Reviewed by Chris Cassone
Love him or hate him, Howard Stern has emerged as the premier interviewer on today's landscape. Forget about all his silliness, vulgarity and pedestrian antics, his one-on-one style is par excellence. Add to that the element of excitement for a man who was decidedly moved by Simon's songs, and you have the makings of a groundbreaking interview.
81 year-old Paul Simon has just released his fifteenth studio album, with a total of thirty-five including Simon and Garfunkel. His latest, Seven Psalms, prompted the interview and while Stern and Simon did talk about the new spiritual-based album, they touched upon everything from the basics of songwriting, his history in the business (on
American Bandstand at 16!) to his belief in God and the higher things of life.
Stern did his homework, too. Every referenced song was prepped and at the ready and he played snippets to remind us and themselves how great much of his work truly is. Paul is humble man but also practical. When Stern asked him if he knew he was a great player, he simply said, "Yes." Next question. Where Simon excelled was connecting the dots in a song to the reason it was written and possibly the influence. With his guitar continually in his hands throughout the interview, he played a "new thing" he was working on. Just a little ditty with double stops and sweet simple fingerpicking. But he then went on to explain it had its roots in the melody of "Why Don't You Write Me?" by The Jacks. But he didn't stop there because he explained the symmetry of the chord structure before and after the modulation. Then he spoke about the beauty of symmetry and why the human mind is attracted to it. Amazing. Simple but amazing to hear it from the man who wrote "
Sound of Silence," "
Mrs. Robinson," "
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," and "
Graceland," (among many others.) Then he drilled down and said he really thought it sounded like Davy Graham's "
Angie." I think it sounded more like "
Classical Gas." It actually has a new life all its own.
Stern asked him about the famous S&G harmonies and Simon gave a masterclass on harmonies with the third below the melody. Explaining that he learned it from The Everly Brothers and John and Paul (where Paul's high voice gave John nowhere to go so he sang below Paul. Steeped in doo wop, Paul Simon explained that simple doo wop-stacked harmonies are fine but there's "something special" about the third below. Our ears are not accustomed to hearing it yet it is so pleasing. "Sound of Silence" is the perfect example. The Beatles' "
Love Me Do" is another great example.
For this songwriter and fan, the story about the drum track to "Cecilia" is astounding. A bunch of his friends were over at his LA house (THE George Harrison house from Blue Jay Way) and they were high and banging on everything in the room: guitar cases, tables, chairs, etc. Someone had a NAGRA recorder, usually used to record live audio on a film set. However, this one was defective as it was feeding the signal back creating a slap echo. They then cut the best minute out of the track and looped it on two tape decks, essentially allowing it to play indefinitely. He then wrote the chords and words to that loop. That's how he got that unique sound.
Then there's the drums to "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" where he asked the great Steve Gadd to play a little shuffle. Gadd responded with his forte from the military band he was in during his service years. That's a march that Gadd is playing.
By far the most stunning story I heard (and most of it was out there already) was the "El Condor Pasa" story. Performing in Paris in 1965 on the same bill with Los Incas, Simon fell in love with the haunting melody with Peruvian pipes and later asked the band to buy
their master tape. Writing English lyrics to the old folk melody (copywritten in 1933) Simon and Garfunkel had a worldwide hit, possibly one if the first of the World Music era. Travelling in the deep Amazon after the 1970 hit song was everywhere, Simon met a young girl playing guitar and sat to play with her, offering that he knew a South American song. "Everyone knows that one, senior," was the young girl's reply adding that she knew an American song - "Sound of Silence."
"In the middle of the Amazon!" Paul exclaimed.
Story after story, Howard pulled more out of him with his open, inviting style than any other interviewer I've heard. Then he broached the subject of the new LP, "Seven Psalms." His fifteenth studio album was never promoted. It was examined and scrutinized by Stern who mostly ranted about how much he loved it. It was here that Paul made the statement about "the listener completes the song." The listener might interpret the words differently, and even interpret the meaning of the song differently but all was valid if taken in context with his lyrics. Who hadn't thought Jimi Hendrix was singing, "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy," in Purple Haze?
The album is the most spiritual one of Simon's career. Evoking the actual Biblical Psalms, Paul speaks of the Lord as
The earth I ride on,
the Lord is the face in the atmosphere.
The path I slip and slide on.