Paul Simon Interview - Part 2 Playboy : And yet there's an underlying closeness ? Simon : I think Arthur probably knows everything about my life. Not that we're real confidants on any regular basis, but he's in that group of really close friends of mine. Lorne Michaels is probably the closest. We've done projects together, and he lives in the apartment next to mine. Chuck Grodin. My brother, Eddie. Ian Hoblyn, who works with me. Mike Nichols. Perhaps Artie is the farthest out of the group, but we go back the longest way together, and that counts for a lot. Playboy : Do you wish you could really talk about the tensions between you? Simon : That depends on what we hoped to achieve by doing it. I would be willing to do almost - that word almost is important - almost anything to make Art happy. I care about our friendship. The only thing I feel I won't do is change the essence of my work. That was the crux of our problem on this new album. Playboy : Because, in the end, your musical tastes are so different? What did you think about his solo albums? Simon : I think Artie made the kind of records that he wanted to make, and that's a real achievement. The drag of it was that people didn't buy them in sufficient numbers for him to feel that he was successful commercially. But he didn't have a sense of failure artistically. Playboy : But what did you think of his records? Simon : I myself didn't like them. I didn't like the songs. I thought they weren't really as bright as he was. He is much more complex than they were. He was singing songs that just didn't reflect that. He was more interested in making a sound with his voice that was pleasing. He didn't concern himself with the words too much, because he felt there wasn't that much of a choice of great words around. He's a singer, and he went for the sound in his voice. Playboy : What did you think of the quality of his voice ? Simon : I thought it was too stylized. I liked the way he sang for Simon and Garfunkel better. In his albums, the proportion of stylization to conversational singing, which is my favorite, wasn't to my taste. Playboy : At what point in doing the new album together did problems develop? Simon : From the start. At first I thought, I really can't do it: These new songs are too much about my life - about Carrie - to have anybody else sing them. He had, "Look, these aren't the events of my life, but I understand the emotions you're dealing with. I understand what it is to be in love, to be in pain, to feel joy. I'm a singer. I'm able to interpret. That's what I do." I said, "All right. Let's try. However, I have to produce this because it's not like it was in the Sixties. I know what I want to say musically. So if that's all right with you, and I can have the decision on how to produce the tracks, then we can try." He said, "Well, you're dampening my enthusiasm because of your ambivalence." Playboy : Sounds like a Paul Simon song: "You're dampening my enthusiasm because of your ambivalence." Simon : No, that wouldn't be a Paul Simon song. I wouldn't say that. That's too on the money. Playboy : You'd be oblique ? Simon : Yeah. Anyway, that's how we began, with my sense of ambivalence about the project and his frustration at the rules of the game being stated. It wasn't that different from the Sixties, but I became even more rigid, even more the guardian of my music than I had been. I'd finish the tracks and my vocals, and I'd say, "OK, Artie, let's go in and do your vocals." And he'd say, "I'm not ready. I'd like to write my parts. I want to take my Walkman. I'm going to walk through Switzerland and write my harmony. The fact is that the songs were harmonically very different. You couldn't write the straight-ahead harmonies that you could in the early Simon and Garfunkel records. Artie finally said, "Look, the way I want to do this record is you sing the song, make the track and then leave me alone and I'll go into the studio and overlay my voice. Playboy : And you objected? Simon : Yes. I wanted to be there when it happened, because I knew that if what he did wasn't all right with me, I wasn't going to let it go. And that was the difference from the Sixties. What we didn't realize at first was how big a difference it was. It was huge. As wide as his solo records are from mine. Meanwhile, we had a time limit. We were trying to get the record out, following the conventional wisdom, to precede the tour that was going to begin in the spring of 1983. We had the time, but it didn't get done. Artie wasn't happy with his performances. Or he wanted to think more about the part. A year sailed by. So now, not only was the work process painful, in that the personality clash was constant, but the artistic differences were becoming more articulated. I was getting to feel that I didn't want him to paint on my painting. Finally, I said, "This is not a good idea. I think what we have here is the partnership that wasn't." Playboy : Did you feel sad about it ? Simon : It's too bad, because everybody wanted to have two guys who had their differences and split up and then came back together and resolved them and lived happily ever after. It was really a bitch to say, "Well, we didn't' really get back together." The truth is, we were always able to sing and blend well together; that's our gift. And that was always a turn-on for both of us. But aside from that, we're really two different guys. As much as we wanted to be a partnership, we're not. Playboy : Much of this comes down to your protectiveness about what you've written. How have you managed to find the popsong form- which seems on the face of it fairly limited - continuously challenging ? Simon : It's not at all