Art For Artie's Sake -
Dave Charters meets one half of one of the greatest singing duos the pop world has known
March 1 , 2003
Daily Post (UK)
By DAVID CHARTERS
On the stage, in the distance, he looked like one of those dandelion clocks that children used to blow to count the hour, with his head encircled by a great halo of fair hair, perching on a long stalk.
But his voice had a piercing purity which reached to everyone, soaring high above the tones of his pixie-like partner.
That was when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were the most popular singing duo in the world, having prised this prize from their old heroes, Don and Phil Everly.
Now, Art, or Artie to his friends, is a solo artist of long- standing, though to many he will always be associated with Simon, a writer of songs astonishing in their depth and range.
In a way, that is the burden Garfunkel must always carry. He was the tall one with the perfect pitch, but it was the songs that really counted. And they were written by Simon, who was just 5ft 3ins.
Together, however, they dressed the poetry of desolation in beautiful melodies. Bedsit romantics wondered how songs could be so good - A Most Peculiar Man, I Am A Rock, A Church Is Burning, He was My Brother, April Come She Will and Homeward Bound, famously composed on Widnes railway station, during Simon's period as a minstrel. Then, he visited many British folk venues of the 1960s, packed by devotees of the American style.
Of course, you couldn't hear the dust wheeze in the throats of the mainly middle-class folkies as you could have done with the earlier men like Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. The new boys hadn't kicked so much dirt.
Still, Simon's songs had satire, politics, race, romance and most of all, in the Sound of Silence, a sense of loneliness so cold that it almost touched death.
Those were the days, perhaps, my friend. And nobody could deny that the songs of Simon were given greater power and commercial potential by the voice of Garfunkel.
But after their landmark album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, which topped the charts in Britain, America and many other countries for months, the boys parted amid accusations and counter-accusations.
It had been a wonderful partnership for Simon and Garfunkel, who had been raised three blocks away in the well-heeled suburb of Forest Hills in Queens, a borough of New York. And, in the end, their friendship proved strong, based as it was on so many memories, and it has survived the acrimony and continuous press speculation.
There were even reunions for special concerts, most recently at last weekend's Grammy Awards in New York. But it could never be quite as close again as it was in the beginning, when Garfunkel was the Cheshire Cat and Simon was the White Rabbit in a school production of Alice in Wonderland. From that start, they gradually became rock and rollers, enjoying a minor adolescent hit called Hey Schoolgirl, under the names of Tom and Jerry.
But it didn't seem to offer the secure future, expected by their Jewish parents. Simon persisted with music, but Garfunkel, the son of a salesman and a secretary, went to Columbia University to study architecture and mathematics.
They were to rejoin after Simon had written some of the finest songs of his generation; both literate and tuneful, they brought the folk tradition into the suburbs and, more importantly for them, into the hit parade.
Those were glorious times when people would talk of a Dangling Conversation and know immediately that it referred to the duo. But now Garfunkel is on the phone from the USA to promote his concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on March 14 and his new CD.
And the first thing you notice is that his speaking voice is deep and resonant, not at all like that almost glass-shattering pitch heard in the final chorus of Bridge Over Troubled Water. "Hi, it's me the singer guy, here at home in New York," he says.
Well, from opening you can gather that he still favours the hip patois. "The vocal arts are my profession," he adds. "I stay out of trouble. I don't try for anything. I didn't go for vocal teachers. I just leave well enough alone. I live for happiness' sake. I have a lyrical heart.
"I was in that Buddy Holly, Everly Brothers school back in the fifties and we were keen to win the girls by getting our own record on the radio. Nothing succeeds like having a record on the radio to impress the pretty girl in school, and that is the original impetus toward fame. When our Tom and Jerry record was a hit, in 16-year-old terms, it was life-changing. It was a validation that we were not different in the bad way, but different in the good way.
"We knew we were different, Paul and I. We were not conventional middle-class kids, but we came from a conventional middle-class neighbourhood. It was our ticket to ride, you might say in Liverpool terms."
Although most casual observers have always associated the songs with Simon, Garfunkel was his co-writer in the early days of Tom and Jerry.
And the tall man is composing again, as will be heard on the tour of the UK, when he performs songs from his new CD, Everything Waits To Be Noticed. His new co-writers are Maia Sharp and Buddy Mondlock.
"Between the three of us we have this lovely blend, which I am very pleased with," says Garfunkel, 61. "A man called Billy Mann put us together. He is the visionary and the record producer."
Garfunkel asks me if I had heard the record. My failure in this regard opens up the wound felt by so many performers from the 1960s. You know who I was, but do you know who I am now?
"Shame on you, how much do you know me in the present tense? You've got to check it out. Play it and then you'll know what I have really been doing."
How does he find song-writing again? "We sit around a table and pool our ideas," he replies. "Somebody takes the guitar and establishes the groove. Groove is the most important word in my profession. When the groove is there, everybody is slapping their thighs in rhythm. Mr Garfunkel has a thought from his previous prose writing of what is an interesting and compelling idea. And then my partners start fashioning it.
The song emerges over hours."
Going back, he had been very happy with Simon's songs, in which he found a great quality - coming from similar influences to the Beatles, he says. "Compared to rock and roll most of the rest of society looks pretty phony to us."
Has he remained friendly with Paul Simon? "Not too much these days, but it is kind of buried in there," says Garfunkel.
The Beatles were an immense influence on both of them and their whole generation. So, the death of George Harrison touched them all. "I had a great and deep love of George," says Garfunkel. "He was to me one of the few people in society who really saw what was going on. He had such a lovely spiritual point of view. I miss him and I loved him a lot. I was deeply saddened by his going."
Of course, Simon and Garfunkel and the folk set played their part in the mass protests which eventually ended America's disastrous war in Vietnam. Something of the same spirit may be emerging again as a war against Iraq is apparently drawing closer.
"Life is dangerous right now," says Garfunkel. "I have become friends with New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who says that cigarette smoking is a much greater threat to people than terrorism, a bigger killer than 9/11. That is statistically true.
"I am still nervous, though, but I try to think of percentages - those fears are sensational and frightening, but have a one in a million chance of happening. Is it probable or likely that there will be biological weapons used in New York in the next month? Or is it just the TV which says that it is likely?
"But there is a righteous indignation which is missing right now. It is terrible. It is as if we are all catatonic."
But we can't escape the 1960s. "It was a little more colourful then," Garfunkel says. "It popped a little more then. But the lawyers came, the suit men, because the money was so good. Record companies are owned by stock-holders who just want safe profits. You can't go out on a limb and sign someone who is radically wonderful because that is just subjective."