A Poem on the Underground Wall

Would you look at those nerds. Their harmonies are angelic; their haircuts, terrible. In fact, looking at them now, I wonder if they weren’t the inspiration for Beavis & Butthead. Well, Simon & Garfunkel may have looked like bozos, but there’s no arguing with those harmonies, those melodies or that writing. Those two were both the kind of guy who seduces you by being the smartest person in the room, and wins you over completely by being the most sensitive too. How does this song, for example, not sink under its own verbosity? It has the confidence of its own cleverness, of course, but it also has heart. Paul Simon may be flexing his English Lit muscle with what may be the most pretentious closing couplet of all time, but he’s also turning a sympathetic eye on the unseen figure of the lowly subway vandal. Guys who spray paint subway cars have inner lives too! Maybe the hooligan has poetry inside him, poetry that only takes the form of gutter slang. Maybe that dick carved onto the hard plastic of the seat really meant the world to the person to took the time to chisel it there.

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Patterns

Simon & Garfunkel put a particularly bleak spin on the outlines of your life. Thanks, Simon & Garfunkel. Life is, indeed, a maze of blind corners and dead ends which we scramble through like frightened rats, pausing only to enjoy a nice cheese. Also, lonely nights spend alone in cramped walk-up apartments. Also, angst and self doubt. Also, Paul Simon needs a hug. Honestly, there’s few things that appeal to me more that the combination of beautifully refined musicianship and dysfunctional emotional flailing. Simon & Garfunkel mastered that balance like none other, with their chamber pop harmonies, and Garfunkel’s Sunday choir vocals, and Simon’s disgruntled-nerd songwriting. Paul Simon is known as a mellow fellow, thanks to his melodic gifts, soothing voice, and nonthreatening stature, but he wrote some of the darkest hit pop songs in the pop canon. This is a song I’d like to hear in the hands of some Bad Seeds, so it can’t sneak by disguised as pretty.

The Only Living Boy in New York

Simon & Garfunkel’s harmonies are so beautiful it makes you forget how angsty Paul Simon’s lyrics are. Here, for instance, our hero appears to have a serious case of solipsism. Which, in real life, is not an agreeable trait. On the other hand, the sensation of wandering around feeling like the last sentient person on earth is a universal angst-moment, especially for the young. If you can have that moment on a crisp fall morning in New York City, while rocking a nice corduroy jacket and scarf combo, well…that’s when you’ve entered romanticized ennui territory. You’re probably experiencing preemptive nostalgia for the present moment. It’s one of the finest scenes in the movie of your life, a montage of personal growth through contemplative strolling. With Simon & Garfunkel on the soundtrack.

Mrs. Robinson

The mellowest indictment of soul crushing conformity. Just because Simon & Garfunkel are mellow doesn’t mean they’re not socially conscious. If anything, it makes their words more resonant. Paul Simon wrote this song at Mike Nichols’ behest, for the now classic soundtrack of The Graduate. At the time, serious rock musicians were not expected to dip their toes into the world of Hollywood, even in peripheral ways, because selling out and stuff. But the counterculture embraced The Graduate, with the music being a large part of its appeal, and the movie’s popularity helped nudge Simon & Garfunkel on to greater fame. That film, though certain punchlines now sound dated, has held up well; being bewildered and frustrated by the expectations placed upon you by milieu that raised you is a near universal part of growing up. Most of us go through a Benjamin Braddock phase of aimless ennui. For me, as I’ve grown older, my sympathy has shifted towards the character of Mrs. Robinson, the glamorous cougar who drinks and screws away her bitterness at having relinquished the best years of her life to a man she doesn’t love, a child she never wanted and a life of material comfort that brings her no joy. The unhappy conformity of the Robinsons was a nascent feminist catalyst for a generation of women determined not to make Mrs. Robinson’s mistake. Unfortunately, a lot of people still do, and the American suburbs are still filled with wives and mothers who would trade all the creature comforts of the middle class for a chance to take back their youthful autonomy. We may have more options in life than Mrs. Robinson did (or Benjamin for that matter) but we don’t necessary grasp them, and the pressure to choose a ‘good’ life over a fulfilling one hasn’t gone away either. The figure of Mrs. Robinson remains relevant.

Keep the Customer Satisfied

Simon & Garfunkel are so neurotic and depressing. Even when they sound so cheery. Their pretty harmonies served as a disguise for their lyrical depth. Maybe they were too pretty and easy to listen to, and it got them dismissed as softies. I guess Paul Simon in general has a bit of reputation as a softie, but he’s an incredibly perceptive writer. Together, Simon & Garfunkel filled a niche that I don’t think exists anymore; supremely intellectual college boys who think nothing of throwing about the word ‘canticle’. They were unabashed representatives of the intellectual class, yeah, real New York intellectuals, do we even have that anymore? They were guys you hoped you’d meet in college, circa 1963; literate, sensitive and able to harmonize like one half of a barbershop quartet. Plus, they both excelled at collegiate sweater style, of the dweeby yet attractive type. And also, I’d like to remind you how very, very New York they are. Great, underrated representatives of New York music. When you think of that very specific mindset, that ineffable yet unmistakable thing we know as New York attitude, usually you think of Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Deborah Harry – real badass types. But Simon & Garfunkel are, for me, one of the most New York-evocative names out there. They make me think of frosty January walks in Central Park, dingy cafes, busking in the Village, and hanging about in the subway late at night, all while wearing a scarf.

(Photo: Songs of America)

I Am A Rock

“This, according to Artie, is my most neurotic song. Don’t know whether that’s true or not.”¬†– from the Simon’s own mouth. That’s saying a lot, but I believe Artie is correct. It’s surprising how much angst is buried underneath those pretty harmonies and benign looks. Most of it courtesy of Paulie, the songwriter¬†extraordinaire. Needless to say, it’s a very adolescent sentiment, me against the world and all that. Most of us grow out of having that attitude, some more quickly than others. The ones that don’t presumably grow up to become serial killers and crazy cat ladies. Nothing wrong with adolescent sentiments. I totally thought this was a profound life mission statement when I was fourteen. Yeah, definitely one of those songs a peer-deprived teen can relate to, to the point of tears. Speaking of teens and angst and all that, doesn’t it just beg for a super straight-faced thrash metal cover? It’s like it was meant for Metallica to sing but the gods of song sent it to Paul Simon instead.

Homeward Bound

Like we saw yesterday, Paul Simon did some pretty important stuff in the 80’s. He helped introduce the world to African music and all that. Pretty stellar. But as good as Paul Simon’s music has always been, it just wasn’t quite as good after he dropped the ‘& Garfunkel’ part. Of course Garfunkel wasn’t as good without the ‘Simon &’ either. Simon & Garfunkel are like cheese & crackers, like tea & crumpets, like spaghetti & meatballs. That is, they’re tastier together than they are on their own. I mean, I’ll eat crackers straight up if I have to, but some cheese would be jolly good. Mmm, cheese. So I’m saying that, uh, Paul Simon is kind of like a cracker, very wholesome and crunchy and good for you, and Artie Garfunkel is the cheesy one who needs to balance out the crunchiness, and um, I think I’m going to fix myself an early dinner. I honestly don’t know where that metaphor came from, but I think you get the general idea.