Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How Much History? Paul Simon's “The Sound of Silence” at Ground Zero

Paul Simon at the 9/11 Memorial on Sunday
In the conclusion of his 1981 book Deep Blues, his musical and cultural exploration of the Mississippi Delta blues, the late music critic Robert Palmer wrote, "How much thought...can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?" You could spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating the depth in those very fine lines. You might even say that Palmer spent his whole book in quest of that riddle. In the new paperback edition of Blues & Chaos (Scribner, 2011) – a collection of Palmer's essays first published in hardcover two years ago –  that sojourn is outlined in a much more literal manner, one suited to a fine music historian. The editor, Anthony DeCurtis, has thematically designed the book as a journey into the vast mystery of music itself, which includes blues, jazz, rock and world music. But he begins the book with Robert Palmer's 1975 Downbeat magazine essay, "What is American Music?" In it, Palmer claims that "American music is non-proprietary ... in that American composers (and performers) innovate and move on."

That spirit of being non-proprietary made me think of many American artists, but mostly of Woody Guthrie, who once said that he didn't write songs, but pulled them out of the air. When a performing artist can create a work by reaching into the air, rather than simply claiming ownership of it, he/she taps into the essence of exactly how much history will be transmitted from the moment they begin to perform. The artist who innovates discovers a work's meaning rather than imposing meaning on it. As an audience, we can then discover how much history is transmitted when the song begins to change the artist who created it. That's what struck me most when I heard Paul Simon begin his classic song, "The Sound of Silence," during the events at Ground Zero this past Sunday. 

Most of the coverage that day, from the readings of the victims' names to the various speeches, was thoughtful and moving, as people tried to sum up the impact of a ten-year history that is still too overwhelming to fully comprehend. It was midway through the afternoon that Paul Simon, one of New York's own, stood at the running water where tall buildings were once located and began to play one his earliest and most famous songs. Besides being the song that propelled the duo, Simon & Garfunkel, to stardom, "The Sound of Silence" also has a curious evolution that contains much of the history Robert Palmer speculated about when he first fell in love with the blues.

"The Sound of Silence" (sometimes called "Sounds of Silence") was written by Paul Simon in February 1964 shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy. The first version, heard on Simon & Garfunkel's 1964 debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., was a quietly mournful folk song. Nothing dynamic or earth-shaking heard here. "The main thing about playing the guitar, though, was that I was able to sit by myself and play and dream," he told Playboy years later in 1984. The opening lines, "Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again," came to him, he told the magazine, as he sat in the darkness of his bathroom playing to a dripping faucet. But the song wouldn't find its place in the canon of American music until record producer Tom Wilson, who had just helped electrify the pop world with his production of Bob Dylan's 1965 epic "Like a Rolling Stone," decided to re-release "The Sound of Silence" that same year with overdubbed drums (Bobby Gregg), electric bass (Bob Bushnell) and electric guitar (Al Gorgoni). The song suddenly became an anthem and it spoke to those seeking solace in a world they felt alienated from. "The Sound of Silence" would reach Number One on New Year's Day 1966. But, by the next year, nobody thought of the Kennedy assassination when they heard it played.

In 1967, Director Mike Nichols was making The Graduate, his comedy about a recent university graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who comes home with no purpose or plans in life. He gets seduced by an older woman, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), but he falls in love with her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross). The movie became a counter-culture milestone that began as a funny parody of an innocent who receives carnal knowledge thanks to an unhappily married friend of his family. But the movie scored with younger audiences because it ultimately turned on Anne Bancroft by making her corrupted by her age and wealth, and portrayed the young graduate as morally superior for seeing through her shallowness. Of course, in the end, Benjamin gets the girl. During the shooting, Nichols became obsessed with Paul Simon's music. But since Simon was touring, he couldn't write any new material ("Mrs. Robinson" was originally about Eleanor Roosevelt and Joe DiMaggio, a whole different era, but Nichols had him change the words and title), so he included "The Sound of Silence" and "Scarborough Fair." In the picture, "The Sound of Silence" is used to reinforce Benjamin's feeling of moral superiority over the rich suburban life he grew up in. The song, as observing as it was, became a statement for our times and lost its connection to the tragedy that spawned it. Through no fault of Paul Simon, "The Sound of Silence" became a condescending comment on the spiritual waste of our material world (brought on by the older generation) and an endorsement of Benjamin's detached daydreaming. Listening to the song, we could feel above it all. "The Sound of Silence" became part of another history.

But last Sunday, Paul Simon rediscovered the song and its original intent. Dressed in a suit, with a 9/11 Memorial baseball cap on, Simon began the song with that strum of the guitar that indeed transmits history. At first, he begins tentatively, playing it as if to consider what it might now mean, certainly far removed from the smug certainties of The Graduate. As he played, he listened to the melody begin to find itself, striking a familiar chord, but with it came a whole new purpose. Paul Simon suddenly looked like he was a thousand years old. As the familiar tune emerged, Simon seemed to be searching not so much for the words, but for what this 47-year old song could still give to this mourning nation. Simon didn't play it for the obvious reasons to include this song. He also didn't want the song to be a statement; no, he wanted to see how much history he could transmit by strumming that guitar again. So he begins to sing. "Hello darkness, my old friend," but that darkness no longer belonged to the pampered world of Benjamin Braddock, instead it encompassed the infinite pain of a country's loss, a wound unrelieved, while offering a quiet prayer, a respite. For the first time, Simon sang the song as if he were just discovering the depths of what he wrote so long ago, a song that maybe was waiting until this very day to finally reveal its true nature. Returning "The Sound of Silence" to its original folk arrangement, Simon gave its solitary air a piercing ring of poignancy, a quality it never had before. While we watched people holding hands quietly, or being embraced as they wept, or others trying to sing along through their tears, he quietly sang:

In the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared, no one dared
Disturb the sounds of silence.

Simon's pained voice seemed to fill that quiet with unmistakable reverberations of regret and remembrance. As the song concluded, with its too clever line of "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls," Simon buried the lines with the subtle echoes of the song's conclusion which reverberated in all its delicate familiarity. And then he produced two large guitar strums, like bells peeling, before he quietly walked away. For once, the song did disturb the sound of silence. There endeth the history lesson.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins October 3rd (6:30pm until 9pm). Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)  

1 comment:

  1. Nice Post. I was feeling odd about the 'reinterpretation' of the song for this context. I had always heard it in its Graduate interpretation, I didn't know what initially inspired Simon.