A BRIDGE TO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
SIMON AND GARFUNKEL’S BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER TURNS FORTY
February 20, 2010
By Rush Evans
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel came together in the late fifties in their little town of two and a half million, Queens, New York, where rock and roll music would find them and change their lives forever. It stirred their imaginations, and they would do with it nothing less than create a new brand of rock and roll, music that would become the soundtrack of the entire decade that followed. But by the time the sixties drew to a close, they were nearing thirty, tiring of each other, and hoping to move into the creation of newer sounds. But shortly before their breakup, the one who wrote the songs brought forth a piano piece rooted in gospel, an instantly familiar anthem that started small then gradually built to a massively moving powerhouse of a track. It would bear an inspirational message with a melody burned into the collective memory of a generation or three.
Some forty years later, the men, now in their sixties, would stand before an image of the Brooklyn Bridge just blocks away from the real deal, and revive this song on the stage of Madison Square Garden for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary show. To the people who cherished the song, it was as though no time had passed, but it had. There was plenty of water under that bridge, both before and since that song’s genesis.
Back in 1969, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had already evolved from a doo-wop loving pair of teens to a musically dynamic duo with something to say that transcended the question of why fools fall in love. The recorded result was a harmonic convergence of voice and conscience, four albums’ worth, with songs that had already established their place in pop music history: “Mrs. Robinson,” “Sounds of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Homeward Bound.” But they would produce their most daring work at the end of the decade, just in time to launch a new one.
I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail
Yes, I would
If I could
I surely would
--from “El Condor Pasa”
The fifth Simon and Garfunkel studio album was to be their last, though no one knew it at the time. Art Garfunkel had become famous enough to expand his art into film acting, and he spent part of 1969 in Mexico filming Catch-22 with director Mike Nichols. Paul Simon’s art, then and now, was dedicated mostly to the writing of songs, good ones, and that was where his focus was in 1969. The recording of Album Five had begun in late ’68, and an interesting selection of songs began to emerge, though they lacked to thematic unity of Album Four, a concept record called Bookends.
But the new songs were superb, three of which would be the most upbeat of Simon and Garfunkel’s recordings. “El Condor Pasa” was a lyrically lighthearted excuse for Simon to experiment with a third world beat that had always intrigued him, setting his own words to a traditional Peruvian melody. “Cecilia” was an infectious rocker that called for a percussive wall of sound. “Keep the Customer Satisfied” used Paul and Artie’s voices as the unified force that they were seemingly born to be. Producer Bob Johnston (numerous Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan albums, including Folsom Prison and Blonde on Blonde) had taken the helm at the three previous Simon and Garfunkel albums, but this time, it was the artists themselves, along with their long-time studio companion, Roy Halee. This allowed Simon to match his compositions to the sounds in his head, while extending voting power to his two like-minded allies.
Another song, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” was reportedly about a Garfunkel challenge that Simon couldn’t write a song about the famed architect. Among the lyrical interpretations of the song, however, is that Simon was in fact saying farewell to Garfunkel as his musical partner. Reading such ideas into a Paul Simon composition is easy to do (and likely to the delight of Simon), given his penchant for cryptic phrasing and imagery; such is the business of a true poet and eventual one man band. (The song includes an I-Am-the-Walrus-worthy clue. When Garfunkel is singing the phrase “so long” repeatedly as the song winds down, Simon’s voice can be heard deep in the mix: “So long already, Artie!”)
I am just a poor boy though my story's seldom told
I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises
--from “The Boxer”
It was two other songs that ultimately defined the album that was to be, and that would catapult it to the overwhelming success that it very quickly enjoyed. “The Boxer” was the story of a figurative and literal boxer, someone facing adversity of every kind, recalling every glove that laid him down before prevailing with dignity intact. It was an obscure lyric, but the final line’s declaration that the fighter still remains, coupled with the dramatic “lie-la-lie” chorus, made clear that this was a story of triumph, of personal pride. It was in this spirit that Paul Simon would sing the song on Saturday Night Live years later, shortly after the attacks of September 11th on his beloved hometown of New York.
