I was listening to Fresh Air, a talk show on National Public Radio
with host Terry Gross
, and to my surprise, singer/songwriter Paul Simon
was being interviewed. It occurred to me that I had never actually heard the guy speak (outside of a couple Saturday Night Live appearances), so I decided to take a listen.
Sounding like a Jewish grandmother sipping tea with a large wool shawl over his shoulders, the legendary musician slurred his way through the conversation. I reflected on how different he sounded singing, when his soft tenor floats around his acoustical guitar strings.
I found the lack of similarity between his speech and his singing voice disturbing. The talking Simon unabashedly shredded the singing Simons work. Maybe it was humility, maybe it was the fact that Simon has not been able to come up with much socially important music since the late 1960s. But whatever it was, the talking Simon was bitter.
He said music is more important than the accompanying words, using as an example of one of his biggest hits with former partner Art Garfunkel, The Sounds of Silence, in which he sings: People talking without speaking,/ People hearing without listening,/ People writing songs, that voices never shared./ No one dared,/ Disturb the sound of silence.
Simon had this to say about the song: Well, its certainly an immature lyric. Something I probably picked up from a college textbook. Just like that, he debunked all my ideas about the songs creation. Apparently there were no early mornings with Simon and Garfunkel sipping tea while playing guitar and slowly finding their way to international acclaim. No moments of inspiration, no lighting bolts. It was chilling for me to hear Simon dismiss this important song as a youthful fancy.
Mr. Simon, in all due respect to your work, your stature, and your [apparent] mid-life crisis, when asked what you think of your own work, please do us the courtesy of shutting up. This request is contrary to the very meaning of The Sound of Silence, but, I mean, who do you think you are?
I understand that you wrote the song. I understand that you have performed the song thousands of times over the years. I understand that you are most likely sick to death of it. But The Sound of Silence is not about you, the songwriter. Its about all the people in the world and the terrible things they see without comment. Its about those who suffer injustices without a voice. I wasnt born until roughly seven years after you wrote that song and yet its words still resonate as much with me today as they did with the rest of the nation when you first released it.
The odd thing about creation, especially in arts such as music or -- dare I say it? -- the written word, is that those creations which endure are invariably bigger than the people who created them. Van Gogh was a crazy man but we still pay millions for his work. Mozart was a womanizer with a flatulence fetish and yet I would be proud to have his music played at my funeral.
In the same way, Mr. Simon, I would take your immature lyrics with me on any spiritual road-trip I could imagine. The wisdom to speak out against the silence, to cry out against the injustice of the world, is better thinking than you might know. Those arent just guitar chords with some snappy lyrics. The message means something and it will last longer than any recording.
The Sounds of Silence is a good song, maybe even a great song. Whatever you as the artist might now think about that accomplishment is irrelevant. This is a harsh statement but nevertheless true. In the same way that I have no control over the relative success or failure of this piece of writing after it leaves my computer, you cant change the significance of your work for the better -- or for the worse.
The ideas expressed in those pieces that last, those singular crucial moments that resonate to a world-wide audience, eclipse our individual transition and growth. Maybe you have outgrown those immature lyrics, Mr. Simon, but the rest of us might just need to hear those words, as a reminder of the things not said and the consequences of not saying them.