When Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize for Literature on Paul Simon’s 75th birthday it’s fun to remember how linked their careers have been over the years. Along with the same record label, producer and musical backdrop they also shared a reflexive suspicion, even antipathy, for one another. Paul would go on to criticize Dylan regularly during the 1960s, most memorably in his sarcastic homage, “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” recorded first for his UK solo album The Paul Simon Songbook, then re-recored for Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Here’s part of the reason why:
The night before the final recording session, Paul and Artie played their first scheduled show at Gerde’s Folk City. It was their first major appearance since they started recording for Columbia and to stir up excitement (Columbia producer) Tom Wilson rallied some of his hipper friends and colleagues to the show. The producer was there, of course, as was Barry Kornfeld and some of his living room regulars. But the real prize was Bob Dylan himself. He came a little late, perching at the bar next to the influential New York Times music critic Robert Shelton. They’d had a few drinks. Maybe they’d blown a little grass. Whatever, he was laughing. Hand in front of mouth, head down, shoulders heaving. Haw-haw-haw, ohmygod. And you could hear it. Paul and Artie played in a hush. One guitar, two voices and delicate strands of melody and harmony. The power was as much between the notes as in the notes themselves and it begged close listening. And everyone knew that beaky high plains honk.
In a career whose every twitch and twang has been anatomized for personal, literary, political and Biblical magnitude, the meaning of that Dylan guffaw remains cloaked in mystery. Shelton went to his grave insisting that the laughter — he was giggling too, only more quietly — had nothing to do with what was happening on the stage. That whatever had spurred the giggle fit was completely detached from Paul and Artie’s performance. It was just bad timing that whatever they were talking about, and Shelton never identified what it was, had popped their corks.
But there was more to Shelton’s story. Dylan and Paul had met for the first time only days earlier, and the encounter had gone badly. Despite having so much in common, including extended visits with the same folk musicians in London, Paul and Dylan couldn’t find anything to say to each other. So they traded the smallest of small talk. Neither pretended to be delighted, or even all that interested, in meeting the other.
Oh yeah, how’s it going, I heard you were around, you’re Kornfeld’s friend, right? So, yeah. Hi. Okay.
Then back to their separate corners, separate friends and separate visions of the world and their rightful position within it. And maybe it was the same place. And maybe there was only room for one of them. Which may be why Shelton described that fast-approaching night at Gerde’s as “an encounter typical of New York’s paranoia and instant rivalries.” Which makes his claims of innocent snickering seem a wee bit less convincing.