When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all
--from “Bridge over Troubled Water”
While Garfunkel was shooting in Mexico, Simon wrote a song intended for Art’s voice, something inspired by the gospel music he had come to love. Reverend Claude Juter had been a member of gospel music’s Silvertones, and a particular song of his, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” moved Simon deeply, not just for Juter’s extraordinary falsetto voice, but for a particular line: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.”
“Bridge over Troubled Water” struck Garfunkel instantly upon hearing it, though he and Halee believed that the two verses needed a third to serve as a blessing of sort, to drive the spiritual home with its lush, orchestral arrangement [see Garfunkel interview].
Columbia Records president Clive Davis, heard the potential in this unusual grand ballad and suggested that it serve as the album’s opening track, title, and first radio single. The song did not rock like the other music of the time, but the rest of the song’s story, it’s fair to say, is rock and roll.
Close scrutiny of the song’s lyrics can become merely academic, so suffice to say, it’s about friendship, sacrifice, undying loyalty, and whatever the listener wishes to feel. “Bridge over Troubled Water” continues to live and breathe on its own, rendered still relevant most recently by Stevie Wonder, who sang a soaring gospel version on the Hope for Haiti Telethon, January 22, 2010. At forty years old, the song remains timeless, transcending genre and era, one of the most glorious five-minute musical achievements of the twentieth century. And now, the twenty-first.
ART GARFUNKEL REMEMBERS BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER IN JANUARY, 2010
It had been precisely forty years and one day since the single release of “Bridge over Troubled Water,” though Art Garfunkel and his interviewer were not aware of this fact at the time. It was clear, however, that Garfunkel felt as passionately on this day as any other about the song and album by that name, and he was more than happy to discuss them with Goldmine.
Goldmine: The Bridge over Troubled Water album turned forty this month, what are your first thoughts looking back?
Garfunkel: It was a hell of an undertaking, I’ll tell you. I don’t want to sound inflated but it’s a worthy album to look at, because it was a rich experience.
Goldmine: Does it hold up well for you?
Garfunkel: I haven’t played the album in quite while now. I doubt if I’d find any surprises if I played it. The whole way that the first song, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” so slow and soft, and so long in building, therefore so daring as a first song attention-getter. It’s like, “I’m going to enter your consciousness by creeping along at you instead of capturing you.” When that makes its transition into “El Condor Pasa,” and you hear these South American charangas, doo-doo-doo [singing], that transition into sort of ethnicity after “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” I thought was the cutest left turn. We were all chasing after the Beatles in those days, so I--like the whole rest of the world--was very enamored of Sgt. Pepper. We all remember Billy Shears, and we all remember how that first song turned into, [singing] “What would you say if I sang out of tune,” Ringo’s “I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends.” And there was that one-two punch at the top of that magnificent album. And even the sonics being somewhat flat, the second song being a little deeper studio echo, and how these sounds, these sonics, have feelings and imagery about them. These are the values that you’re aware of and you tinker with when you make one of these things. I remember the flow of our eleven songs, and I remember loving the flow and these transitions, moving from one song into the other. They were really choices made with care.
Goldmine: Was the confidence in that song felt in the studio? Were you recording it and saying, “Yeah, this is pretty much gonna be a classic, and we have to make it a single?”
Garfunkel: We were three-quarters in the way in belief in it. We loved the third verse and how it took off like a rocket and the production gets kind of Phil Spector-ish. We thought that this is a big “Whiter Shade of Pale” kind of record, and it might be a hit as a single. It’s daring because it’s so quiet and it starts so slowly, it’s unprecedented. Along came Clive Davis, who ran the record company, and he said, “No, fainted-heart faltering boys! This baby is gonna go all the way. I’m gonna get behind it, we’re gonna advertise it, we’re gonna have full faith in ‘Bridge over Troubled Water.’ It’s the title of your album, it’s the first cut on your first side, and it’s your single.”
Goldmine: I know the lyrics were inspired by gospel music, and with you and Roy Halee also being part of the production team on this, how did it evolve into the lush ballad that we know it to be?
