Back in the days when I played a lot of guitar (well, to be more precise, I played a great quantity of very little guitar), this strange thing would happen. I’d hear a song, it would appeal to me, I’d write down the lyrics by running the cassette 3 seconds at a time, figure out the chords as well as I could (I was pretty good on the basics, till you get into the minor 7/Augmented 17+s), transpose it into a singable key, figure out some picking or strumming from the very limited repertoire of my right hand, and have a go at it. If it felt good, I’d pursue it, practice it, 20 or 30 or 40 times, and try it in front of an audience (usually starting with my wife while she was making dinner, striving desperately for a “That’s nice, Jeff.”). At that point, it still belonged at least some degree to the original from which I’d pinched it. But after a while–let’s say after playing it 100 times–it became mine. Even if it was a Beatles song which was hardwired in my brain, note for note of every instrument, my treatment gained its own autonomy, and became a living, breathing entity in my brain. It became the default version in my mind’s ear.
In 1964 a frat band called the Rhondells from Lafayette College in Easton, PA (not to be confused with the Rhondels from Virginia Beach, VA) was playing a seedy, pre-gambling resort in Atlantic City. They were heard by Nat Weiss, a would-be entrepreneur who actually did book The Beatles’ Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium concerts in 1964 and 1965. Weiss got the band some gigs in Greenwich Village, changed their name (apocryphally upon advice from his buddy Brian Epstein and Brian’s client John Lennon) to The Cyrkle.
After Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel recorded their first LP, a derivative collection of folk standards with a couple of Simon originals thrown in, Paul split for London. Unbeknownst to him, a Columbia Records producer had overdubbed drums and an electric guitar, resulting in the career-making hit “The Sounds of Silence”. Paul had no idea this was going on, and was having a great time with a girl named Kathy and writing a couple of songs with a Bruce Woodley of the Australian band The Seekers (‘Georgy Girl‘). These songs were never recorded officially by Simon and Garfunkel, which makes no sense at all, because they were stars without a catalogue of songs to perform. Don’t blame me, I just bear witness to the events.
By the way, this was the time I saw S&G perform in Meadville, Pennsylvania, just the two of them, acoustic, playing their hits ‘SoS’, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘I am a Rock’. I walked into the dressing room to interview them, my frizzy hair all a-frizz, when very short Paul looked at his partner and said, “Hey, Art, this guy looks just like you.” They were warm and open interviewees, but mega-stardom was still a year or so away.
S&G went on tour, with Cyrkle member Tom Dawes playing bass in their band while his co-founder bandmate Don Dannemann was doing reserve duty in the Coast Guard (I’m guessing you might not have known that fact). Brian Epstein was managing The Cyrkle by then, which gave them no small degree of aura. Paul offered his two songs to Tom, who recorded them under the supervision of master producer John Simon. ‘Red Rubber Ball‘ reached #2 on the charts; and the very lovely ‘I Wish You Could Be Here‘, teetering between maudlin and moving, made it onto their rather unmemorable album (yes, I owned it, and once upon a time knew it by heart). They toured as the opening act for The Beatles in the US in 1966 (now that I think of it— that’s when I saw The Beatles. I must have seen them! I have no recollection of The Cyrkle. I’m really, really sorry, guys. But I guess you probably got enough out of that tour for my not remembering you to not make a serious dent in your memories or bank account.) They had one more hit, the lovely ‘Turn-Down Day‘, which I remember air-guitar singing in a Pepsi Cola factory with my friend Aaron. See, I do remember some things.
And I certainly do remember the song ‘Red Rubber Ball‘, because I performed it about a trillion times. It became a sort of signature song for me in the teenie-weenie cyrkle of venues I used to play back then.
So here you go, all you bulging and balding baby boomers: ‘Red Rubber Ball’ as performed by The Seekers (I recommend skipping this one), by Simon and Garfunkel in a live recording released on the “Old Friends” compilation in 1997 (don’t miss this one), by Jeff Meshel (use your discretion), and by good old Cyrkle, the version everyone remembers and knows and loved, way back in good old 1966.
My little band Vocalocity is doing really well (thanks for asking). We’ve just released a couple of live clips (Ariana Grande’s ‘Problem’, George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’–that’s me in black). Now in our fourth year, we perform only custom-written arrangements, which we commission from the very best a cappella arrangers in the world.
Like Ed Randell, the very funky bass of The Swingles. Vocalocity is already enjoying one arrangement of his (Lianne La Havas’s ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’), so we were negotiating a follow-up. “How about ‘Mrs Robinson’ in a slow funk treatment?” he asked. “Could you hum a few bars,” I asked in half-jest. Two hours later, he sent me a mouth-watering teaser of what’s to come.
After we picked ourselves up off the floor, we started thinking about how to present it to the group. We’re a serious group – they sit and squirm quietly while I explain the lyrics and background to what they’re going to interpret. They all know and love the song, but they’re millenials (it’s not their fault, I keep reminding myself), and I can’t take for granted that they know the song’s context.
And somehow Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ has become more symbol than song. Its connotations outweigh its content. Ask any earthling over the age of 30 about ‘Mrs Robinson’, and they’ll answer, “Oh, yeah, sure, Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman, Joe DiMaggio, “The Graduate”, ‘Dee de dee dee dee dee…’.
And the song. Do you realize what a strange composition ‘Mrs R’ is? It goes like this:
Chorus (And here’s to you…)
Verse (We’d like to know…’)
Chorus (And here’s to you…)
Verse (‘Hide it in a hiding place…)
Verse (‘Sitting on a sofa…’)
Chorus (‘Where have you gone…’).
