Art Garfunkel comes 'above the radar'

The Herald Palladium
By Jeremy D. Bonfiglio, Jan 25, 2018

Art Garfunkel, once unmistakable for his tightly curled golden locks that have now thinned and turned gray, knows that most of his rich musical story has already been written.

Best known for his partnership with Paul Simon as Simon & Garfunkel, the duo whose melodious songs and tight-knit harmonies provided the soundtrack for much of the 1960s and ’70s, the now 76-year-old Garfunkel is reflective on the chapters that have come before, even though he is far from ready to close the book on his life’s passion.

His autobiography, “What Is It All But Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man,” released in September, details the singer’s eclectic life – from early memories growing up in Queens, N.Y., to the success and ultimate end of Simon & Garfunkel to poetic ruminations on love, loss and fatherhood, lists of books he’s read and songs on his iPod.

Garfunkel has been sharing some of those stories in person during a series of concerts, “Art Garfunkel – In Close-Up,” which includes Friday’s stop at the Lake Michigan College Mendel Center Mainstage Theatre.

“I’m very involved in this autobiography I put out. It’s my pride and joy,” Garfunkel says by phone from New York. “I worked on it for many years, and finally found the publisher to release it. I’ll try to read a few 30- or 60-second pieces like prose poems for people who bought a ticket and may be curious as to who I am and how Simon & Garfunkel worked and how many children I have. I want to come above the radar. It’s my notion that I have been somewhat of a hidden artist all these years, but I have a very rich life, a lovely family, and I love this book, so I feel like I’m cookin’.”

Garfunkel met Simon when he was an 11-year-old sixth-grader at PS 164.

“Paul and I came from the same neighborhood,” he says. “He lived three blocks away. So I know him, and he knows me. And let me tell you about him. He’s very, very funny. We had each other cracking up all the time. ... By the end of that year, 1954, rock ’n’ roll was born. That phrase was brand new. Alan Freed had brought it from Cleveland to New York, and we were hip kids, Paul and I. We knew who Jerry Lee Lewis was and who Little Richard was. We were there on the ground floor of rock ’n’ roll, so we started singing. We weren’t blues guys, we were more rockabilly, like Buddy Holly, where country meets rock ’n’ roll.”

The two spent years perfecting their sound in Garfunkel’s basement.

“I’m a perfectionist, so many of the rehearsals in my basement were just me hoping for this standard of extreme accuracy in our blend, in our diction,” Garfunkel says. “We have to finish the phrase just right. When we realized we were competitive, we thought we could take this sound into Manhattan and knock on doors and try to get a record contract, even though we were 15 years old.”

They set their sights on the Brill Building, made demos and knocked on all the doors. In 1957, Tom & Jerry as they were then known, landed a recording contract with Big Records. Their first single, “Hey, Schoolgirl” scored a moderate hit at No. 49 on the pop charts, and they appeared on “American Bandstand” as high school seniors.

After graduating from Forest Hills High School, Garfunkel headed to Columbia University while Simon headed to Queens College. By 1963, they had reformed their duo under their own names at the height of the folk music boom, and within a year were signed to Columbia Records.

“We had this singing blend worked up from our rockabilly years, and these new poetic commercial songs that Paul was writing and I recognized we had a shot,” Garfunkel says. “We got on to Columbia Records when Tom Wilson signed us. It’s like we had this small practice career in high school, and then came the world famous career.”

From 1964-70, they recorded a groundbreaking string of albums – “Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.,” “Sounds Of Silence,” “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” “The Graduate,” “Bookends” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – and an equally impressive body of songs, many of which became pop standards – “The Sound Of Silence,” “Homeward Bound,” “I Am a Rock,” “Kathy’s Song,” “April Come She Will,” “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” “At the Zoo,” “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” “America,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Boxer,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa” and “My Little Town.”

Simon & Garfunkel won five Grammy Awards together, two in 1968 (Record of the Year and Best Contemporary Pop Performance/ Duo or Group for “Mrs. Robinson”); and three in 1970 (Record of the Year, Album of the Year, and Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists for “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which also won Song of the Year and Best Engineered Recording).

