The taller half of the iconic NYC folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel at 80
I’ve only talked to Art Garfunkel once in my rock journo career. It was five years ago and at the onset of the interview he made what I considered to be a fairly reasonable request: “Don’t go into Simon & Garfunkel too much. It’s old news.”
I am guessing the request/quasi-demand Garfunkel put on the table is something he did for anyone who does what I do. It didn’t exactly throw me off my game – the S&G stuff would be part of the Q/A mix, not the whole of it – and he did close that thought with “too much.” How much would too much be?
And it may be old news, but … well, people remain curious about one of pop music’s most famous and dysfunctional duos.
Garfunkel’s creative partnership with childhood pal Paul Simon goes back to 1956, performing as Tom & Jerry. Eight years later, before they released their debut album as Simon and Garfunkel, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. That’s the album that gave us “The Sound of Silence.” That song jettisoned the New York-based folk-rock duo to the top of the pops and paved the way for six more top 10 singles. (In 1968, its inclusion on The Graduate soundtrack gave it another boost, and I’d argue, eternal life.)
VIDEO: Simon & Garfunkel perform “The Sounds of Silence” in Central Park 1981
Over time, they collected 14 Grammys. It ended in 1970 with a smash, the Bridge Over Troubled Water album which sold more than 25 million copies world-wide.
Except it didn’t exactly end. The strife between them became the stuff of rock legend – in this, they join brothers like the Everlys, the Kinks’ Davieses and Oasis’ Gallaghers – but there were special appearances, occasional reunion tours and an induction ceremony into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. There was he aborted reunion tour of 2010, scrapped because of Garfunkel’s severe problems with his voice. (Discussed later.)
You know at least the bare bones of Simon’s story and if you’ve read Robert Hilburn’s Paul Simon: The Life, more power (or perseverance) to you. (I haven’t; don’t have it in me.) The singer-songwriter went on to even more fame and success and became, with David Byrne, the great white explorer of world music; Garfunkel, the singer blessed with an angelic countertenor voice, not so much.
So, while mostly acceding to the request from Garfunkel – who turns 80 Nov. 5 – some things had to be asked. Why not jump in?
Rock and Roll Globe: It’s a complex issue, I know, your relationship with Paul …
Garfunkel: It’s not complex. It’s like the seasons. They wax and they wane and then they wax again. The seasons, they’re warm and exciting and charismatic, followed by tiredness and lack of inspiration for a year, a couple of years, and then it’s exciting again. It’s [like] marriage. I mean you can divorce and stay divorced, but then you get together and you make music and it’s exciting and you follow it for another season.
And what season are we in now?
[Observation from the fall of 2021: I think it’s still winter.] Question from 2016: From an outsider’s position, it seems like you’re sort of at his beck-and-call, that it’s always his decision to get together. Is that the way it is?
It’s embarrassingly true and really a hurtful lack of dignity on my part to allow it.
[I think he’s bitterly joking or masking the truth with a joke or maybe just spoofing the perception, but don’t know and don’t say anything.]
No, he was always the engine and I was always the singer and record producer, but he’s more the hustler and the deal-maker. I suppose that’s true.
When you play live, how do you split it up between Simon and Garfunkel songs and songs from your 10 albums?
It’s about 50-50. There’s things I do that I really love, a song called “Perfect Moment” it’s kind of my favorite song of them all. I like to do “99 Miles” from the “Breakaway” album. It is so smooth. “Bright Eyes” is very melodic and I have fun doing that. The inside truth is how do they fall in the vocal cords, in the throat, in terms of these vowel sounds, the syllables. Is the key just right for you to go to town and be beautiful on these syllables?
But you can’t leave out “The Sound of Silence” and can’t drop “Homeward Bound,” it’s such a crowd pleaser. I don’t want to be coy. I want to come across as satisfying expectations. I do enjoy it. I have infinite patience to keep stroking these songs/ When I do “Scarborough Fair,” I reach the mic, I touch it with my lip to make sure I’m the right number of sixteenths of an inch distance from it and I say in my mind and in my heart, ‘Here comes the best one I’ve ever done.’ I am full of the thrill of being able to sing it. I’m older than I ever was, but my heart and mind are more informed than they ever were at this moment. I’m so grateful the voice is back. I lost it for a couple of years.