limited. It's the universe. I see a correlation between short stories and songs, because of their length and for what they're meant to evoke. What the song form has that the short-story form doesn't is melody. Melodies are inexplicable; they're magic. Combine certain words with melodies and it all becomes very moving. Separate the words and the melodies and it's not so moving. Playboy : Can the lyrics stand alone ? Simon : Maybe on this new album, where the lyrics are my best. It's hard to say. I have very little comparative basis for judging, because although I was able to study music with teachers, I never studied lyric writing. I read poetry, and I read other lyricists. But they were never writing in the style or the form that I was interested in. They were very clever rhymers, but I don't find that to be most intriguing. To me, the person who wrote the most moving lyrics was Bob Dylan, in the early days. Boots of Spanish Leather, Girl from the North Country. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right. Blowin' in the Wind. It's funny to hear myself saying that. It may be the first generous thing I've ever said about Bob Dylan. In the early days, I was always too angry about being compared with him. And then, he's hard to be generous to, because he's so ungenerous himself. I never felt comfortable with him. He didn't come at you straight. It's a big error to think that because you like somebody's work, you're going to like him. Playboy : Are there any other lyricists you feel generous toward? Simon : John Lennon could do that, too. He evoked something very powerful with very few words. Strawberry Fields Forever. I Am the Walrus. In My Life. Norwegian Woods. Little stories that are enigmatic but very powerful. Playboy : Is that a description of what you try to do when you write? Simon : Yes. That, plus I try to open up my heart as much as I can and keep a real keen eye out that I don't get sentimental. I think we're all afraid to reveal our hearts. It's not at all in fashion, which I think is one of the reasons I don't like fashion. It's very heartless. So I feel I should try to reveal. And when you hit it right, you produce an emotional response in the listener that can be cathartic. And when you're wrong, you're soppy, sentimental. Or you can go the other way and try to be more enigmatic. When it works, that's good. It mystifies, like a good puzzle or a magic trick. When you miss, it's pretentious. I fond it very painful to miss on either side. Playboy : That doesn't leave you much room in the middle. Simon : It doesn't matter. It's gamble that you're supposed to take. I'd rather miss and be sentimental than cover up my heart. I mean, anybody can do bad work, but not everybody does good work. Playboy : What's wrong with sentimentality ? For example, wasn't a song such as Billy Joel's Just the Way Your Are sentimental and affecting too - at least before it became a cliché? Simon : Maybe I picked the wrong word there, sentimentality. It's more like false innocence. I think Just the Way You Are contains a very true and kind of human statement. And it seems to be sincere. Playboy : But Joel has not always won wide critical acclaim. Simon : Yeah, he's had some really bad stuff said about him. And it's funny, because he's a really likable guy. I mean, all the stuff about his being angry - he's not, really. He's a sweetheart. And he's a street kid, so he flashes back. And he's supersensitive to criticism. But he's actually very big-hearted. He gave Carrie and me a jukebox for our wedding, which was nice. But what was really nice was that he personally filled it with a great collection of rock records. You know, the main reason that Billy has been criticized is that he's been very successful. Playboy : Why ? Simon : Well, I don't want this to sound like a knock on him, because I usually like his records, but he's not my favorite songwriter. he's lyrically naïve. Playboy : What do you mean ? Simon : He thinks about larger issues, but he doesn't think about them hard enough. Meanwhile, he makes very good, solid rock tracks and sings with a powerful, clear, cutting rock-'n'-roll voice. I think he's insufficiently credited for how good his voice is. In fact, part of his weakness is that his voice is so good, he's able to imitate - and I always felt that Billy should be stretching more to find out who Billy Joel is. Playboy : That's an interesting thesis. Simon : Being an artist doesn't mean that you're a good artist. It's just a certain type of person. And he is that type of person by temperament, a creator. That was the bargain I first made with myself: I'd say, I'm an artist, but I'm not really very good. And it took me many years - till the late Seventies, maybe - to say, "I think I am good, and I want to be even better." But Billy didn't like the artist idea. He thought it was elitist. PLayboy : What is this artistic temperament to which you refer? Simon I haven't really thought about it. I suppose an artist is someone who takes the elements of his life and rearranges them and then has them perceived by others as though they were the elements of their lives. That's just something that some people do. An artistic bent is innate. Then there are those who work on their technique, because good art has a lot to do with technique. And that can be learned. Playboy : But isn't being tough and streetwise part of the rock-'n'--roll ethics? Simon : Yeah. It's a profession where it's almost required to have that pose. Unsophisticated, working class, nonintellectual. Aside from Lennon and Dylan, who made a point of their working-class backgrounds - which turned out not to be true, anyway - the idea that rock could be an art