Bob Dylan is not the unlikeliest pop star — Paul Simon is.
“Rock ’n’ roll has a lot to do with image. If that’s not your strength, people find fault with the work.” — Paul Simon on why he usually comes in second to Bob Dylan.
Consider this. Simon & Garfunkel were the top selling musical act from 1968–1970. They outsold The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix… everyone. Most people know this, but what they don’t know is how it was image and marketing that made them and not just songwriting.
In 1962 Colombia Records took a young tanned-skinned piano-playing Jewish boy named Robert Zimmerman, and tried to pass him off as a scruffy guitar-playing pale-faced folkie named Bob Dylan.
Against all odds, this mediocre talent was able to use his talent for mystique and mimickery to convince a generation of boomers that his intoxicated stream of consciousness typewriter ramblings were genius-level poetry.
Paul Simon followed suit, believing he too could make it as a folk singer. Enter 1965 where The Paul Simon Songbook is released… and fails to make an impact. And remember, this album featured “The Sound of Silence,” “I Am a Rock” and “Kathy’s Song.” These songs would eventually go on to become the biggest songs of their day. What happened? Did he not get to tour?
Oh no, he toured. That was the problem. Audiences got to see just how visually underwhelming Paul Simon was. Let’s contrast Bob Dylan — the ultimate in contrived beatniks, with Paul Simon — a genuine everyman from Queens.
There was no comparison. Paul Simon was the objectively better singer, guitarist, lyricist and composer. And yet when he moved to Europe in 1965 to pursue a career as a folk singer, he was met with mixed reception from audiences. Meanwhile Pink Floyd got signed to EMI Records while playing absolute nonsense. “They were signing anything with long hair,” the band boasted.
Paul Simon learned a powerful lesson in England. He knew that to have a career in rock and roll, he needed a strong visual presence. Enter Art Garfunkel.
In recent years, Paul Simon has been spotted wearing beaded bracelets, jade necklaces and sporting exciting new outfits. He finally understands that what makes folk music so exciting is the mysticism.
Consider this. From the 1950s onward, recording was relatively cheap. The Paul Simon Songbook was recorded with just one microphone capturing a live acoustic performance. It was probably only a few hours in the studio maximum. No mixing required.
So what made record deals a necessity? Graphic design and promotion. Both of these required the artist to have a powerful visual presence. If a record label is going to print thousands of copies of an album, the graphics better be incredible.
If ads are going to be purchased in music magazines, the artist better be incredibly attractive in order to ensure a strong return of investment. After all, once the potential listener is hooked by the artist’s visual presence, enjoying the music is not far behind.
For all the talk of Bob Dylan being a terrible singer and an unlikely popstar, please checkout this video. Does that really look like someone who doesn’t belong in the spotlight? Look at the album cover. Look at how mysterious and enchanting he is. Really? That’s not star quality?
The same can be said of Leonard Cohen.
Cohen was born into a wealthy family of clothing manufacturers in Montreal in 1934. This no-doubt accounts for some of his taste in tailored clothing. Even at the height of the casual 1970s Cohen was in his customary dark suits.
Leonard Cohen came from a family where how you looked was always of prime importance. Leonard’s father Nathan Cohen died suddenly from lung complications when the young poet was just nine years old. Of his father’s wake, Cohen said, “I cut one of the wings of the bow tie off and I wrote something on a piece of paper — I think it was some kind of farewell to my father — and I buried it in a little hole in the back yard.”
From that day on, Leonard Cohen dedicated his life to always looking as elegant as possible.
Cohen’s uncles made sure Nathan’s widow Masha and her two children, Leonard and his sister, Esther, did not suffer any financial decline after her husband’s death. Leonard studied; he worked in an uncle’s foundry, W. R. Cuthbert & Company, pouring metal for sinks and piping, and at the clothing factory, where he picked up a useful skill for his career as a touring musician: he learned to fold suits so they didn’t wrinkle.
Leonard Cohen is not Spanish and has no Spanish ancestry, and yet he adopted Spanish style flamenco guitar because he fell in love with the mysticism.
