Stephen Never Really Got Over Judy

Besotted young men have for centuries been composing love songs for/about the objects of their affection. When it comes to qualitative productivity, however, it’s tough to match Stephen Stills’ preoccupation with Judy Collins.

They met in 1967, when Stills was immediately post Buffalo Springfield and pre CSN — a tremendously productive songwriting period for the young Canadian. She’d just released “Wildflowers”, the highest charting album of her career (wherein she covered Both Sides Now, the work of another young Canadian, Joni Mitchell). Apparently, he spied her in the audience at West Hollywood’s Whisky a Go Go and the rest is history.

The resulting 18-month relationship would move Stills to write three Judy-centric tunes: Suite: Judy Blue Eyes and Helplessy Hoping both showed up two years later on CSN’s eponymous, much-heralded debut album. Another ode to Judy — So Begins the Task, wherein Stills addresses the difficulties in accepting her rejection — didn’t make the cut; it wouldn’t be recorded until 1972.

Nevertheless, Pocket Full of Mumbles will cover it (along with the epic, 8.5-minute Suite) this Friday, June 28 at the Allagash Brewery in Portland.

Reproducing CSN’s 3- and 4-part harmonies is no small matter, especially for a duo, but it can be done. PFOM proves it (see the Video/Audio tab for evidence). Collins and Stills themselves further this argument: Their 2017 album, “Everybody Knows”, featured an attractive mix of new songs, catalogue selections and CSN covers. Indeed, another PFOM tune on tap Friday night, You Don’t Have To Cry, was a staple of the tour Collins and Stills undertook in support of “Everybody Knows”.

That album and tour may not have transpired had David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stills made plain, in 2016, that they’d finally had enough of one another. Each has indicated they will never perform with the others again — a sentiment Neil Young made plain (but kept reneging on) starting in 1974. Prior to her 50th anniversary tour with Stills, Collins was dismissive of the idea that she was some sort of stand-in.

“I’m the original girl,” she told The Guardian in 2017. “I was there before any of them.”

What ever happened to that guy who robbed the liquor store?

We often tell audiences that a particular tune we perform (and recently recorded, see above), “Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.”, contains perhaps the most unlikely Paul Simon lyric ever written down. Give a listen and pay special attention to the third verse… The notion that effete, petit Paul Simon would ever knock over a liquor store, or commit a violent felony of any kind, is patently absurd. The same could be said of Art Garfunkel, who is taller but no less the sensitive, urbane sophisticate.

No one claims this or any S&G song is explicitly autobiographical, but this unlikely outlaw theme is one that Simon & Garfunkel must have fancied because they resurrect and amplify it on their very next album with the song, “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me”.

In an earlier blog (from July 2018, see below), we remark on the fact that S&G’s debut album, Wednesday Morning 3 a.m., was something of a dud. Indeed, Simon’s next batch of spare folk tunes didn’t thrill the executives at Columbia Records, and so he fucked off to England, with Kathy (she of the song), to concentrate on becoming the next Bob Dylan. It wasn’t until producer Tom Wilson rocked up the single, “Sounds of Silence” (in post production), that S&G would reform. Indeed, this new Byrds-inspired version would go straight to #1, which led Simon, Garfunkel and Wilson to affix more orchestration to many of the remaining songs on this second album, the now iconic Sounds of Silence.

One of those cuts, “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me”, doesn’t merely harken back to the criminal storyline detailed in the previous album’s title cut; it reprises nearly the entire lyric and updates the story.

In the wistful original, our antihero narrator has committed a crime, broken the law… In the middle of the night, his girlfriend asleep at his side, he wonders aloud (amid rich harmonies) what fate the dawn will bring.

Artists will sometimes refer back to previous lyrics, dropping little references or inside jokes to the listener. But with “Somewhere” we find something quite different: Simon deploys the original “Wednesday Morning” lyric to create a brand new song. A newly inserted chorus spells out next steps: I’ve got to creep down the alleyway, fly down the highway

These urgent new lyrics and tone reveal that our unlikely felon has resolved to go on the lam — Before they come and get me I’ll be gone! Somewhere, where they can’t find me…

It’s not clear, but it seems his girlfriend may have woken up in time to hear all this. One can imagine her surprise: That this poetic, nebbish (a nice Jewish boy?) has A) robbed a liquor store; and B) now intends to elude the long arm of justice like some turtle-necked, scarf-wearing Clyde Barrow. It’s all a bit grandiose but it does lead us to wonder (and further consult the S&G songbook) as to whatever happened to that guy…

PFOM back at Guthries April 5, 8 p.m.

Pocket Full of Mumbles returns to the stage April 5, for an 8-10 p.m. set at everyone’s favorite oversized, burrito-serving, craft beer-pulling living room, the She Doesn’t Like Guthrie’s Restaurant & Café, in Lewiston.

