Smooth as silk Art Garfunkel highlights Civic Center's anniversary

July 25, 2007 (Illinois)

Art Garfunkel is, in his own words, "just this bohemian Jewish kid from Queens who became a rock star." And, along the way, a movie star. And a poet. And a generation's icon.

Not to mention the keeper of what some might rate as Earth's most heavenly set of countertenor pipes -- the ones whose silken sounds have fluttered over the past 40 years of American pop music history like angel's wings.

Where a fellow born-and-bred New York Jewish kid like, say, Woody Allen might get goose-bumps, Garfunkel relishes leaving his urbane city life behind for a trek into the wilds of Middle America.

Which is why he's anticipating "coming to the cornfields for this summer gig" (8 p.m. Saturday via the Peoria Civic Center Theater).

He adds: "Some might wonder when I make up my set list, 'Should I be thinking that I'm going to such a rural area, way outside of Chicago, called Peoria?'"

(And, yes, Garfunkel knows all the hoary jokes about playing Peoria; better yet, he feels our despair over hearing them repeated by every successive entertainer who passes this way.)

"Should I wonder about the music and think about the levels of sophistication? Should I feel the need to go more toward a jazzy sound playing a primary market than, say, a tertiary market like Peoria?' "

Are you kidding?

"I love small towns!," the Jewish kid from Queens enthuses one morning from his home-based office in New York.

It's an environment that comes complete with his 1½-year-old son Beau ga-gaing in the background -- much to dad's delight, we should add.

"Just a minute," Garfunkel says. "I have to go say good morning to the loves of my life," as the sounds of domestic bliss become audible half a continent away.

Then, back to the wilds of America.

Who should know better about those wilds than he, since it was Garfunkel, around 23 years ago, who decided to walk the land of the free from sea to shining sea.

It took him the next 13 years to log the 4,000 miles on foot. But log them he did. (For the record, he's currently in the thick of an epic Ireland-to-Italy walking tour begun several years ago.)

"I really embrace the heartland," Garfunkel continues. "I love the area and the people with maximum dignity."

So what motivates this sense of wanderlust in the singer who once had a hit single called "Traveling Man"?

"Well, in the '60s we used to have this saying, 'freaking out,' or breaking out of the buttoned-down rules and ruts of civilized behavior -- the commute to work and all that stuff," he begins. "I felt like I needed to break out of it and shake out and loosen up. So I unplugged all the accoutrements of life."

This was nothing new, by the way: Garfunkel admits he's always played by his own rules as the bohemian Jewish kid from Queens.

"I've pursued happiness in intertwining ways of eccentricity," he confesses. "I invent to my own liking what's fun, and, to me, New York City had become too closed in to me in the mid-'80s."

That was a good 25 years into a career that had begun in the late '50s, when he and sixth-grade classmate Paul Simon teamed up to form the bubblegum rock duo, Tom & Jerry.

That was followed by their mid-'60s metamorphosis into the perfectly polished folk-pop duo, Simon & Garfunkel, a harmonic union that endured over a half-dozen iconic albums from 1963 to their fabled split in 1970.

The split was followed by what has become roughly once-a-decade reunions ever since.

By the time of his 1983 walking odyssey, Garfunkel had conquered several other worlds, including one as a sometimes- movie star with a penchant for playing edgy characters in difficult films (among them "Catch-22" and "Carnal Knowledge," both directed by Mike Nichols, who had hand-picked Simon & Garfunkel to create the classic soundtrack for "The Graduate" in 1967).

"I've had a love through the years of playing against that sweet sound of my tenor voice by portraying characters who get under your skin in black comedies," he confesses.

Too much so sometimes. One of his most harrowing films, 1980's critically hailed "Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession," "was very, very heavy and intense -- like being put through a washer-dryer. I'd go home each night weeping in the limo."

He hasn't played a leading role since.

"Yes, I still read scripts from time to time, but I don't go to Hollywood actively seeking parts," he says. "For years now, I've craved the chance to show what a loving, middle-of-the-road family man I am."

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Garfunkel's solo career, which began in 1973 with a winner, "Angel Clare," had been an on-again, off-again proposition over the years.

