to imagine that the frank bed setting was ground-breaking at the time, like that first Doonesbury panel in which the sun rises wordlessly on the couple the morning after. The three bonus tracks are a demo version of "Bleecker Street" and alternate takes of "He Was My Brother" and "The Sun Is Burning", curious but hardly revelatory.
The song I get stuck on, hearing this album again in 2001, is the first one. It's another one Paul didn't write, a gospel rave-up called "You Can Tell the World". I never paid much attention to its religious content before, any more than I let my atheism interfere with my enjoyment of "Amazing Grace", but this time through, as the world teeters on the brink of disastrous violence arising from three partially inconsistent centuries-old documents purporting to originate from the same source, I can't bring myself to let "the children of Israel" just be the syllables to which the melody happens to adhere. I have been reading, coincidentally, speculative-fiction writer (and Mormon) Orson Scott Card's religiously-motivated novelization of the life of Moses, Stone Tables (furtively mail-ordered from Utah with some of the illicit thrill of pre-Internet pornography). The first half of the book, more or less, deals with Moses' birth and upbringing in Egypt, and subsequent exile, and is handled in a completely rational manner, with the Pharaohs and their priests as secular people consciously sustaining religious myths for political and strategic reasons. I used to say Card was my favorite writer, and he tells the story engagingly. And then, with what I guess wouldn't be no warning to people who already know how this story goes, Moses is wandering along a mountain path and comes upon a bush that is burning but not consumed, and God appears and speaks to him. It would not be hard to write this scene from Moses' subjective perspective, so that the reader could understand the experience Moses thought he had without having to accept it themselves, but that's why I had to mail-order this from Deseret: Card is a believer, and in stark contrast to the scenes involving ostensibly non-existent Egyptian gods, this and every other scene in the rest of the story involving the Jews' god is recounted in unflinchingly literal detail. The conversations with God are simply dialog, the plagues inflicted on Egypt are every bit as real as the frogs in Magnolia, the Red Sea is actually parted, etc. No attempt is made to mitigate any of the arbitrary and extreme cruelty of the scriptural version; indeed, the main conflicts in the bloodiest stretch of the book, while God is maiming the entire hapless nation of Egypt beyond any realistic hope of repair just to make a not-very-coherent point, are Moses and his family's attempts to reconcile themselves to the unfathomability of God's will.
And I absolutely do not buy it. I don't just mean that I don't believe this happened, nor that this would be an atrocious God to pledge fealty to if you thought it did, I mean I don't believe for a second that Orson Scott Card actually believes this nonsense either. I cannot force my mind to reconcile his obvious intelligence and insight into human character, abundantly demonstrated elsewhere, with this professed willingness to believe an idiotic and profoundly offensive fable passed down from observers who were intrinsically incapable of having reported reliably on the nature of any phenomenon remotely resembling those described. I can't do it. The two Testaments and the Koran are primitive cultures' hopelessly unqualified explanations for events they explicitly admit they do not understand. As history, they are semantically identical to the flat earth, the divinity of the Pharaohs, the Kalevala or Thor creating thunder by banging around Olympus with a huge hammer. The important difference is that it's been a really long time since anybody killed thousands of uninvolved strangers in retribution for Zeus cheating on Hera. So I can't, as I would have without much hesitation two months ago, read Stone Tables as somebody else's quaint worldview, or sing along with "He brought joy, joy, joy into my heart" and be pleased with however the singer found happiness.
I've never been a Dylan fan, so the place in musical history that probably really belongs to the night he freaked everybody out by playing electric guitar, in my world instead belongs to the day Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. producer Tom Wilson, without bothering to ask Paul or Art for permission, cannily grafted some band instrumentation onto "The Sound of Silence" and re-released it as a pop song. To Wilson's credit, he did a pretty good job. Knowing the story and having heard both versions, I can spot a few of the seams, particularly as the rhythm section tries to turn shaky corners, but the pop version still basically sounds right to me.
Presented with a hit fait accompli, Paul and Art had the odd challenge of trying to go back and make the album that would assert a context for a song and accompanying aesthetic they didn't themselves create. They are somewhat unevenly successful. "I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song, / I'm twenty-two now but I won't be for long" was an auspicious enough start to "Leaves That Are Green" for Billy Bragg to swipe it verbatim for "A New England" two decades later, but by the end the song has wandered off into Hallmark-grade faux-Whitman and a plinky keyboard that's quite plainly in nobody's native language. Twangily sitar-like Rickenbackers, crashing drums and a scattering of drug references on "Blessed" seem to me now like a rather desperate attempt to bash out a quick Byrds knock-off. "Kathy's Song" is a straightforwardly pretty acoustic folk tune, but "Somewhere They Can't Find Me", with its rumbling descending bass lines and overblown backing, is a fairly hilarious attempt to recast "Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M." as a rock anthem by adding a dopey hey-man chorus that doesn't have any of the observational acuity of the rest of the lyrics. Art's harmonies on "Richard Cory" are almost apologetic, mixed down way below the bitterly metallic guitar and thumping drums; things work much better when the harmony/backing balance is flipped for the breathy "A Most Peculiar Man". "April Come She Will" is elegant and mercifully uncluttered.