The duo comprising Pocket Full of Mumbles (PFOM), Mike Conant and Hal Phillips, formed in 2017 as an acoustic homage to the harmonies and hyper-literate songwriting of Simon & Garfunkel. Twenty-eighteen saw PFOM expand the brief to include the similarly stellar talents of Jay Farrar, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Neil Young and, at the risk of paled comparisons, Conant and Phillips themselves. Expect a sampling of all this on April 5.

If the primary inspirations for PFOM were Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, its secondary influence has been the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, the fertile collaboration of Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Indeed, PFOM nearly named themselves The Belleville Boys, after these two native sons Belleville, Illinois, where, incidentally, Conant was also born (his father had been based at nearby Scott Air Force Base).

The long-term goal of PFOM is to present a complete evening of live music: a two-man acoustic set followed by a second featuring full-band treatment of like material — to further demonstrate the remarkable versatility and power of top-drawer songwriting. Re-animating the Uncle Tupelo sound is PFOM’s hope for Set II.

Farrar and Tweedy would dissolve Uncle Tupelo amid not insignificant rancor in 1994, almost immediately following this club show in St. Louis. It’s an amazing performance at the peak of their powers when apparently — according to an oral history recently published in Rolling Stone — the two band principals were not speaking to each other.

Farrar would soon form his own band, Son Volt, further advancing the alt-country genre; the landmark album Trace (1996) at first gave the impression that perhaps he was the true genius behind Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy quickly complicated that assessment with the album Being There (1996), the second effort from what would become the prolific, indie super-group Wilco.

PFOM at The Blue 8/10

Just as Paul Simon’s career is winding down down, Pocket Full of Mumbles (PFOM) — having debuted July 5 at Andy’s Old Port Pub in Portland, with a follow-up appearance Friday, Aug. 10 at The Blue Coffee House in Kennebunk (5:30-7:30 p.m.) — is just getting started. As the ironies and serendipities pile up, we find them difficult to ignore.

Granted, at this point Big Data in general may be more familiar with New Gloucester-based PFOM’s intentions than the band’s would-be adoring public. PFOM principals Mike Conant and Hal Phillips have been Googling Simon & Garfunkel lyrics and chords for the past year, preparing for this moment. And so they have also been bombarded with data-driven news re. Simon’s farewell tour, now passing through Europe before concluding in Queens Sept. 22. The diminutive one will release his new album, In the Blue Light, on Sept. 7, to coincide with the final leg of “Homeward Bound — The Farewell Tour”.

This glut of Simon news, retrospective and otherwise, is not mere happenstance. It has further informed and solidified the PFOM project. To be clear: Pocket Full of Mumbles was formed when Conant sent Phillips a text in the spring of 2017. It said, more or less, “What do you think about burnishing a bunch of Simon & Garfunkel songs to a fine glow, recording them, then taking them on the road?” From the start, they envisioned an acoustic-duo set, followed by a fully “orchestrated” set with a full band behind them. The recording portion of that grand plan will take place this winter. For now, PFOM are content to further burnish while taking the music to directly to the people, live and in person.

Conant and Phillips didn’t know Paul Simon would be saying farewell in 2018. But the fact that he IS calling it quits has, by virtue of the massive media coverage, further buttressed the Pocket Full of Mumbles mission.

To cite just one example, Conant and Phillips love the way a song like Sounds of Silence stands as an iconic example of the coffee-house folk song, with its poignant and poetic lyrics delivered by a couple sensitive guys in black turtlenecks. This is the version that appeared on S&G’s debut album, Wednesday Morning 3 a.m.

Yet PFOM also adores the same song, the title track from the duo’s second LP, the fully orchestrated/rocked-up version.

This is exactly the dynamic PFOM aims eventually to achieve.

But there’s way more to the story, and we wouldn’t know it were the Internet not churning out Paul Simon retrospectives (and lining the margins of our browser sessions) with such diligence this summer.

As this Guardian piece ably relates, Wednesday Morning 3 a.m. was something of a flop. Simon, despondent, decamped for England to pursue a more pure and solo folkie career (he was also chasing a girl, Kathy Chitty, later the subject of a famous folk ballad). While away, the first album’s producer, Tom Wilson — inspired by the Byrds’ folk-rock hit Mr. Tambourine Man — overdubbed the original version of Sounds of Silence with guitars, drums and bass in the simple, slightly shambolic, but clearly electric style that another core folkie, Bob Dylan, had just introduced. One side of Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home hinted at this new folk-rock direction(Subterranean Homesick Blues, Maggie’s Farm) and his hit single later that year, Like a Rolling Stone, drove the point home. All of that work was produced by Tom Wilson.

