Great art is commonly thought to come from a pure source of inspiration. Some call it a muse, others might credit a diligent work ethic, but those among us who have had assignments or inflexible deadlines would likely say that our best work wasn’t made under those circumstances.
Paul Simon doesn’t fall into that group. In fact, one of his most endearing compositions, the Simon & Garfunkel song ‘Mrs. Robinson’, was conceived just that scenario.
Simon explains as much during a 1970 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Cavett was known to host a number of the biggest stars of the late 1960s and early ’70s, and have enough counterculture cache to entice artists like Marlon Brando, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon to make appearances. Like most of Cavett’s interviews, his discussion with Simon is a bit stilted and awkward, but he leads Simon down the path of explaining how ‘Mrs. Robinson’ came to be. Famously, it was the musical equivalent of a homework assignment.
“Mike Nichols called and asked,” Simon says. “He said he had a book and he was gonna make a film called The Graduate… He convinced us to do the music. The music was supposed to be mostly original music, but what would happen is that in order to fill up a scene, we would take a piece of music and put it there just to hear what music would sound like.”
“‘Mrs. Robinson’ was made up on the spot,” he continues. “That was originally supposed to be a chase scene, and they wanted guitar music. I was playing… I didn’t even know what I was playing, just riffing on guitar.”
Simon then proceeds to break out a number of licks that bear a passing resemblance to the unmistakable acoustic intro, but explains how the random fills weren’t working. Instead, he began circling around a new tune based on the name ‘Mrs. Roosevelt’ that he had been fiddling with. Though it was just a chorus, Nichols immediately gravitated towards it and insisted that the “Mrs. Roosevelt” should instead reference the “Mrs. Robinson” of the film.
The lack of coherent thought and improvisational nature of the track ultimately led to the scatted intro vocal and “coo coo ca-choo” lines that are so synonymous with the track today. Eventually, Simon buckled down and put some real thought into the song, constructing a number of verses and choruses that referenced themes of lost innocence and affairs that were also found in the film, although Simon had a rough idea of those lines as inspired by Elanor Roosevelt before becoming involved with The Graduate. Still, it’s easy to draw parallels between the lyrics and the demeanour of the film’s Mrs. Robinson, a bored socialite housewife longing for escape and excitement.
“It’s very pleasurable to write in a stream-of-consciousness style, and very often you find that what is in your mind is relevant, although at the moment it doesn’t seem so,” Simon explains. “Then I asked myself later what it meant and I said ‘Well, it means something. It’ll mean something.'”
Check out Simon’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show down below.