That’s just where I was headed. I know you lost your voice in 2010 due to vocal paresis and that knocked you out for a while. How is your voice now?
It’s truly just fine, everything except the big power notes. I am not going to reach “Bridge Over Troubled Water’s completion; I’m going to do it, but I’m not going to hit grandiose notes at the end. In every other way, it’s back.
Have you been forced to shift keys?
What was it like, losing your voice and not knowing for how long?
I was whimperingly pathetic. I would practice in an empty hall of a thousand people, microphone and speakers and I would crap out and my knees would buckle and I would go, “Lord, will I ever find my identity back?” I’m a singer who must sing. You take that away from me and I’m this new guy named Walter. I don’t know how to be Walter. It was very hard on my central identity, I’ve been singing since I was five.
What were those early years like?
I began to sing in the synagogue shortly after that because the synagogue had wood walls and a high ceiling and I felt the resound of my young style was ideal for reverb and making beautiful tones. I would sing these minor key songs and get the goosebumps myself. And when [I was older] they dressed me in white satin and I was the cantor, I began to feel a sense of God. It turned me on. I started seeking privacy. I started looking for stairwells and wherever the tiled room gave me the reverb. So I was singing into the reverb, which became a big part of making records. The goosebumps are everything. There is a religiosity in “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
As you’ve sung these songs for many years, do you still feel them the way you once did? Do you get inside them?
More than ever. I burn with the love of singing like never before. The older we get the more we burn for our cause.
I’ve talked to a few older musicians who’ve spoken about having more generosity and love toward the audience than ever.
Yeah, I know that feeling. There’s no word that’s more important than “relax” for a performer and the word is cosmic. You get deeper into it. You unpeel layers of blockage in yourself and you get more and more to your central intention. There’s your love coming across to people and when you look for it you get better and better.
I know you have a memoir coming. What was the process?
I’m thinking “What can I do to make the audience be interested in my book?” [A pause and a sigh] I don’t know what to say without being cheap about buzz points. I write these prose poems – they’re one-pagers. They’re very revealing about Simon and Garfunkel, my take on show business, the fact that I’ve walked across countries. Last year, I went from western Ireland to Istanbul, every damn step of the way. I walked across America. I did it in installments. It took a decade to do it.
What do these walks do for you?
There’s no word more important than the word “relax.” So, I downshift. I get out of my New York-y tension. I sing loud and I enjoy my iPod and I write. Once you relax, you look around and by the third day I say, “OK, what is? It’s a funny question – what is?” And this is the downshift. You just take God’s world for its own sake. My eyes and my five senses come alive. I breathe deeper. I feel my identity more in my gut. It’s a wonderful answer to New York’s no horizon claustrophobia of this dense, nervous, abrasive town that I live in.
Do you get recognized when you walk?
I used to. Now, pretty much not. Here’s the thing about celebrities: When you carry a non-persona, you’re Mr. Nobody and you project nobody and they never know you. If I want to be recognized, I remember that I’m a star with proud achievement all through the years. When I carry that attitude, they recognize me.
But when you’re “off” …
I’m nobody. I want a rest from my work.
I read Bruce Springsteen’s book and it was very revealing, particularly about the depression he battles.
Why is that? Something about our age. We all start talking to some psychologist or we all have the pills that we need to elevate the mood – it’s a very common thing in this age. Is this something to do with the American culture, that it’s just not that inspiring?
Have you gone down that path, leading to therapy?
Yeah. It’s somewhat universal for people our age. It’s the American way. I read in this review [of Springsteen’s book where he wrote] “When the show is over, you’ll return to yourself and what is that self?” Never mind the ecstasy of two hours ago with the audience.
How about you after your show is over?
I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go. It’s a typical performer’s thing. Back to the hotel, take care of yourself, you have another show to do tomorrow. I’m sacredly involved in giving the audience their value for the money – showing up, having the voice, getting a good night’s sleep.
Have you always been this way?
Yeah, it’s called an honest work ethic. I’m into it.
And as we know, not everyone in your profession feels that way. There’s a lot of discipline required.
I had my years of chasing girls; I had my years of smoking pot.
What do you think people’s biggest misconception is about you?
They don’t know me. I have been living below the radar all these years, accommodating the engine that is Paul Simon. I have been quiet and unknown. That’s why I wrote this book. Now I want to step out.
AUDIO: Art Garfunkel “Bright Eyes”