But Sounds of Silence only really finds its new groove, it seems to me, at the very end. On some level "We've Got a Groovy Thing Goin'" is undoubtably a Beatles pastiche, but it sounds sincere about it, like Paul and Art have finally internalized enough of the Beatles' spirit to sing a Beatles-style song without constantly referring to their lecture notes about what one is supposed to be like. And the proper follow-up to the revamped "The Sound of Silence" finally arrives in the form of the simultaneously stomping and soaring "I Am a Rock". Vocal harmony co-exists with a driving rhythm track, the arrangement shifts from acoustic to electric and back like a single author said it should, and the lyrics find a middle ground between chapbook preciousness and rock bombast. As Paul plays the last couple acoustic guitar figures as the album's exit theme, I start to believe for the first time that he's solved the aesthetic puzzle in his own mind.
This disc is also, perhaps fittingly given its transitional state otherwise, the bonus-track gold-mine of the set. The acoustic cover of "Blues Run the Game" was previously on the Old Friends compilation, but the other three bonuses are a compressed Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. reprise I assume represents the traditional material that would have been interspersed with the original songs on Sounds of Silence if Wilson hadn't changed its course (I'm going to ignore the liner notes' claim that they were recorded in 1970). As a teenager, naturally, I would have hated these throwbacks. As an adult I love the goofily whiny falsetto Art slips into on "Roving Gambler", and the little laugh that cracks Paul's composure when one of them forgets how the next verse starts, as much as any single detail on this album, and will no longer be able to think of the record as complete without them.
By the time Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme comes around, and my mother starts crying, the transitions are all firmly complete, and Paul and Art are ready to produce one of their two great masterpieces. Imitating Dylan and the Byrds and the Beatles may have been necessary to get them started, but as of their third album the entire range from rock strut to folk intimacy falls well within their own idiom. "Scarborough Fair", at one extreme, is as delicate and pristine as songs come; "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara'd Into Submission)", at the other, is as smug a novelty jam as anything Arlo Guthrie and Eminem could ever have come up with together. In between, Paul and Art hit a credibility-strainingly rich vein of folk/rock hybrids only they would ever come close to mastering. Pulsing conga drums drive the springy, menacing "Patterns". "Cloudy", impish and expansive, mixes "Yellow Submarine"'s cheerful lilt with "Turn, Turn, Turn"'s calm poise. "Homeward Bound" amounts to an apology for Wilson's dubbing, and a demonstration that Paul and Art (now, at least) know better than anybody how to add a rhythm track to a folk song. "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine" is buoyantly glib, "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" preternaturally dignified despite its slang. "The Dangling Conversation" is a first draft of the grandeur of "Bridge Over Troubled Water", with perhaps the best poetry reference in popular music ("And you read your Emily Dickinson, / And I my Robert Frost, / And we note our place with bookmarkers / That measure what we've lost."), and a line that ought to constitute a multimedia dictionary's definition of "syncopation". "Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall" is a variation of sorts on "Homeward Bound", feinting towards the same chorus and then spinning away in another direction at the last second. "For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her" prefigures Belle and Sebastian and, perhaps even more vividly, the Clientele. "A Poem on the Underground Wall" does a remarkably credible job of resolving the stylistic loose ends of both "The Sound of Silence" and "Richard Cory". The two bonus tracks, Paul's endearingly shaky solo demos of "Patterns" and "A Poem on the Underground Wall", are intriguing negative-space showcases for Art's presence on the real versions.
But Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme's immortality would be secure if it consisted of nothing but its final track, "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night", which is my nomination for either the first or second greatest single work of conceptual art in music, depending on whether or not I'm in the mood to count John Cage's "4'33"" as "in music". It's two minutes long, and nearly as simple as "4'33"" in execution: Paul and Art sing "Silent Night" over a deadpan recitation of grim news headlines. In my opinion your cultural education is just as incomplete, if you haven't heard this, as it would be if you haven't read any cummings, or seen one of Escher's infinite staircases, or eaten sushi at least once. And if, in fact, you haven't, you could hardly pick a better time to correct the omission. The final news item: "In a speech before the convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in New York, Nixon also said opposition to the war in this country is the great single weapon working against the US." Twenty-five years later, we once again have to figure out whether he's right or not, and either way, what that implies.