He was extremely conscious of his figure, and always made sure he got in a daily workout so he could fit into his fitted suits and maintain his elegant image. “I was swimming every day,” he says of his regimen in the 60s and 70s.
In his first television singing appearance, Leonard Cohen does his father and his entire family proud by looking as elegant and mystical as ever.
Go to the 30 second mark of this video and you will hear Leonard explaining that as long as the artist is visually appealing, they could be reading the instructions off of a shoe polish can.
In the 1990s, he admitted it has “nothing to do with content” at the 3 minute mark. And remember folks, Leonard Cohen is often described as an unlikely popstar.
For years it was believed that Leonard Cohen’s greatest strength was his songwriting, and that the music was successful in spite of his limitations as a singer. And so in November 1986, popstar Jennifer Warnes released a Leonard Cohen tribute album.
In this video Jennifer admits that it’s not just the words — it’s Leonard himself who makes the music great. It is telling that Jennifer Warnes’ tribute album was not a commercial success. As Jennifer would likely admit, her brand does not have the darkness and mystery to pull off those types of songs.
This would explain why this music video depicts Jennifer wearing sunglasses, singing a Leonard Cohen song with blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar. Leonard himself even appears to help give the video some credibility.
Contrast that video with this one. Yes, Leonard’s vocal is unbearable for many listeners, but remember folks: it has nothing to do with content.
In 1988, Leonard Cohen released his legendary comeback album I’m Your Man. This middle aged man went on to outsell his beautiful young blonde protégé Jennifer Warnes’ album from the previous year. From 2:26 until the end of this video, you will see exactly how powerful Leonard Cohen’s charisma can be.
At the end of the day, even the greatest songs in the wrong hands will sound corny or cheesy. Just think of the countless terrible auditions and performances you’ve seen on American Idol and other singing shows. This industry needs people to buy into artists, not just the music.
Everybody plays music. It’s a common skill. But when attractive people perform it, the performances are imbued with dignity and grace. This is what attracts audiences.
Jazz records are chock-full of mistakes and imperfections. The musicians experiment with ideas that many would consider “wrong” sounding. And yet these records do not sell because they sound “good,” they sell because they are cool.
BLASPHEMY ALERT: Folk blues is extremely abrasive and much of the songwriting is derivative and unoriginal. They literally all use the same lyrics, same song structures and same guitar techniques. But because it’s played by mystical sage-like people on wax recordings, it is hailed as profound. Even though the people who performed it were just trying to make money and not art.
Most realized white listeners saw black musicians as mystical and could profit off of that by deliberately playing into that image.
Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Mayer have all worn variations of the Navajo Squash Blossom Necklace. The Navajo people are the indigenous First Nations people of much of the American Southwest. Their culture is prominently featured — however imperfectly — in depictions of cowboys in the media.
Our collective unconscious places Navajo imagery as being deeply mystical without being too alien. By wearing Navajo jewelry, one is immediately imbued with a sense of gravitas and other worldliness.
Use your raw intuition. You. Yes, you reading this. Based only on these photographs, would you honestly expect any of these guitarists to be terrible at guitar? Of course not.
The necklace imbues everything they do with a sense of mystery and depth. Whether it’s the simplest blues phrases, or the most complicated jazz guitar stylings, their playing is always profound.
Let’s imagine they weren’t guitarists. They’re just people walking down the street. They’re people you met at a party. You’d assume they were musicians without even having to ask.
Let’s look at another contemporary of Dylan and Simon’s: Neil Young. Neil Young tried to make it as a singer, but was repeatedly told his singing voice just wasn’t good enough. An engineer famously told him “you’re a good guitar player, kid, but you’ll never make it as a singer.”
And so Neil Young took a tip from his hero Bob Dylan and tried to pass himself off as a mystic — despite being just a typical middle class white kid. Neil Young is not an indigenous person and has no indigenous ancestry. He is Anglo-Canadian, and yet somehow Neil decided to tap into Navajo inspired imagery for his signature look.
