MediaLink Interview

November 4, 1997
With Walter Ocnert

Tell us a little bit about the box set "Old Friends", what can fans who have all the old albums expect to hear?

You can expect the sound to be really nice. I’m very pleased with how it came out. They really fussed over it and got things to sound beautifully. The engineering is impeccable. They also must have been real Simon & Garfunkel fans, who really knew their stuff, because wherever they went to a concert version of one of our old tunes, they went to the right concert. So the show is hot wherever they are using a live version. I'm real pleased with the results. The sound is really good.

Having been taken from the original master tapes for the first time, as opposed to the third, fourth and fifth generation recordings, do you feel like you’re hearing these recordings for the first time?

Pretty much so. All through those years in the 60’s, myself and Paul and Roy Halee, we fussed over every detail of our records. We were real policemen (laughs) to stand over anything that might adulterate our records. So I know from my memory exactly what these should sound like. When the base harmonica enters in the second verse of "The Boxer", I know exactly how bassey that should be and how loud it should be. So my ear is acute to what it takes to get it right - and they got it right.

One of the unearthed treasures in this collection is a gorgeous song called "Blues Run the Game".

My mind goes to that one first, "Blues Run the Game". I’m very pleased that they dug that one out. When Paul and I first hit, as you say, when we first got popular in 1965, we were both coming back from being the young Yankees over in England, we were expatriates in our early 20's, we were on the folk scene, we were playing in the streets and folk clubs and we were full of the spirit of what it feels like when you're in that early 20's part of your life. We loved Child ballads and English folk tunes "Scarborough Fair" and such. We befriended Jackson Frank who wrote this really great song "Blues Run the Game" as well as a bunch of others. We both loved to sing that song and so when I hear it I can tell how much we’re involved in doing that tune.

This collection also has several live performances recorded through the years and I’m struck by what a strong live act you were. What was the experience like performing to large crowds?

Nervous making (laughs). In the core of all of our records is the two voices and Paul’s wonderful guitar playing. If you strip away all of the production in "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "The Boxer", you always get down to that. On stage, we were down to that - we had no band usually. So it’s a case of us working our two microphones with real care, moving in and out, little 1/32's of an inch, so that we breathed together and that we crescendoed and swelled on this note and that. It was very intense concentration, but it was a friendship that was deep, we go back to sixth grade together. We knew moment to moment how each other was going to interpret the next phrase, the next word. So our live shows were about getting back to the core of what Simon & Garfunkel’s record career always was.

Was a live album ever considered during the time you were together?

No, we always thought live albums were never as good as studio albums. We didn’t throw out extras. We were stingy (laughs) in our recording career. In those days, we thought it was all about you make the next album of these carefully chosen tunes. Only when we finished it, did we put out a greatest hits album, which to us was not the same as recording a new album. But no, we never put out a live album.

In listening to this collection, are there any particular memories or feelings that come back to mind?

When Columbia first sent me pressings of what they were working on, and I haven’t heard my records in quite a while, I put on the first cd and I hear some of those early "Bleeker Street" and stuff we were doing in ’64 in folk clubs, my memory, it comes flooding back to me. How tight we were, when we were close, we were really close. You really had to have fondness for each other, just to listen to each other that tightly. I hear the blend and it is an amazing friendship that can get so accurate together. We really gave ourselves to each other’s performance in order to meet in such a fine way. So I hear the affection.

What were some of the biggest influences when you were starting out.

There is one very obvious one, if you were to speak to the Beatles, they would say the same, so many groups. We all tip our hat to the fabulous Everly Brothers, Don and Phil, one of the great American treasures. You can’t praise the Everly's enough. They were a major influence on us. Because they also, better than us, they really blended together. They had the genetic connection and we did the best we could.

You’ve also been in some wonderful films such as Catch 22, Carnal Knowledge, Boxing Helena. Can we expect any other roles from you in the future?

I would like to say yes because the future is unknown, you never know. I really enjoy that kind of work and I got good reviews for it so its all there. I keep my connections with my friends in Hollywood and they know I’m one of them. If a script comes along that casts me appropriately, I would jump in again and have a lot of fun playing that game of acting. So I never say no but then again I don’t really get the agent and go hunting either. My dear friend, Mr. Nicholson, is coming out in a new film this Fall. Now they sent me that script and when the script was written it was called Old Friends (editor's note: the films new name is As Good As It Gets released 12/97). They have now since changed the title - its Jim Brooks film. I heard Jack is great in it and I read for that part and although I didn’t get it I had my hand in. I was up at bat. I’ll do another one soon enough.

