Nine Questions for Paul Simon

1.Did Mrs. Garfunkel ever think of you as a bad influence on her son?

SIMON: Oh, no. I didn’t lead him into the wild life; he got into it on his own, later on, when he grew up. We both got hooked on rock ‘n’ roll at the same time, listening to Alan Freed’s Moon Dog Show and the Everly Brothers. Artie was always a singer at school. He sang ‘(They Tried to Tell Us We’re) Too Young’ in the fourth grade and knocked everybody out. By the seventh grade, we were singing together in groups. The friendship was based on much more than music – we were very similar kids, we had the same sense of humor – but without the music, I doubt if we’d have remained close friends.

2.You started in rock ‘n’ roll in 1955, at the age of 13 – a mild-mannered middle-class Jewish boy from Forest Hills – when macho Southern punks and lower-class greasy hitters were the musical rage. Was there anyone in rock ‘n’ roll you could have beaten up?

SIMON: Do you count Artie as being in rock ‘n’ roll? Then I think I probably could have beaten him up. I could have easily taken care of Michelle Phillips. Neil Sedaka, too. Actually, I tried to emulate those hoody guys; we used to call them rocks.

3.Did you and Garfunkel attract distinctly different groupies on the road?

SIMON: We attracted about the same, because people saw Simon and Garfunkel as one person. We did get separate letters, but I never paid much attention to the letters. I just remember that most of them were very, very long. The groupies we used to get were usually heavy readers – people who had read a lot of poetry. But I didn’t really participate to a great deal in the groupie scene. I was always attached, and when I wasn’t, I didn’t go out of my way to pick someone up. And then the ones I did pick up, I thought were nice. I liked them. Maybe I didn’t want to spend any more time with them than a day or two, but I liked them. It wasn’t like a straight rock-‘n’-roll fuck-them-and-leave-them style. It was a crooked rock-‘n’-roll leave-them style.

4.Did you feel rejected by the counterculture of the Sixties?

SIMON: Simon and Garfunkel became so enormously popular that we were eventually disdained by the hip critics. In the beginning, they lavished praise on us. Maybe at the height of the hippie days, we weren’t really in fashion – we were too New York; we weren’t particularly associated with the drug scene, though we were in it as much as anybody could be in it. But it wasn’t part of our image. I never wanted to be busted in Des Moines, you know. I didn’t believe the hippie thing, anyway, that California, laid-back, minimal-vocabulary existence. I didn’t believe all the smiles. I thought there was a lot of vindictiveness in it; there was something very cruel underlying a lot of it. I didn’t buy it nor was I particularly intimidated by it.

5.As the generation that came of age in the Sixties now reach mid-30s, do you think it has made an impact – or has everyone of consequence sold out?

SIMON: Selling out is a tradition in this country. It’s like Mom and apple pie. I mean, Abbie Hoffman turns himself in to promote his book. Hitler’s the one who said every man has his price, the only thing that’s surprising is how low it is. But, sure, the generation changed things. That war-baby blip in the population is always going to be the thing responsible for change, until they don’t have any money to buy things anymore. In this generation, there’s a great emphasis on form and not content, which I find distasteful. Yet these are the people I feel most comfortable with. I’d be shocked to find out they were as conformist as other generations, but I think they’re just as materialistic. I think that temptation is too hard to withstand.

6.What is your most blatant example of conspicuous consumption?

SIMON: I try not to be conspicuously consumptive – because I just don’t want to antagonize anybody. But I’m not afraid to spend money on where I live or on how I travel. I don’t think twice about buying anything, but, on the other hand, I don’t buy that much. I’ve been wearing jeans since I was 14 years old, and that’s what I like to wear. I don’t have expensive hobbies. I don’t own boats or sports cars. Feeling that you can do whatever you want is great, and I can do whatever I want.

7.It has been said that perhaps the chief benefit of huge success is the ability to afford a higher-priced shrink.

SIMON: Success doesn’t necessarily make you go into analysis. Besides, a higher-priced shrink isn’t necessarily a better one. I was in analysis for a long time – it was really good for me. I’ve been through a marriage and divorce and fatherhood, successes and failures, and I think I’m now a very competent cripple. I can absolutely navigate my way across the street. Not in the most graceful manner, perhaps, but I can definitely get from one curb to the other.

8.Are there any musicians in rock today who awe you with their talent?

SIMON: Stevie Wonder has a really great gift, though I wasn’t crazy about the last bit of work he did. I don’t know if I’m awe-struck, but as close to that as my nature allows. But there are a lot of extraordinary musicians around.

9.Are you a legend on your old block?

SIMON: Sure, I guess so. I took my son there recently to show him my old house. I drove him around, took him to Artie’s house. We went down to my public school. I took him to the candy store where I used to hang out and place bets on the trotters. I bought him an egg cream – which now costs 45 cents. The guy in the candy store recognized me. He knew what had become of me – but he related to me the way he’d always related to me. He called me Paulie.