But one thing never faltered, then or now: That evocative, ethereal countertenor range.

Garfunkel makes no bones about the "easiness" of that sound -- the one he calls the perfect vehicle for his brand of "creamy smooth make-out music."

His new album of classic standards, "Some Enchanted Evening," reunites him with legendary producer Richard Perry, the man at the controls of Garfunkel's classic 1975 album, ">Breakaway" which made "I Only Have Eyes For You" a Top 40 radio hit all over again.

The songs on the definitely creamy new album (along the lines of "What'll I Do," "Let's Fall in Love" and "If I Loved You") allow the singer "to glide along, holding the notes in a soothing way and creating a super easy-singing delight -- there's an elegance and beauty to these love songs that goes right into my crooner style. Then we bring on Richard and the band and do it in the groovy style we rock-and-rollers know."

As an example, he says, "We're not authentic in the way we do, say, 'What'll I Do.' But we prove that these songs can still be just as sexy as modern rock."

As the interview winds down, the inevitable question begins to surface, and Garfunkel sees it coming, as he doubtless does every time an interview winds down with the obvious having yet to be broached.

In a nutshell: Yes, Garfunkel and his 50-year creative/sparring partner Simon are still crossing paths, personally and professionally.

Just the other night, Garfunkel says, the friends had gotten together -- as friends.

"We're both family guys now," he adds, referring to his own wife, Kim, whom he wed in 1988, and his two sons, James, 17, and the aforementioned toddler Beau. (By the way, even at 65, he recommends fatherhood: "There's nothing like making a new life -- it's worth the whole miracle.")

As for the possibility of a future Simon & Garfunkel reunion, either in a recording studio or on a concert stage, he'll only say, "I very truly don't know. Life is a fabulous mystery, and this is just one aspect of it."

He then chuckles at his own description.

"A fabulous mystery: Now how's that for a quote?"

Classical Art

• Born: Nov. 6, 1941, in Queens, New York City
• Christened: Arthur Ira Garfunkel
• Came of age: Sixth grade, when he crossed paths with fellow undergrad Paul Simon
• Became a star: As teen pop duo Tom & Jerry (1956-62; he was Jerry, Simon was Tom)
• Became a scholar: B.A. in art history and M.A. in mathematics at Columbia University, 1962
• Became a bigger star: In 1963, Tom & Jerry regrouped and reverted to their birth names (Simon & Garfunkel)
• Became a '60s icon: Recorded six albums as S&G, and became part of the decade's definitive soundtrack ("Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.," "Sounds of Silence," "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme," "'The Graduate' Soundtrack," "Bookends," "Bridge Over Troubled Water")

Modern Art

• Gone solo: Split with Simon in 1970, released first solo album, "Angel Clare," in 1973
• Biggest solo single, USA: "All I Know" from "Angel Clare," peaking at No. 9
• Even bigger solo singles, UK: "I Only Have Eyes for You" (1975) and "Bright Eyes" (1979), both peaking at No. 1
• Family reunion, '70s-style: Re-teamed with Simon in 1975 for hit single "My Little Town," which appeared on each singer's solo album that year
• Family reunion, '80s-style: Re-teamed in 1981 for free Central Park concert and live recording of same
• Family reunion, '90s-style: Re-teamed in 1993 for 21-concert tour
• Family reunion, 21st-century-style: Re-teamed to sing "Sounds of Silence" at 2003 Grammy Awards, followed by two-month concert tour and intermittent reunions since
• Still solo: "Some Enchanted Evening," released this past January

Renaissance Art

• Actor: Star of two key Mike Nichols films, "Catch-22" (1970), "Carnal Knowledge" (1971); and one harrowing Nicolas Roeg rollercoaster ride, "Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession" (1980)
• Poet: Or "prose poet," as he calls it, witness his lyrical contributions to his 2003 album, "Everything Waits to Be Noticed"
• Reader: Voraciously so, witness the blow-by-blow, book-by-book account of his literary consumption over the past 40 years at his Web site.
• Vagabond: Walked across America from 1983 to 1997; currently completing epic walk across Europe
• Bad boy: Arrested twice in recent years (2004, 2005) for pot possession
• New dad: Second son born last year