The meaning of popular songs can change with time, even because of historical events, which can alter our perception of its very content. What began as a book review of a collection of articles by the late music critic Robert Palmer, for Kevin Courrier, turned into an examination of how a performance by Paul Simon of his iconic song "The Sound of Silence," on the anniversary of 9/11 at Ground Zero, dramatically altered its iconic stature.
|Paul Simon at the 9/11 Memorial on Sunday|
Most of the coverage that day, from the readings of the victims' names to the various speeches, was thoughtful and moving, as people tried to sum up the impact of a ten-year history that is still too overwhelming to fully comprehend. It was midway through the afternoon that Paul Simon, one of New York's own, stood at the running water where tall buildings were once located and began to play one his earliest and most famous songs. Besides being the song that propelled the duo, Simon & Garfunkel, to stardom, "The Sound of Silence" also has a curious evolution that contains much of the history Robert Palmer speculated about when he first fell in love with the blues.
But last Sunday, Paul Simon rediscovered the song and its original intent. Dressed in a suit, with a 9/11 Memorial baseball cap on, Simon began the song with that strum of the guitar that indeed transmits history. At first, he begins tentatively, playing it as if to consider what it might now mean, certainly far removed from the smug certainties of The Graduate. As he played, he listened to the melody begin to find itself, striking a familiar chord, but with it came a whole new purpose. Paul Simon suddenly looked like he was a thousand years old. As the familiar tune emerged, Simon seemed to be searching not so much for the words, but for what this 47-year old song could still give to this mourning nation. Simon didn't play it for the obvious reasons to include this song. He also didn't want the song to be a statement; no, he wanted to see how much history he could transmit by strumming that guitar again. So he begins to sing. "Hello darkness, my old friend," but that darkness no longer belonged to the pampered world of Benjamin Braddock, instead it encompassed the infinite pain of a country's loss, a wound unrelieved, while offering a quiet prayer, a respite. For the first time, Simon sang the song as if he were just discovering the depths of what he wrote so long ago, a song that maybe was waiting until this very day to finally reveal its true nature. Returning "The Sound of Silence" to its original folk arrangement, Simon gave its solitary air a piercing ring of poignancy, a quality it never had before. While we watched people holding hands quietly, or being embraced as they wept, or others trying to sing along through their tears, he quietly sang:
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, no one dared
Disturb the sounds of silence.
Simon's pained voice seemed to fill that quiet with unmistakable reverberations of regret and remembrance. As the song concluded, with its too clever line of "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls," Simon buried the lines with the subtle echoes of the song's conclusion which reverberated in all its delicate familiarity. And then he produced two large guitar strums, like bells peeling, before he quietly walked away. For once, the song did disturb the sound of silence. There endeth the history lesson.
- originally published September 14, 2011 in Critics at Large.