Art Garfunkel Looks Back at His ‘Luminous’ Life in New Book

September 25, 2017

David Chiu, Contributor, Writer and Editor.

Outside of music, the legendary singer Art Garfunkel talks very mellifluously and charismatically, not far off from the distinctive singing he has been known for. There’s something romantic and stream-of-consciousness in the way he reminisces about the highlights of his life and career, especially for being one-half of the famed duo Simon & Garfunkel. If his personality carries a charming and poetic tone, then that is unsurprisingly reflected in Garfunkel’s recently published book, What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man (Knopf), an uniquely written and unconventional memoir in which the passages are more like diaristic ruminations as well as prose poems and favorites lists. Even the book’s font style is supposedly a digitized version of the author’s handwriting, lending a sort of a homespun diary feel.

The publication of the book provided the perfect occasion to probe into Garfunkel’s long life and career, when the artist was interviewed by Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis at Manhattan’s 92Y this past Thursday. For about 70 minutes, it was a trip down memory lane for the 75-year-old Garfunkel, going back to his childhood in Queens during the idyllic Eisenhower years, and the arrival of DJ Alan Freed and rock and roll—a moment that to him was “full of life.” He also recalled the period when he and Paul Simon recorded as Tom and Jerry and hearing their hit song “Hey Schoolgirl” on the radio, which he described as a “total thrill” that made his world change.

Garfunkel nostalgically reminisced how about he and Simon tried to peddle their talents to the hitmakers at the famed Brill Building (“Paul Simon brought the engine,” Garfunkel said of his former partner during that period). The turning point for him and Simon (Garfunkel was studying at Columbia University, while Simon was jump starting his folk career in England) was when Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson remixed “The Sound of Silence,” originally off of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1964 debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., as an electric folk rock song (Garfunkel called it a life changer). He also delved into other musical highlights for him from that decade, from the Monterey Pop Festival; to when Donovan played him the Beatles “Yesterday” and the Rolling Stones ‘ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction; and to the origins behind “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the latter representing the high watermark for both Simon as a songwriter and Garfunkel as a singer.

DeCurtis also brought up Garfunkel’s acting career, particularly his debut in Mike Nichols’ 1970 film version of the Joseph Heller novel Catch-22, which marked the beginning of the end of his partnership with Simon the first time. Garfunkel later admitted that he never set out to be an actor, and that he was playing against type in his acting roles (i.e., Nicolas Roeg’s 1980 thriller Bad Timing). “I wanted to find art,” he said, as opposed to appearing in hit mainstream films.

Following a successful solo career through the ‘70s with albums like Angel Clare and Watermark, Garfunkel spoke of his quiet period at the end of that decade, marked by the tragic suicide of his girlfriend Laurie Bird. He reemerged in the public eye when he and Simon performed at their memorable concert in Central Park in 1981, which he called the “highest high.” “It was fantastic,” he told DeCurtis of that experience. “I felt the buzz around town When I stepped to the stage to half a million people, I felt the love.”

Perhaps what was probably on most of the 92Y audience members’ minds during the conversation was the current state of Garfunkel and Simon’s relationship and whether they might reunite again. Garfunkel didn’t really go in depth about that but brought up the past occasions where a conversation between himsel and Simon about music would somehow provide the impetus for a reunion. He also spoke about the vocal cord issues following a Simon and Garfunkel tour in 2010 that forced him to not sing for a period; when resumed signing a few years later, he said he took the approach of “just do it,” as he was mending in public (He even sang a few lines of “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” at some point during the interview).

A few of the audience members posed various questions for Garfunkel; the topics included the artists Garfunkel would consider singing with for an album (some of the names that were brought up during that part of the discussion included Van Morrison and longtime friend James Taylor); how Simon and Garfunkel first got signed to Columbia Records; his son Arthur, Jr., himself a singer; and that Garfunkel’s favorite Simon and Garfunkel song is “Old Friends.” He also explained how much of a big part played on the Simon and Garfunkel records behind the scenes; for instance encouraging Simon to write that third verse of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

As for the future, Garfunkel doesn’t appear to be slowing down as far as performing goes: he already has a slate of scheduled concert dates that will continue into 2018. He said that he loves touring, adding that “it’s become my base life.” And now with his latest book, Garfunkel can now add memoirist to his resume of singer/actor/pop culture icon.