For over 40 years now, the Temple of Dendur has been one of my favorite stops at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m always entranced by the elegant majesty of this ancient sandstone structure, and the way its enduring beauty is emphasized by the reflecting pool and diffused natural light of the museum’s Sackler Wing. I’m also endlessly fascinated by the story of the temple’s piece-by-piece relocation from Egypt — where it was threatened by the 1960s construction of the Aswan High Dam — to the United States, a massive undertaking that required the use of 661 packing crates and presented considerable challenges to archaeologists and engineers alike.
But after reading Jeff Slate’s recent clickbait-y NBC op-ed on Paul Simon’s sale of his song catalog, I now realize that I’ve been looking at the Temple of Dendur all wrong. After all, the edifice was completed around 10 BC, over 2,500 years after the Great Pyramid of Giza — the crowning glory of ancient Egypt — was constructed some 500 miles to the north. Instead of being built by a mighty Egyptian pharaoh, the temple was built by Gaius Petronius, a mere Roman governor, and was gauchely dedicated to Pediese and Pihor, two now-long-forgotten sons of a local Nubian chieftain. And compared to even the lesser pyramids of ancient Egypt, the Temple of Dendur is really quite miniscule. Couldn’t the Met have acquired something better than this, ahem, historical footnote, which I will be sure to loudly mock during my next visit to the museum?
I see no value in undertaking a point-by-point rebuttal of Slate’s piece, which overshadows some legitimately salient questions about the current state of music publishing (and how it reflects our troubled times) with what comes off like scattergun score-settling. Likewise, I am not here to defend Simon’s character, as there’s plenty of well-thumbed evidence suggesting that he has often acted in a self-serving and less-than-enlightened fashion. Of course, the same thing can certainly be said for most of the people in my record collection, including The Beatles and Bob Dylan, who Slate imagines will be the only recording artists of the late 20th century still “worth more than a passing mention” some 200 years from now.
What sticks severely in my craw, however, is Slate’s firm conviction that Paul Simon will somehow be regarded by future generations as simply a “historical footnote” to Bob Dylan. Yes, Simon & Garfunkel were signed to Columbia Records in early 1964, two years after the label had released Dylan’s self-titled debut album. Yes, Dylan’s success as a songwriter and recording artist “made room” in the mainstream music biz for other folk-influenced artists like Simon & Garfunkel; and yes, “The Sound of Silence,” S&G’s first major hit, rode the same folk-rock wave created by The Byrds’ cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”
But while Dylan’s success spawned numerous imitators, and there are dozens of artists over the decades who have enjoyed hits with covers of Dylan’s songs, Simon falls into neither camp — unless you count the Dylanesque parody of “A Simple Desultory Phillippic” from S&G’s 1966 album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.” Simon was always on a different trip than Dylan; he and Garfunkel beat Dylan onto the charts by over a half-decade with “Hey Schoolgirl,” an Everly Brothers knock-off recorded in 1957 under the name Tom & Jerry, and his openly introspective songs arguably influenced the singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s as profoundly as Dylan’s magic swirling compositions influenced 1960s folk-rock. (Dylan himself covered Simon’s “The Boxer” for his 1970 album “Self-Portrait.”) It’s hard to see how any of this relegates Simon to “footnote” status, unless of course we’re employing the tired old rock critic trope of elevating Dylan to god-like status among mere mortals. Certainly, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith have all been more greatly influenced and/or inspired by Dylan than Simon was — and I wouldn’t forecast them as “historical footnotes,” either.
That said, please do not misconstrue this piece as some sort of aggrieved defense of certain “boomer” icons; they need no help or advocacy from me, just as Bob Dylan doesn’t need to have his already-vast achievements further burnished by a writer envisioning him as the last man standing amid the fragrant ashes of late 20th century music history. What I find most unpalatable here is the framing of popular music as some kind of zero-sum game, in which there are only winners and losers and only a tiny handful of said winners will ever mean anything in the long run. Sports culture is rife with such pompous arguments, but at least there are annual championships to crown the best teams, and there are statistics with which we can use to set the parameters of player greatness. But music isn’t a sport, it’s an art form — and using the “blunt instrument” of history as a cudgel to bring an artist down a peg or three completely ignores the subjective appeal and life-affirming aspects of music, as well as the point of making music in the first place.
