The Paul Simon Songbook
Release Date: August 18th, 1965
Words by: Elizabeth Izzo
August 18th, 2015
1965 was a watershed year in the music industry. Just as labels were beginning to sign more folk acts, hoping to monetize on the new-old folk sound now permeating the world’s airwaves, the figurehead of the revival was already moving on with an electrified new album. Bringing It All Back Home split popular music into two camps: those who were trying to follow Bob Dylan into the future, and those who were scrambling to replace him in the past. Where Paul Simon fit into this musical epoch is difficult to say.
To try and explain where The Paul Simon Songbook fits in the increasingly experimental musical landscape of 1965, we have to turn back time a little more, and return to 1964. Paul Simon, and the Tom-to-his-Jerry, Art Garfunkel, were newly signed to Columbia Records. Simon & Garfunkel had finished recording their first album in three sessions, and after years of rejection, Paul was convinced that they finally had their chance to succeed. Simon later recalled, "Dylan and the Beatles had happened a year and a half to two years before Simon & Garfunkel. I remember thinking at that time, 'There's no room to be original here. They've got the whole pie.' It was like if I could just get a tiny little slice and get in there."
Wednesday Morning, 3 AM had definite promise -- and Columbia's star producer, Tom Wilson, had given them his seal of approval. So on March 31st, 1964, Columbia Records set up a show for Simon & Garfunkel to make their debut, the venue being a famous club in the Village: Gerde’s Folk City.
As Paul and Art took the stage at Gerde's, excitement palpable in the air, who showed up to watch? None other than Bob Dylan himself. And he brought Robert Shelton, a popular critic for The New York Times, with him. According to legend, Dylan proceeded to have a few too many drinks and talk loudly all throughout the show, even laughing at times. Not at them, Shelton later claimed, but the damage had been done in Simon’s eyes. Simon & Garfunkel’s big debut had been drowned out by the laughter of folk royalty, and the story spread quickly through Greenwich Village. Dylan, whether intentionally or not, had successfully turned them into a laughingstock overnight.
After their apparently disastrous debut, convinced that Wednesday Morning, 3 AM was going to flop, Paul left the Village and flew to Europe. He decided to try out the folk circuit in London. There, he met a girl named Kathy Chitty -- who would later inspire him to write one of his most famous love songs, "Kathy’s Song". He quickly moved in with Kathy, and even before Wednesday Morning, 3 AM had even been released, he denounced the Village and decided to settle down in London. And when Wednesday was released, selling a dismal 3,000 copies, it only worked to solidify his conviction: he was staying in London forever.
1965 rolled around uneventfully. Paul played folk clubs here and there, and he was all the happier for it: he was making a living playing music, he had a muse in Kathy. He was content with his simple life in England.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, calls started coming into the BBC from all across Britain -- asking where Paul Simon records could be found. Without his knowledge, one of Simon’s friends had gotten some of his demos played on the BBC’s Five to Ten program. They were a hit, and people wanted more. Paul suddenly needed a follow-up, and so The Paul Simon Songbook was born.
Details surrounding this album are vague, and considering Simon fought to erase this album from history in 1969, The Paul Simon Songbook is largely overlooked by fans and biographers alike. Suffice to say that much like Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, the album did not sell well, and Paul once again resigned himself to perpetual obscurity. That is, until Tom Wilson reworked "The Sound of Silence" and changed his life forever. But that’s a story for another day.
So, let’s talk about The Paul Simon Songbook. In its original liner notes, Simon writes this: "This LP contains twelve of the songs that I have written over the past two years. There are some here that I would not write today. I don't believe in them as I once did. I have included them because they played an important role in the transition. It is discomforting, almost painful, to look back over something someone else created and realize that someone else was you. I'm not ashamed of where I've been and what I've thought. It's just not me anymore. It is perfectly clear to me that the songs I write today will not be mine tomorrow. I don't regret the loss."
The Paul Simon Songbook was recorded with only one microphone for both the vocals and the guitar, giving it a very unfinished, demo-like sound. The songs are mostly Wednesday Morning, 3 AM tracks reworked, sans-Garfunkel, but that's not to say this album is without merit. "The Side of a Hill" alone makes this album worth listening to. On "The Side of a Hill" the guitar is sweet and gentle, Paul’s voice is melancholy, and both elements aid the lyrics in offering up a bizarre -- yet incredibly beautiful -- interlude between "Kathy’s Song" and the satirical "A Simple Desultory Philippic". "The Side of a Hill" is a song that would remain in Paul’s repertoire for the rest of his career, only ever surfacing during live shows or on the occasional bootleg. But it’s a gorgeous ballad -- a heart-breaking commentary on war: "Generals order their men to kill / and to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten / while a little cloud weeps, on the side of a hill."
"A Church is Burning" offers a similar commentary, more specifically about the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, a social war was being fought over human rights in the United States, and here Simon offers his input: "…freedom is a dark road when you’re walking it alone / but the future is now, and it’s time to take a stand." The song has vivid imagery and strong metaphorical significance; turning fire into strength and hatred into fuel for change."Dylan and the Beatles had happened a year and a half to two years before Simon & Garfunkel. I remember thinking at that time, 'There's no room to be original here. They've got the whole pie.' It was like if I could just get a tiny little slice and get in there." Paul Simon
Another gem on this album is the acoustic "Leaves That Are Green" -- a song that would later appear on Sounds of Silence, buried under a borderline-annoying keyboard accompaniment. Without the layers of instruments heard on the Simon & Garfunkel track, "Leaves That Are Green" sounds beautifully earnest. "I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song / I'm twenty-two now, but I won't be for long / time hurries on / and the leaves that are green turn to brown." Iconic lyrics that really feel genuine in this version. "Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye / that’s all there is." Maybe Paul was beginning to feel a little homesick when he made this record. Shortly after its release, after months of silence, he invited Art Garfunkel to come visit him in England. And after spending the summer in England together, when Art announced he was going home, Paul went with him.
"Patterns" being the final track on this album is a little odd. It seems almost defeatist: "My life is made of patterns / that can scarcely be controlled." Here he seems to already know the fate of this album, and is throwing caution to the wind, saying, I’ve tried my best. He knows it probably won’t be enough, but he’s tried his best, so take him where you will. He realizes now that it’s all out of his hands.
The Paul Simon Songbook is, ultimately, a piece of an artists' evolution captured on tape. A photograph from a time when Paul Simon was still finding out where he fit in the world -- a photograph that was forgotten about the second it was taken. Strangely, it only fits into 1965 by being completely removed from it. The Paul Simon Songbook is a diary entry, a demo tape, something deeply intimate. It is not a product of Greenwich Village. It is not Bringing It All Back Home. It's not even The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. It's just Paul Simon. No pseudonyms, no Art Garfunkel, no Bob Dylan, no audience. It's just Paul Simon, and the songs he surrounded himself with until the world was ready to listen.