During the early-’60s era of earnest faux-folkiness, Simon & Garfunkel seemed at first to be utterly typical. Like so many other harmony-enthralled youngsters, they’d cut their teeth on the Everly Brothers, they knew the Great Traditional Songbook as well as the next folk group, and they were driven by the same strivings as the rest of their generation – to get into a good college, to please their parents, to be admired by their peers, and to have some fun along the way. As it turned out, though, Simon & Garfunkel were far from your average folkies. Like so many of their peers, these two natives of Forest Hills, Queens, were musical sponges, but they didn’t leave it at that. Remarkably, they’d broken into the Top 50 as 15-year-olds in 1957 with their Everlys knockoff “Hey, Schoolgirl.” Tom & Jerry, as they then called themselves, even lip-synced the song on Bandstand, but nothing more came of that initial foray into the pop mainstream.
A few years later, Simon moonlighted as a songplugger for publisher E.B. Marks, working in some of the tunes he’d been writing on the side as he pitched songs from the Marks catalog to A&R reps at the labels. While Simon claims that he failed to get even one Marks tune covered, he fared better with his own material. After a live audition, Simon & Garfunkel scored a record deal, courtesy of Columbia Records staff producer Tom Wilson, a jazz specialist (Miles Davis). Wilson heard something in Simon’s overtly poetic songs and Garfunkel’s keening tenor. As it turned out, Wilson was right – but acclaim was still a year, and an album, away. As much as anything, S&G’s 1964 debut album,”Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” stands as a distillation of the musical path Paul and Artie had traveled, along with so many of their generation: it’s an unselfconscious pastiche of Everlys-schooled vocal/rhythmic interaction, folk-pop staples, esoterica, English lit-inspired metaphors, and poetic imagery, underlaid with a budding social consciousness. While S&G’s selection and treatment of the outside material was largely unremarkable, the five original tunes made it clear that the two youngsters shared an undeniable gift. Particularly striking was “The Sound of Silence” which, even in its spare acoustic form, came across with the force of a revelation. Interestingly, Simon had begun writing the soon-to-be generational anthem in November 1963, the month President Kennedy was assassinated.
In the spring of 1965, the Byrds, five ex-folkies turned rockers, created a new hybrid that was immediately termed “folk-rock” with their hit cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” At that point, Tom Wilson had an epiphany. Taking the all-acoustic recording of “The Sound of Silence” from Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., the producer brought an electric guitarist and a rhythm section into the studio and proceeded to overdub their parts onto the original track. By late ’65, “The Sound of Silence” was the No. 1 single in America, and Simon & Garfunkel were back together, preparing to make an album relevant to, and worthy of, their first hit. In retrospect, one of the most intriguing aspects of Sounds of Silence is how closely connected it feels to the work recorded during the same period by several other future Hall of Famers: the unabashed romanticism of John Sebastian and his Lovin’ Spoonful (“Kathy’s Song”), the incisive character studies of Ray Davies and his Kinks (“Richard Cory,” “A Most Peculiar Man”) and the soaring loveliness of the Byrds (“I Am a Rock”), whose David Crosby was doing the same sort of inspired arrangements for three or four voices that Garfunkel was coming up with for two. Indeed, the world seemed much smaller then, and Simon & Garfunkel’s music was rapidly being absorbed into the new American vernacular.
By the fall of 1966, when Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme was released, the nation was in the throes of societal and political upheaval, and Simon vividly, if facetiously, encapsulated that turbulent historical moment on the album’s rollicking sociopolitical send-up, “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission).” Through the course of the song, Simon name-checked a tumbling litany of names in the headlines, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Gen. Maxwell Taylor to the Beatles and Lenny Bruce, while slipping in a wry reference to the mellowing-out benefits to be derived from a “pint of tea a day” – the kind of tea that was being smoked by ever-increasing numbers of America’s youth. But just as redolent of the times as its subject matter were the sounds of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, from the baroque acoustic guitar figure and celestial Garfunkel vocal that introduced “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” which opened the album, to their a cappella reading of “Silent Night,” which closed it. If you were a discerning adolescent or young adult in 1966, you not only owned this album, you wore it out – every word, note, and nuance became permanently lodged in your cranium, as listening to it again will readily demonstrate to any War Baby or Boomer with remaining brain cells.
By 1966, S&G had become their generation’s urbane receptacles of hipness and harsh reality alike, assimilating and then embroidering the zeitgeist of a rich and manic era. At the same time, these two artists, as much as any of their peers, held firmly to the unchanging artistic fundaments of precision, clarity, and beauty. Thus, Parsley, Sage contains some songs that cling stubbornly to their moments in time, and others that are simply timeless. Unquestionably, in their exquisitely nuanced arrangement/adaptation of the traditional “Scarborough Fair” (which Simon had learned on a sabbatical to England), along with the Simon-penned “Cloudy,” “Homeward Bound,” “The Dangling Conversation,” and “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” the duo made some of the loveliest recordings of that or any era. That they accomplished all this with their voices, an acoustic guitar, and the sparest of rhythmic underpinning and melodic ornamentation, remains a remarkable achievement.
