The Sound of Silence: the meaning of Simon and Garfunkel’s masterpiece

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1964. Lights out. A confession in the dark, a longtime faithful friend. Meanwhile, a jet of water flows from a tap deliberately left open. A waste that we forgive, because starting from these ingredients the young Paul Simon wrote The Sound of Silence, a song that more than half a century later will still be sadly valid today. He, locked in the bathroom with pen and paper, cannot imagine that in 2020s we would still talk about his dialogue with the most intimate part of himself, opened by one of the most beautiful opening words ever written.

The song, which originally was named The Sounds of Silence, was initially recorded as an acoustic piece and included on Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., the first album Simon records with Art Garfunkel for Columbia Records. It could have also been the last, because it turned out to be a daunting flop. The duo splits: Simon leaves for London to seek his fortune as a soloist, while Garfunkel resumes his university studies. Then the unexpected happens: Tom Wilson, the producer of the record company, discovers that the radios are playing the song with an unexpected frequency in some parts of the United States. Without letting the duo know, Wilson reinvents it with the addition of drums and electric guitar, transforming it into a folk rock piece that will soon climb the charts. Simon and Garfunkel reunite and the rest is history.

It is curious, however, how over time the acoustic version has remained the best known and most touching, reaching its highest point in the 1981 free concert in Central Park, when the two musicians, divided for years, returned together to astonish a crowd of 500,000 people.

Simon is fond of oxymorons; Garfunkel himself explains it, and he knows him well. This rhetorical figure, always loved by poets, consists in the juxtaposition of two or more words that normally deny each other. But it can happen, at times, that this contrast exposes a perfectly sensible expression, an image that is difficult to evoke otherwise. “The sound of silence” is one of them, and it’s safe to bet that someone who suffers from tinnitus would be ready to confirm it. Joking aside, however one understands it, silence has a voice: it can be a sweet whisper, like when one embraces a long-sought solitude; or he can cry out, if being alone is a curse from which one cannot break free. Instead, the silence that Paul Simon thought on that February day years ago is far more terrible and inhumane. And it speaks this way:

Hello darkness, my old friend
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
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

From the very first verses, what is the main theme of the track is addressed: incommunicability. Simon does not talk to a friend, but in the darkness of the room where he is writing. In fact, the vision he refers to seems like one of those dreams that you cannot tell anyone but yourself. A dream that is fixed in the mind and that awakening does not make you forget. Then the verse continues:

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

The landscape Simon begins to describe is reminiscent of Dickens’ novels. There are no trees, meadows or rivers. It’s a cramped, claustrophobic world made of concrete and artificial lights. At one point, the calm of the night is attacked by a blinding glare, which reveals the presence of a flood of people:

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
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

The pleasant silence that accompanied the walk of that lonely figure changes shape, turning into something distressing. Individuals, physically close to each other, are separated by the inability to communicate. They speak without expressing concepts or emotions, they listen absently. The domain of silence, in which only indistinct noises infiltrate, is absolute. Faced with this gruesome spectacle, the man loses his temper:

“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

The attempt to establish a dialogue fails. There is no longer the hope of creating authentic bonds. The emptiness of silence sucks up the words, giving way to a general 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 whisper’d in the sounds of silence

The mass has made its choice, which is realized in blind obedience … to what? To dogmas? To capitalism? To all the nonsense that propaganda fills our heads with? Simon undoubtedly had in mind the power of television and screens in general, capable of shaping new thoughts in people. Whatever aspect you want to give to this luminous divinity, the fate seems to be sealed: there will be no salvation for men until they spiritually unite in a chain of solidarity and pity, as the dramatic historical period we are experiencing teaches us.

Listening to this song is a strange experience, especially if we put it in the context of our days. On the one hand you feel lulled by the arpeggio and the light singing, on the other you have the feeling of being scolded, accused of not having listened to the warning and trying to change things. Indeed, the abyss of non-communication is today deeper than ever. Some more some less, we are all in it.

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