Have you ever heard something hundreds of times without ever really listening to it? Last week I really listened to “Mrs Robinson” for the first time.
I do most of my music listening in the car whilst driving between client appointments. It’s not the best place, acoustically speaking, for listening to music but it’s “me time” when I can’t do anything else, so I just sit back and listen to my favourite songs.
At least that’s what I thought I did. But I got a new car fairly recently, with a better sound system than my old car, and it turns out I’ve never really listened to “Mrs Robinson” at all.
We’ll get to what I’ve been missing all these years in a moment, but first let’s take a look at one of the most famous songs in the Simon and Garfunkel songbook.
“Mrs Robinson” came from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1968 album “Bookends”, on which “America” and “Hazy Shade Of Winter” also appeared. The use of “Mrs Robinson” in the 1968 film “The Graduate”, starring Anne Bancroft and a very young Dustin Hoffman, cemented its place in cultural history.
Spurred by the movie’s popularity, the song was a great success and reached Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. It didn’t quite do quite as well in the UK, but still made the Top 10 and it’s been a staple of radio airplay ever since.
We all recognise the “dee dee dee” vocals and acoustic guitar playing under the DJ’s patter which signifies that “Mrs Robinson” is the next record up on the radio. It’s instantly recognisable…
And here’s to you, Mrs Robinson
Jesus loves you more than you will know
Whoa, whoa, whoa
God bless you please, Mrs Robinson
Heaven holds a place for those who pray
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey
The popularity of “The Graduate” had a lot do to with the popularity of “Mrs Robinson”. What young, inexperienced man hasn’t had fantasies of being with an experienced older woman? And, whilst I’ve got no scientific research to back this up, I’m also prepared to believe that more than a few older women have a very similar dream in reverse.
But the pop charts tend not to embrace songs which talk about God and Jesus quite as prominently as “Mrs Robinson” did.
1968’s record buyers might well have overlooked that opening section because we move straight into a verse which, at a surface level, is about something and nothing. People who have seen “The Graduate” would probably give this verse an entirely different interpretation…
We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to let you learn to help yourself
Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home
As I like to keep this a family show around here, I’ll let you work your own way through that set of metaphors…
The most puzzling section of the lyrics for a UK audience was this verse…largely because we had no idea who the person being referred to was. Despite baseball having something called the World Series, most of the world has never heard of it, much less seen it…
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you
Woo, woo, woo
What’s that you say, Mrs Robinson?
Jolting Joe has left and gone away
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey
You will probably have a better idea who Joe DiMaggio is than I did the first time I heard “Mrs Robinson”, but I have since found out.
Paul Simon used Joe DiMaggio as a metaphor for a more innocent time, when people tended to be more respectful and considerate of one another, when there were people you could look up to and admire not just for what they’d achieved, but for the personal qualities they demonstrated in their life too.
1968 was the year before Richard Nixon was elected US President and arguably the last plateau before the long, slippery slope which has brought most public figures down into the gutter and where good and decent people in public life are seemingly nowhere to be found.
Sporting stars, business leaders, politicians have all squandered their opportunity to become role models for generations of young people, showing them how to behave with class and dignity and become figures to admire, not figures of hate or ridicule.
No wonder Paul Simon’s search for heroes to worship had to go back a few years. Joe DiMaggio “going away” was the symbol of a childhood ending, an innocence lost, a way of life gone for good.
The flower power era tried to hold onto those more innocent times for as long as it could, but ultimately the pull was too strong and that particular levee broke, taking us downwards in pretty much a straight line from 1968 to today.
Artfully, Paul Simon wrapped up a song about a young man losing his innocence to an older woman into a story about something much more than that.
Dustin Hoffman didn’t just lose his innocence in “The Graduate”. We all did.
As a lyricist, Paul Simon has few equals. I’m a great admirer of his work.
And I’m also a great admirer of the musicians he worked with during Simon and Garfunkel’s time at the top of the charts. Which brings me back to where we started.
Listening to “Mrs Robinson” for the first time on my new car radio the other day I heard something I’d genuinely never noticed before.
I’ve got a keen ear and I can usually tell you what’s going on in a song, the way the instruments come together and who’s doing what. But somehow the “dee dee dees” and Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar work had blinded me to some most wonderful musicianship I hadn’t spotted in the hundreds of other times I’ve heard “Mrs Robinson” before last week.