Garfunkel: It was a piano vocal song, completely, with two verses in it. When the two verses were recorded, it was supposed to be a build. I sing the first one gently and heartfelt, but the second one has more intensity, it occurred to me that this is only the set-up for some kind of magnificent third verse that transcends all of this. This is the set-up. I said to Paul, “Let us do the Phil Spector production idea that we loved when we heard the Righteous Brothers’ recording of ‘Old Man River.’” Spector has Bill Medley sing 98% of the song with just a simple backing, but in the final line of the song, Spector throws in the kitchen sink, and the record grows in dimension, about twelve times as big. “I get weary and sick of tryin’, I’m tired of livin’, and feared of dyin’’ [singing]. At that point, Spector brings in for the first time in the entire record, the full rhythm, and maracas, and a wailing, rhythmic, gospely kind of vamping fade-out. “But ol’ man river, he just keeps roll...” [singing], and it became a fade-out, and Spector stays with that “Ol’ Man River,” and suddenly the record fades out, and that fade out is twelve times bigger. And the idea that you save production for so late in the piece killed us. And we were always enamored of that idea, and so when I said to Paul, “Here you go, this is our chance,” we used that same idea. We changed that whole record from a piano vocal into a full band and strings and big highs and lows, full extension, an oil painting. And he said, “Right, let me write a third verse.” And he wrote kind of a transcendent lyric. “If you need a friend, I’m sailing right behind,” perfect for the production scope, you know what I mean?
Goldmine: So the song fully existed before, “Sail on silver girl?”
Garfunkel: That’s right. There was never supposed to be a third verse. It was in the studio that we said there should be a third verse, and Paul wrote it. And then came the fun of adding the pieces. If there’s gonna be an augmentation with the orchestra, let’s let them all slip in one by one. So when the piano finishes the second verse, there’s a long sixteen bar turnaround, which [keyboard player] Larry [Knechtel] and I worked out. It ends up with the strings creeping in, and doing a long string pad, and there’s the first addition. Then we had Hal Blaine play his explosion drum. If you’re with me, Rush, you’ll love this one: way in the background on every other bar, on beat number two, you hear a cushy kind of an atom bomb, soft and kind of hushed but explosive, way in the back. It’s our backbeat, on the two beat of every other bar. We took our tape, we sped it up twice as fast, so the whole “Bridge over Troubled Water” was running at twice the speed. We asked Hal Blaine to play his drums on every other bar, and on bar number two, give us his nice, fattest, mallet sound on his skins. And then we slowed the record back down to proper speed. Everything fell back into place except Hal Blaine’s impact of his drum hits. Now the cushiness of the fat mallet on the skins has a wider spread to it; it’s been slowed down. The rest of the record fell back into place! So you get a very interesting soft impact, almost atom bomb percussive, and you place that way in the background on every other beat. And it becomes a record beginning to take off: The bass slides right into the pocket, and the boys sing “Sail on, silver girl.” There’s Paul’s first entrance into the record, and we doubled our voices so we would both have more of a commercial sound. “Sail on silver girl, sail on by” [singing]. And now the whole thing is beginning to happen in your belly. There’s rhythm setting in, the drummer’s about to add to that backbeat. And that rumble of rhythm, which you feel in your gut starts taking place somewhere after, “Sail on silver girl, sail on by, your time has come to shine.” Somewhere right after there, you start getting this more turgid rhythm, and then the strings move in bigger, and the arrangement, and you get brass. What fun it was to make that. So much is about mixing. You’ve got to credit Roy Halee for being such a fine artist and getting all these nuances of what’s going on with these instruments and bringing them all out so that a good listener can have a feast.
Goldmine: You have a solid production memory of all this, which is fascinating. Let’s talk about the other noteworthy song from the album: “The Boxer.” To me, “Boxer” and “Bridge” are the quintessential Simon & Garfunkel songs…
Garfunkel: Thank you. You’re really responding a lot to care and labor and detailing. These things went way beyond normal budgets and anything that makes sense in terms of business. Expense and return, they’re just labors of love gone wild, both of those tunes.
Goldmine: When I heard “The Boxer” in 1973, it was an important moment for me, because it was the first song I ever heard where I realized that these guys were trying to tell me something. I realized that music can have a message, though I didn’t know what it was.
Garfunkel: No, you have to be more grown up to have a feel for “I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains,” which is kind of a world-weary, middle life or later in life kind of “they’re killing me, I’m dyin’ here!” You have to know about that. A young person doesn’t get world weariness, which is where the song ultimately takes you.
