Thursday, December 22, 2011

Simon & Garfunkel -- "I Am A Rock" (1966)

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island

It's December, and while there is no "silent shroud of snow" covering the streets in my neighborhood, it is certainly dark outside.  Today is the winter solstice, the day that has the fewest hours of daylight and the most hours of darkness for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere.  So it's an appropriate day to for 2 or 3 lines to feature a song with rather cold and dark lyrics.   

Carl Wiser of Songfacts ( -- a searchable online database that has information about thousands of popular songs -- has been kind enough to contribute to 2 or 3 lines once again.  

Carl recently interviewed two legendary studio guitarists.  One of them, Carol Kaye,  has played guitar on a number of notable hits but she is best known as a bass guitarist.  She was the bassist on "I'm a Believer," "Midnight Confession," "Wichita Lineman," "The Way We Were," "Sixteen Tons," "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'," the Mission: Impossible TV show theme, and a bunch of Beach Boys songs, including "California Girls," "Sloop John B," "Help Me Rhonda," and "Heroes and Villains."

Carol Kaye
Ralph Casale had an equally impressive résumé -- he played the guitar on recordings by Frank Sinatra, the Four Seasons, Janis Ian, and Simon & Garfunkel, and contributed to hit singles like "Happy Together" (a hit for the Turtles and also for my 8th-grade band, the Rogues) and Lou Christie's "Lightnin' Strikes."

Ralph Casale
Carol worked in Los Angeles, and Ralph worked in New York City.  So how did both of them end up playing on Simon & Garfunkel's "I Am A Rock"?

For the answer to that question and more about "I Am A Rock," here's Carl Wiser: 

There are times when a songwriter will take what he or she knows about lyrics and melody, and set out to write a hit song that is totally devoid of personal inspiration. "I Am A Rock" is one such track, and while the meaning of the song is unremarkable, its recording and release history tell a much better tale. 
When Simon & Garfunkel's debut album -- Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. -- was released in 1964, it went nowhere, and the duo split up.  Simon focused on songwriting and came up with "I Am A Rock," which was offered to Chad and Jeremy, who turned it down.  So Simon recorded it himself for his 1965 solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook.  (That album was initially released only in the UK -- it wasn't available in the US until 1981.) 

Later that year, Simon was pleasantly surprised when Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson added overdubs to the Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. track, "The Sound Of Silence," and it became a huge hit.  So it was time to get the boys back together.
Columbia needed some singles to follow up on the success of "The Sound of Silence." Two of Simon's solo tracks, "I Am A Rock" and "Homeward Bound," were chosen and were recorded in a late-night session that was overseen by producer Bob Johnston, known for his work with Bob Dylan. 
[NOTE: "Homeward Bound" was one of the first songs the Rogues learned.  The guy who put the band together was a big Simon & Garfunkel fan.  I was more of a Rolling Stones guy -- I had a lot more in common with party animals Mick and Keith than with nerdy intellectual types like Simon & Garfunkel.  (Sorry for the interruption, Carl -- you were saying?)]
Ralph Casale played guitar on these sessions, and he remembers that Dylan mainstays Al Kooper (organ) and Bobby Gregg (drums) were also at the session. 
Ralph told us: "I was given a lead sheet for 'I Am A Rock' with just chords and asked to play the electric twelve-string guitar. The producer wanted a sound similar to the Byrds. It was important that session players became familiar with the current hits because many times producers describe the style they want by referring to well-known groups."
Columbia Records found the Simon & Garfunkel sweet spot, and "I Am A Rock" was a hit, going to #3 in America.  They weren't through twiddling with the song, however.  
For the Sounds Of Silence album, Simon & Garfunkel were sent to Los Angeles, where they recorded a new version of the song with the top studio musicians out there, including Carol Kaye, Larry Knechtel, Glen Campbell and Hal Blaine.  (Carol has never liked "The Wrecking Crew," the moniker that drummer Blaine coined for the famously anonymous group of several dozen session musicians who appeared on just about any record of merit that was recorded in Los Angeles back in those days.) 

So now there are three recorded versions of "I Am A Rock":  Simon's solo effort, the single version (recorded with the best studio pros who worked in New York City), and the album version (backed by the cream of the West Coast session musicians).
The release history of the song in the UK is truly baffling, and likely explains why it only made it to #17 across the pond.  

In a one-year span beginning in August 1965, there were four different releases of "I Am A Rock":
1) as the first track on the Paul Simon Songbook album;
2) as a Paul Simon solo single;
3) on a Simon & Garfunkel EP called I Am A Rock; and
4) as a Simon & Garfunkel single
It was a time when record companies were willing to throw huge resources at their proven winners, which came in handy when Simon & Garfunkel used all that Columbia money to go all out with their final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Note that Paul Simon uses the word "rock" literally.  He's not talking about a musical genre here.  Simon, who always thought of himself as a folk singer, went literal with the term again on his 1973 song "Loves Me Like A Rock."

My thanks to Carl for contributing once more to 2 or 3 lines.  I always hesitate to include links to Songfacts in my posts because once one of my readers goes to Carl's website and sees just how much good stuff it has, I've probably lost that reader for a long, long time.  

But it wouldn't be fair of me not to share Carl's interviews with these legendary studio musicians, which reveal a lot about what went on behind the scenes at some legendary recording sessions.  They are "must" reads for any fan of popular music.

One final note.  I recently had occasion to read about Emily Dickinson, the very reclusive poet.  I wonder if Simon was thinking of her when he wrote the last verse of this song:
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
Here's Paul Simon's solo version of "I Am A Rock":

Here's a live television performance of the song:

And here's what I think is the single (New York City) version "I Am A Rock" -- I'm not sure, but the organ part sounds like Al Kooper to me:
Click here to get a copy of the song from Amazon:

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