Let us take, for one example, a record that really does qualify as a historical footnote to Bob Dylan: “A Public Execution,” the 1965 debut single from Ronnie “Mouse” Weiss, leader of Tyler, Texas garage legends Mouse and the Traps. A double middle-finger salute brimming with caustically surreal wordplay (penned by Weiss’s songwriting partner Knox Henderson) set to a note-perfect reconstruction of what Dylan called “that thin, wild mercury sound,” the song comes on like a giddy, moonshine-fueled cross between “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street.” It’s a rip-off, homage and parody all at once, a record that simply would not have existed if Dylan hadn’t “gone electric” earlier that year. But it’s also thrilling as hell in its own right; the band smokes like a Texas BBQ pit, and Weiss jumps into the fray like a guy who’s jokingly tried on Superman’s cape only to realize that he can actually fly. The whole thing is delivered with such demented conviction, it’s easy to imagine the Mighty Zimm himself chuckling approvingly at Weiss’s withering wail of “You better find yourself a welder, baby/’Cause you got locked up in your vault.”
Did Mouse and band enter the studio in late 1965 with the intention of recording something that would be feted and treasured by future generations? (Hell, did Dylan?) It probably didn’t even occur to them; rock and roll had only even existed in popular culture for about a decade at that point. The musicians were likely less concerned with posterity than with getting something good down on tape during their brief studio time, and Weiss was no doubt overjoyed when the session produced a seven-inch piece of plastic that he could use as a calling card (and as leverage for greater fees) when booking concert gigs. That the record — released on the small Fraternity label, by an artist completely unknown outside of the Dallas area — even made it as high as number 121 on Billboard’s “Bubbling Under” chart was surely gravy for all concerned.
And yet, over fifty years after its initial release, “A Public Execution” endures. Musician and archivist Lenny Kaye cherry-picked it for inclusion on Elektra Records’ “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968,” the ponderously-titled 1972 compilation that would go on to influence countless punk and garage bands over the ensuing decades, and would also motivate numerous other collectors, archivists and labels around the world to dig for (and reissue) similar obscurities and forgotten gems. As Kaye likes to say, “It’s a Nugget if you dug it,” and enough people have dug “A Public Execution” over the years to justify the release of a couple of Mouse and the Traps compilations — Weiss having successfully leveraged the minor popularity of the song to record over a dozen other compositions, a handful of which were just as delightfully Dylanesque as his debut single. Unlike many of the other garage standards included on Nuggets, however, “A Public Execution” has never inspired any recorded cover versions; the song is simply too perfect, and too wonderfully Dylan-sodden, for anyone to bother taking another crack at it.
Is “A Public Execution” a song on par with the most brilliant moments of Bob Dylan’s catalog? Absolutely not. Is it a rousing slab of rock and roll that can make you feel ten feet tall and bulletproof for two and a half minutes, especially a couple of beers into an evening? Absolutely. Will anyone remember it 200 years from now? Probably not — but who cares? And then again, who could have predicted at the time of its release that it would be namechecked here in the Forward half a century later? Maybe, due to circumstances both drastic and unforeseen, the song will somehow further defy the odds and come to be treasured by future generations and civilizations as the defining song of the American 1960s; or maybe one of Paul Simon’s will, or maybe one of the Velvet Underground’s, or maybe one of Sonny Bono’s. We simply don’t know how such things will pan out, and to claim that we do — especially when using such a claim to mean-spiritedly diminish the work of one artist or another — is both foolhardy and absurd.
Ultimately, what matters most about a song is its ability to move someone in any number of ways with its unique combination of words, melodies, rhythms and sounds. The magic of music is best measured in the moment by the listener, not by its alleged appearance in whatever will pass for a history book many centuries from now. And if you haven’t figured that out yet, you’d better find yourself a welder, baby.
Dan Epstein is the Forward’s contributing music critic.