form that people with brain might work at was always treated with derision. And that still exists. It turns out that there are a lot of smart guys in this profession, but they don't express that side. Kris Kristofferson was a Rhodes scholar, but he always plays shit kicker. Randy Newman is bright, of course, but he has never had that tremendous popular success. Mick Jagger, I think, went to the London School of economics. Playboy : What do you think of Jagger ? Simon : He's not very interesting to me as an artist. I give him his due: I know how difficult it is to keep up your energy and to keep growing, and he has. I guess I don't like what he stands for. I mean, you can see his influence on almost every lead singer - a certain androgyny, or bisexuality, flaunted. And he did it in a way that was original, with a sense of irony. But what he really contributed was something of little value - the pose of anger and rebellion. He was sophisticated enough to use that to earn huge sums of money. But others took it to mean they should be rebellious, cruel, disdainful and misogynous. I have the same feeling about Elvis Presley, only worse. For, as much as I idolized him, the lesson of his life - what happens to people with tremendous gifts in their youth - was terrible. His lesson was that you go to Las Vegas and stop thinking and live in an insulated world where you can get as many drugs as you want. that's very destructive. Playboy : Who are you artistic heroes? Simon : My first thought was that I didn't really have any. then I thought, Whom do I admire ? And my brain said Woody Allen. I admire his tenaciousness, his talent, his integrity. I guess what brothers me about saying that is that he's so many people's hero. If I went a step further, I would say John Cheever. His work really touched me. And he seemed to have a very good heart, to have overcome enormous obstacles and achieved success quite late in life. He also wrote about a world that he made me feel I belonged to, even though it had nothing to do with me. That's a great achievement for an artist. I'd say the same about John Updike and Saul Bellow. Playboy : Who in the pop-music world is pursuing his own artistic vision ? Simon : Well I'd say Bruce Springsteen. When I first heard Bruce, I thought, Well, he's like Dylan and Van Morrison. but somehow, he's grown. Somehow, he's made those south Jersey highways, the cars, into an archetypal, almost mythic American form of expression. He's found a vocabulary to talk about what's on his mind and in his heart. He's found his people. I don't think that Springsteen himself rides along on highways with a girl wondering where to go. But a part of him does, and always will, and so he's able to express himself very clearly in that vocabulary. Playboy : Are there any others you'd put in Springsteen's category? Simon : Yeah, Bob Seeger is able to express something about the Midwest, to put it into his music and make someone who doesn't come from there understand and be attractive to foreigners. To speak on a mythic level. Not terribly different from what Sam Shepard does in his play. Playboy : What about a current singer/songwriter such as Sting, of The Police? Simon : Well, I'm just beginning to be aware of him. Until now, their albums have seemed too smoothed down. There's a little too much fashion in it for me. Too much about haircuts. It's distracting to me. Not for what makes number one, mind you, because haircuts are fairly important for number one. Actually, I think it was very unusual about Simon and Garfunkel - their haircuts. We were never fashionable. We were incredibly popular, but we were always out of fashion in our hair and physical appearance. I don't know anyone else with whom that happened to the degree it did with us. Playboy : What's the difference between writing something that is fashionable - or for what matter, merely factual - and writing something you'd consider artistic. Simon : I have a song on this new album called Train in the Distance. It's very factual about my life. What I discovered in writing recently is that facts, stated without color, are just potential energy. you don't know where they're going to go until you give them a direction. The song starts, "She was beautiful as Southern skies / The night he met her. She was married to someone." That's about Peggy, my first wife. And it's all true. Then it goes, "He was doggedly determined that he would get her/ He was old, he was young." That's me. I was, you know, pretending I was sophisticated. I wasn't . "From time to time, he'd tip his heart / But each time she withdrew." True, all true. All those are just facts. Then I add what is, I think, the artist's job : "Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance / Everybody thinks it's true." That's not fact anymore. That's comment. I told a story, and then I used the metaphor. And then I thought, I don't think people are going to understand what I mean when I say, "Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance / Everybody thinks it's true. " And I don't want to be enigmatic. So I added : "What is the point of this story? What information pertains? / The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains." And what was my writer's point of view. That's we've survived by believing our life is going to get better. And I happened to use the train metaphor because I was sitting in a friend's house near a railway station, and I heard a train. And I said, "Oooh, that's nice." There's something about the sound of a train that's very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful. Anyway, I guess my point is that facts can be turned into art if one is artful enough.