Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
This edition’s essay is about Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends, released in 1968. It’s the middle LP in a trio of album-length triumphs by the duo. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme precedes it and Bridge Over Troubled Water follows.
While I try not to focus too much on the history of disagreements and break-ups that are an undeniable part of Simon & Garfunkel’s history (as an example, Wikipedia lists nine separate time periods when they were a working duo), it’s, in my opinion, a useful entry point in light of a lyric in ‘Old Friends,’ which is part of the suite that takes up all of the first side of Bookends. I hope you enjoy the essay.
Coming next month will be a review of a new jazz album I am particularly excited about as well as an essay on Harry Belafonte, one of folk music’s greatest popularizers.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all.
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“Can you imagine us, years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly.
How terribly strange to be seventy.”
‘Old Friends,’ written by Paul Simon.
When Art Garfunkel first sang these lyrics that Paul Simon had written, they were both 26 years old. The song, ‘Old Friends,’ was to be part of the concluding section of a suite that comprised the first side of Bookends, Simon & Garfunkel’s long-awaited follow-up to Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.
The elongated period of time between these two albums—a little over 17 months—was almost unheard of in the record business in the late sixties. Partly attributed to a long stretch of writers’ block for Simon, it was also due to a refusal by Simon to rush his writing once the muse returned and by both members of the duo when recording sessions for the album began in earnest. The angst felt by Columbia, their label, was somewhat mitigated by the release of the soundtrack to The Graduate at the beginning of 1968—its runaway success part of the cultural phenomena that surrounded Mike Nichols’ groundbreaking picture (full disclosure: The Graduate is my favourite movie).
Nichols’ use of Simon & Garfunkel’s music was the result of a ritual he followed while shooting the movie. He would start the day by playing their 1966 albums Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme as a way to be continually immersed in the angst and confusion of Benjamin Braddock. He eventually cut several montages in the movie to key songs from the LPs: ‘The Sound of Silence,’ ‘April, Come She Will’ and ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle.’ The songs that Simon eventually wrote specifically for the movie: ‘Overs’ and ‘Punky’s Dilemma,’ that were meant to be slotted in for Nichols’ placeholders, were received coolly by the director and so the songs Nichols had initially chosen made the final cut. They provide a musical underpinning for understanding the movie’s key themes: the alienation felt by Benjamin and Elaine Robinson too (and Mrs. Robinson as well, in all honesty) and the need to take charge of one’s life, no matter if the choices made that motivate that effort prove misguided or impulsive.
Indeed, the actor William Daniels, who memorably played Mr. Braddock in the picture, recalled that it was only once Nichols played the cast ‘The Sound of Silence’ that he finally understood that the movie’s protagonist was Benjamin and not Mrs. Robinson. In other words, this was to be a movie about the youth for the youth.
The Graduate was one of several key events that pushed Simon & Garfunkel from being one of the most literate acts in a rapidly advancing pop field, but stained with the stigma that their music could be enjoyed by young people as well as their parents, to being among the elite in popular sixties music.
‘Mrs. Robinson,’ which only appears only embryonically in The Graduate, was another catalyst when it was released as a single in its finished form. Bookends, in which it also appears on the album’s second side, made their ascension complete.
From the beginning of April 1968 to the tail end of July of that year, Simon & Garfunkel were at the top of the Billboard album chart. It is of some interest to ponder that during these months—turmoil-filled in a year bursting with it—the music that was most popular chose to project the present day through harmony as opposed to dissonance, thematically as opposed to explicitly—the reference to Joe DiMaggio in ‘Mrs. Robinson’ notwithstanding.
Just as it became clear in January 1968 that The Graduate was going to be a box-office sensation, Simon & Garfunkel’s manager, Mort Lewis, booked a short tour for them on the East Coast: Philadelphia to the duo’s home base in New York and then to Boston. Tickets sold out in an instant. A second show at Carnegie Hall was added to meet demand. A chartered plane was contracted so they could fly from New York to Boston. But, as Robert Hilburn recounted in his 2018 biography of Simon, Paul Simon: A Life, Garfunkel, instead of hopping on the plane, decided he would thumb his way to Beantown. When a Volkswagen pulled over and Garfunkel got in, much of the ensuring trip played like a screwball comedy: the incredulous driver and his wife refusing to believe that their passenger was a famous singer, not even willing to see Garfunkel’s driver licence so he could prove who he was. When he got out of the car, he was gruffly told “why don’t you grow up?” He narrowly avoided missing sound check at the venue—Symphony Hall—to Simon’s chagrin.