“Oh come on, so what if he wore fringed jackets. Talent is talent.” You know who else was talented? Neil Young’s bandmate Stephen Stills. Checkout this video. The first song is sung by Stephen Stills. Stephen sings in tune, and looks like a handsome boy next door, albeit a bit white bread.
And then at the 1:10 mark Neil Young takes over. His singing is… unique. But his look, while not “attractive,” is instantly captivating. Neil looks like a magical shaman who possesses super natural powers. To this day, I still feel that way about Neil’s music.
When Neil begins his guitar solo, it’s as if you’re bearing witness to a séance. It’s not of this world.
When Stephen Stills and Neil Young formed the legendary rock band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it was clear to the entire world who the musical genius of that group was: Stephen Stills.
True story: Stephen Stills was rejected by the Monkees because his teeth were too ugly.
At the end of the day, Stephen Stills just didn’t have the same level of mysticism of the other guitarists of his time. He was too white bread.
Don’t take my word for it. In 1973 Neil Young openly sang about the consequences of being seen as too “white bread” as a child.
That brings us to Jim Morrison, perhaps an even greater example of style over substance than Bob Dylan. James Morrison was a strange, antisocial middle-class white kid. Starting to see a pattern? Take a guess as to what happens next.
So what was James to do? Simple. Invent a childhood trauma story involving indigenous people.
In 1947, when he was three to four years old, Morrison allegedly witnessed a car accident in the desert, during which a truck overturned and some Native Americans were lying injured at the side of the road. He referred to this incident in the Doors’ song “Peace Frog” on their 1970 album Morrison Hotel, as well as in the spoken word performances “Dawn’s Highway” and “Ghost Song” on the posthumous 1978 album An American Prayer. Morrison believed this incident to be the most formative event of his life, and made repeated references to it in the imagery in his songs, poems, and interviews.
His family does not recall this traffic incident happening in the way he told it. According to the Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, Morrison’s family did drive past a car accident on an Indian reservation when he was a child, and he was very upset by it.
The book The Doors, written by the surviving members of the Doors, explains how different Morrison’s account of the incident was from that of his father. This book quotes his father as saying, “We went by several Indians. It did make an impression on him [the young James]. He always thought about that crying Indian.”
This is contrasted sharply with Morrison’s tale of “Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.” In the same book, his sister is quoted as saying, “He enjoyed telling that story and exaggerating it. He said he saw a dead Indian by the side of the road, and I don’t even know if that’s true.”
And now Jim Morrison could be born.
Most of your brain is done developing after your first decade on earth. Ever wonder why time kept going faster once you turned 14? Because your brain was already like “been there, done that.” That’s right fam. We’re all permanent preteens. And if you remember being a preteen, there was one word everybody dreaded being outed as: poser.
No matter how sophisticated we become as grownups, we are all still 12-year-olds who never want to be outed as having bizarre tastes and become castigated for it. And so, even as grown ass adults, we look for hundreds of micro-cues in others to signify where they stand in the social hierarchy.
Let me give you an imaginative exercise. You’re the new kid in school. It’s a school for grades 7–12. You immediately need to get your bearings and figure out the social hierarchy. After all, you’re going to high school with these people as well as grades 7 and 8.
You have a very reliable set of intuitions that can help you, but they are not at all politically correct. Based on looks alone you can make very quick value judgements about who is definitely a loser.
Now bearing all of this in mind, can you see why it was important for these white artists to use mysticism to make themselves appear more grandiose?
For all the talk of Jeff Beck being a “guitarist’s guitarist” and “all about the music.” Please watch this clip. No matter how “out there” Beck’s music got over the years, he never abandoned his looks. Really think about it. This man was making extremely experimental music, and yet he always looked like a popstar. That’s how important image is. You can make the most eclectic music of all time, but you must look the part.
At least The Beatles were all about the music, right?
The Beatles famously got rejected by almost every record company in England. The only record company that gave them a shot was Parlophone Records — a comedy label.
Producer George Martin’s reaction to their demo tape was “they were pretty awful. I understood why people had turned them down.”
