For Art's Sake
June 8 , 2006
By James McNair
BIT OF trivia for you: Art Garfunkel's website has a chronology of every book he has digested since 1968. "Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living," the singer tells me, "so why not keep track of what you've read?" As Garfunkel chats from his "little eyrie" overlooking New York's Central Park, the keen mind that won him art history and architecture degrees is readily apparent. "I just finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's Abraham Lincoln biography, Team Of Rivals," he says. "Lincoln put all his political rivals in his Cabinet, then flattered and cajoled them with masterly skill."
Rewind 37 years, and Garfunkel, now 64, was engrossed in Philip Roth's sex comedy, Portnoy's Complaint. Down in Guaymas, Mexico, director Mike Nichols had brought Roth's newly written novel on to the set of Catch 22. Garfunkel was playing Captain Nately in the film, and read Portnoy's Complaint in downtime between takes.
As filming dragged on, the recording of Simon & Garfunkel's 1970 masterpiece, Bridge Over Troubled Water, was delayed. Holding the fort back in New York City, Paul Simon was miffed, and the fact that his own mooted part in Catch 22 had fallen through didn't help.
Galvanised by frustration, Simon penned The Only Living Boy In New York, including the lines, "Tom, get your plane right on time/I know your part will go fine." Innocuous as they sound, these lyrics dripped with sarcasm. Tom was Artie's alias in he and Simon's earlier singing duo, Tom & Jerry, and Jerry was tired of being given the runaround.
That was all decades ago, and, in recent years, Simon/Garfunkel relations have been less cat and mouse. By the time their Old Friends tour wrapped up at the Colosseum in Rome in 2004, the legend had been suitably buffed and, on stage at least, the duo looked as chummy as billed. Garfunkel tells me he had dinner recently with Sim- on, with the pair "laughing and talking about their families". A trifle odd then, perhaps, that he hasn't heard Simon's new solo album, Surprise. I suggest that the record's title would have rung truer had Garfunkel sung on it. He laughs and says: "It never really crossed either of our minds. So, no, there was no last minute, 'Artie, before I put this out, you must come down and sing.' Ideas like that are near at hand, yet a billion miles away at the same time. I think our minds are on careers where we [neither of us] are attached at the hip to anyone."
As though to prove that fact, Garfunkel, too, has a new album on the way. His as-yet-untitled 12th solo work finds him back in the studio with Richard Perry, the producer behind such classy Garfunkel hits as Break Away and I Only Have Eyes For You. The singer seems reluctant to reveal much about his new album beyond: "It's for people who like what I do", but he is more vocal about his renewed partnership with Perry, and about the international treasure that is own counter-tenor voice.
"Richard and I talked a lot about how the music business has changed, the veterans that we are, and how much do-wop is still a musical touchstone for us. The interesting thing is that I've become more benign and I'm learning how to work as part of a team. You have to satisfy your friend and turn him on to the music. You have to say 'yes' a lot.
"Singing wise, I learned from the Everly Brothers many years ago that every word can shine. It has to have feeling and it has to be energised by a heart that loves the melody. So I'm looking for all of these things, syllable by syllable."
But what about the timbre of his famously genteel voice - doesn't he sometimes wish it were grittier?
"It's a good question, and I do. I envy some of those rockers who come out of the Little Richard tradition," he says.
"Sometimes I work to cultivate a voice that's not so committed to pretty. Sometimes you have to look for narrative truth." Garfunkel says that a typical day at home begins at 7am. He walks down the block for a coffee at his local deli, then settles down with The New York Times to see how his beloved Philadelphia Phillies baseball team has done.
By the time he returns home, his 15-year-old son, James, is up and ready to go off to school. Before he leaves, they catch up over a few slices of toast.
After that, Garfunkel's wife, Kim, brings their seven-month-old son, Beau Daniel, downstairs, whereupon they "fall into a dither over his adorability [sic]". It is this business of becoming a father again at 64 that has mellowed the singer most, it seems. Garfunkel published his first and only poetry collection, Still Water, some 27 years ago, but he says that Beau Daniel's arrival has inspired some calming new stanzas.
If there is a cloud on the horizon, it is a sweetly pungent one, for the singer's only real travails in recent years have been drug busts for use of hashish. The first came in January 2004 when a state trooper near Hurley, New York State, noticed "a strong smell of marijuana emanating from Mr Garfunkel's limousine". In August 2005, the singer was charged again in near-identical circumstances, this time just outside Woodstock.
Naturally, the newspaper press had a field day with these incidents, concocting song-related headlines of the "Not feeling so groovy" variety. But, in the music press, the drug busts only served to give Art some rock and roll credibility, the singer behind such delicately beautiful songs as Bright Eyes and Scarborough Fair no longer seeming quite so straight-laced.
Politics-wise, he is quick to align himself with recent, Bush administration-baiting albums by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. "Who is going to remind us of global morality?" he comments. "This surely can't be the real world we're living in." Garfunkel also confirms that he is keen to re-ignite the acting career that once saw him star alongside Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge. "I'll use this article, if I may, to reach directors", he says with a laugh. "Think of me, guys! I've lived a bit, and I know a thing or two about money, power and politics."