Finding Laura Nyro

One of the most enigmatic and evocative and emotionally intense songwriters ever to hit the Top 40, Laura Nyro’s career survived numerous dips and bends. Known for her late ‘60s smashes, “Wedding Bell Blues” (The 5th Dimension), “Stoned Soul Picnic” (the 5th Dimension), “Sweet Blindness” (the 5th Dimension), “And When I Die” (Peter, Paul & Mary, Blood, Sweat & Tears), “Eli’s Coming” (Three Dog Night), and “Stoney End” (Barbra Streisand), she dropped out of sight at the turn of the decade after releasing Gonna Take a Miracle with Labelle, an album length tribute to the r&b songs she grew singing on New York City subways and rooftops, harmonizing under the moon of love. Quite a departure from the stark and melancholy epics that populated her previous albums, like “Been on a Train” and “The Confession.”

Writing out of personal experience, Laura always stood at the front lines in the battle between the sexes, an emotional firestorm, who moved halfway around the world from the naive bliss of “Wedding Bell Blues.” After her mellow return to action in the late ‘70s, with Nested, Smile, and the live Season of Light, she dropped out again. Five years later Mother’s Spiritual marked a kind of emotional rebirth, a series of songs to and for her newborn son.

Around the release of that album, in 1984, I spoke with Laura, who gave few interviews. But after reading my piece on John Lee Hooker, she agreed to talk to me on the phone about her life as it applied to songwriting, portions of which appeared in USA Today. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person backstage at a Newport Folk Festival just a few years before she died in 1997. “I think that I searched,” she said in a smoky voice conjuring candles and incense, “and I think I traveled far to find something that was very close. People who are going to find their own convictions will all have to go through a certain amount of obstacles. I don’t think I’m different from other people who are searching….to be happy, really. And I’m kind of happy now.”

“When I was very young I remember sitting at a piano and hearing the notes and the chords ring out in the air and I knew there was something special in that sound, some kind of freedom. As a kid I listened to the 50’s songs of urban romance: ”The Wind” by the Diablos, “Oh What a Night” by the Dells, “Happy Happy Birthday Baby” by the Tune Weavers. The first two 45s I bought were “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers and “Mr. Lee” by the Bobbettes. A year or two later my favorite songs were by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. By the age of 15 I was seriously listening to John Coltrane and jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. I remember one spring afternoon at (the High School of) Music & Art. The weather was lovely and me and my friends were sitting outside looking at a newspaper picture of the Beatles arriving in America. We were listening to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and I felt this thunderbolt in my heart.

“I have a love for simple basic song structure, although sometimes you’d never know it. It’s a musical starting point and you could stay with it or take it to the ends of the earth, because as beautiful as simplicity is, it can become a tradition that stands in the way of exploration. I started off in music with simplicity and then moved into abstraction and some uncharted waters with the exploration of it. Some people would say went off the deep end. I wanted to learn more and I took freedoms with the principles of composition. I used these dark chord structures, suspended chords, advanced dissonances (advanced for rick and roll), rhythms leading to other rhythms within the same song. My jazz background put certain inflections into my songwriting and singing. Throw in all the poetry I’d read since I was a kid and just being a woman, and that’s what made my songs complex and emotionally rich.

“I don’t think you should categorize yourself as an artist. You should allow yourself to grow. Growth is the nature of the creative process. You have to accept it, respect it, and move on. The thing that’s important to me is to express life as I see it. That’s my priority. There’ve been many changes over the years as I saw life differently from age 18 and age 25. You have to remember, I was still a teenager when I made my first record and the world around me started changing at the speed of lightning just because I’d written some provocative songs. The ‘60s started spinning into a whirlwind and outside of some recognition for my music I felt like I was living inside a hurricane. My rhythm of life was more of a free spirited one and then it changed. I kind of felt like I was losing the rhythm of my youth. So many things were happening at the same time. This is how I experienced it. So I started slowly moving out of that scene so I could experience other things in life without a bunch of people breathing down my neck. When I turned 30 my love songs changed from romantic notions to a deeper taste of life. My mother died right before I wrote the songs for Nested. My child was born right before I wrote Mother’s Spiritual.

“The last few years have been so musically abundant that I felt like the Goddess of Creativity. But who knows? Next year I may only write one song, because that kind of songwriting is cyclical, seasonal; it’s the culmination of a deeper experience. It’s like nature, it takes time to seed and then it blooms. Mother’s Spiritual was a wonderful idea that flew through my head in a minute and then took years to manifest because the relationships and responsibilities that were inspiring the music were also pulling me away from it in terms of time. Since I was recording while I was writing it actually took me two and a half years to complete the 14 songs. Most of the songs I wrote a night. I would just wake up in the middle of the night. I had a young baby and that’s when I found the space to write. I didn’t work with a tape recorder. I would write my ideas down. I have love songs written upside down on matchbook covers. I’d write on my hand if there was no paper. Sometimes I might hear a particular instrument, like when I wrote ‘Melody in the Sky’ I heard gypsy violins.

“Once I’m writing I’m very disciplined. I’m there for the music. When I’m writing music there’s a certain magic from the music underlying life. It’s like you’re living at a deeper current. It’s a very complete feeling. You’re taking care of everyday things, but you’re living at the edge of a song.”