Surviving Garfunkel: How Paul Simon Found His Voice and Made His First Solo Masterpiece

Music

Happy 50th birthday to Paul Simon’s self-titled solo album — the funniest, nastiest, leanest, meanest, and possibly weirdest masterpiece of his great career. When the singer-songwriter dropped Paul Simon on Jan. 24, 1972, it was a shock to a pop audience that was expecting more sweetness in the Simon and Garfunkel mode. But this album was his big Garfunkel Purge, embracing his bitchy wit. It was considered a commercial flop, too eccentric for the millions who liked him better with Artie around. It usually gets overlooked in his story. But for some fans, including this one, it’s the best album he’s ever made, with or without the other guy.

For Simon, it was simple. As he told Rolling Stone at the time, “I didn’t want to sing ‘Scarborough Fair’ again.” So he slammed the lid on his G-funk era with a vengeance, going his own way. The album has two monster hits, “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” But there isn’t an orchestra in sight. He lets his Larry David side run wild, in the comic urban angst of “Paranoia Blues,” “Papa Hobo,” and “Run That Body Down.” No sap, no saccharine. It’s hard to believe this is the same sniffly emo boy who had an existential crisis over a traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike.

For Paul Simon, he strips down the music to a slinky acoustic groove, focused on his nimble voice and guitar. (Hey, this guy is a brilliant guitar player? Who knew?) Has he ever sung a funnier or sadder final line in any song than in “Papa Hobo”: “I’m in the road and the weather man lied”? I quote that line to myself at least six days a year. And if I had 35 minutes to persuade a jury to convict Simon of being a genius, this is the album I’d play.

Crazy as it might sound now, everyone expected Art Garfunkel to have all the solo success — he was the face and voice of the franchise, not to mention the hair. A budding movie star. Sure, Simon wrote the tunes, but only people who checked the fine print knew that, and so what? Three Dog Night didn’t write, but did that stop them from scoring scads of Top 10 hits while S&G crashed? Songwriters grew on trees. The smart money was on Garfunkel.

Simon knew that nobody was betting on him. Did he let that bother him? Ah, yes — he’s Paul Simon, remember? In his classic 1972 Rolling Stone interview with Jon Landau — his most entertaining, most likably cranksome chat ever — he says that even his own label expected him to bomb. “Clive [Davis] once said to me, ’S&G is a household word. No matter, however successful you’ll be, you’ll never be as successful as S&G.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Don’t tell me that.’ ”

So he didn’t even try to copy his old style. You can’t imagine Artie singing, “Mama look down and spit on the ground every time my name gets mentioned.” “Duncan” is a wildly funny tale of a hippie kid who hits the road hoping for a romantic Dylan/Kerouac adventure, but just ends up starving in a parking lot. Until he finds a night of salvation in the arms of a Jesus freak. What a meet-cute: “I told her I was lost/And she told me all about the Pentecost.” But she turns out to be his real adventure. (Maybe Duncan will end up as “Papa Hobo” from Side Two — but what a way to go.)

Paul Simon is also a real guitar album, the only one he’s ever made. It captures his acoustic chops at an all-time peak, right before a tough injury — in the fall of 1972, he hurt his left index finger, which hindered his playing for years. In Robert Hilburn’s 2016 bio, Simon says he injured it while cutting a guitar part for Garfunkel’s solo album. Believe it or don’t, I won’t judge — but you have to admire the pettiness of polishing that anecdote for a half-century.

His voice opens up too — you can hear he learned his shit singing doo-wop, and when he goes for high notes, you hear more “Earth Angel” than “Scarborough Fair.” (He said at the time that quitting weed helped.) He cut the record with an eclectic mix of jazz and rock cats. “Run That Body Down” has both jazz legend Ron Carter on bass and Wall of Sound drummer Hal Blaine — it seems like their styles should be a mismatch, yet they blend perfectly, with Jerry Hahn adding his loopy guitar. They hit a groove that lets Simon relax and take chances as a singer. He wisecracks about mortality, reaching for his falsetto to ask, “How many nights you think that you can do what you’ve been doooo-ing? Who you fooling?”

It’s also worth noting the “she” that jumps out of the first verse, when he visits his doctor. It’s tough to overstate how startling this detail would have sounded in 1972, especially the way he’s so casual about it. (Maybe you can think of a previous pop tune with a speaking role for a female M.D., but I can’t.) It’s like his shout-out to Congresswoman Bella Abzug in “Armistice Day,” from a modern guy who talked about “feminism” while other rock stars were still calling it “women’s lib.” “I’m for the feminist movement,” he told Rolling Stone. “I support it. I believe that women are a group that is discriminated against.”