You might be thinking “their songwriting was great, that’s what impressed people.” Wrong. “The songs they produced were pretty elementary,” George Martin said.
The notion that somehow Bob Dylan stands alone as a unique anomaly of a popstar who couldn’t sing couldn’t be more wrong. The Beatles, for their time, were not considered good singers.
Legendary DJ Murray the K said the establishment’s view of The Beatles when they first became stars was “they couldn’t sing worth a damn.”
Their success can largely be attributed to their manager Brian Epstein. When he died in 1967, the group fell apart within months.
So what did Brian do exactly? With his eye for fashion, he turned The Beatles from this.
To this very day, black leather Chelsea boots with a Cuban heel are known to the world as “Beatle boots.” Bob Dylan started wearing them shortly after he met The Beatles.
Musical stars like Harry Styles still wear them as a testament to Brian Epstein’s understanding that these boots make men appear mystical. Thank you Brian. The Beatles would be nothing without you and George Martin.
In 2007, Across The Universe was released. This film introduced The Beatles music to a generation raised on autotuned vocals. The soundtrack became a top selling album and to this day is credited for being a palatable introduction to The Beatles’ music for those of us born after the 1970s.
“See! It was all about the songs. Their songs are amazing, and they will stand the test of time no matter who is singing them. Image has nothing to do with it. You’ve been proven wrong.”
OK imaginary strawman, let’s test your theory. So you’re telling me if in 2019 a movie was released starring an unattractive South Asian man who was musically talented, and this person was performing The Beatles songs and the movie was a box office hit and some big names like Ed Sheeran and Lily James starred in it, then the film’s soundtrack and the aforementioned South Asian man would both become monumental successes in the world of music?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. Across The Universe stars a cast of young, attractive people and they’re all sexually attracted to one another. The movie is oozing with sex. Contrast that with this performance.
Paul McCartney has admitted that his guitar playing was really more about completing his “French look.” He wore a black turtleneck and played guitar in minor keys to help attract girls because most of the girls he knew loved French culture. He has even talked about his friend Paul Simon’s lack of image in a pretty backhandedly disparaging manner.
“It’s easier not to play the game of rock star when you don’t look like one,” says McCartney. “He looks professorial — you can imagine him teaching you literature. The fame game can make people believe their own legends and go out of control. He has in-built protection.”
Paul McCartney, the most famous bassist in history, says he didn’t initially want to be the bassist in The Beatles. Why? Well I’ll let him explain it.
“At first it was the loser role in the group. It’s usually the fat guy who stands at the back. So I was a bit unhappy when I got that job. I wanted to be upfront with the guitar.”
Spoken like a true musician.
Eric Clapton’s autobiography spends a ridiculous amount of time talking about fashion, stating “the guitar went with the beatnik look.”
Eric Clapton was not invited to perform with the top acts in rock because of his abilities, but because he was the coolest kid in the grade. Don’t take my word for it, take his.
The truth is that, driven though I was by the music, I was equally driven by the thought of becoming one of those people I had seen on TV…though I still hadn’t quite got to grips with the actual playing of the guitar, I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing and tried to cultivate the image of what I thought a troubadour should look like.
Having Eric Clapton in your band or on your track immediately made you cool. Is it any wonder that track one on George Harrison’s first album after the Beatles split is a Bob Dylan co-write with Eric Clapton on lead guitar? Not if you’re being intellectually honest.
Let’s take a look at some examples of young attractive white guys and the mystical men of color who inspired them.
Here is George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. Here is Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy. Here is John Lennon and Chuck Berry. Here is the Rolling Stones and Howlin’ Wolf.
In all of these video clips, the young white boys come off as amateurs next to the real thing. And yet all of these white boys were superstars at the time these videos were recorded.
The first two minutes of this recording is blues legend Howlin’ Wolf expressing disappointment at Eric Clapton for not playing at the level of a professional blues guitarist.
There were hundreds of young men of color living in the United Kingdom in the classic rock era, many from South Asia. At the two minute mark of this video you will see a young South Asian man as part of a panel of young English musicians in 1966.
