Works of Art Then and Now with Art Garfunkel

March 5, 2005
New Jersey Performing Arts Press
By Joel Lewis

They are part of the furniture residing in the collective consciousness of the Baby Boomer generation. Even before the 1960s ended, their music anticipated that era’s eventual demise. As a result, they escaped the stain of nostalgia that haunts those pattern-baldness bands that fill the stages of summer amphitheaters. And thanks to the long romance they’ve had with their fans, two generations of kids have heard their folks’ scratched slabs of vinyl – and have become believers themselves via re-mastered CDs.

When Simon and Garfunkel first exploded onto the pop charts with their epochal “Sounds of Silence” in 1966, confused oldsters joked that the duo sounded more like an accounting firm than a pop act. Maybe they were right. Although Simon and Garfunkel were still in their mid-20s, they appeared older. For one thing, they both wore clean clothes.

When I entered my freshman year at the alienating halls of North Bergen High School, Simon and Garfunkel provided the counterbalance to mindless pep rallies and school bullies who slammed gym lockers on my head. The album was Bridge Over Troubled Water, which reached the air waves via both mainstream and underground radio. In addition to the title song, there was the amazing “The Boxer,” the pre-world music “El Condor Pasa,” the 1950’s-inspired “Cecilia,” and the jazzy “Keep the Customer Satisfied.”

And although it has been three-and-a-half decades since Bridge Over Troubled Water was recorded, Art Garfunkel's signature vocal remains among the most instantly recognizable in popular music. His "beautiful countertenor," as Neil Strauss described it in The New York Times, is clear, smooth and resonant – surely one of the finest instruments in the world of pop.

They broke up the act 35 years ago, choosing to split while still at the top of their game. Simon went on to become one of the music world’s most respected solo acts, and Garfunkel to make his own series of hits in addition to his work as a screen actor, a published poet and an occasional political activist.

It is always difficult for a pop performer to establish an identity outside of the group that brought him fame. Just ask Ringo Starr. (After he first quit The Beatles, it took the cajoling of the remaining Fab Four to pull him back in. His band mates knew the truth: Ringo’s foursquare drumming and populist “thanks, no Maharishi for me” attitude was the heart of The Beatles.) Thankfully, Art Garfunkel has continued to stretch the boundaries of his talent for over three decades now.

He began life on November 5, 1941, in Forest Hills, Queens, as Arthur Ira Garfunkel. His dad was a traveling salesman, his mom was a homemaker. His older brother Jules is an investment analyst, and his younger brother, Jerome, something of a “pop star” himself in the world of computer programming: his nickname, “Mr. Cobol,” is in recognition of his development of that standard computer language.

Garfunkel’s interest in music began at age four, when his father brought home a wire recorder – a short-lived precursor to the tape recorder. "That got me into music more than anything else," Garfunkel has recalled. By age 11, he was singing Everly Brothers songs at talent shows with another kid from the neighborhood named Paul Simon.

As Garfunkel would later tell DJ Vin Scelsa, his initial meeting with Simon seemed less predetermined than useful happenstance: “We met when we were sixth graders, so we were eleven. We were in Queens, we grew up three blocks apart from each other. I had been singing in talent shows. My big song was Nat ‘King’ Cole's ‘Too Young.’ I got popular in the neighborhood as the crooner who could do that song in talent shows, and I would sing in the synagogue from time to time. The reverb was great in the synagogue. So Paul, years later, said that he saw me and he knew that that was the ticket to popularity: to be a singer…he was clearly the other turned-on kid in the neighborhood. So finally I had a friend who…had a vision a little bit beyond our neighborhood. And he was very funny. He had me in stitches all the time.”

That friendship turned into a legendary musical partnership. The duo began practicing and making demos, but the late 1950s pop world was much like today’s scene – with teenaged acts performing music for teenaged fans. In 1957, “Tom and Jerry” (as they christened themselves) landed a recording contract and scored a moderate hit with a single called, "Hey, Schoolgirl." Their brief career as a 1950s act was immortalized with a memorable appearance on American Bandstand.

