Paul Simon Deconstructs “Mrs. Robinson” (1970)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Art Gar­funkel Lists 1195 Books He Read Over 45 Years, Plus His 157 Favorites (Many Free)

Watch Simon & Gar­funkel Sing “The Sound of Silence” 45 Years After Its Release, and Just Get Haunt­ing­ly Bet­ter with Time

Paul Simon Tells the Sto­ry of How He Wrote “Bridge Over Trou­bled Water” (1970)

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.

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