Farrokh Bulsara was a British kid who grew up loving rock music. He’s of Indian descent. Let’s see some childhood photos of him.
Farrokh did everything he could to look as white as possible. He stayed out of the sun, wore make up and hair product, and grew out his hair to cover some of his more ethnic features. He also used and abused skin bleaching and skin lightening products.
Last but not least, he changed his name to Freddie Mercury.
That’s right folks. Freddie Mercury is Indian. The knee jerk response is often “he was so talented, he didn’t need to do all of that. The world would have accepted him as he was!”
Ok. Name me other British-Indian rockstars of the 1970s. That’s what I thought.
While Eric Clapton was cultivating his TV-ready image, Paul Simon was spending hours mastering the folk guitar. Paul Simon was barely paying the rent with his guitar skills while cool-Clapton was being hailed as the second coming. Literally!
The fact is, of course, that through my playing people were being exposed to a kind of music that was new to them, and I was getting all the credit for it, as if I had invented the blues.
As for technique, tons of white American guitar players were better than me.
It is telling that Eric Clapton’s first impression of Jimi Hendrix was formed prior to hearing him play. “I thought he looked cool and probably knew what he was doing, so I was all for it,” Clapton said of the night he allowed a complete unknown to play with him on stage.
At 1:50, Eric Clapton remembers his friend Jimi not on how he sounded, but on how he looked.
And let’s not forget who Jimi Hendrix idolized most of all….
I can give you even more modern examples. Comedian John Mulaney explains at 3:10 that the real secret to his success as a stand up comic is not just his jokes, but his appearance.
We discussed Ravi Shankar earlier. He’s regarded as one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century. He fathered a child with a Texan woman. The child was raised in Texas. Ravi’s daughter is Geethali Shankar, and in 2002 she became the most famous singer on the planet.
Even though she was the daughter of a great musical genius and shared his name, she chose to go by her two middle names: Norah Jones.
At the 9 minute mark, Jack White explains what set him apart from the dozens of other musical acts playing the same gigs as him.
In this clip Jack White proves once and for all that Leonard Cohen was correct when he said “it has nothing to do with content.” In under ten minutes, Jack White scribbles random gibberish, delivers an out of tune performance in one poorly recorded take filled with flaws and releases it as a single.
And remember folks, The White Stripes released their first recordings in 1999, a year where every artist had the ability to use technology to make their music sound “perfect.”
It is telling that John Gillis… I’m sorry, I mean “Jack White’s” number one influence is Bob Dylan.
Ed Sheeran was so scarred by being rejected by “industry people” for his looks that he chose not to star in his early music videos.
“I was a nerd with red hair and glasses. Aged 11, I decided I wanted to form a band. But nobody wanted to join me because I wasn’t cool enough,” he says.
John Mayer’s brand was determined to be the “boy next door who became a star.” John Mayer was even signed by Columbia Records, the label that launched Bob Dylan. John Mayer is his real name, no stage name.
Mayer has proudly declared himself a disciple of Paul Simon. Now allow me to debunk John Mayer as an “everyman.”
- John Mayer is a tall, dark and handsome white male with a white male name.
- John Mayer was always obsessed with his appearance. Whether it’s shoes, watches, clothes, cars, streetwear, skincare, and even fonts.
- No matter how “plain” an outfit is, it will always complement a tall person in decent shape. Wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants to the Grammys is not “bold” if you look like an Abercrombie model.
- In 2010, John Mayer had a personal crisis and went deep into himself. He got into the music of Neil Young and Bob Dylan and began adorning himself in Japanese, Navajo and Western apparel. He implicitly understood, like his hero Stevie Ray Vaughan, that what gives singer-songwriters their power is mysticism — not being the “everyman.”
Is it any wonder that Eric Clapton took notice of John Mayer early on and took him under his wing?
Here is John Mayer proving his Columbia Records label mate Leonard Cohen right. Mayer proves it has nothing to do with content by improvising a song on the spot. Starting to see a pattern?
