Even if you are familiar with the song, as I hope you are, you might not recognize the original. The version that was released on that album was just the two singers and Paul Simon’s guitar work.
A late-night DJ started playing the song, and it gained a following among the college crowd. On the strength of that, a record executive decided to do a remix. Now, it would be unheard of for a record executive to do anything to a Paul Simon song, but he wasn’t Paul Simon then. Okay, of course he was Paul Simon, but nobody knew his name yet. The executive borrowed Bob Dylan’s band, put electric guitar and drums to the song, and re-released it.
And, thus, over a year after it’s original release, “Sound of Silence” not only made the charts, but topped them, beating out the Beatles song “We Can Work It Out”. Paul Simon wasn’t even in the country—he was performing solo in Denmark. Art Garfunkel called him with the news and sent him a copy of the single. Simon was livid at what had been done to his song. Garfunkel was more sanguine, feeling that if that was what was needed to have a hit, it was fine. However, if you listen, knowing this, you can tell that the electric guitar really doesn’t sound like it fits the song.
Then, a year later, once again the impossible happened. Mike Nicholls used the song as part of the soundtrack for the movie The Graduate. It was unheard of to use a song that had already been on the charts at this time. (In earlier days, music was reused on a regular basis in the movies.)
In 1999, BMI named “Sound of Silence” as the 18thmost performed song of the 20thCentury. (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was number 1!?!?! with the equivalent of 45 years of back-to-back airplay?!?!) It—"Sound of Silence”—ranks 157 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. (I would argue with that title, since it doesn’t include anything by Beethoven, Mozart, or Puccini) Anyway, the idea is that this is a massively important and influential song.
There is a lot of debate about the meaning of the lyrics. The opening lines: Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again, Paul Simon says refers to the practice that he had of going into a dark bathroom and sitting on the toilet seat with his guitar to write songs there. Why the bathroom? Because of the wonderful acoustics. And the darkness was just his way of focusing in order to compose. How, or even if, he wrote things down is beyond me. The rest of the song seems to be about our inability to communicate with each other:
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
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 share
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
"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
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls"
And whispered in the sounds of silence
In the early 1990s, there was a group called Extreme. (Actually, I think there still is a group called Extreme, with at least partially the same line-up.) They were a metal band that recorded two acoustic ballads: “More Than Words” and “Hole Hearted”. Those were their two most-liked songs and the two that I loved the most. While there are some rougher songs and groups that I like, for the most part I prefer softer, more melodic work without screaming or shouting.
This brings me back to Disturbed. I tried to listen to some of their hits. I really did. I even tried to listen to Draiman’s other band, Device. I tried. Not my style. I do agree with the Vocal Coach reaction video where she hears his “Sound of Silence” and likes all of his choices. When he applies vocal fry, at least he does it in such a way as to minimize the damage to his vocal cords. (Oh yeah, vocal fry is always going to cause damage. If you are determined to use it, the best you can hope for is to minimize the damage.)
I first heard Disturbed’s version of “Sound of Silence” while I was driving the car. I loved the way the song built from soft and smooth to loud and raw. It left a deep impression on me. And even though the DJ didn’t tell me who was singing, I kept it in mind so that an hour later when I got home, I could look it up on YouTube. The raw emotion that Draiman brings to this song is arresting.
Even Paul Simon likes it. When Draiman performed the song on Conan, Simon sent him a congratulatory email. That says a lot.
I’ll be playing this song with a few of the others mentioned in this blog this week on my Minnich Music Facebook page, so check those out. And share any stories that you may have on these songs in the comments down below.
Until next time!