Playboy Interview : Paul Simon
By Tony Schwartz, 1984
A candid conversation about old friends, craziness and troubled waters with the intense singer-songwriter whose music has spanned two decades. Among pop-music starts, it isn't often that the crowd pleasers also manage to
elicit praise from the critics.
It is even rarer to find a singer-songwriter who was at the center of the Sixties' cultural explosion - indeed, who was a musical influence in that culture - creating new and original music in the Eighties. By these criteria alone, Paul Simon may be one of the most successful composers and performers in the history of pop music. Now 42, he grew up in the Queens influenced by rock'n'roll but became internationally famous as a folk singer. In a profession that celebrates youth and exuberance, he is an anomaly: serious, introspective, low key. As a songwriter he is given to intensely personal, faintly literary lyrics but also to soaring, accessible melodies. He counts John Cheever and Saul Bellow among his heroes - but can't think of more pleasurable evening than watching his beloved New York Yankees play a two-night double-header at the stadium. Given the burnout factor in the world of pop music, Simon's consistency has been remarkable. With his partner, Art Garfunkel, he went to the pop in 1965 with "The Sounds Of Silence" - and even a sampling of what followed is extraordinary : "I Am a Rock," "Scarborough Fair," "Homeward Bound," "Mrs Robinson," "America," "The Boxer" and the climactic Simon and Garfunkel anthem, "Bridge Over Troubled Water." On his own, Simon's hits have included "Kodachrome," "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover," "Late in the Evening" and "Still Crazy After All These Years"; the last won a Grammy award as the best album of the year in 1975. "Allergies," from his recently released album "Hearts and Bones," is his newest hit. No Simon and Garfunkel or Paul Simon album has ever sold fewer than 500,000 copies, and most have gone platinum ( 1,000,000). Total album sales exceed 40,000,000 world-wide. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" alone sold more than 13,000,000 copies and has been recorded by more than 200 artists - among them Simon's first hero, Elvis Presley. Because Simon owns all the publishing rights to his songs, and because he now commands a royalty in the neighborhood of $1.50 per album, he is among the wealthiest of all pop musicians. At the same time, Simon has resisted repeating past successes. "He has developed from a promising songwriter into a great one," wrote the critic Stephen Holden after the release of "Still Crazy," in 1975. "He has continued to discover and refine evocative instrumental textures, integrating reggae, Gospel and jazz into his music with the smooth authority of an American classicist" Of "Hearts and Bones," Holden wrote more recently in The New York Times: "The new record makes by far the most convincing case for using rock'n'roll as the basis of mature artistic expression. On "Hearts and Bones' ... the lyrics dwell obsessively on the conflict between feeling and thinking, while the music reflects Simon's abiding passion for the primitive spiritual fires of rock'n'roll and his equally keen respect for the more refined expressions of art." Simon's complex instincts can be traced to his childhood. His father was a professional musician who later earned his Ph.D in education and taught at City College. When Paul was growing up in Forest Hills, his intellectual curiosity led him to read poetry, but his instincts drew him to listen to Alan Freed's rock'n'roll show. He met Arthur Garfunkel in grade school and inspired by the Everly Brothers - they began singing together. At the age of 15, under the name of Tom and Jerry, they had a hit with their song "Hey! Schoolgirl." A series of flops followed; Simon went oof to Queens College and, after graduation, moved to England in 1964. During a trip home the following year, he was reunited with Garfunkel. They ended up recording their first album," Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.," for Columbia. It included "The Sound Of Silence," but only when the song was released augmented by drums and electric guitar did it become a hit - and launch their careers. When "The Graduate," a movie for which Simon wrote the songs, turned into a huge hit in 1966 - and became a symbol of that alienated era - Simon and Garfunkel rode the tide. Then shortly before the release of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in 1970, Garfunkel went off to act in his first movie, "Catch-22." A partnership that had always endured its share of conflict began to fall apart. "Bridge" became their biggest hit, but when Garfunkel opted to pursue his movie career, Simon decided to go out on his own. In the 13 years that have followed, Simon has released seven solo albums - all successful, though non as big as "Bridge over Troubled Water." Early in that period, he was married, to Peggy Harper, and they had a son, Harper, now 11. The marriage lasted five years. Late last, Simon was married to actress Carrie Fisher. Professionally, his major disappointment was "One-Trick Pony," the movie he wrote and starred in, which was greeted by decidedly mixed notices on its release in 1980. It was in the aftermath of that experience that Simon and Garfunkel decided to reunite for a concert in Central Park in 1981, the success of which led to a fullscale if