Musically, “Mrs Robinson” is a really simple song. It’s basically two vocals, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon on acoustic guitar, some congas and an occasional bash on a hi-hat (the latter two courtesy of the late, great Hal Blaine)and an electric bass.
And it’s the electric bass that was the revelation to me.
Admittedly it’s set so far back in the mix, you hardly know it’s there. You do get it from time to time when Paul Simon isn’t pounding away on his acoustic guitar, but it’s pretty much swamped by the vocals and acoustic guitar throughout much of the song.
Not only is the bass line some of the most wonderful bass playing you’re ever likely to hear, it wasn’t even played by one of the more famous bass players of that era…a Joe Osborn, say, or a Carol Kaye…in fact it was played by someone much more famous for playing the keyboards.
Larry Knetchel was the Wrecking Crew’s keyboard player of choice. A stalwart of one of the most famous, and prolific, groups of session musicians of all time, Larry Knetchel played on records by The Byrds, the Beach Boys and the Mamas and Papas, as well as Simon and Garfunkel and many others.
But on “Mrs Robinson” he played bass.
And it’s worth fiddling around with your sound system to boost the bass when you listen to this song.
If you isolate the bass line, it hardly sounds like it belongs in “Mrs Robinson” at all. It’s off in an entirely different place than the chord-driven acoustic guitar which stands out as the main structural element of the song.
There’s all manner of runs and fills going on in there…not that you’d know it as they’re virtually impossible to pick up from a casual listen to the song.
However the bass on “Mrs Robinson” plays a very important, if almost entirely subliminal role, and I love it when I spot a piece of production quite as clever as this.
Its brilliance, beyond the undoubted technical skills of Larry Knetchel, is in its subliminal quality.
The bass in “Mrs Robinson” is the element which brings the note of doubt and uncertainty which is so pivotal to the story of the song. I wish I knew the correct musical terminology to describe it properly, but because the bass starts progressions it never quite finishes, it leaves us in a state of perpetual uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.
In fact, the bass takes the part of one set of the sensations which were running through Dustin Hoffman’s mind as Anne Bancroft beckoned him over, I’d venture. Of course, there’s the excitement, the blood pumping through his head, the frisson of a new and exciting experience.
At the same time, there’s an awkwardness, a nervousness, an uncertainty. What’s this all about…what does it mean…what should he do? He knows what his head is telling him…but he also knows what his heart and some primeval human instinct are telling him…and they’re not the same thing…
We all know which one wins in the end for Dustin Hoffman, but Larry Knetchel’s almost inaudible bass is like that little voice of uncertainty inside our heads when we face a moral dilemma. It’s like the stream of half-thoughts which we never quite finish off…each one swamped as successive fresh waves of adrenaline course through our veins while temptation deploys every trick in the book to drown out that little voice inside our heads.
Without the hint of uncertainty Larry Knetchel’s bass introduces, I’m sure “Mrs Robinson” would still have been a big hit. Given the movie’s popularity, I’m even pretty sure it would still have been a Number One record.
But it’s Larry Knetchel’s bass, and the production skills of Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and Roy Halee which takes a great record and makes it into a work of art.
Once you know Larry Knetchel is a keyboard player most of the time, the stylistic elements you hear make a lot more sense. This is more than a bass line. It’s an artistic counterpoint to the surface theme of “Mrs Robinson”…it’s taking up the role of the angel whispering into one ear as the devil shouts into the other one.
A few seconds fiddling around with your sound system to bump up the bass a little will give you a perspective on “Mrs Robinson” that had completely escaped me until the other day, and I must have heard that song hundreds of times over the years. If you’ve got decent headphones on, you’ll find it tucked away in the furthest reaches of your left ear and it’s slightly more prominent on the Spotify track linked below than the YouTube video, but it’s there on both if you really, really listen out hard for it.
These days, Larry Knetchel is playing with his old Wrecking Crew buddies in that great session band in the sky. But thankfully I discovered one of the finest pieces of bass guitar playing I can recall last week, a delightful surprise buried deep in a song I thought I already knew well.
Even if I discovered it about 50 years too late, I’m glad I did. You will be too.
Here’s Simon and Garfunkel with “Mrs Robinson”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0iOZM63lendWRTTeKhZBSC