If you’ve ever thought about the structure of a pop song—it ain’t nothing like that.
And the music. It’s all rootless and shifting and discomfiting. So I went to my Genius-in-Residence, OG, and asked him to explain the song to me. I remember him saying “It’s in the Mixolydian mode.” Then there was something about the chorus being in A but ending on F#, because the tonic makes its way down by fifths to B, then E, then A. But I was snoring deeply by then.
And the lyrics? Paul Simon was the guy you’d bring into your high school English class to show the teacher that M-M-M-My Generation could write poetry. To tell the truth, the three verses are pretty choppy and unfocused. No one remembers them.
Where did the song come from? Well, S&G were flying high on the coattails of ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’. They were a little intellectual but yet accessible, seriously fun, the perfect meld of sweet folk with a dash of rock edginess. They were playing in the big leagues, right up there with The Beatles and Dylan.
Mike Nichols caught the S&G bug while he was filming “The Graduate”, a coming-of-age story about (just in case you grew up on Mars) a disaffected and confused college graduate seduced into a summer affair by his father’s partner’s wife, Mrs Robinson. Some went so far as to say it was the story of a Jewish kid with gentile parents.
Nichols (b. Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, fleeing Nazi Germany at seven with his three year-old brother) first made a name in the improvisational comedy duo Nichols and (Elaine) May, followed by success as a director on Broadway. “The Graduate” was his second Hollywood movie, following Burton/Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.
Hollywood in 1967 was very much the provenance of white boxer shorts Republican America. You had your “Beach Blanket Bingo” teen exploitation movies. If you had an art theater in town you might catch an underground indie flick like “You’re a Big Boy Now” or the Maysles brothers or John Cassavetes. But the burgeoning counter-culture was off-limits.
So easy on the ear (and brain) were S&G that The Suits bought Mike Nichols the rights to three new Simon songs for his movie. Paul came up with ‘Punky’s Dilemma’ and ‘Overs’, but neither of them fit the bill. “What about that thing you were working on about Mrs Roosevelt?” Garfunkel asked. “What??” said Nichols. Simon played a scrap, Nichols said, “The song is now called ‘Mrs Robinson’, go finish it.”
The song was only released three months after the movie, and went to #1.
The song is today inextricably entwined with the movie in the minds of everyone familiar with the era. Together, they gave the most perfect expression to the youth revolution sweeping the US and the world. “Plastics.” Nouveau riche-ness. Hypocrisy. The Establishment and The Meaning(lessness) of Life. Initiation into the delicious, irresistible sins of the flesh. Convention and the deconstruction thereof.
But what the hell does the song mean?
It’s clearly excoriating Mrs Robinson, censuring her and reproving her in a way the film doesn’t. Anne Bancroft’s Mrs R is desperate and dislikable, but we’re never far from pitying her. The lyrics of the song, prima facie, have little to do with her. She doesn’t pray, has no spiritual pretentions whatsoever. She couldn’t care less about politics, and she no more belongs in an asylum than any other of the adults in the movie.
But then there’s that last verse, the DiMaggio one. Simon has mythicized America successfully elsewhere – in ‘America’ (from the “Bookends” album which was being composed at the time of “The Graduate”) and in ‘American Tune’ (several years later). [Speaking of which, here’s another fine Ed Randell arrangement for The Swingles.] In the former, he speaks in the voice of a diminutive, lost individual juxtaposed against the vastness of the country. In the latter, he attempts to don the mantle of a spokesman for The American People. With music by Johnny Bach, it borders on the pretentious. I’ll let you decide if it crosses the line.
Speaking of mantles, Paul Simon is a well-known fan of the New York Yankees baseball team. Simon (b. 1941) grew up idolizing Yankee icon Mickey Mantle (played 1951-1968), as did I. Mantle was portrayed as a sort of John F. Kennedy – copiously gifted, plagued by injuries, his talent struggling to perform in a pain-wracked body; while in reality, he was a dissolute farmboy. Nonetheless, he was The Golden Boy of the 1950s/early 60s. In his rookie year of 1951, Mantle replaced the great Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951) in centerfield, a truly mythic passing of – sorry, but that’s the word, folks – the mantle.
Joe DiMaggio began his major league career the year after Babe Ruth retired, and played alongside Lou Gehrig for four years. That alone gave him mythic stature, a flesh-and-bone hero who had stood with the ancients and was replaced by a man who retired the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
But Joe DiMaggio was so much more. He was the very essence of grace and dignity, a paragon of the nobility of restraint. Joe wasn’t taciturn. He had no more need to speak than does a mountain. Or a god.
Yet it was Mantle that Paul Simon grew up idolizing. Mantle asked Paul why he wasn’t mentioned in the song instead of DiMaggio. Simon replied, “It’s about syllables, Mick. It’s about how many beats there are.” And in Simon’s obituary for DiMaggio in the New York Times, he recounts his conversation with Joe about the song (“The only subject we had in common.) DiMaggio complained that he hadn’t gone away, he was still active. “I said that I didn’t mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply..”) Implant video with caption
Well, literal or not, a Jewish kid from Queens standing in centerfield at Yankee Stadium, singing a pop song that has the depth and power of an ageless hymn – that’s mortals mixing with the gods, a page out of the book of Genesis or the Iliad. And then you see Alex Rodriguez – watching Simon singing his paean to a true hero, the Yankee Clipper himself – demeaning those same pinstripes. Ah, what’s become of the world? Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Longing for that time when the world valued morality, when the world made sense. How should I explain that to the millenials in my band? They’re so far removed from the 1950s (and everything that went before) that I might as well be speaking Akkadian. I guess you just had to be there. Dee de dee dee dee dee…