Art Garfunkel Bridges Past, Present Without Rhymin' Simon

January 15 , 1998
Florida USA
By Brian Bixler of the News staff

Although he has maintained a solo career for a quarter century, Art Garfunkel’s name remains inextricably linked to his old singing buddy, Paul Simon.

To this day, seminal hits made by Simon and Garfunkel in the ’60s resonate as the singular voice of a generation. As a duo, they have a handful of Grammy Awards to their credit, including 1970’s record and song of the year, Bridge Over Troubled Water; and in 1990 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Garfunkel, whose latest solo tour makes a stop Wednesday at the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne, hasn’t turned his back on his partnered past, even though he’s released 10 albums on his own, including the Grammy-nominated Songs From a Parent to a Child in 1996. During an interview, it is mere seconds before Simon’s name is mentioned. The two remain lifelong friends, even though they rarely see each other nowadays and haven’t made a studio album together since 1970.

That doesn’t keep Garfunkel, 57, from keeping their spirit of the ‘60s alive. In concert, he relies on the tried-and-true, mixing up songs from that period that made him an icon with others he recorded on his own.

"I’m swimming with so much choice here", he said by phone from his home in New York. "I start by thinking, when I make my repertoire, of up tempos and slows. I want to balance that out. Then I say, Let me balance out the Simon and Garfunkels and all the stuff that’s post that group.’ So I’m not going to leave out The Sounds of Silence or Mrs. Robinson, certainly. But I don’t want to fill the show with the old stuff, otherwise I would feel what’s the word? retrograde."

"I’m too full of the sense of what I’ve done since those days. My sales have not been as big as Simon and Garfunkel. But then, of course, I knew that would be the case when I was sitting on top of it all in 1970. I knew we would never match that. So, I just continue to go on to be good and artful to the best of my ability knowing that my commercial success will probably not equal that."

Garfunkel says the songs he sings onstage are sentimental favorites for him. With one surprising exception.

"There is one song that I don’t love quite so much and I do it because the audience expects it. Please don’t call me a spoilsport. Mrs. Robinson is not my favorite. I love the record we made and we labored very carefully as craftsmen to make that track groove the way it does. So I’m very pleased with Mrs. Robinson. It became a hit because I think it swung very nicely. But when I do it in concert, particularly in the chorus, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus...’ It’s a little kind of slap-happy simplistic for my tastes. So it’s a personal prejudice."

The frizzy-haired tenor with the choirboy’s voice is just as candid when asked to evaluate his own career and to choose the crowning accomplishments. Aside from his work as a vocalist, he’s had roles in several feature films, including Carnal Knowledge with Jack Nicholson in 1971, and Jennifer Lynch’s controversial Boxing Helena in 1993. In 1987, he published a book of poetry titled Still Water.

Still, it is the ethereal Bridge Over Troubled Water, a work that defines him as a singer, that remains most significant for Garfunkel.

"I think Bridge Over Troubled Water as a single really came off. The making of that song, the producing, taking the two quiet verses that are building and then bringing in strings and a drum and how we moved it to the third verse, speaking production-wise, and it sort of lifted off the ground in that third verse. I’m feeling still to this day pretty good about how that record flows and builds."

Another career triumph, what he calls a magic high point, was a 1981 reunion with Simon for a concert in Central Park that attracted 500,000 people and resulted in a live album and international tour.

"That was maybe the biggest night of my life",,he said, because a half a million people is a hell of an audience. And that show came off. I remember when we sang the first song and I was thinking, It’s working. They’re loving us. We have their focus. If you see the video you see we were just blissed out."

Today, in his Manhattan apartment, Garfunkel sits not far from where he and Simon performed that momentous concert. In his top floor library, he is surrounded by 785 books, shelved in the order that they were read. The pop star, a Columbia University graduate with a master’s in architecture, is a voracious reader.

"I like to hold a paperback. So the vast majority are paperbacks. Ever since they invented Ziploc bags, I like those things. So, I keep them in Ziploc bags", he said, looking over his collection, including the last one he read, Jean Rhys’ Quartet.

Reading is just one of Garfunkel’s passions. In the late 1980s, he began a trek across the United States and traversed the country on foot in 40 separate journeys. When he completed his walk, he celebrated with a concert at Ellis Island, where his ancestors first stepped onto American soil. He is now attempting to walk across Europe in the same fashion. His companion on the epic hikes has always been a journal.

So, why has someone with such a love of literature and language never devoted more effort to songwriting?

"I wish I knew the answer to that", he said. "I write melodies easily. But to write a song is the gift of fusing words and melody in a seamless way, as if they’re naturally married together. And that is its own specific gift. And I don’t really find that comes easy to me."

"It’s not a calling of mine. It never came from the inside out. In my teenage years I wrote with Paul. But since then... Maybe this is a simple explanation: I observed in my 20s that my old dear teenage friend Paul Simon was developing into a first-rate writer. And I thought for me to write and to sort of claim some kind of equal time was a fool’s game. Because I thought he was a superb writer and I was very happy for him to be the writer and for me to be singer, producer, um, and the taller one. So I thought we had our sense of balance."

To achieve balance in his life today, Garfunkel must juggle his career and family life. He married his second wife, Kathryn, in 1988 and they have a son, James, who turned 8 last month. In addition to his love of books, the artist is also passing on a musical appreciation to his son, who can be heard singing an old Elvis Presley tune, Good Luck Charm on Garfunkel’s Songs from a Parent.

Citing a sense of history, Garfunkel is fully aware of his musical legacy and considers himself fortunate that radio stations continue to play his hits today.

"To me a recording is something that exists through time", he said. "The whole point was that it can nourish and delight people this year and in future years. I remember in the ‘60s being very conscious of the possibility that these might be enjoyed into the next century if they’re really something fine."