Monday, October 01, 2007

Sounds of Silence

I love backstage stories -- those what-really-happened tales that shine a light into places you never expected to see.

When Simon and Garfunkel burst on the musical scene at the end of 1965, I became an instant fan the first time I heard "The Sounds of Silence."

Me and ten million other people.

Paul Simon is, in my mind, one of the best pop songwriters to come out of folk-rock. Might be a one-trick pony, as he used to say, but it is one helluva good trick. Man has chops out the wazoo, musical and compositional.

Early on, however, the road was hard. Simon had a hit single in the late fifties with Garfunkel, (singing as Tom & Jerry) and then the well went dry. Washed up at fifteen, he said later.

"The Sounds of Silence" was on a folk-acoustic album that came out in 1965, and promptly tanked.

Simon went off to England, where he was popular, and played gigs, wrote songs, did albums.

Meanwhile, back in the states, a producer at Columbia Records, Tom Wilson, noting that somebody had overdubbed electric instruments on some other folk albums and punched them up, decided to do that to "The Sounds of Silence," a cut which had gotten some air-play. He hired some session musicians, and laid in a funky guitar, bass, and some drums.

It was a brilliant idea. Boom. Instant hit, climbing the charts with a bullet, right to #1.

Nobody asked Simon and Garfunkel if they thought this was a good idea, to overdub their song, but apparently neither of them complained about it. Instead of staying one-hit wonders, they became the folk-rock duo of the period.

("Bridge Over Troubled Water," for me, is right up there next to "Hey, Jude," by the Beatles.)

Um. So, the really amusing part of the story: Simon and Garfunkel were booked on a music TV show, Hullabaloo, whereupon they were to play their new hit. Unbeknownst to them, the guy who had played the guitar overdub, Vinne Bell, was booked onto the show, to back S&G.
Bell, who was an outstanding session man, invented such things as the electric twelve-string guitar, electric sitar, and other toys, and was featured on a slew of best-selling records.

Simon didn't know the guy.

So he goes to the musical director, Peter Matz, and says he wants to show the guitar guy how to play the lead. Matz knows that Bell did the record. He says, I think he knows how. But Simon insists. He walks over, introduces himself. The guitarist does likewise. Simon says, I want to show you how this guitar riff goes, it's kind of tricky. It's on our hit record.

Bell grins. Oh, I know the record. I know just how to play it.

No, here, just watch me ...

Whereupon Bell says: Paul -- I did the record.

Big pause.

Okay ... um ... are you sure ... ?

Yeah. This, right? And plays the riff.

Uh, yeah ...

All in all, I'd rather have had Simon's career than Bell's, but in that situation, at that moment, I'd rather have been Vinnie Bell than Paul Simon ...


Dan Moran said...

Graceland is possibly the single best album I've ever heard. (Not a mainstream opinion, that, but fuck 'em.) A piece from "The Boy in the Bubble" appears in each of my Continuing Time novels so far -- admittedly not a huge universe:

Emerald Eyes -- "lasers in the jungle"

The Long Run -- "the bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio"

Last Dancer -- "days of miracle and wonders"

AI War -- "don't cry, baby, don't cry"

Crystal Wind -- "a dry wind swept across the desert" ...

I have difficulty finding time to write; I've never had difficulty writing. I put on Graceland and I'm good to go.

Steve Perry said...

Lot of folks think Graceland is the best of a bunch of really good albums by Simon.

Which one you like the best kinda depends on when you heard it, and where, in your life, you were.

I like nearly all his stuff, and I'm partial to Still Crazy After All These Years. The title cut nailed me when I first heard it.

I remember what happened on The Late Great Johnny Ace, Simon's tribute to the R&B singer Ace, who shot himself playing Russian roulette, and to John Lennon.

He started to play it during the concert in the park with Artie, I saw it on the tube, not live, and a fan rushed the stage. Guards hauled the fan off. Kinda spooked Simon, you could tell.

Then a few months later, Simon was on Letterman, and he tried to play the song again. Broke a string on the borrowed guitar while doing it, and apparently he decided the song was cursed. He didn't play it it again in public for something like eighteen years ...

John Longville said...

Several other sources list Al Gorgoni as the musician who played the electric guitar overdub on The Sound of Silence, though I found one other source who lists both Al Gorgoni and Vinnie Bell as having been in on the session. Can you share the source for your story on Bell and Simon on Hullabaloo? The story seems too detailed to be an error.

Steve Perry said...

I was reading a lot of rock biographies a few years back and I came across this story in one of them, not sure which. I know it was also in Uncle John's Bathroom Reader (1988), quoting Bob Shannon and John Javna's book, Behind the Hits (1986), and I seem to recall seeing an interview with Vinnie Bell somewhere that mentioned it.

Bell lists The Sounds of Silence in his credits on his web page.

There's a piece on the BMI site by Dave Simons, interviewing Gorgoni, who talks about how he and Bell did the overdub session.

No question that Bell worked on the record. How accurate the Simon/Bell encounter is, I dunno, but those are the sources as I recall.