Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sounds of Silence

Forty–five years ago this month, "The Sounds of Silence" was released as a single — and the commercially successful careers of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were launched.

They had been playing clubs in New York for a few years, but "The Sounds of Silence" brought them the exposure that made them major figures in the increasingly popular folk rock movement of that time.

It was one of my mother's favorite songs. As a child, I recall that Mom had a fairly extensive collection of Simon and Garfunkel's 45–rpm singles. "The Sounds of Silence" may have been the first song of theirs that I ever heard, although I'm not completely certain of that. Mom may well have waited to buy it until she had heard more of Simon and Garfunkel's work.

So, while I remember hearing "The Sounds of Silence" around my home when I was small, it may not have been the first Simon and Garfunkel single that Mom brought into the house. That could have been "I Am A Rock" or "Scarborough Fair" or "Homeward Bound."

And, even if it wasn't, that doesn't mean I didn't hear it first somewhere else. My father was a college professor, and, when my brother and I were little, my parents often left us with his students when they went out. On one of those occasions, I might have heard "The Sounds of Silence" playing on a radio or a turntable. Although my parents were receptive to many of the artistic developments of their time, I got much of my exposure to the music of that time from those students.

Now, I'm not a student of musical genres, just a garden–variety fan who appreciates many kinds of music, and I don't think it would be accurate to call Simon and Garfunkel the innovators of what has come to be called folk rock. It probably would be more appropriate to bestow that particular title on the Byrds or Bob Dylan.

But I'm equally sure that anyone who remembers those days would agree that Simon and Garfunkel were certainly among the pioneers of that genre that blended folk music and rock music so well in the 1960s and 1970s.

And "The Sounds of Silence" was certainly a part of that popular movement. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" ultimately became their signature song, but "The Sounds of Silence" was the kind of popular breakthrough that Simon and Garfunkel craved early in their careers.

"We were looking for a song on a larger scale," Garfunkel said, "but this is more than either of us expected."

As I always heard it, the music was just about done when Simon began working on the lyrics after President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. He struggled with the lyrics for awhile, but everything came together by February of 1964, and Simon and Garfunkel started playing the song at clubs.

The song was well received, and, about 18 months later, it was recorded by Columbia Records. It climbed to the top of the charts by New Year's Day 1966.

For me, it has always been a song that I associated with the '60s. I enjoyed listening to it as a teenager. I still enjoy listening to it today. But I can't really say it has a "timeless" quality the way other songs do.

I can listen to some songs today that were recorded 30, 40, even 50 years ago, and they still sound fresh and new to me. But there are other songs, like "The Sounds of Silence," that always remind me of the times when they were popular.

Perhaps that is because "The Sounds of Silence" was one of the songs featured in "The Graduate," a film that actually used themes that are relevant to every generation but cast them with the general angst of the '60s as the backdrop.

So I guess it's only natural that the song is inextricably linked to that turbulent decade. It is appropriate, then, that it would have a special relevance for people who were young in the '60s — and even for such as me, who were only old enough to remember part of the '60s.

Well, maybe that is a little esoteric. But I still think the song was great — even if Blender magazine thought it was one of the 50 worst songs of all time.