The resonance of S&G’s music found a new context with the landmark 1967 film The Graduate, which acknowledged Hollywood’s embrace of youthful alienation and desire as serious subject matter, using the duo’s songs, rather than a standard film score, to drive the narrative and enrich the atmosphere. To say that the soundtrack started a lasting trend would be an understatement. The year and a half between the release of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, and March, 1968, when Bookends saw the light of day, had seen the Beatles complete their transformation from pop stars to prophets with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while, on the West Coast, the Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival (which Simon, Garfunkel, John & Michelle Phillips and Lou Adler had helped put together, and at which S&G performed) signaled an opening up of young society to new sounds and the altered state of consciousness that many then believed was the prerequisite for experiencing them. Inevitably, the duo was seduced by this dramatic profusion of aural and thematic possibilities, but, rather than jumping on the acid-rock bandwagon, as so many of their contemporaries were doing, Simon & Garfunkel used the colors of the newly expanded musical palate as carefully as they’d used their voices and acoustic guitar – to serve the sense and spirit of their songs.
And what songs they were, dense with meaning and implication. The most literary of albums, the aptly titled Bookends was the musical equivalent of a book containing a novella – in the form of a conceptual song cycle – and a series of interrelated short stories, among them, The Graduate’s linchpin song, “Mrs. Robinson,” as well as “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” “Fakin’ It,” the Orwellian “At the Zoo,” and the wistful “Punky’s Dilemma,” a reflection on the lost innocence of our childhoods. Overtly ambitious, the record functioned as a meditation on the passage of life and the psychological impact of life’s irreversible, ever-accumulating losses. The song cycle described the life and death of the American Dream, the romantic notion we’d grown up embracing, expressed most poignantly in the vivid narrative “America,” a rueful anthem of hope and hopelessness. But S&G didn’t stop there, expanding the scope to the universal – the relentless march toward old age and death. The elegiac “Old Friends” was underpinned by a lovely string and horn arrangement that threatened to erupt into cacophony, a la the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” before the storm passed and the focus shifted back to the image of two old men sitting on a park bench, “silently sharing the same fear.” The song flowed seamlessly into the “Bookends Theme,” which Simon brought to a close with the suggestion, “Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.” More than three decades later, the songs of Bookends seem even more unsettling than they did at the time…but how could it be otherwise, when we’re more than three decades closer to the park bench, the half-empty bed, and the other autumnal truths they so eloquently expressed?
The prevailing vibe at the tail end of the Sixties was anything but peaceful or loving – not with the unending carnage of Vietnam, its terrors amplified by the Russian roulette of the draft lottery. Not with the Manson family metastasizing hippie idealism into unimaginable brutality. Not with the reflexive violence of Altamont, which would combine with the breakup of the Beatles to jeopardize that last vestige of Sixties idealism, the notion of music as a sacred sanctuary, as the once-harmonious pop universe exploded into disparate factions, never to reconcile. Less than a month into 1970, America got its song for the asking – from a hearteningly familiar source – with the release of the immediately and perennially adored Bridge Over Troubled Water. The title track, which S&G had tantalizingly debuted on their network TV special in November of ’69, offered that much needed message of hope with eloquent simplicity and grace. Opening the album, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” gradually ascended from whispery intimacy to breathtaking grandeur on the wings of Garfunkel’s greatest vocal.
That brilliant example of slow-build aural architecture was but one of the record’s myriad pleasures, not the least of which was the epic survivor’s narrative, “The Boxer,” a top 10 hit in 1969 and another of Simon’s most memorable songs. While several songs, most notably “Cecilia,” had nothing more pressing on their minds than getting to the hook, their old-school exuberance conspired to restore our faded memories of a long-ago moment when anything seemed possible – just what the doctor ordered for a generation whose golden dream had withered into its worst nightmare. Ironically, during the making of this landmark work, which was universally embraced as a covenant of renewal, the team of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel was itself in the process of coming apart. Their diverging ambitions certainly had something to do with it. But more crucially, as with the Beatles before them, what for so many years had been a natural and unforced shared experience for the principals had become a strained, self-conscious one. Like the decade that had borne them into prominence, Simon & Garfunkel had run out of time.
One could certainly make a case that, with “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” Simon was bidding adieu to his friend and partner, a onetime architecture major, or to the union itself, as, over a dusky bossa nova groove, Garfunkel sighed, “All of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn. / So long / So long.”
To Artie and Paul, those years they spent together, and the music they made together, are now merely an early chapter in their continuing personal sagas, with their attendant triumphs and disappointments. For those of us who lived through those times, though, hearing their songs never fails to bring back certain moments in our own lives – and with startling vividness. They moved on, and so did the rest of us. But, much as we’ve pulled out those worn records and relived the transformative memories they contain from time to time, Simon and Garfunkel have hooked up on occasion during the years since their breakup, performing multiple nights together at Madison Square Garden, as well as playing the legendary 1981 show documented on the album Concert in Central Park. That prospect is reason to rejoice for several generations of music lovers.