“Oh come on, so what if he made up random gibberish on the spot. It’s not like he would ever put gibberish on a professional recording.” Oh ye of little faith. Go to 2:55 of this professional music video for a serious song and you will hear John Mayer singing what he has admitted is gibberish that doesn’t relate to the rest of the song or hold any meaning.
The iconic ABC television series Boy Meets World was an instant hit when the first season aired in 1993. The show’s most charismatic success was not the titular Cory or his cool bestfriend Shawn, but Minkus — the nerd character.
The network didn’t want the show to be centered around a nerdy character, and since Minkus was quickly becoming the audience favorite — they fired him.
After all, the network wanted their show to be the “cool” kids show. They already had Urkel on their network, they didn’t need two.
The Disney Channel has received plenty of criticism for pressuring its actresses of color to look thinner and whiter.
And so the network decided to begin promoting Raini Rodriguez, an overweight woman of color, and pushing her musical recordings.
As the network and Raini painfully learned, it’s not the industry that’s shallow: it’s society.
“Oh come on the internet is just full of mean people.” True, but where are all of the ironic fans of Selena Gomez, another Latin-American Disney star? Check out this video. Where all of the ironic fans? Why did this not become a joke?
Watch as Selena Gomez walks you through her different body sizes throughout the years and talks about how uncomfortable it feels to have your entire life defined by fluctuations in your weight.
Yours truly was obsessed with rock and roll as a teen. I was so moved by this performance that I dedicated myself to mastering the blues guitar. I even bought a red semi-acoustic guitar. Obviously, a red guitar was the only thing separating me from my heroes.
My talent and dedication got me some attention. I was selected for a television interview based on the quality of my recordings. However when the producers saw me in person, they chose not to use me in the thumbnail. Based on what I’ve taught you, can you really blame them?
It’s time for the ultimate blasphemy. Get ready.
Whitney Houston was not signed for her voice, but for her looks.
Eric Arceneaux is an R&B artist and vocal coach based in Washington. He has closely studied Houston’s singing habits for decades and first noticed deterioration and huskiness in the early ’90s, when she developed nodules after abusing her voice.
He had the following to say about her voice in 2010.
The cracks, deeper tone, shortness of breath and inability to reach those skyscraping notes can be explained by smoking, past drug use and a lack of proper training, he says.
“Whitney is immensely talented but technically deficient,” Arceneaux says. Houston’s tendency to push her “chest voice” into the stratosphere, rather than rely on the lighter, gentler “head voice,” may sound dazzling, “but it‘s extremely damaging. It causes hoarseness, irritated vocal folds, calluses. It often requires surgery and rehabilitation.
“Whitney was known for a free, flute-y head voice, and now it’s just air,” he says. “That tells me something‘s really wrong, because it’s usually the last thing to go.“ Age is an unlikely culprit, he says, considering opera singers reach a prime ripeness in their 40s and ”Patti LaBelle (at 65) is still hitting high notes.”
Music executive L.A. Reid is responsible for many of Houston’s hits. When the time came for him to find the next generation of talent, he showed the world the music industry’s true colors.
That’s right. When Melanie Amaro won the first season of X Factor USA, time was of the essence. It was important to strike while the iron was hot. And yet, L.A. Reid had other plans.
Nearly six months after winning the X-Factor, the following information was revealed to the public.
So why has Amaro been so out of view? According to a source, the 19-year-old British Virgin Islands native has been ordered to undergo a sort of pop star boot camp that involves a strict regiment of exercise and monitored nutrition. “L.A. Reid is adamant that Melanie get thinner so he’s hired a trainer for her, has her on a strict diet and checks in personally every day to see how much weight she’s lost,” says an insider, who says Amaro is also seeing an etiquette coach (an Epic representative denies the claim). “When she comes back, it will be a whole new Melanie Amaro.”
Don’t worry guys, she got to debut. Melanie was sabotaged with poorly written singles to justify not making an album when the singles flopped. After all, why waste money on an album if the artist is not marketable?