“It’s the great joy and delight of my life,” Garfunkel says of that time. “When people think celebrities go through all this angst and trials and tribulations, it’s not that way. It’s a great joy of good fortune. I felt delighted to be so lucky. It was all working.”

But Simon & Garfunkel’s often rocky relationship led to artistic disagreements, which resulted in their breakup in 1970. Garfunkel has released 12 solo albums to date, most notably his 1973 debut “Angel Clare,” 1975’s “Breakaway,” 2002’s “Everything Wants to be Noticed” and 2007’s “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Since their split, Simon & Garfunkel have reunited several times, most famously in 1981 for “The Concert in Central Park,” which attracted more than 500,000 people, the seventh-largest concert attendance in history. They also were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in 2003. They haven’t performed together, however, since 2010, and Garfunkel indicates they are unlikely to do so again.

“We are both committed to being growing human beings,” Garfunkel says. “I’m committed to growth as a man, as a father as an artist. I’m committed to growth all my life. It’s always a case of what comes next? What do I need to work on? ... What made us last (as long as we did) is that we were good. Paul Simon is a hell of a songwriter. On ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ well Garfunkel could really sing his ass off.

“But we are very different characters,” he continues. “As the years have gone by, you see that we are not the same at all. So for two very different kids in Queens to have matched their voices and found their blend and live a life of stardom with such closeness when they are so different, I think it was just fascinating to people.”

Shortly after “The Concert in Central Park,” Garfunkel began writing what would eventually become his autobiography, “What Is It All But Luminous.”

“I think we all fall into experiences in life,” he says. “We don’t exactly start a morning and say, ‘Today I shall begin something.’ We more or less fall into something, and if it feels good, we do more of it. Well, I started keeping a notebook in my back pocket, and when we finished that, I was very happy for the release to be a creative artist in my own right and not have a partner.

“I flew to Switzerland and rented a motorcycle and started tooling around the Alps just to feel the freedom of it all,” he continues. “Lo and behold, different phrases would come to me and I would go, ‘That’s appealing, that’s going to connect with people.’ It’s a theme I’ve been thinking about all my life. So between the phrase and the theme, I realized I had a piece of writing in front of me. So I would spend the day, stopping my bike and going to the side and writing another piece. That night I would commit the whole thing to a rough draft and started polishing. I fell into becoming a bit of a writer. I’ve been doing that for years. My notebook has about a thousand entries of a page or a half a page, and I eventually met a publisher who said, ‘I think you have a book here,’ and I thought it was time to go that route.”

Backed by guitarist Tab Laven and keyboardist Dave Mackay, “Art Garfunkel – In Close-Up” highlights songs throughout his eclectic career as well as cuts from a few favorite songwriters – Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman and George Gershwin.

“My show is half Simon & Garfunkel and half my stuff,” Garfunkel says. “I don’t leave out the famous hits – although I don’t think ‘Cecelia’ is going to be there – but there will be ‘The Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ It would be coy to not sing those obvious crowd pleasers and I love doing them. I never get tired of singing them.”

While he admits that he is a reluctant showman, he also has gotten used to the idea of performing as a solo artist.

“This line of work is very vulnerable and I’m a quiet guy,” Garfunkel says. “I’m a book reader. I’m contemplative. So it is not at all in my nature to stand on a stage in front of a room of people and say ‘Hello everybody, listen to me now.’ It’s a posture of pomposity that’s not like me at all. So I run to the fun of singing it really well. I’m terribly earnest, and that saves me from feeling the arrogance of ‘Hey everybody hush up and listen to me.’ I run to the charts, to the songs and I get involved just making ‘Scarborough Fair’ happen tonight better than it ever happened before.”

It’s that perfectionism, as well as a love of doing things a little differently, Garfunkel says, that keeps him returning to the stage.

“I cultivated a love for being different from a young age,” he says. “... I was a blonde New York kid who was left-handed, thin and wiry. ... It seemed boring to do things the way everyone else did it. I remember thinking when I was 7 years old, ‘whichever way they are swimming, swim the other way. It’s just more interesting.’ That became my philosophy of life – stay interesting to yourself.”