Robert Hilburn was the chief pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times for more than three decades. Author of the bestselling biography Johnny Cash: The Life , which Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times selected as one of her top ten books of 2013, Hilburn has reported extensively on most of pop music’s giants, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and U2. He lives in Los Angeles. His book Paul Simon:The Life is available now wherever books are sold from CBS sister company Simon & Schuster.
(Adapted from pages 141-143)
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” began one night in early 1969 as Simon sat in his East End Avenue apartment hour after hour, strumming on his guitar and listening to a gospel album by the Swan Silvertones. His rule continued to be: never set out to write a song by picking a theme; let the music itself lead the way. Once again, it was not misleading to think of his subconscious as his co-writer. In fact, Simon sometimes spoke about an “imaginary friend” who accompanied him and often whispered things in his ear—things, he suggested, he might not have consciously noticed but that provided interesting lines or images.
Simon had been interested in gospel music ever since hearing Sonny Til and the Orioles’ recording of “Crying in the Chapel” as a teenager. “I loved the emotion of the singers and the songs, and there was something mysterious just about the word chapel because I didn’t know, at twelve or thirteen, what a chapel was or looked like. It probably would have been different if they had sung, ‘Cryin’ in the Synagogue.’” Now he was drawn to one track on the Silvertones’ album: “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” a spiritual from pre–Civil War days. At one point, the group’s lead singer, the Reverend Claude Jeter, injected a line common in church parlance: “I’ll be a bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name.” The line doesn’t standout in the clamor of the record. You have to be paying attention to even catch it. Simon was paying attention.
Out of the blue, he wrote his own melody, which felt gentle, caring, and undeniably beautiful. Then he started writing the words that became the first two verses…
“It was just like that,” Simon said. “The essence of the song took maybe twenty minutes; the first two verses were done in two hours. And the melody was something like fifteen notes, which is long. I thought, ‘This is better than I usually write.’ It just seemed to flow through me. In a way, you don’t feel you can really even call it your own, but then again, it’s nobody else’s. I didn’t know where it came from, but I knew it was exceptional. It’s as if there’s this chemical feeling, the creating of something that is so exceptional it’s addictive. It’s one of the things that keeps you writing your whole life — you’re trying to get to that place again.”…
Though the song’s theme fits nicely into Simon’s tendency to empathize, the opening lines contain a strong element of memoir. “I like the first lines of a song to be truthful, and those were,” he said. “I was feeling weary because of the problems with Artie and other things. I was also feeling small. But then the song goes away from memoir. It comes from my imagination.” Regarding the song’s open arms, he said, “I’ve always been able to feel what it’s like to be on the outside even though I’ve kind of been at the center of things in my own life. On the other hand, I’m in a minority, and I’m unusually small for someone who is at the center of attention. I’m essentially a selfish guy. I always did for the most part what I wanted, but with something inside saying, ‘Don’t step on people.’ I know everything could be reversed in an instant.”
Excerpted from Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn. Copyright © 2018 by Robert Hilburn. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.