Art Garfunkel playing NJ dates

Bill Nutt, Asbury Park Press

November 2015

Art Garfunkel is an avid traveler, a voracious reader and an accomplished writer. A person able to engage in any one of those avocations — let alone all three — would seemingly have a full, satisfying existence. But when Garfunkel was diagnosed with vocal paresis, a paralysis that threatened to end his singing career, he underwent a self-described crisis of identity.

“I’ve been singing since I was 5 years old,” he says. “I have to be a singer.” He first suffered from the paralysis in January 2010 (“The voice just went south,” he recalls), and he was forced to cancel performances, including a tour with Paul Simon. But Garfunkel was certain that his time away from the stage would only be temporary. “I knew I would not give up. I ruled that out,” says Garfunkel. “But it was a tragically existential moment. Who would I be without singing?” He jokingly adds he feared having to adopt a new name (Murray? Earl?) if he was unable to sing.

Garfunkel says that he no longer worries about switching from “Art.” He is giving concerts again, and he will appear tonight at the Grunin Center for the Arts in Toms River and and Saturday at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. The road back to the stage was gradual, according to Garfunkel. “You don’t sing or talk loud for a year or so,” he says. “Then you sing to yourself.” In Garfunkel’s case, that meant softly singing to some of the artists who originally moved him when he was growing up in Queens in the 1940s and 1950s, such as the Everly Brothers or the jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker.

About three years ago, Garfunkel experimented with giving a concert. “I booked a concert hall, but with nobody in the audience,” he says. With a laugh, he adds, “It was bloody awful. I’m glad there was nobody in the house to hear it.” Garfunkel says the paralysis has given him a new perspective on performing. “It’s the end of perfectionism,” he says. “The love that the audience shows you becomes everything. It becomes relaxing. You accept the limits.” For example, some numbers — including “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” arguably his signature song —are now in a different key or a different arrangement.

In concert, Garfunkel continues to perform songs from his collaboration with Paul Simon. Though their professional partnership has, at times, been tempestuous, Garfunkel still refers to Simon as “my oldest friend.” Garfunkel chalks up the bumps in their relationship to a similarity in temperament. “You had two Jewish guys from Queens who were workaholics,” he says. “When you’re young, you’re a bit of a fanatic.”

Besides songs he originally did with Simon, Garfunkel also will perform numbers from his solo career, such as “All I Know,” written by Jimmy Webb. “I delight in tipping my hat to the people who came before me,” Garfunkel says. He expresses admiration for such vocalists as Nat King Cole (“Too Young”), Sam Cooke, Joan Baez and Johnny Mathis. Garfunkel acknowledges his own efforts at songwriting, such as his work with Maia Sharp and Buddy Mondlock.

Though he has published his poetry, he notes the differences between a poem and a song. “Songwriting isn’t my métier,” he says. Instead, the writing that has occupied much of his time is an autobiography. He has no publication date set, but he plans to read excerpts from the book in concert.

For Garfunkel, despite his interests in other fields, singing remains his focus. “I had this special calling,” he says. “The vocal is everything.” “People know I’m a serious guy,” Garfunkel says. “I’m kind of introverted. I’m just trying to be an artist.”