Now I know you have probably been asked this a million times and I’m going to ask it, but out of all the songs you’ve done, what’s your favorite? What’s the one you’re really proud of?

Oh, it changes, "The Boxer" is a real...that’s the one that has more hours of labor than anything else. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is in some ways the highest peak we ever hit in the studio. I’m very happy with my vocal on that. "Scarborough Fair" is the most flowing and most natural thing we ever did. It was religious, it happened through us. There is a whole bunch that I love. I like "April Come She Will", I love how Paul sings "Song For The Asking". I think that is a really underestimated lovely tune.

{Yea that is a lovely tune}

I think I say on the boxed set in one of my introductions that I was very fond of the song "Overs" as its very well written.

{Personally, I always found "Bookends" the album absolutely gorgeous. It helped me through so many rough times}

Well, isn’t "Old Friends" one of Paul’s best songs. You know ‘sat on their park bench like bookends’ . There’s a real masterpiece of writing.

{It was the first 45 I ever had]

Good for you, Walter You’re a fan.

{and it was a really ratty scratched up copy of it, but I listened to it over and over again. You know I was a very sentimental guy even at 13.}

That’s a key word for S&G. We made that word something to stand up for. There’s a lot of sentiment in our stuff, a lot of heart. You can’t imagine how much fun it was to make those things. You may have appreciated it on the listener’s point of view but to be in the studio and see it emerge was so much fun.

[and there aren’t that many songs that I could actually say honestly that bring tears to my eyes the way that one does and the way a lot of these songs do.]

Beatles did great stuff.

Last year you played two concerts at Ellis Island which were broadcast on television and released on the album "Across America". What was it that motivated you to play there?

I had finished my walk across the United States. I wanted to put some kind of cap on it and to celebrate my own mad achievement and John Scher at our office said, I want you to do a show that we’ll film for Disney right in the New York area because anyone who walks across America loves this country and your own grandparents came through New York harbor at the turn of the century. So speak up for your love for this country and do a concert at Ellis Island and we will have, of course the Statute of Liberty right out the window and out the other window there'll be the Staten Island Ferry and Wall Street and it will really look good and have lovely production values. Essentially you will be doing this thing Art, that you have been doing more of than anything else in the last five, six years and that’s gigging, doing shows, because that’s where my focus in my work life has gone to live shows. I never really performed nearly so much as I have in the last five years. So I’ve gotten to know how to do a show and talk to an audience and refine and shape the flow of a show. I’ve got my band and my tunes down so that’s what we did. We staged the show at Ellis Island and I’m real pleased with how it came out on video and I’m happy to get that CD out there. It has a couple interesting new things like John Bucchino's song "Grateful". I want to see that get out more, I’m proud of that.

A lot of people in the audience got very emotional when you were doing the show. Was it an emotional experience for you as it was for the hundreds who watched?

It always is. I take all that stuff very serious. I fret backstage. I worry will it really work. People say to me you’re still nervous after all these years of doing it and I say it never stops being a vulnerable experience for me. They are really going to be out there, I’m really going to be in front of them, they really may or may not like me depending on whether I’m good. So I always take it seriously. Sure it’s emotional. This is my home. This is my whole career. A lot of the songs I do are a lot about goose bumps, to try and get that spine tingling feeling. They come out of the Paul Simon lyrics. It’s in my style of singing. I’m a singer who used to sing in the choir in the synagogue in my earliest days, so I’m trained to try and sing in a quasi-spiritual way.

You’ve also accomplished the incredible feat of walking over 4,000 miles across America over a 12 year period. What inspired you to do this?

The need for exercise, to please the heart, to promote longevity, to try and live longer than I would have if I did not get enough exercise. New Yorker's really need all they can do to get their exercise because it’s a claustrophobic town and a singer needs horizon and you don’t get it in New York and I don’t get it on the treadmill. And as much as I love playing tennis with Jimmy Webb, we don’t get our tennis games going often enough. So I took to the road with my Sony Walkman and my notebook and started walking across America and I found it was completely feasible and beautiful and really great for the heart.

