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Why Paul Simon thinks he will never compare to Bob Dylan


In the crowded Gingham-clad dive bars of Greenwich Village and the pubs of Bond Street, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon stirred up the zeitgeist with a folk revival on both sides of the Atlantic as they ventured like “original vagabonds” with dogeared guitars under their arms. They might have erupted onto the scene almost simultaneously, but the bubble never burst thereafter, and they both remain the premier lyricists of popular music. 

Recently we spoke with fellow songwriter, Jack Savoretti, who seemed to agree. He explained: “Well, for me Elvis is the king of rock, Sam Cooke is the king of soul, James Brown is the king of funk, but when it comes to songwriting I think Paul Simon is the king,” he says. “Bookends is just a masterclass. The simplicity of it is like a conversation with an old friend.” 

Adding: “There is such nostalgia to it. It’s very beautiful too and beauty is not always put on records these days, it’s not as marketable as other things, but there’s a lot of beauty on it, it’s like looking through an old photo album, and for me, it has that same lovely effect as doing that.”

Further adulation for the diminutive musical master came from Flyte’s Will Taylor, who also told us how Bookends is one of the greatest records ever written. “From the back of a lesson, I would put one headphone through the sleeve of my blazer, lean on my palm and listen secretly to ‘America’ with my eyes half-closed,” he reminisced. “Visually manifesting a tour bus driving across wide, open country, something that years later would come good.”

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Before eulogising: “With interviews from inside an old people’s home and lines like ‘Kathy I’m lost’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping’, it’s a prematurely middle-aged masterpiece.” Whether you’re a songwriter admiring the composition or just a fan drifting into the tessellated perfection of words, melody and image, many others would agree. 

However, Simon himself believes that he pales in comparison to his fellow folk troubadour, Bob Dylan. Ten years ago, Mojo magazine asked him about this level of self-doubt and his glowing appraisal of other artists. They posed the question: “You recently said you didn’t consider yourself to be at the top when considering the pantheon of popular songwriters. Who is at the top in your view?”

To which Paul Simon replied after a lengthy deliberation: “I’d put it at [George] Gershwin, [Irving] Berlin and Hank Williams. I’d probably put Paul McCartney in there too. Then I’d have Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.” Before adding a second sub-Mount Rushmore list of notables: “Then, in the second tier, [John] Lennon is there, [Bob] Dylan is there, Bob Marley and Stephen Sondheim are there, and maybe I’m there too. It’s about whose songs last.”

The reason he ranks Dylan above himself in the list of greats comes down to what Simon describes as an inherent deficiency on his own part. “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere,” he once explained. “I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time.”

He did, however, once try his hand at irony and as it happens, Dylan was his target. With the Simon & Garfunkel track ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic’ the folk duo even sought to mock their fellow folk star. With Dylan pushing on into electric music around the time that this apparent parody was recorded in June 1965, his folk peers began to weigh in on the hysteria surrounding the star and Simon was one of the first to make a mockery of it all. In this clear divergence in style for Simon & Garfunkel, they added the twists of organ and psychedelic guitar sounds that had entered Dylan’s oeuvre. 

However, Simon then takes a look at Dylan’s songwriting style by seemingly mocking his penchant to throw in obscure lines and list off literary and pop culture references. In a Dylan-esque vocal affectation, he purrs: “Not the same as you and me, he doesn’t dig poetry / He’s so unhip, when you say Dylan / He thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was.” Despite this tongue in cheek effort, clearly, his admiration for Dylan remained, and if anything, the song is almost a meta declaration of that.