Here is Whitney Houston herself admitting that people can sing off key on the record and people will still buy it if the artist’s image is powerful enough.
Have I depressed you enough with contemporary examples? Great, now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Using that 12-year-old’s intuition of yours, try to honestly assess which of these personas comes across as an Elvis poser (a loser) and which at the very least stands a chance of being a cool guy that people are going to respect.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Bob Dylan made what is objectively the worst sounding well received music in the history of pop. Whenever he did anything competently, he was praised as genius. Don’t take my word for it, take his.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.” If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.
If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time like I did, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”
You’d have written that too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all you know.
Joni Mitchell described Bob Dylan perfectly when she said “I like a lot of Bob’s songs. Musically, he’s not very gifted.”
Well said. But does having a lot of songs that people like merit the kind of legendary status Bob Dylan has? Surely Paul Simon has written many songs people like.
“Oh come on it’s not about being musically gifted, Bob Dylan wrote amazing lyrics.” He did. He also sang complete gibberish. He sang total gibberish that was not even English. Read the YouTube comments. They are sincerely and unironically praising an out of tune singer singing complete gibberish as beautiful poetry.
The Paul Simon Songbook went nowhere in 1965 and that album featured eloquently written and carefully crafted songs. The 1966 Bob Dylan album Blonde on Blonde is considered a masterpiece that defined an era. The album is literally a concept album about writing the most nonsensical meandering songs and singing them in the most obnoxious, contrived, out of tune singing voice you can muster. The album cover is an out of focus photo of the artist. The entire album is a “fuck you” to the audience.
But again, pretend you’re a 12-year-old on the first day of school. You’re trying to figure out who the cool kid is. Paul Simon walks in the room, and Bob Dylan walks in the room. Who do your instincts tell you is the kid to befriend?
Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman was there from the beginning. Much of Bob Dylan’s early success can be attributed to him. Grossman was image obsessed. He would go as far as asking his clients to change their names and stay out of the sun to appear more white.
But Bob Dylan is an iconoclast. He doesn’t obey authority. Surely he would never stoop…
If you want to see Robert Zimmerman’s true complexion once he got rid of Grossman, here it is.
While Paul Simon was obsessively writing and rewriting his songs and practicing guitar hours per day and taking singing lessons, Bobby was fussing with his hair.
Go to the 2:57 mark of this video. The lyrics are nonsense, the guitar is out of tune, and the vocals are… yikes. And yet when the performance is finished, the entire room is captivated.
In 1966, as a social experiment, Paul Simon wrote and produced a “folk-rock” track in the style of Bob Dylan to prove to the world just how stupid Bob Dylan’s music sounds when it’s not performed by Dylan.
This song is widely considered the first “diss track” in the history of pop music. At the 2 minute mark, Paul sarcastically says “folk rock,” as he proceeds to play the harmonica horribly. We then hear the sound of the harmonica hitting the floor, followed by Paul saying “I’ve lost my harmonica Albert,” in reference to Bob Dylan being a mere puppet of Albert Grossman’s. Meow!
When The Beatles did nonsensical “Dylanesque” music, it somehow worked. Hmmmmmm…
At 23:05, Leonard Cohen is singing completely out of tune and blowing a harmonica like a toddler. And yet, the entire room is captivated. He lights up the room. Keep watching until 26:15. You’ll never want the party to end.
Contrast that with this video. Would you rather be at the parties above or hanging out with Paul Simon? Now let’s add Garfunkel. Better?
Thought so. But I’ll let Robert himself explain it.
I’m just average, common too
I’m just like him, the same as you
I’m everybody’s brother and son
I ain’t different from anyone
It ain’t no use a-talking to me
It’s just the same as talking to you.
And so the unlikely popstar is not Bob Dylan, but Paul Simon?! Against all odds, he became the biggest thing in pop music in an era where everybody was image obsessed.