Even more fun: Wilson’s retrofitting of Sounds of Silence took place without the knowledge of Simon or Garfunkel.

In January 1966, this rocked-up version of Sounds of Silence reached #1 on the Billboard chart, whereupon Simon scurried home from England in order that he, Art and Tom Wilson could set about rocking up another raft of existing Simon-penned folks songs in the same manner, songs we now know as part of the Sounds of Silence album: I Am a Rock, We Got a Groovy Thing Going Baby, Richard Corey, Blessed, etc.

There are plenty of unreconstructed folk ballads on this second album: Leaves That Are Green, April Come She Will, the inimitable and aforementioned Kathy’s Song. But it was Wilson who first discovered and demonstrated the flexibility, the rocked-up capabilities of these songs. Nearly 50 years on, with Paul Simon bowing out, PFOM will drive the point home.

Portland Debut

PORTLAND — Pocket Full of Mumbles (PFOM) will make its Portland debut the night of July 5, here at Andy’s Old Port Pub, starting at 8 p.m. A collaborative project from Mike Conant and Hal Phillips, New Gloucester-based PFOM will serve up a daring mix of acoustic covers and originals, with further collaboration from a variety of special guests.

Perhaps you’ve already sampled the wide variety of music on tap at Andy’s (www.andysoldportpub.com), inside its cozy confines or through its signature picture windows. If the latter, be advised that the food, craft beer selection and sound here are superb. Bring a friend July 5, and a hearty appetite.

The mission of PFOM (www.PocketFullofMumbles.com) is to luxuriate the audience in fine song-writing — a path that starts in the Simon & Garfunkel songbook and leads through those of Tom Petty, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Jay Farrar, Rich Danko and Conant/Phillips themselves.

The acoustic nature of the July 5 Andy’s date (fiddle and guitar supporting ornate harmonies) further aims to demonstrate that great songs tend to rest upon great bones, the durable chord structures and lyrics that hit the mark regardless of orchestration. Future PFOM dates will build out said orchestration, but you’ll want experience this development from the ground up.

Here’s hoping you can attend the evening of July 5. If that’s not possible, do visit www.PocketFullofMumbles.com and agree to the notifications option, so you’ll be kept abreast of future PFOM shows, news and web postings.

After changes we are more or less the same…

Simon and Garfunkel were no Lennon and McCartney. Unlike the lead Beatles songwriters, who co-signed their collaborations regardless of who’d done the heavy lifting, their pop-folk contemporaries were more meticulous in assigning credit. Paul Simon wrote nearly every recognizable song from S&G’s five studio albums and official credits indicate as much.

The Boxer, the lead single issued from the last of those studio albums, Bridge Over Trouble Waters, stands as perhaps the most notable exception. It was co-signed by both Art Garfunkel and Simon, confirming a level of collaboration unusual to their long and fruitful partnership.

Pocket Full of Mumbles
covers The Boxer as part of its mission to revel in some of the late 20th Century’s finest song-writing — a path that starts in the S&G songbook and leads us =to less-celebrated but still-stellar folks like Tom Petty, Neil Young, Ed Crawford (fIREhOSE), Jay Farrar (Son Volt) and ourselves. We’re in preposterously good company, in both respects.

The Boxer, for example, has been covered by hundreds of artists across several spectra of musical genres, which brings us to another PFOM mission: To demonstrate that great songs tend to have great bones. They deserve to be reinterpreted so variedly because they CAN be reinterpreted so variedly. Ornate harmonies tend to typify S&G’s work (and dominate our perceptions of it), but further exploration reveals truly durable chord structures and lyrics that work regardless of singer, style, or level of orchestration.

The version of The Boxer that appears on the LP and lead single (B Side: the rollicking Baby Driver) includes the five verses we all know so well. But the song was originally written with six. See here the lost verse, which S&G performed in November 1969 (before release of the album/single) and reprised several times through the years, including, most famously, for their 1981 Concert in Central Park recording:

Now the years are rolling by me—
They are rockin’ evenly.
I am older than I once was,
And younger than I’ll be.
That’s not unusual;
No, it isn’t strange:
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same;
After changes we are more or less the same.

During a New York City concert in October 2010, Simon stopped singing midway through this song to relate the story of a woman who stopped him on the street to tell him that she edits when singing to her young child. Apparently she elides reference to “whores” and instead goes with “just a come-on from toy stores on Seventh Avenue.” Simon admits this is “a better line.”

On June 3, 2016, in Berkeley, California, Simon again stopped singing partway through The Boxer — to announce in one sentence (before resuming the song) some breaking news: “I’m sorry to tell you this in this way, but Muhammad Ali passed away.”