not the only starfish in the sea

What if producer Tom Wilson didn’t have the notion of augmenting the acoustic recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”? What if, disheartened by the lackluster reception given to the Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. album, Simon went to England (that’s what happened in real life), wrote the song “Red Rubber Ball” with Bruce Woodley of the Seekers, and that became a big pop hit (also true: by the Cyrkle; they also wrote “Cloudy” together, although when it turned up on a S&G LP, Simon’s name stood there alone). Back in New York City, where Simon had hustled around midtown Manhattan trying to cobble together a hitmaking career, his more serious, introspective, let’s say Dylanesque, efforts were not greeted with universal enthusiasm. As Dave Van Ronk recalled in his memoir, for a while, in order to get a guaranteed laugh in Village circles, all you had to do was start singing “Hello, darkness, my old friend.” And you’d have to admit, I think, that’s a howler of a line. (Simon was fond of addressing things that had no ability to respond: “Hey, sunshine,” in “Cloudy,” “Hello, lamppost,” in “The 59th Street Bridge Song.”) Most of the song is a cascade of nonsense. Does a vision really leave seeds? Is there such a thing as “talking without speaking”? Talking without meaning, maybe.

In his new biography of Simon, Robert Hilburn offers the thesis that it took a while for Simon’s songwriting gift to flower. Hilburn told the website Best Classic Bands, “In fact, he spent five years after high school in the lower rungs of the New York City record business, writing songs, recording demos, trying to get his own records released—and all he was really doing was copying the most generic pop-rock on the radio. There wasn’t even a glimmer of artistry or even promise in all those recordings.” That’s a bit ungenerous. It is true that among the many recordings Simon made under the name Jerry Landis, or as Tico in Tico & the Triumphs, or as Tom in Tom & Jerry, are major clunkers such as the one Hilburn points to, “The Lipstick on Your Lips.” But there are some kind of charming efforts as well, like “I Wish I Weren’t In Love,” a shameless rip-off of Dion & the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love.” I confess that, on balance, I would rather hear Simon’s novelty singles “Motorcycle” and “The Lone Teen Ranger” than “I Am a Rock” and “The Dangling Conversation.”

Simon was a student of pop, and a gifted mimic. He and Garfunkel could approximate Don and Phil Everly. According to Burt Bacharach, quoted in Hilburn’s book, he got Simon to do a demo for a song he was going to pitch to Frankie Avalon, and you can hear in some of the “Jerry Landis” songs how adept Simon was at emulating that smarmy faux-innocence. Marty Cooper, who sang with Simon in Tico & the Triumphs, recalls, “He was constantly monitoring the radio, looking for new ideas…One day he’d tell us about the gentle way that the leader of the Fleetwoods [Gary Troxel] sang.” I’d always heard traces of the Fleetwoods in the wispier side of Simon & Garfunkel (what was “Mr. Blue” except the kind of forlorn lament Simon made a specialty of?), and the connection makes complete sense. You get the idea that given time, Simon would have found the right combination of elements, that if “The Sound of Silence” wouldn’t have been commercially rescued by the Wilson session overdubs, he’d have moved on from Garfunkel. Maybe into a group like the Lovin’ Spoonful or the Mama’s and the Papa’s, the Seekers or the Cyrkle. Whatever was hot and happening.

His association with Bruce Woodley yielded “Cloudy” (although Woodley has insisted it was like pulling teeth to get Simon to acknowledge it), the completely lovely “I Wish You Could Be Here” (cut by both the Seekers and the Cyrkle; a few years earlier it would have been perfect for the Fleetwoods, like Randy Newman’s “They Tell Me It’s Summer”), and “Red Rubber Ball.” The Cyrkle’s version was released in spring 1966, in between S&G’s “Homeward Bound” and “I Am a Rock,” on the same label (Columbia), and although both S&G singles hit the top 5, “Red Rubber Ball” landed a little bit higher at #2. And it holds up better. It shows that Simon (with a collaborator?) could have knocked off catchy pop hits at will; the song is a skip and jump into the sunlight (goodbye, darkness!) after being dumped. “Now I know you’re not the only starfish in the sea,” it goes. “If I never hear your name again it’s all the same to me.” Was it too frivolous for Paul and Art to cut, too simple, not “freshly fallen silent shroud of snow”ish enough? “Friendship causes pain!” Does it? Well, Simon had his books and his poetry to protect him, and nice for him.

Simon & Garfunkel started doing “Red Rubber Ball” live after it became a hit for the Cyrkle (jauntily produced by John Simon, no relation), so maybe they did have a twinge of regret about giving it away. But I don’t see it on the setlists for Simon’s current farewell tour, which in a way is too bad. If nothing else, it’s like a sliding door into an alternate Paul Simon career. It feels casual and tossed-off, not labored over and literary. Hilburn is right that it took a while for Simon’s songwriting talent to click into place, but I believe he’s wrong about when that happened; the writer who found his groove on Bookends – especially the singles on side two – began with “I should have known you’d bid me farewell,” not “Hello, darkness, my old friend.”

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