Bookends, because it wasn't part of my formative S&G experience, always feels like an intermission to me. But maybe I'd have absorbed it by now if it didn't also suspect itself of digressing. The two short "Bookends Theme"s and Art's mid-album collage of nursing-home field recordings are the most obvious points of departure, but the cacophonous production of "Save the Life of My Child", the strange stasis of both "Overs" and "Old Friends", the ragged groove of "Fakin' It", the inane stream-of-consciousness lyrics of "Punky's Dilemma" and the gangly clomp of "At the Zoo" all sound to me like experiments caught somewhere on the way from inspiration to execution. Interspersed among these, though, are three of Paul and Art's finest self-contained singles, and maybe only Yes' Fragile seriously rivals Bookends for this mixture of coherence and indulgence, at least until uneven album construction became fetishized much later. "America", of course, Yes turned into a magnificent epic, and hearing either version makes me want to hear the other immediately afterwards. "A Hazy Shade of Winter" is just as inextricably linked, for me, to the Bangles' pounding version. And the biggest hit, and probably Paul and Art's signature song for many people, was "Mrs. Robinson", from The Graduate, but I admit that my period of not caring for this song on its own merits segued straight into a period of not caring for it because I hated the Lemonheads' version so much, and to this day we remain on uneasy terms.
I don't find the bonus demo of "Old Friends" any more engaging than the finished version, but for me the dry, edgy, non-album single "You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies", despite a jazzy non-sequitur break in the middle that I count as an egregious failure of discipline, seems like one of this phase's most distinctive moments.
And then there's Bridge Over Troubled Water. If your tolerance for excess is limited, Paul and Art's final album may well exceed it within the first minute. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" itself, which opens the album, could be the most quintessential crescendoing piano/strings ballad in all of Western pop music. If you think it's overblown I can't possibly argue with you. It's hard to imagine how much more over a song could be blown. But its scale, to me, is an integral part of its genius. I am as awed in its presence as I am by anything man or nature has ever made. There are songs I like more, for various reasons, and maybe even songs I admire more, on particular grounds, but if I had to pick a single recording -- a single piece of art, even -- to fire out into space to explain the human ideals of grace and beauty, this would do just fine. Art's lead vocal is weightless and transcendent, the melody is intricately elemental, the arrangement irresistible, the construction airtight. The lyrics mix metaphors repeatedly, but are earnest and resonant all the same. This, too, I think, ought to be part of every human's preparation for sharing the planet with the rest of us. You don't have to like it, any more than you have to think skydiving is recreation, but you have to know that this is a thing humans can do.
And while you're at it, you might as well listen to the rest of the album. The twittering "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" anticipates Paul's later multiculturalism. "Cecilia" is one of pop history's great sheepish sing-alongs, capable of surviving infinite abuse from college a cappella groups. "Keep the Customer Satisfied" is like Death of a Salesman performed by Cirque du Soleil. "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" is either pop's definitive black-and-white melodrama, or maybe its most straight-faced put-down, I'm still not sure I know which. "The Boxer" encapsulates or maybe defines city loneliness, and I'd list its snare crashes and digeridu-ish wheezes among the truly great noises in the annals of rock production. I suspect large swaths of pop history would start to unravel if you pulled hard enough on "The Only Living Boy in New York". I think I once knew whether the crowd noise on the quasi-rockabilly cover of "Bye Bye Love" is faked or not, but I've forgotten why it mattered. There's exactly one thing that always seemed unsatisfying about Bridge Over Troubled Water, to me, and it's that after such an awe-inspiring beginning it ends with the comparatively restrained "Song for the Asking". The reissue fixes that. First there's a weird French (Cajun?) traditional thing called "Feuilles-O", which sounds palette-clearingly out-of-context. And then there's four minutes and forty-six seconds that are worth whatever I paid for this whole box, demo take six of "Bridge Over Troubled Water", just Paul's piano and Art's voice. The words are all there (plus some extras), but where there would eventually be the massed choir of angels, instead there is just Art, humming distractedly to himself, or tapping, not quite in rhythm, on his thigh. Somebody does pluck a bass for a couple measures towards the end, but then apparently wanders out of the room to go play pinball. Art keeps singing. The angels never do show.
And without half of what I would have told you was integral to this song's magnificence, it has lost nothing. It is as if the earth has been peeled off the Earth, and the scaffolding that holds the mountains up and the oceans down turns out to be exactly as picturesque. And I'm left, wondering, for what feels like the eightieth time in the last month, why anybody thinks they need gods and scripture and afterlives to attain rapture. Why are we, Orson and everybody else, afraid to draw the simplest, most obvious conclusions? Why does it take Sea-partings and pilgrimages to Mecca and stone tablets for cultures to rally themselves? On a summer afternoon in 1969, after we landed on the moon and before the apocalypse, an architecture student with poofy hair and a short guy who later married Edie Brickell walked into a little room in New York City and taped the sound of why none of that should matter. It's hopelessly beautiful, and it makes my mother cry, and it promises a universe of things it can neither deliver nor forestall. It crosses the chasm between here and anywhere we could possibly want to be instead, so why do we still think we have to learn to fly? The bridge hangs right there in the air, waiting for our step.