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KATHY´S SONG for a girl I never knew

KATHY´S SONG for a girl I never knew

by Norman Warwick

Having lived in my semi detached home with suburban parents and younger brother, throughout my secondary modern all boys school days I didn´t really know what a girl was. I had heard lots of talk about them, of course, and I knew the lyrics to every love song I heard on the radio and I knew that dates were not only a foodstuff. Being a poetic soul, even then, when I left school at sixteen I was ready for romance rather than the snog against the wall that other lads boasted about. I wanted to be in love, and I knew that to have loved and lost would be better than never to have loved at all.

The first girl I fell in love with at sixteen was a girl called Cathy, and when I met her she was only two years older than I, but was married and running a ´b and b´ in Scotland with her forest ranger husband. I was on holiday with my family touring the West Highlands when dad pulled in hopefully to a small cottage in Spean Bridge with a B & B vacancy sign on the door. We got two rooms for the night, stayed for a week and re-visited for a holiday for the next five or six years. We all became good family friends for the rest of our lives and Cathy introduced me to the music of Johnny Cash. What more could a girl do for a guy?

One of those songs I loved on the radio was Kathy´s Song by Paul Simon with a beautiful little guitar riff behind lyrics of his yearning for a girl who lived in a different country, just like Cathy with a C lived in Scotland whilst I lived in England.

Gazing soulfully out of his bedroom window into the pouring rain one evening Paul Simon drew the name of Kathy with a K in the condensation on the window. I paid a similar tribute for Cathy in Scotland.

Did I fall in love with Cathy? Certainly not; she was a married woman and in our early relationship I hadn´t even seen The Graduate. When the film came around, just a little later I watched three successive showings on one night in The Mayfair in Whitefield so my first ever girlfriend walked out on me because I was too engrossed in the film. As I made my own exit a couple of hours later it was snowing heavens high, and I should have wondered if she had got home ok, on a night such as this in those pre-mobile phone days. Instead I was still thinking of how the soundtrack, of April Come She Will and Mrs Robinson enhanced the film. Come to think of it I might even have been thinking of how beautiful Mrs. Robinson was !

Kathy´s Song, of ´words that tore and strained to rhyme´ remains one of my very favourites songs, and I still think of it as my favourite track on the album, Indeed I think it is still one of the loveliest songs in a Paul Simon Songbook (the name of the album) that has grown exponentially over the last sixty years.

As this week´s Time Capsule article in Paste on-line magazine reminded us this week many of the 12 songs on that early album would end up on Simon & Garfunkel records eventually, but they were Paul Simon’s debut darlings first. Recorded and released in between the Simon & Garfunkel albums Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. and Sounds of Silence, The Paul Simon Songbook was Simon’s attempt at recalibrating after the former sold poorly. He made the record at Levy’s on New Bond Street in London, having travelled to Europe frequently to perform at clubs around Paris, Copenhagen and Harlem. The process of making Songbook was daunting, as he only had a single mic for his voice and guitar, often having to do multiple takes just to get one track right.

While The Paul Simon Songbook came out in 1965, it was only initially released in the UK—and it didn’t see a US release until its inclusion in the Paul Simon: Collected Works box set in 1981. Even today, Songbook doesn’t carry the same strong foundation of listeners as Simon’s later work, like Still Crazy After All These Years or Graceland.

But before all that Simon would write a lot of songs while in England in 1964 and 1965, and many of them, like “Homeward Bound” and “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” would form his and Art Garfunkel’s breakout record Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme in 1966—which would then crack open the floodgates for the duo on Bookends and “Mrs. Robinson” (a song from the film, The Graduate two years later. 

The Paul Simon Songbook is, claims Paste, the epitome of a stepping stone, as nearly all of its songs have lived stronger lives elsewhere. But still, these songs are beautiful and unkempt and transcendent. It sounds like Paul Simon walked into a studio and sang into the first microphone he found, unbothered about whether anyone else was there to hear or tape him.

