How the feud between Bob Dylan and Paul Simon began

Bob Dylan

Paul Simon sat down in early 1966 to begin work on the third Simon & Garfunkel album. Bob Dylan was causing quite a stir at the time with his transition from the Amish world of folk to electric rock ‘n’ roll. The entire situation channeled Simon’s lingering annoyance into the mocking of ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic.’

Simon added a caricatured twist of organ and psychedelic guitar to the song’s musicology. Both had recently entered Dylan’s oeuvre. Then he examines Dylan’s songwriting style. He seemingly mocked his penchant for inserting obscure lines and listing literary and pop culture references. He purrs, “Not the same as you and me, he doesn’t dig poetry / He’s so unhip when you say Dylan / He thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was.”

This seemed to confirm what many people had suspected: a clash between the two biggest folk acts of the day. “I usually come in second (to Dylan). And I don’t like coming in second,” Simon admitted in an interview with Rolling Stone. “When we were first signed to Columbia, I admired Dylan’s work.” Without Bob Dylan, ‘The Sound of Silence’ would not have been written. But I left that feeling behind when I saw The Graduate and Mrs. Robinson. They were no longer folky.”

Simon admired Dylan and acknowledged him as an influence. The mockery at the heart of ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic’ was more than just a satire tinged with second-placed annoyance. It had a bit more of a chaotic past than that.

Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel both traveled to England to learn the folkways of Bond Street, but their beginnings were stoney. Dylan met Simon the week before Simon & Garfunkel’s first scheduled show at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. And the duo famously had nothing to say to each other in an awkward and cagey encounter.

When the show was announced, Dylan slunk to the end of the bar with critic Robert Shelton; as the hush fell and their set began, Dylan began guffawing at what was supposed to be a spiritual moment. The band continued to play, casting a scathing glance in his direction, but the laughter didn’t stop, and the entire room cringed. While Shelton claimed the giggles were due to bad timing, he did confirm that the meeting the week before had been tense enough to raise the possibility that Dylan was scoffing on purpose.

He described it as “a typical encounter of New York’s paranoia and instant rivalries.” So, when Simon later wrote a song mocking the ‘original vagabond,’ it confirmed their friendship. Time, however, can put New York rivalries to rest, with Simon admitting that Dylan is an influence and inspiration and Dylan is, well, typically Dylanesque with his distanced and mostly silent admiration.

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