Did you make any personal discoveries on your walk?

Too private, Walter.

[Oh - okay] (both laugh)

No. I discovered how empty the second half of this country is. I discovered how much the small towns don’t really have a charm, they have a sort of departed from look about them. I discovered how much soybeans are growing in the fields. I thought it used to be corn. It’s now soy. I discovered the beauty of the Appalachians. I discovered how much Missouri is the forgotten state. When you are walking across the top of Missouri, that’s a gorgeous American heartland. I discovered how safe it was, how nobody hassles you. I discovered how great it was to arrive at the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River. I discovered how much America is laying there as a continent of potential energy. We are very much in need of inspiration, of a plan, leadership that gets us galvanized because it's a lot of lovely people just waiting for something to happen and for want of something to really happen, we are all turning to our personal finances and building up our bank accounts as best we can do. That’s not enough.

Do you think there can be some kind of a move to like bring everyone closer together?

Well, we try and talk about environment awareness and that’s kind of what that is. Young people are very involved in what we're doing to the planet and how we treat it as temporary visitors. That’s sort of what I mean, but somehow it’s not hot enough and it doesn’t really affect how a 50 year old businessman makes his living. There’s to much selfishness going around.

Are you going to continue doing this walk?

Well I finished the walk last year and my feet are saying to me now come on what’s next. You gonna just stop? So I’m inclined to come up with another venture and I think when the weather turns warm after the winter I’ll cross Ireland and carry on across England and go from west to east across Europe, the Alps and all. I have a rough notion I’ll end up in Istanbul.

It's kind of like Michael Palin doing his journey's around the world.

Yes, I just did a show with him, that's right.

A new show?

We both did the Tom Snyder Show last week. It's a compliment to be compared to Michael.

He's also a great adventurer.

That's right. He's my English counterpart.

Now, this latest album I want to talk about, this wonderful collection called "Songs From a Parent to a Child," it's a father singing to his child, in this case, it's your son James. How did he inspire this collection?

Well, I'm crazy about my kid. I do sing to him. When Sony Wonder came to me and said, "we see you as our next artist in our Family Artist Series, because we've done a couple of these with Kenny Loggins and a few other artists." We try to make these albums that are totally valid, pop albums. Nothing is patronized and we don't talk down to kids. But imagine you have a six or eight year old, and you want to introduce them to how fabulous music is. So you want melody and you want your rhythms to really swing and you want your production to be catchy. All the things that go to make a great album, with two exceptions, no stabbing guitars, and no adult, sophisticated lyrics. You drop all relationship complex adult lyrics. But in every other sense you make, what the Beatles made when they made Sgt. Pepper, you do the best you can to make a great album. So they came to me and I found myself able to relate to that because I think of myself as capable of producing a gentle or smoother sound, and having it be ideal for kids. I jumped in.

The thing that struck me when I put the album on was that golden voice. It hasn't changed, it sounds just like it did back in the '60's. What do you do to keep that voice sounding so vibrant after all these years?

Well, I stay out of the way - mostly. I try not to get cerebral. I don't train it and I leave the whole experience alone. There is something ageless about being a singer. When you go into that zone and you're connected to the song. It starts with loving the tune, when you love the tune, the heart is expressing itself. You do start flying a little bit as you sing. And that process does not have anything to do with how old you are. When you go back to that place, loving the new song, whether it is 1997 or 1957, you're basically in that same place. I hear my sound and I see, a little bit like wine, it gets a little more body as the years go by. That's a very fine, small distinction. It's essentially a singer coming from the same place, the love of a song. It never gets more complicated than that. I leave it alone - that's really the key.

There's a wonderful track in which your son James duets with you, "Good Luck Charm". Was this a song you would sing to him?

No, it's our invention for the album. I thought if James does an Elvis song, it could be cute. I saw that as he's getting to be six years old, he is starting to have the ability to play characters. I gave him an oldie's album. I started putting together all my favorite oldie's from when I was in junior high school. And sure enough, at age four he fell in love with Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino. He really appreciated that. Proving that when records swing, they swing for all ages. So when I suggested an Elvis song, sure enough he began to sing a bit Elvis-like. I thought that would be adorable - and it came out good.

Do you think this album has helped bring the bond even closer between you and your family?

