The two nice Jewish boys from Queens met in grade school in the 1950’s. Modeling themselves after the Everly Brothers, they started singing harmony in public, like so many young men, in an effort to attract girls. Still in high school, they performed together on American Bandstand and a decade later, the duo became internationally famous, their music arguably as influential and popular as that of The Beatles or Bob Dylan.
After an acrimonious split in 1970, they got back together sporadically for reunion tours, including a memorable1981 benefit concert before 500,000 people in Central Park and a 2004 free concert at the Colosseum in Rome that drew 600,000. Most recently, they performed with each other at a 2009 performance commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, the 2009 gig will probably be the final time singer-songwriter Paul Simon and boyhood partner Art Garfunkel will ever play together. In a recent BBC interview, Simon essentially ruled out reuniting or recording again with Art Garfunkel. He said, “There are a couple of issues. One, Art has some problem with his vocal chords and he can’t sing in his mid range. So it’s really a moot point unless he can sing. From my own perspective, I would just as soon not go back and visit the past.”
For his part Garfunkel was only slightly less pessimistic. Referring to his former companion, Garfunkel said, “You’ll have to ask him, it takes two to tango. I like to tango, so count me in. You’ll just have to bring a psychiatrist in as the third member.” A dismissive Simon added that he preferred to quietly make new music.
Paul Simon was the songwriting half of the duo and occasionally expressed disappointment that so many people thought Simon and Garfunkel were a songwriting team like Lennon/McCartney. During their time together Simon wrote many minor masterpieces and several true classics he sang with Garfunkel, including Sounds of Silence, as well as Mrs. Robinson, used by Mike Nichols in the soundtrack for The Graduate.
After the duo broke up, Simon continued to write and perform successfully, combining influences from doo-wop, rhythm and blues, folk music, and music from other lands including South America. His 1986 solo album, Graceland, was heavily influenced by African music and became a worldwide multimillion seller.
Art Garfunkel was the voice. Garfunkel’s beautiful tenor and wide range on Simon’s melodies resulted in unique harmonies and a magnificent collaboration. Garfunkel’s last studio venture with Simon, the gospel-inspired Bridge Over Troubled Waters, was the 1970 Record of the Year, one of the most beautiful popular songs of the post War 20th Century. After their breakup, Garfunkel recorded several minor hit records and had a brief film career. Unfortunately his vocal cord problems, aggravated by years of smoking, have diminished his once memorable voice range.
When John Lennon was killed in 1980, one of the most widely expressed sentiments was that there was no longer any chance of The Beatles reuniting, an unlikely prospect even before Mark David Chapman fired his gun. With occasional exceptions like The Rolling Stones, breakups are part of the natural history of singing groups - the result of personal animosities, hard living, the vagaries of commercial success, and the vicissitudes of time itself. Some groups can pull off successful reunion tours but most are pale imitations of their former selves. Despite their on again-off again bickering, when Simon and Garfunkel did reunite to sing together, the magic still seemed to be there. Now it appears to be gone for good.
A generation before rock-and-roll, the Tin Pan Alley era of songwriters were not afraid to explore the subject of growing old in their songs. However, rock songwriters rarely broached the topic of aging and the few who did usually got it wrong in retrospect.
In The Who’s1965 youth anthem, My Generation, 20 year-old songwriter Pete Townshend wrote the famous line, “I hope I die before I get old.” Townshend and his singing partner, Roger Daltry, are both still alive, in their late 60’s. As a side note, Townshend suffers from severe hearing loss.
A 16 year-old Paul McCartney wrote the words to “When I’m 64”. In it, he envisioned losing his hair but spending a simple, contented existence with his wife and grandchildren. When McCartney actually turned 64, he still had a full head of hair and was one of Britain’s richest men, but was involved in a tempestuous relationship with his second wife, who he subsequently divorced (he is currently remarried, to his third wife).
Paul Simon, now 70, foresaw the future better than Townshend or McCartney. In his early twenties, Simon wrote a song called “Old Friends” for The Bookends album. Now that he has basically severed professional ties with Art Garfunkel, his old friend with whom he sang that song long ago, the lyrics have become especially ironic.
Can you imagine us years from today? …
How terribly strange to be seventy…
Time it was and what a time it was, it was
a time of innocence, a time of confidences.
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.
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