short-lived reunion. To talk with Simon about the intertwining of his music and his life, PLAYBOY called on Contributing Editor Tony Schwartz, who conducted last month's "Interview" with Dan Rather. His report: "From the start, I was struck by two things about Paul Simon. the first was his remarkable capacity to speak about such complex concepts as art and creativity in simple, and evocative terms. The other was his willingness to speak so openly about such sensitive subjects as his seesawing sense of self-worth and his bittersweet relationship with Art Garfunkel. Both capacities, of course, help explain why he has long created music that is both accessible and complex, personal yet universal. "We met for the first time shortly after midnight in his hotel room in Vancouver, where he had just finished one of the final concerts on the Simon and Garfunkel tour. It was an emotionally turbulent time for Simon. Just a few days earlier, he had been married in New York to Carrie Fisher, a secret and sudden climax to four years of an-again, off-again relationship. Also, he was in the midst of making the difficult decision that he wasn't going to include Garfunkel on his new album after all. "Although Simon is not by nature a demonstrative man, it was evident from our first moments together that a certain intensity would characterize the conversations. There was little of the cautious bantering that often precedes these "Interviews, and more than once along the way, Simon mentioned that he felt out talks were more akin to psychiatric sessions. "Over the next three weeks, we met nearly a dozen times, often for three hours at a stretch, in his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Carrie's one-room log cabin in Laurel Canyon and, finally, in Simon's breath-takingly beautiful duplex apartment overlooking Central Park. "People meeting Simon for the first time invariably remark about his height - 5'5". I was more struck by how easily he commands whatever room he's in. For a popular artist of his accomplishment, that partly comes with the territory. But he also gently exudes authority and clarity. He measures his words, edits as he speaks, and he sentences often sound written. "Although he usually dresses unprepossessingly in jeans and T-shirts, his taste in nearly everything is highly cultivated, whether it's in the art on his walls, the French pastel print fabric on his couches or the quality of the books on his shelves. His close friends are nearly all involved in the arts - among them, director Mike Nichols, actor Charles Grodin and producer Lorne Michaels - but few of them are pop musicians. "The exception, of course, is Art Garfunkel, with whom Simon has his oldest, most competitive and most enduring relationship. having gone their separate ways for more than a decade, they were reunited in Central Park. For a few moments, they seemed to be living proof that you can go home again. But, as I quickly discovered, that wasn't quite so." Playboy : To your fans, it seemed recently that Simon and Garfunkel had achieved something extraordinary: You reunited after 11-year split and became a success all over again. The climax was to be a new album together. That didn't happen. Why ? Simon : This is going to feel like that Harold Pinter play Betrayal, because to start, we are going to have to unreel backward to late 1980. That was when I finished One-Trick Pony. The movie came out to mixed reviews - and the soundtrack album didn't do nearly as well as I'd hoped. It was a period of great depression for me. I was immobilized. And it was about that time that I came under the influence of a man named Rod Gorney, who's a teacher and a psychiatrist in Los Angeles. I heard about him from a friend and called him from New York. Playboy : Was your rapport instant ? Simon : Well I flew right out to California to see him and went directly to his house from the airport. We sat down and he said, "Why have you come?" I said, "I'm here because, given all the facts that I'm young and I'm in good health and I'm famous - that I have talent, I have money - given all these facts, I want to know why I'm so unhappy. That's why I'm here." We began to talk, and among the things I said was "I can't write anymore. I have a serious writer's block, and this is the first time I can't overcome it. I've always written slowly, but I never really had a block." I was really depressed. Playboy : What made you feel so bad ? Simon : It was many things, but essentially, it was my work and my relationship with Carrie. She and I were breaking up, which we were always doing. Faced with a problem that made us uncomfortable, we were inclined to say, "Hey, I don't need this." We were spoiled, because we were both used to being the center of attention. Playboy : And you felt you particularly needed attention at that point ? Simon : Definitely. I had a severe loss of faith over the response to One-trick Pony. Also, I had switched labels, from Columbia to Warner Bros., with great trauma. When I left CBS, it became company policy there to make life as difficult as possible for me. And that began a terrible personal battle between me and Walter Yetnikoff, the president of the company. It ended only when I threatened to subpoena people to testify that he had told them he was going to ruin my career. Playboy : Did you tell all that to your psychiatrist? What did he say? Simon : When I finished, he said, "I find what you say very interesting