“Kathy’s Song” is Simon’s first track, Paste reminds us, on which  he explicitly calls out his then-girlfriend and momentary muse Kathy Chitty (who appears alongside Simon on the album’s cover, as they sit on a cobblestone street in London while holding wooden figurines), whom would inspire the song “America” a few years later. 60 years later, I fear that Simon has failed to write lines as beautiful as “And as I watch the drops of rain weave their weary paths and die, I know that I am like the rain, there but for the grace of you go I.” “Kathy’s Song” features one of Simon’s best guitar performances, a moment of delicate finger-picking that precisely matches the ingenuity of his own singing.

What makes Paul Simon such a quintessential folk singer is, for better or for worse, his ability to not only remain in key and pitch, but his gorgeous and methodical delivery of his own vocabulary. The way his tone briefly warps when he sings “And a song I was writing is left undone, I don’t know why I spend my time writing songs I can’t believe” on “Kathy’s Song” is a masterful display of letting the story continue to unravel through meter and syllable breaks.

I don’t think my own love of the album has diminished at all since my first listen to it, and whilst I have been thrilled by later Simon and Garfunkel albums and, of course, by the scores of subsequent solo albums proper, by each of those partners.

However, while reviewing the album in retrospect for Blender in 2004, critic Robert Christgau disliked The Paul Simon Songbook, awarding it a 2-out-of-5 stars and proclaiming that “[Simon’s] true solo debut, 1972’s Paul Simon, is about 10 times better.” Record Mirror and Rolling Stone felt similarly, leaving 3-out-of-5 star-reviews, with the former writing that the album was full of “appealing and worthwhile folk songs” and that Simon “has a voice of power, of contrast, and of simple musicianship.” Simon himself wasn’t even fond of the album when it was released, explaining that “there are some [songs] I would not write today” in the original liner notes, before professing that they “played a role in the transition” to his place in music at the time.

It’s understandable that anyone would take that stance, given Reginald Warburton and Stanley West’s uninspired production, but there’s a certain level of cynicism on “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d into Submission)” that we never got on a Simon & Garfunkel record, especially not when the duo re-recorded the track for Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Dismissing The Paul Simon Songbook for what it is—a collection of songs assembled by a gifted songwriter in the wake of the debut album with his singing partner having flopped—is a disservice to how the album, in many ways, resurrected Paul Simon’s ascent, acting as the bridge from a disappointing first outing to a period of great, unparalleled success.

Though The Paul Simon Songbook is, at its core, just a measure of one man with his guitar and damn-near nothing else, it’s a clear-eyed, minimal document of one of our greatest storytellers properly capturing his own voice. “From the moment of my birth to the instant of my death, there are patterns I must follow just as I must breathe each breath,” Simon sings, unknowingly tracing the genesis of a six-decade, 15-album career. It’s the kind of record you might share with a first love, and there’s a level of craftsmanship here that’s rife with flourishes of brilliance. The emotional cord that links each song on Paul Simon’s debut album remains profound and pertinent.

Speaking for myself, the album The Paul Simon Songbook was pretty much my introduction to contemporary folk music and was, at that stage, an album that served as a bridge over troubled waters from my love of British pop to what later became a love of the then yet-to-be-named genre of Americana.

Paul Simon became a missing link that led me to Dylan (I had disdained those members of my youth club who carried his albums), and Tom Paxton, both of whom I considered as folk and to John Stewart, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter and scores of other great singer-writers.

The first three chapters of the new Paste series, Time Capsule, with each chapter being posted on a Saturday has already placed three great albums into that Time Capsule by each of Townes Van Zandt, Janis Joplin and Paul Simon. It is potentially an endless series, that will provide hours of happy reading,  days, weeks and months of intense conversation with mates about what Paste have had to say, and will serve as a Back To The Future vehicle as we whizz back to the fifties and sixties to hear what we somehow missed and to transport it on to the playlists of tomorrow.

So there´s much to look forward to and much to do… like that song I was writing and left undone !

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