Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Feelin' Groovy with Rhymin' Simon

"Simon and Garfunkel is poetry!" protests the teenage daughter (Zooey Deschanel) in the movie Almost Famous, as she flips over the Bookends album to the lyrics. Her mother/censor (Frances MacDormand) counters, "Honey, they're on pot."

As a teenager, I played that album over and over, and lapped up the lyrics like manna in the suburban cultural desert I lived in, scribbling, "Yes, Yes! I know exactly what he means!" in the margin.

For years I couldn't decide which was my favorite Paul Simon song: I'd always loved "Me and Julio," and often wondered just what he and his friend with the Spanish name were doing that day down by the schoolyard:

It was against the law
It was against the law
What your mama saw
It was against the law 

I also love "Late in the Evening," with the lyric:

Then I learned to play some lead guitar
I was underage in this funky bar
And I stepped outside and smoked myself a "J"
When I came back to the room
Everybody just seemed to move
And I turned my amp up loud and I began to play
And it was late in the evening
And I blew that room away

After I learned to play a little guitar, I discovered that the two are essentially the same song, with the bridge Simon whistles in "Julio" replaced with a horn section after he'd staffed up his band. I've also wondered just what made him feel so groovy, and with what product he was "Trying to Keep the Customer Satisfied" while the deputy sheriff chased him out of town.

Now a new biography, Homeward Bound by Peter Ames Carlin, chronicles Simon's life and work, and his marijuana use.

Starting as pop idols Tom and Jerry in their teens, by 1963 Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel reunited to become "stylish folksingers whose melancholic songs surveyed the internal geographics of post adolescent malaise, social disconnection, and the euphoria that grabs you when you're rapping with lampposts and feeling groovy," writes Carlin.

A gifted student who studied history and literature (Joyce, Updike, Wallace Stevens, Saul Bellow) at Queens College, Simon brought a professor to his feet in praise by reciting Chaucer. While president of his fraternity, he ended physical hazing in favor of "a Dostoyevskian panel of inquisitors who grilled the pledges on their beliefs, ethics, morals, and their philosophies." In college he met Carole King when she tutored him in math, and the two made music demos together.

While in college, Simon "smoked marijuana enthusiastically and often," Carlin writes. "Sometimes pot made him giggly; other times he became prankish and heedlessly sharp-tounged, much like his new hero Lenny Bruce."

After spring term ended at Queens in 1962, Simon "packed his acoustic guitar and a few other essentials and traveled to California."

Let us be lovers we'll marry our fortunes together
I've got some real estate here in my bag

He'd go to folk music shows and "introduce himself to the players and their friends and hang out for a while. If he was lucky, he would find a sofa to sleep on, and then they'd be up all night, drinking wine, smoking dope, and talking politics, poetry, songwriting, and anything else that seemed to matter."

"After a bit of mood-enhancing conviviality, they got to work," Carlin writes poetically of a songwriting session with Bruce Woodley of the Seekers. "In search of a good third chord, [Simon] fingered a diminished F-sharp, which jolted the tune into a new, if similarly relaxed progression through a misty northern California afternoon. The smoke in the air put them in a trippy mood, a tableau of finger-painted smiles, mind-bending sun breaks, and low-hanging puffs whispering why?" Woodley told Melody Maker a week or two later, "Paul Simon is getting into our groove now."

Soon, Simon's public image "was fast evolving from thoughtful young folkie to enlightened hippie oracle. His hair now bristled past his ears, and he took to wearing capes, psychedelic ties, and high-heeled black boots, the garb befitting a young man who had in just a few months become a leading voice of his generation—like Dylan."

Along with Michelle and John Philips of the Mamas and Papas and Cheech and Chong's eventual producer Lou Adler, Simon helped produce the Monterey Pop music festival that was a precursor to Woodstock. Sent to mediate the LA/SF musical rift at the Grateful Dead House on Ashby Street in San Francisco, Simon was invited "partake in an LSD ritual to make the rest of the evening really special. Paul begged off, but scooped up a handful of the tabs to take back to New York, where he could freak out by himself in the comfort of his high-rise apartment."

At the festival, "when Paul and Artie invited [Columbia president Goddard Lieberson] to get high with them in their hotel room, he accepted enthusiastically, an aficionado of the evil wog hemp since he'd starting hanging out with New York blues and jazz artists in the 1920s." Onstage, the duo giggled through "Feelin' Groovy" and ended their set with the "as-yet-unheard 'Punky's Dilemma,' capping the evening with its hip stoner's menagerie of self-aware cornflakes and stumblebum hippies." The song, with its "puckish vision of pot-head life in the midst of middle-class society," nearly fit into the breakthrough score of Mike Nichols' film The Graduate:

Wish I was a Kellogg's Cornflake
Floatin' in my bowl takin' movies
Relaxin' awhile, livin' in style...

By this time, Simon and Garfunkel were major recording stars and generational spokesmen. "Like so much of the New Generation's educated middle class, they loathed the war in Vietnam, reflexively questioned authority, and didn't hesitate to say they smoked marijuana, had experimented with LSD, and had had run-ins with the same authoritarian cops who hassled all the kids."

According to Carlin, Simon visited Brian Wilson in his "hashish-perfumed Arabian tent" and smoked joints with friends like Tommy Smothers at his vacation home in Stockbridge, New York (home to the famed Alice's Restaurant) and at a house he and Artie rented in LA on Blue Jay Way (of the famed George Harrison song).  To record his solo album in 1970, Simon traveled to Jamaica where "he was greeted with smiles and the traditional celebratory herb," and in the 80s he and former wife Carrie Fisher participated in an ayahuasca ceremony in Brazil.

I've never been able to confirm the rumor I heard that Steve Martin pantomimed rolling a joint to "Feelin' Groovy" at a Simon and Garfunkel concert. Martin did call getting high "feeling groovy" in the 2009 film "It's Complicated." In his banjo-playing persona, Martin tours with Simon's wife Edie Brickell.

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