Like many of his fellow middle-class youths, Garfunkel’s flirtation with rock and roll was brief; ultimately, it was kid stuff, not the stuff of a career. "I left and went to college,” Garfunkel has recalled. ”I was the kid who was going to find some way to make a 'decent' living." He earned his B.A degree in Art History at Columbia College, then got an M.A. in Mathematics, also at Columbia. But he never left the music behind, and recorded several solo singles (as “Artie Garr”) during his years in school. When he met up again with Simon in 1962, the two decided to get back together as a duo.

In late 1963, at the height of the folk music boom, they started performing as “Simon and Garfunkel.” Within a year, they were signed to Columbia Records, who paired them with producer Roy Halee. From that point on, the artists previously known as Tom and Jerry were part of an official pop music revolution. The duo maintained a tireless pace in the recording studio and on the road, reaching a wide and loyal international audience. From 1964 to 1970, they recorded a groundbreaking string of classic LPs: Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., Sounds of Silence, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water.

It would be redundant to remunerate the duo’s numerous hits and awards. (Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, originally released in 1972, remains the best-selling album ever by a duo.) What needs to be noted here is Art Garfunkel’s enormous contribution to the Simon and Garfunkel sound, especially on their last three albums as a duo. Recognized by scholars of ambient music for the fantastic detail of the music and the exquisite arrangements, these records have barely dated. Bookends, in particular, looks like their masterpiece. Even more than The Beatles’s acclaimed Sgt. Pepper, Bookends was truly an achievement created by the sum of its parts: sound, texture and song. And, of course, there’s the question that just might be at heart of the contention between Paul and Art: How much did Garfunkel’s fabulous voice contribute to the duo’s phenomenal success?

Bookends also provided some of the most memorable music for a movie dear to Baby Boomers: Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. Apparently, it was Art’s work with Nichols that led to an interest in acting – and, some say, to the resultant demise of Simon and Garfunkel. He was memorable in Nichols’ adaptation of Catch 22, and incredibly effective (opposite no less than Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret and Candice Bergen) in Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge. More high-profile roles followed – in controversial fare like Nicholas Roeg’s Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession and Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena – but all the while, Garfunkel kept on making his own kind of music.

His first solo album, 1973’s Angel Clare, spawned the Top 10 hit, "All I Know," written by Jimmy Webb (the first of many songs by the writer of the epic “MacArtur’s Park”). That LP, which mixed works by the best contemporary songwriters with re-workings of pop classics, would become the template for Art’s succeeding albums, among them Watermark, Scissors Cut, Songs From a Parent to a Child (which includes inspired renditions of songs by Marvin Gaye, Cat Stevens, Lovin' Spoonful, and John Lennon), and his most recent, the critically acclaimed Everything Waits to be Noticed, for which Garfunkel co-wrote six tracks. By 1978, he also took to the road and enjoyed a string of sold-out performances. His future collaborators would include James Taylor, Amy Grant, Julio Iglesias, and (perhaps inevitably) Paul Simon, who contributed and performed on “My Little Town” for Garfunkel’s smash 1975 LP, Breakaway (which also included his sublime rendition of the classic, “I Only Have Eyes for You”).

Like the children of divorced parents, it seems that a lot of Simon and Garfunkel fans, no matter how successful the “boys” have been in their separate careers, just want to see them back together. The duo’s wildly successful 2003-2004 reunion tour would seem to indicate that some resolution has been made, no doubt encouraged by the intimations of mortality that a couple of sixty-plus guys with young kids finally understand. That tour also produced the appropriately titled Old Friends: Live on Stage, a double CD and DVD package that captures their historic performance.

“We're a kind of public version of the question: Does affection last, or do we all travel roads that inevitably diverge?” Garfunkel recently told AARP News. “Men do this, you know – they end up in their bathrobes, eating cereal after midnight, thinking, ‘Where are all my old friends?’ We need our old friends as we get old. The world can be tough on us these days.