Goldmine: Right. And for me, I realized then that music could be about something greater than, “my baloney has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R.”
Garfunkel: You’re giving tribute to the folk tradition. When folk music joined rock and roll, you got a lot more goose bumps and intensity and thoughtful lyrics. That folk tradition which Dylan gave us, “’Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man,’ he’s saying something, we don’t know what.” That’s folk music intensity. It’s trying to use intelligence. It’s trying to be ironic. It’s trying to be bitter. It’s trying to wake you up to nuclear disaster.
Goldmine: What did you say to Paul when he brought this somewhat cryptic lyric? Did you say, “Who is this about? Who is this boxer?”
Garfunkel: No, our friendship doesn’t work that way. My sense of an artist at work does not allow for such feedback. I give him his province. If he’s the writer, he’s allowed to be inscrutable without me challenging him and saying, “I can’t sing it if I don’t know what I’m singing about!” Never mind that stuff. He’s a first rate writer. I give him the right to be difficult or easy or whatever.
Goldmine: Bookends was more of a concept album than the more popular Bridge album. How do feel now about that album?
Garfunkel: It does move. From song to song, it’s like a beautiful black and white drawing or painting. But then, neither of those records has anything quite like “Scarborough Fair.” That three and a half minute side we did on the previous album, which was the flowingest, most naturally organic, sent-from-the-heavens-right-through-Paul-and-Artie piece of music we ever did. “Scarborough.”
Goldmine: By the way, I must tell you that my first record was Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits in 1973.
Garfunkel: I was so wildly in love with the making of those things. If you think they were fun to buy and collect, you should’ve made one. The day you finish it and then you listen in the control room at the console to your hard work over the many months, and you hear the whole thing from top to bottom, and you have fussed over every detail of every minute of all of the songs, and you go, “Okay, there it is,” and you love it, and then they send you the jacket, and you color approve it. “You know, the greens are a little too bluish.” And you go through all this, finally you get the handsome jacket, the liner notes are done, and you say, “Send me a box of twenty five copies, so I’ll get ‘em before the retailer gets it,” and you open the box, and there’s your hard work. It’s such a fabulous American invention, the record album.
Goldmine: One more Bookends question: That line in the song, “Bookends,” that says, “How terribly strange to be 70.” Seventy is coming, of course, to Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon. Any thoughts on that reality?
Garfunkel: It’s a well-written line, a youngster Paul Simon who can speculate on the future and get the right tone. Now that it nears, seventy, “How terribly strange to be seventy,” is not a bad line. It’s a good line. He was ahead of his time. We didn’t know that in those days the number seventy was not gonna be that old by the time you get there! It’s gonna be middle life! Who knew back in those days? We thought it was old! Now it seems just part of the middle momentum years.
THE LIFE OF A SONG AND AN ALBUM:
BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER
- Album release date: January 26, 1970
- Title track single release date: January 6, 1970
- Weeks at Number One on the Pop Charts: Six, beginning February 20, 1970
- Weeks at Number One on the Billboard Album Chart: Ten (March 7 to May 15, 1970)
- Number of recorded versions by Simon and Garfunkel: Five.
- Two from the studio (the original, plus a demo version on the album’s CD reissue) Three from live performances (Concert in Central Park, Live 1969, and Old Friends, from the 2004 reunion tour, on which - Garfunkel sings Verse One, Simon sings Verse Two, and both sing Verse Three).
- Both Simon and Garfunkel have also recorded their own live versions on several of their solo albums.
- Number of 1971 Grammy Awards: Six
- Album of the Year
- Record of the Year (the single, “Bridge over Troubled Water”)
- Best Contemporary Pop Song ("Bridge over Troubled Water")
- Song of the Year ("Bridge over Troubled Water")
- Best Engineered Recording (Non-Classical)
- Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) (the single, "Bridge over Troubled Water")
Number of recorded covers of the title track: Hundreds, including noteworthy versions by Willie Nelson, The Jackson 5, Eva Cassidy, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Shirley Bassey, Charlotte Church, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, LeAnn Rimes, and Elvis Presley (whose version was heard by Paul Simon at an Elvis performance in Las Vegas, after which, Simon was reported to have said, "That's it, we might as well all give up now").
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