and I'd like you to come back and talk some more." then he asked if I'd noticed the guitar in the corner of his living room. I said I had and he said, " Would you like to borrow it and take it with you to your hotel?" So I said, "Yes, sure." And he said, "Maybe you'd like to write about what you've said today." I thought, That's an interesting ploy psychologically; so I said, "All right." Playboy : And that did it for you? Simon : No, the first night, I never even opened the guitar case. The next day, he asked what had happened, and I said, "You don't understand. It takes me months to write songs." He said, "I only expected you to begin to write a song." I went back to the hotel and I wrote on a piece of paper, "Allergies, maladies / Allergies to dust and grain / Allergies, remedies / Still these allergies remain." Just that, with a melody. Went back the next day really excited about it. But that didn't make me feel the problem was solved. So we just kept talking about writing. And I said, "My problem is that I really don't see what difference it makes if I write or don't write." He said "Do you want to make a difference ?" And I said I did. He asked if I thought Uncle Tom's cabin made a difference to people. I said yes, and he agreed. Then he said, "I think Bridge Over Troubled Water made a difference to people. I'm interested in working with you, because I think that you can write things that people feel make a difference. That's the reason I want you writing again." Playboy : Pratical fellow. But what he said doesn't seem particularly profound. Simon : He was able to penetrate someone whose defenses were seemingly impenetrable. He was able to make me feel that I wasn't there to work just for the satisfaction of having a hit but that there was a contribution to be made. Of course, the reason I'd been blocked was that I felt what I did was of absolutely no importance. He was able to say, "I'm telling you that the way to contribute is through your songs. And it's not for you to judge their merits, it's for you to write the songs." For me, that was brilliant - and liberating. Playboy : What happened? Simon : Three or four days later, I went home. And I began writing. Somewhere in the middle of that summer, I got a call from Ron Delsener, the main concert promoter in New York City. He said that the parks commissioner of New York wanted me to do a free concert in Central Park, and asked if I'd be interested. I said yes, but then I began to think it wouldn't work. I was still feeling a little shaky about One-Trick Pony. Then I thought, Why don't I ask Artie to join me ? Not the usual thing where I sing and he comes out at the end and sings three songs with me. Maybe we'll do 20 minutes, half an hour, a full set. I called up Artie and he was in Switzerland. He travels all the time, loves to walk places. I asked if he wanted to do this concert and said yeah. Then I realized that if we did half the show as Simon and Garfunkel and did the second half alone, it just wouldn't work in show-business terms. Which meant I would have to open the show. Then I said, "I don't want to be an opening act for Simon And garfunkel!" So I figured, Well, let's try to do a whole Simon and Garfunkel show. Playboy : What were you working on? Simon : I was on a real roll with my writing by then, but I stopped to go into rehearsal for the concert. And at that time, we were all in very good spirits. Well, the rehearsals were just miserable. Artie and I fought all the time. He didn't want to do the show with my band; he just wanted me on acoustic guitar. I said, "I can't do that anymore. I can't just play the guitar for two hours." First, my hand had never fully recovered from when it was injured a few years ago, when I had calcium deposits. And second, a lot of the songs I've written in recent years weren't made to be played by one guitar. Still Crazy After All These Years, for example, is an electric-piano song. And Late in the Evening has to have horns. So we got a band. Playboy : Once you got onstage in Central Park, in front of 500,000 people, did your differences fade away? Simon : Yeah. We just did what we'd done when we were an act in the Sixties. We tried to blend our voices. I attempted to make the tempos work. I talked a little bit, too, but I found it impossible to hold a dialog with 500,000 people. Playboy : How did playing for a crowd that size feel? Simon : In a certain sense, it was numbing. It was so big, and it was happening only once. I didn't have much time for an overview while I was performing. Playboy : And afterward ? Simon : Afterward, our first reaction was, I think, one of disappointment. Arthur's more than mine. he thought he didn't sing well. I didn't get what had happened - how big it was - until I went home, turned on the television and saw it on all the news, the people being interviewed and later that night on the front pages of all the newspapers. Then I got it. Playboy : What made you decide to follow the concert with a tour together ? To what extent was it just a way to make some easy bucks repackaging old material? Simon : Well, hey it was old material. But it wasn't cynically done. It wasn't hype. It was done because there was an overwhelming demand. The thing that struck me was that people seemed to like those songs, which I found to be really surprising, because I felt they were dated. Playboy : How do you feel about the record produced from the concert ? simon : I