Old music: Simon & Garfunkel – A Most Peculiar Man

Paul Simon’s English period – the year or two in the mid-60s he spent touring folk clubs here as a relative unknown – inspired some of Simon & Garfunkel’s best-loved work, including Homeward Bound and Kathy’s Song. But my favourite from this fertile time is A Most Peculiar Man, the understated story of a suicide that first appeared on Simon’s little-heard 1965 solo debut The Paul Simon Songbook.

Songbook was an acoustic album recorded in London to capitalise on the excitement starting to build around Simon as he roamed Britain following the failure of his debut album with Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning, 3AM, a period of self-imposed exile that came to an abrupt end when a version of The Sound of Silence – overdubbed with electric instrumentation by producer Tom Wilson without the knowledge of either Simon or Garfunkel – became a No 1 hit back home in America. Simon returned to the US and reunited with Artie, and the rest is history.

The version of A Most Peculiar Man on The Paul Simon Songbook is a gentle, echoey lament arranged purely for guitar. But, like other songs from that album, it was rerecorded with a full band following the success of The Sound of Silence for Simon & Garfunkel’s subsequent album Sounds of Silence, complete with metronomic percussion, an incongruously jaunty bassline and Byrds-like guitar figures.

Simon explained the genesis of the song on the Live from New York City, 1967 album: “I wrote this song when I was living in England. The seeds of the song were planted one day when I saw an article in a London paper about a man who had committed suicide. Four lines in the paper … And I thought: ‘That’s a very bad way to go out. Bad eulogy. Four lines.'”

Simon approaches this subject in characteristically elliptical fashion, withholding the fact of the suicide until the last verse and building up a picture of the deceased almost entirely through the eyes of the man’s baffled and unfeeling neighbours. He starts the song taking their description of him as “a most peculiar man” at face value, but the phrase becomes more and more grimly ironic with each repetition as Simon runs through their evidence: that he lived alone, had no friends, “seldom spoke”, that “he wasn’t like them”.

The last verse pulls back to reveal that the man has killed himself, and once he has got on to this topic Simon can’t seem to let it go, unexpectedly elongating the verse by repeating the melody of the second line over and over, providing more and more detail, even briefly allowing us to see things from the dead man’s point of view for the first time – until finally he returns to the conventional melody line and the bathetic response of the neighbours, who take refuge in formal, official language: “Mrs Riordan says he has a brother somewhere / Who should be notified soon.” Garfunkel helps build the tension, his harmony lines veering gradually away from the main melody before both singers snap back into lockstep for the final refrain.

The song explores typical Simon themes such as the alienation of 1960s youth, but more surprising is that for all Simon’s embrace of England during this period (“It’s all right, ma,” he sneers to his fellow Americans during A Simple Desultory Philippic, “it’s just something I learned over in England”), A Most Peculiar Man actually paints a rather dreary and joyless picture of 1960s Britain, with its cramped, colourless houses and atomised community. It’s interesting to compare the lonely, oppressive atmosphere created here with the hysterical, wild, excited reaction to a suicide in the New York-set Save the Life of my Child.

It’s probably fair to say that Simon & Garfunkel can be a bit po-faced at times, so as a useful corrective I recommend checking out “The Most Peculiar Man”, a YouTube video its creator cheerfully describes as “a crappy animation made to go along with A Most Peculiar Man by Simon and Garfunkel”. If that doesn’t put a smile on your face, you must be a bit peculiar.

From: guardian.co.uk