Yes, and so has doing shows together. James is no stranger to the stage. My wife who is a singer and myself, we bought him out to the stage when he was very young. When I do shows in Japan and here and he wasn't in school yet, he'd be with us. So, the fact that that's one of the bonds in our family, that we sing together. We do it in public, we do it in the kitchen. We march around the table to the Chieftains spirited playing. It is definitely one of the links in our family.

Do you think James will be inspired to follow in his father's foosteps?

This we don't know. We don't want to lock him up yet. He has the power to surprise us, and the right to surprise us. All I know is singing in show business has a superficial appeal and he's involved with that appeal at this age. But I kind of would love to work against that as he gets older, make sure he knows that science is fascinating. There is 360 degrees to this wide world. I want him to taste from the banquet before he knows what his field is.

I heard somewhere you're a big fan of words. You actually have a dictionary in your kitchen and you read it. Is that true?

I read the entire Random House Dictionary. It's got 16,064 pages, 275,000 words, and I read it, cover to cover. I took my time, I did it over the years. It was a pet project of mine. I'd be in the kitchen with my dictionary every few nights, while other people are on the phone or watching TV, I'd pour over the words down the columns collecting words that have an appeal to me. I collected words in two categories. I ended up with about 4,000 words, they're like stones on the shore, they're colorful, I'm fascinated by them. And then there was a smaller list of about 700 words, these are words that are simply excellent vocabulary words that are usable. And if I use them I won't sound highfalutin. They just say what you mean a little finer.

So this is a bit of a hobby then?

Yes, now that I have finished the dictionary - it's within me. I'm a nutty guy Walter, I do all of these things. I'm trying to stay lively.

{You're an artist. Nothing is nutty when it comes to an artist.}

I try and say this to the IRS. They ask me ,what do you call your business expenses. My whole life is a business expense (laughs). Everything I do is to try and develop myself as an artist. Write everything off!

{They won't let you do that I suppose.}

No, they won't.

You've influenced so many singers and artists, is there anyone you consider a favorite these days?

I'm a real James Taylor fan. I always look to see what Prince is doing.

Is there anyone you've ever dreamed of collaborating with?

I would like to do something with Bruce Hornsby, I think he plays a mean rock and roll piano. Love to work with Bruce.

You've done films, records, a book of poetry. You've toured and keep a busy schedule. I know Paul has a new project, as well as a busy scheldule of his own. Do you think your paths may ever cross again?

I think they might cross. I don't see it, frankly, in the near future. But, if you take care of your health, life is long, it has a lot of seasons in it. You change your head, turn your sails and come about. You never know, you can't predict the future too much. You are talking about a very deep, old friendship and there is something really valuable about people who know you when you were forming your personality. So you don't want to lose that. When I heard this box set, I saw that there is a resource there. To be known so well by a friend is a valuable thing.

Is there anything in the future in store for you?

Nothing Walter, that's it (laughs)! I'm going to keep doing shows, that is my passion these days. I'm constantly doing concerts. I'm going to the Far East and do a tour in February. I'm going to take a bit of a rest for the next month or two. Would kind of like to have a second child, it's in God's hands, but that appeals to me.

I want to walk Europe. I have a notion of what my next album will be, the muse is starting to bite me again. I don't want to talk about what it is because I don't want to chase it away if I verbalize it. I see this next album as very contemporary, very much what I imagine the audience wants to see me do. Show that the muse is very alive. Just go to what is selfishly appealing to me. It's an album I've been wanting to make for awhile.

You almost became a teacher or you were a teacher?

I used to study mathematics, I have almost a Ph.D in mathematics. I taught at the Litchfield Prepartory School in Conneticut not long after "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was a hit....

The other day I was listing the achievements of my life. I see that I do work hard and I am a creative guy involved with output. But of all the things I've done, one of the things I'm most pleased with was the fact that I became a serious writer in the '80's. Every other day an idea would come to me that I must write. They are not songs, they're bits, you could call them little prose poems. They're structured little bits. They're either about the loss of a particular woman or they're how I see my life in show business and what it really looks like honestly from my point of view. Or what travel means to me. I love to take freighters across oceans. I was very pleased with these prose poems and I took the best 84 of them and they were published by Dutton and they came out under the title Still Water . It's an achievement I am really proud of.

(Editor's note: Special thanks to Walter Ocner from Medialink Radio for allowing this interview to be posted on this site.)