“Mother and Child Reunion” is a title he famously got from a Chinatown menu, with a chicken-and-egg dish. He flew to Kingston to work with reggae legend Leslie Kong, who called in the all-stars from Toots and the Maytals: Hux Brown on lead guitar, Neville Hinds on organ, the killer riddim section of Jackie Jackson and Winston Grennan. The New York R&B singers included Cissy Houston — it’s a whole new song after you realize that’s Whitney’s mama singing about a mother-and-child reunion, while Nippy was in grade school. If that’s not enough drama for you, Simon also shades the Beatles: “I know they say let it be, but it just don’t work out that way.”

But everybody’s favorite song on the album also happens to be the best: “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” Simon stumbles into a comically sordid sexual awakening, leaves home, makes his guitar boogie to the cuica percussion of Bitches Brew vet Airto Moreira, and does a virtuoso whistling solo, all in under three minutes. There’s Catholic guilt and there’s Jewish guilt. (The first “oy” in Top 40 history?) When Rolling Stone asked what exactly Mama saw, Simon replied, “Something sexual is what I imagine, but when I say ‘something,’ I never bothered to figure out what it was. Didn’t make any difference to me.”

Whatever, Pablo. Even an ignorant child hearing “Me and Julio” on Seventies AM Top 40 radio could hear what this song was about — a gay kid getting kicked out of the house. Paul and Julio are two boys with a secret relationship, until Mama rolls out of bed and catches them breaking the law. They can’t go home, so they escape to meet at the playground — slip out the back, Jack. (In the demo version, Paul sneaks off via the fire escape.) No regrets — just a mischievous rebel smile.

What could it mean that this explicit song about queer NYC was also an explicit song about Puerto Rican NYC — both cultures with a huge impact on pop music, but rarely shouted out this way on AM radio all over middle America, circa 1972? Simon sang it on Sesame Street, with a little girl freestyling joyful new lyrics to the beat. “I thought it would be cool to use the name Julio in a song,” Simon said in Hilburn’s book. “That’s probably the happiest song I ever wrote.”

Years later, in 1988, he made an insane video for “Me and Julio.” Rhymin’ Simon rocks his boombox with an intro from Queens’ finest rap gods, Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie. Mickey Mantle lip-syncs the chorus, looking as confused as the rest of us. MTV wouldn’t touch it — nobody knew this bonkers clip existed until the 2000s, when VH1 Classic finally dug it up.

“Papa Hobo” was never a hit, but it’s one of the highlights: just Simon’s guitar, Charlie McCoy’s bass harmonica, Larry Knechtel’s harmonium. He’s stuck in Detroit, a “basketball town” with a “hell of a hockey team.” (Regretful fact-check: the Red Wings sucked every year back then, and that goes double for the Pistons.) But he’s just trying to bum a ride out of town, breathing “carbon and monoxide, that old Detroit perfume.”

In his Rolling Stone interview, Simon complains about his commercial failure, since the album sold only a mere 800,000 copies. Landau protests, “That’s more records than any single Rolling Stones album except for Sticky Fingers.” This does not go over well with the artiste. “Yeah, but, permit me my arrogance, I never compare myself with the Rolling Stones,” Simon says. “I never considered that the Rolling Stones were at the same level.” He’s downright offended. “The Rolling Stones might be bigger with a certain segment, but the general public, S&G really penetrated, really got down to many many levels of people — older people and really young kids. That was really gratifying.” Yeah, he sounds real gratified.

It must have galled him to see the Stones outchart him with their most defiantly anti-commercial music — Exile on Main Street was a Number One hit that year; Paul Simon stalled at Number Four. But time has vindicated this record — it’s the one that really points to Graceland, especially the way he puts the rhythms first. You can also hear a bit of Stephen Sondheim, especially Company. The distance between “The Sounds of Silence” and “Papa Hobo” is like the distance between “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

He had bigger hits after Paul Simon, but this was a blueprint for his best work — Still Crazy After All These Years, Hearts and Bones, Graceland, So Beautiful or So What. When Simon hits the heights in recent years — “Rewrite” in 2011, or “Wristband” in 2016 — he’s usually echoing that “Me and Julio” magic. But he’s never made another album that sounds quite like this one — and neither has anyone else.

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