Art Garfunkel, with troubled waters behind him, discusses his new lease on music and life

San Diego Union-Tribune, April 26, 2018
By George Varga


The sound of Art Garfunkel sputtering will never rival his famed singing voice or his eloquent way with words. It is a memorable sputter nonetheless.

The 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee recently underscored this during an hour-long phone interview from his New York penthouse, which overlooks Central Park.

His sputter was prompted by two questions, asked as one.

How often does Garfunkel change up his concert repertoire, which devotes nearly two-thirds of the selections to songs from his partnership with Paul Simon? Having made a dozen solo albums in the five decades since Simon & Garfunkel first imploded in 1970, might he favor more of his solo material on his current tour?

“I very much stick to what I’ve been doing,” said Garfunkel, who performs Friday in San Diego at the Balboa Theatre with guitarist Tab Leven and keyboardist Dave Mackay.

“Others might say: ‘You don’t change your show.’ I don’t. I love what I do. I am hard-pressed to imagine how I would change it. Why should I change it? If a painter is asked to paint that famous painting he did (again), his response should be: ‘I’ll try — I loved it!’

Cue sputter No. 2.

“Should I drop ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’?” Garfunkel asked. “Should I not do ‘The Sound of Silence?’ I approach it with the feeling of: ‘Here comes the best version ever!’ So I’m forever refining these songs.”

The fact that Garfunkel has rarely written any songs — in contrast with the prolific Simon — may also be a factor. And not performing such Simon-penned classics as “Bridge” and “Silence” would surely disappoint Garfunkel’s concert audiences. His soaring voice was synonymous with all of Simon & Garfunkel’s multimillion-selling albums and the 13 Top 40 hits they scored between 1965 and 1970.

Then again, being able to sing at all is a joy for Garfunkel, who offered a curt “I don’t think so” in response to the obligatory: “Will he and Simon ever make music together again?”

‘I couldn’t sing or talk’

In the spring of 2010, while the reunited Simon & Garfunkel were performing their headlining show at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Garfunkel’s voice all but vanished in mid-song.

Once a master of aural finesse, he was subsequently shocked to discover his mid-range had become the sonic equivalent of a bull in a china shop. Moreover, the high notes that were his trademark became elusive at best. A medical diagnosis determined that one of his vocal cords was stiffer than the other and was nearly paralyzed.

The remainder of Simon & Garfunkel’s U.S. tour was canceled. Garfunkel did not know if he’d be able to ever sing again, let alone perform in any capacity. Even speaking became a major challenge. It took 18 months before the New York native began to softly sing to himself. His recovery was painfully slow.

“When my voice went south, I couldn’t sing or talk,” he noted. “I don’t know why.”

Long a heavy smoker, Garfunkel gave up cigarettes in 2010. And, as he wrote in his 2017 memoir, “What is it All But Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man,” he also quit smoking pot the same year.

Does he miss it?

“Do you miss it?” he retorted. “Did you used to get high? Sorry. It’s not my favorite question.”

Garfunkel partly credits vocal exercises sent to him by San Diego-bred singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop with helping him get back on track. He also cites singing along to records by James Taylor, jazz crooner Chet Baker and former Valley Center troubadour JJ Cale.

Today, with several years of touring again under his belt, does music mean more to Garfunkel than it did prior to 2010?

“When I do shows now, I thank God in the middle of the first song,” he said. “This is so much fun, having the voice back. To produce a sound and hear the loveliness of it all, before they (the audience) do, you think: ‘Thank God.’

“It slowly returned in 2011 and then was pretty much back by 2014. So, like never before, I love the fun of doing it.”

Garfunkel, 76, discussed an array of other topics, sometimes referring to himself in the third person. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Walking across America and Europe

Q: You started walking across America, incrementally, in the 1980s. How much do you walk these days?

A: I used to do about two to three walks a year, always for about a week or a week and a half. I crossed America and then Europe. Then I went from Dublin to Istanbul and finished ‘The Walk’ about two years ago. Now I’m getting tired. The tootsies don’t want to walk so much. Now I walk with no plan. I just try and get walking in my as part of my daily diet. It’s very good for us. We digest our food and our intellect comes alive when we walk.

Q: When you were checking into a two-star motel during your cross-country walks, as you write in your book, did anyone ever recognize you?

A: Hardly ever. Being recognized is a lot about what you give off. I give off a non-persona in my life. It’s been many years since I became famous. I enjoyed it, in the beginning. Then I tried to build up a defense, which is a case of having a ‘not feeling famous’ posture and going underground, and that works. The vibe you give off is the thing. I can walk the streets of New York and — if I choose to go unrecognized — I can make that whole thing work, 99 percent of the time. You put a cap on and walk with purpose, and you are a vector taking care of your private life.

Q: When you went on your great walking adventure, I believe you had a Sony Walkman cassette player. What were you listening to?

A: I have my iPod now. If I had it handy, I’d show you my favorites. It’s full of Ravel, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, about 150 of my favorite classical and pop things that I like to sing to, where I can use my voice. I have very little Beatles, some Joni Mitchell. Let me get it! I’m proud of my (musical) survey. You asked a question that touches the real me. Can you handle that? I carry my notebook with my iPad. I write, I listen. I sing along, as loud as I want.

Q: Your albums feature gems written by great songwriters. What’s your criteria for selecting what you record?

A: I go for the good stuff. “What do you mean, Mr. Garfunkel, by the good stuff?” It’s where there’s real melody and the rhythms swing, and the lyrics are not bland, The Beatles had a whole bunch of those things. When I look for something, of course, the words are immediately a gatekeeper. If they have something dumb (in the lyrics), I won’t do it. When someone sends me a demo, I listen. Is the language fresh or not, starting with the first verse? If it’s not, why would a good song start bad? That’s often the gatekeeper for me.

Q: You noted earlier that you are constantly refining your concert repertoire. Do you ever actually change the songs?

A: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has undergone a revamping. There you go — that’s a big change. Since my voice came back, I don’t quite master the big, grandiose finish to “Bridge.” I never do “Mrs. Robinson.” I don’t do “Old Friends” — it’s a beauty, but it takes two old friends to sing it. “The Boxer” is in my range, although I make some slight changes.

Q: Sushi or sashimi?

A: I like this question! If you’re dieting, you like sashimi, because it’s very lean and doesn’t have rice. So there’s a place in my book where I say: “I’m getting ready to tour again. I want to be thin.” Sashimi.