There’s nothing like having a deadline. When Simon and Garfunkel were called on by director Mike Nichols to provide music for his 1967 comedy The Graduate, the film was already being edited, and the duo were working on the movie studio clock. To hear Simon tell it in this interview with Dick Cavett (from the same interview we featured earlier this week), it was that crunch time that produced one of their best songs, and their biggest hit, “Mrs. Robinson.”
In fact, the song stitched together two unrelated sketches. The first was the guitar fill that starts the song, which was Simon just riffing over a chase scene. “But it wasn’t working,” he says. The other, the chorus, was a fragment: “And here’s to you Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know.”
“For no particular reason, the words just came into my head,” Simon tells Cavett. The next line mentioned Mrs. Roosevelt, and who knows where Simon might have gone with the song if Mike Nichols hadn’t told him to ditch anything political and keep with just the one character.
If you have the soundtrack to The Graduate, you’ll notice that the version of “Mrs. Robinson” only has scat singing in the verses, just making it up as they went along. There was no time to flesh out the track, and it fit in the movie better than any of the songs Mike Nichols had licensed already from the duo. It would be one of many prescient choices for the classic comedy, including casting the unknown Jewish 30-year-old Dustin Hoffman for the main role instead of the very white choices the studio was trying to push on the director.
It was only three months after the film came out that Simon and Garfunkel recorded the full version with the lyrics in the verses. It became their second number one single in 1968 and was the first rock song to win a Grammy for Record of the Year. But true to the original soundtrack version, it keeps its opening verse word-free.
And it’s an odd song. Simon describes the writing as stream of consciousness. Though Mrs. Robinson is indeed a character in the film, played by Anne Bancroft, the lyrics rarely reference the film, except for “It’s a little secret just the Robinson’s affair/Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids.” (And even here Simon seems to be singing about hiding prescription drugs). Instead Simon creates an elliptical narrative for Mrs. Robinson, placing her at the center of a story set…at a sanitarium, perhaps? The story jumps all around, but Mrs. Robinson remains confused, out of sorts, suffering the alienation of the suburban wife, nostalgic for an imaginary past. It’s where Joe DiMaggio comes in, called out like a savior (“a nation turns its lonely eyes to you”) when the “Jesus loves you” exhortations don’t work. Later, Simon would explain the DiMaggio reference as, “I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply.” (Simon was more of a Mickey Mantle fan, but DiMaggio had better syllables).
The good thing about writing in this stream of consciousness, Simon tells Cavett, is “You find out what was in your mind was relevant even though at the time it didn’t seem so.” The song sounds chipper, but those lyrics are the story of a society about to come apart, which it would do several months later in 1968. Like The Graduate, with its satire about suburbia, loosening morals, hypocrisy, and “plastics” both as a career choice and a way of describing society, the song is a revelation of a world to come.
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.