don't particularly like it. I don't think that Simon and Garfunkel as a live act compares to Simon and Garfunkel as a studio act. Playboy : Why not ? Simon : In terms of performing, I've never really been comfortable being a professional entertainer. For me, it's a secondary form of creativity. I'm not a creative performer. I'm a reproducer onstage of what I've already created. I guess everyone who goes on the stage is exhibitionistic, but there are limits to what I'll do to make a crowd respond. Playboy : What did you expect creatively from a Simon and Garfunkel tour ? Simon : Nothing. I thought I was going to get an emotional experience from it. I felt I wasn't really present for Simon and Garfunkel the first time around. Playboy : Where were you ? Simon : I wasn't home, the same way that I wasn't present for the concert in the park when it was happening. I mean, a phenomenon occurs and it's recognized as a phenomenon. But because you're in the middle of it, you just think that it's your life - until it's over. And then you look back and say, "What an unusual thing happened to me in the Sixties." So there it was. A chance to go and re-experience, to a certain degree, what I hadn't really experienced the first time. Some of those hits from the Sixties I just had no interest in anymore, musically. But I had an interest in experiencing what it was like being the person who wrote and sang those songs. Playboy : How was the experience ? Simon : I liked it. And I began to think about the songs. I remember playing a concert somewhere in the middle of Germany. It's strange enough to be in Germany, and when I finished playing, I was thinking, I hate Homeward Bound. And then I thought, Why do I hate it ? I said "Oh, I hate the words." So I went over them. And then I remembered where I wrote it. I was in Liverpool, actually in a railway station. I'd just played a little folk job. The job of a folk singer in those days was to be Bob Dylan. You had to be a poet. That's what they wanted. And I thought hat was a drag. And I wanted to get home to my girlfriend, Kathy in London. I was 22. And then I thought, Well, that's not a bad song at all for a 22-year-old kid. It's actually quite touching now that I see it. So I wonder what's so embarrassing to me about it. Then I said, "I know! It's that I don't want to be singing that song as Simon and Garfunkel!" Playboy : Why not ? Simon : Because Simon and Garfunkel, as Artie said to me just recently, was the songs of Paul Simon, which people liked, and the voices of Paul Simon and Arthur Garfunkel, which combined to make a sound that people really liked. And no question, without Arthur's voice, I never would have enjoyed that success. And so the whole world was big Simon and garfunkel fans. But I wasn't. Actually, I'm a rock-'n'-roll kid. I grew up with rock'n'roll. My main influences in early music were Fifties R&B, Fifties doo-wop groups, Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers. But Simon and Garfunkel was a folkie act. I liked the blend of our voices, but a significant part of me just wasn't a folkie. What we were doing was too sweet. I was too serious. When I began making my own albums, the songs became funkier. They were more about the streets. Playboy : How did you and Artie get along on the European reunion tour? Simon : We were hardly speaking to each other. I'm not sure why not. It wasn't my choice. I felt he wasn't speaking to me. Playboy : Didn't you ask him why? Simon : Yes. He was traveling alone; he likes to follow his own course. When I asked, he'd say, "Oh, look, don't hurt by my behavior. Don't think that I don't like you." Of course; on a certain level, not too far from the surface, he doesn't like me. I don't even know if Arthur admits that. The same goes for me. And then, of course, you have to remember that there's something quite powerful between us. This is a friendship that is now 30 years old. And the feeling of understanding and love parallels the feeling of abuse. I think Artie's a very powerful and autonomous person until he comes into contact with me on a professional level. Then he loses a great degree of power. And it makes him very angry - at me. Also, we're in the unfortunate position of being compared all the time. It's one of things about the tour that were difficult. In the reviews, it's always comparisons: Simon was too pushy; Garfunkel sang out of tune; they didn't sing as well as they used to; they sing better now, but with less passion.... Even when the comparisons are complimentary, it's too many comparisons for comfort. As we followed our solo careers, it was the same thing. Add to that the fact that he felt, even more than I did, the frustration of having people ask, "Did you write the words or the music?" I used to feel, Oh, Christ. But at least I could say "I wrote both." Arthur had to say, "I wrote neither." And that's a drag if people keep asking you. Because there's a sense of competition between us that dates from the beginnings of our friendship, at 12. Playboy : Does he articulate those feelings? Simon : Sometimes. Not exactly in those words. But he does. He'll say, "I'm the victim and you're the victimizer." Playboy : What do you say to that ? Simon : "It's not so. you're not a victim and I'm not a victimizer, and stop saying that about me. How have I victimized you ? What penalty have you paid because of me? What did I take away from you? I didn't take anything away from you."