Last evening I was tired and watching a movie that I just could not get into, a best picture-nominated movie called The Power of the Dog. That’s all on me, I am sure, as my attention span was wavering. The movie received 12 Oscar nominations, so who am I to say that it is not excellent?* I will attempt to watch it again while it is still available on HBOMAX, oops! Netflix. As an alternative, I put on some music for background, and ended up listening to Simon and Garfunkel.
My brother Steve was a composed and quiet man, and when traveling would listen to S&G more than anything else. In 2011 he lay on his deathbed, we around him waiting for the inevitable. They were playing religious music over the speaker for his benefit, and my son went down to the nursing station and asked that they play S&G instead, and they obliged. Steve went out listening to two of the finest musicians of my era, and certainly the best songwriter.
S&G got off to a rocky start, and broke up on occasion. After their Tom and Jerry days, Simon went to England, which is where he was when he was contacted by Mike Nichols and asked to write some music for The Graduate. From that came a series of songs, the most famous called Mrs. Robinson.” It was originally going to be a send up of Eleanor Roosevelt, but was adapted to the movie.
For me, the move to England is odd, Even more so is noted to the left, a screen cap from The Peerage, the website that lists all the high and mighty of Great Britain over time. We know that most musicians are famous more by lineage than talent, but Simon is someone truly talented. It happens, I guess, right Ms. Swift?
One thing led to another, and I found myself listening to The Sounds of Silence, some of the most moving lyrics ever written. I’m going to print them below, maybe interspersed with some commentary, but if there is no commentary, it just means that my verbiage was not up to the superb quality of Simon’s.
By the way, in 1971 I was going to school and working a graveyard shift at a local grocery store. Two of the guys I worked with were gay before gay was OK, and had bits of fun with me, knowing I was straight. One night when all three of us were off we went out drinking, and these two filled my aged-21 naive head with their view of Hollywood, where everyone was gay. All of the top talent, singers and actors were, according to these two, privately gay, even Bob Hope. I asked how they knew, and one opened a matchbook ever so delicately and took out a match, saying something like “We have our signals.” Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were both gay, they told me, and the song below was an anthem, the “Sounds of Silence” being those signals sent to one another as they lived in the closet of the straight world. I know now they were wrong, but was affected for the first time in my life of awareness of the gay culture hidden in plain sight. Anyway, the song below is not the gay anthem. They were wrong about that.
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
I read long ago, I think in Rolling Stone Magazine, that the words “Hello darkness my old friend” came from Simon’s late night habit of sitting quietly in a dark bathroom and meditating.
In restless dreams, I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
And in the naked light, I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
Those words, people talking without speaking, hearing without listening, writing songs not shared, are so potent, almost Shakespearean in content. What goes on around us all day, every day? I am not talking about texting and all the electronics that goes on today, but rather our emotional lives, hidden behind our faces, subtly signaled. The signals are picked up by anyone with any awareness, but we never talk about them. They are the part of our lives that gives us depth and meaning. And no, it is not just the gay culture. It is all of us.
“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
Then the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
In tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence
“Prophets” are widely misunderstood. As a school kid, I thought they were people who knew the future. They don’t, as no one does. They are instead the people who see more in the present that anyone around them, the ones who know that Covid is fake, as are wars and assassinations and mass shooting and slaps on the face during the Oscars. What is our reward? Ostracism. If we want to get along in this world, we have but one option: Silence.
*I did not watch the Oscars, but was secretly hoping that West Side Story would garner best picture. It is a massive remake of the 1961 movie, but honest to its roots. The singers were pure singers, no Autotune that I could detect, and superb choreography, and with every Leonard Bernstein song left intact, not jazzed up. At then at the end of the credits the screen says, by the way, that 15,000 people worked on the movie. I wonder if it is Spielberg’s masterwork, his magnum opus. He made the ’61 work so much better by toughening up the Sharks and the Jets, making them more menacing even as they sang and danced. That’s quite an accomplishment.