He wrote music for the sexy summer blockbuster The Graduate, with “Mrs. Robinson” taking the world by storm in 1968. From 1968–1970, the pudgy little man from Queens was outselling The Beatles. Talk show host Dick Cavett said of Simon in 1970, “there may not be any other American composer who’s had quite the continued success.” And yet, to this very day, Paul Simon’s brand does not hold a candle to artists from his era who sold one fraction as well as he did.
“I never compare myself with the Rolling Stones. I never considered that the Rolling Stones were at the same level. I always was well aware of the fact that Simon & Garfunkel was a much bigger phenomenon in general, to the general public, than the Rolling Stones.” — Paul Simon, 1972.
In 1970, the Simon and Garfunkel album Bridge Over Troubled Water became the best selling album in history. The Beatles broke up in 1970, which means Bridge Over Troubled Water was bigger than any album The Beatles released.
As the years went on however, more and more music fans were flocking to record shops to purchase Beatles albums. By the time the new millennium came around, The Beatles had outsold Simon and Garfunkel by a considerable margin.
In the 1980s Paul discussed why Simon and Garfunkel’s brand wasn’t being held in the same high regard as The Beatles despite selling more records than them. The undisputed masterpiece of Simon and Garfunkel’s career was “The Boxer.” Simon explains some of the inspiration behind the song.
“I think the song was about me: everybody’s beating me up, and I’m telling you now I’m going to go away if you don’t stop. By that time we had encountered our first criticism. For the first few years, it was just pure praise. It took two or three years for people to realize that we weren’t strange creatures that emerged from England but just two guys from Queens who used to sing rock ’n’ roll. And maybe we weren’t real folkies at all! Maybe we weren’t even hippies!”
Year after year, decade after decade, Paul Simon’s music was shattering records. By the 1990s, multiple generations of music listeners had fallen in love with his songs. When he performed a free concert in Central Park in 1991, 750,000 people showed up. And remember folks, the 1990s were a time when musicians of Paul’s generation were not yet seen as legends, but has-beens.
Remember folks, Bob Dylan’s 1990 album, 1992 album and 1993 album peaked at #38, #52 and #70 (respectively) on the Billboard chart. Paul Simon’s 1990 album peaked at #4.
And yet by the time the 2000s came around, Rolling Stone magazine had published lists of the 500 greatest songs of all time, the 500 greatest albums of all time, and the 100 greatest artists of all time. In all three lists, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones are above Paul Simon.
When Rolling Stone published their list of the 100 greatest singers of all time. Bob Dylan was ranked #7. Paul Simon does not appear anywhere on the list.
In the mid 1970s, Paul Simon was balding and was noticeably overweight. In this 1980 interview, Paul Simon is lean, stylishly dressed, caked in makeup, tanned, and wearing hair plugs — one of the first famous men to wear them.
In the late 1970s, Paul Simon switched record labels. Am I saying Warner Bros. stipulated Paul needed to “glow up” in order to sign him up? Of course not.
In this television interview from 1982 Paul’s makeup makes him look like he was waterboarded by a Sephora employee.
In the early 2000s, around the same time Bob Dylan was beginning to become praised as the greatest singer-songwriter of all time in the media, Paul Simon began suffering from horrendous self-loathing. “I really attacked myself,” Simon says. “It was a brutal attack. I didn’t tell anybody. It was like a voice inside me was really attacking me.”
In the 2010s, Paul Simon began dressing sharper. He began adorning himself in Christian paraphernalia. He began wearing jade necklaces and beaded bracelets and his music became more spiritual and mystical.
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, to a man he called the greatest figure in American music. “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music,” Obama said.
In 2016, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to that same singer. This was the first time the Nobel Prize for Literature had ever been awarded to a songwriter. But this was justified by the fact that this American songwriter was given the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Remember folks, we’re all permanent preteens. Who is the coolest kid in the grade?
To this day, Paul Simon has outsold and out streamed Bob Dylan by nearly every available metric. And yet the 21st century’s institutions that recognize greatness have not venerated Paul Simon in the way they venerate other musicians of his generation.
Perhaps this song he wrote when he was 25 will offer insight as to why.
A time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you — Paul Simon, 1968