Later that winter, Garfunkel missed his flight to London for a concert the duo was to give at Royal Albert Hall after spending too much time in the studio working on his vocals for ‘Mrs. Robinson.’ With no chance of him being able to arrive on time, the show was reluctantly cancelled.
Both anecdotes are illustrative of the ups-and-downs in Simon & Garfunkel’s partnership, a pattern that began all the way back in the halcyon Tom & Jerry days of ‘Hey, Schoolgirl’ in 1958. Simon was encouraged by Sid Prosen, a songwriter who owned the label the duo recorded for back then, to cut a solo single to be released under the name of True Taylor of all things. The decision caused the duo’s first rift as neither Simon nor Prosen took Garfunkel aside to let him know what they were doing. When he did find out, Tom & Jerry’s days were numbered and for the next five years, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel weren’t on speaking terms.
A chance meeting in the fall of 1963 in the New York borough of Queens, where both grew up—the Simon house being two blocks away from the Garfunkel abode—was the catalyst that created the act known as Simon & Garfunkel. For the next 47 years, their history can be read as the natural by-product of a relationship when one is deemed to deserve to be there and the other is merely lucky to be there also or, more plainly, where one writes the songs and the other gets the chance to sing them. During their fall 1969 tour of the States where they debuted ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ Simon would stand in the wings while Garfunkel sang it with Larry Knechtel on piano. After knocking the audience out—except for those who may have seen their controversial television special Songs of America, it would have been the first time any audience would have heard it—Garfunkel would often acknowledge Knechtel but neglect to also acknowledge that Simon wrote the song that brought everyone to their feet.
By the time Simon & Garfunkel took to the stage of the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 24 for what was to be the start of another edition of their ongoing Old Friends tour, it was fairly clear that there was something seriously wrong with Garfunkel’s voice, especially when he tried to sing above his lower range and below his higher range. While footage from the show of them singing ‘The Sound of Silence,’ the first of a three-song encore, has more of the audience’s contribution than what was transpiring on the bandstand, enough punches through to reveal how dire was Garfunkel’s affliction, likely traced to something he caught while in Nicaragua to give a private concert (his former manager reported it as a small paralysis of his vocal cords). The problem was that Garfunkel never fully revealed to Simon the extent of the issue with his singing voice until they were in The Big Easy for the concert.
The rest of the tour was postponed and then cancelled, the duo on the hook for cancellation fees that totaled almost $1 million.
The end result was that by the time that both Simon and Garfunkel turned 70 a year later—as if to underline a connection between the two that verges on the cosmic, Simon is a mere 23 days older than Garfunkel—the idea that they would realize the scene in ‘Old Friends,’ sitting on a park bench, perhaps along The Mall in Central Park, “like bookends” was not to be.
If the Simon & Garfunkel story has almost undoubtedly concluded, Bookends remains as the great transition of their most storied chapter; the farewell to the folk-pop of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme and the introduction of the orchestrated grandeur of Bridge Over Troubled Water.
The inclusion of their three latest singles—all fairly moderate hits—on the album’s second side made clear the swift evolution of the duo's sound as well as several of the preoccupations that have been continually investigated in Simon’s unparalleled solo career. The hard edge of ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’ with its devious guitar riff presages Simon’s explorations with rhythm. Both ‘At the Zoo’ and ‘Fakin’ It’ include unexpected yet profoundly memorable detours in their arrangements. The walking gait of the former dissipates into a dreamy and mellow fantasia—the Central Park Zoo transformed into a colourful Shangri-La. On the latter, in which the opening plays explicit homage to the wild psychedelic coda of the Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ the knotty groove evaporates about halfway and transports the listener to the Scottish highlands—singer Beverely (soon to be Beverely Martyn) makes this connection explicit with a reference to Donovan, the spacey Glaswegian singer-songwriter—leading to a throbbing rhythm in which Simon & Garfunkel ponder “I own a tailor’s face and hands…” that climaxes with a brass-laden chorus.
The Graduate reject, ‘Punky’s Dilemma,’ also appears on Bookends’ second side. In many ways a sequel to ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’ in its carefree, whimsical imagery, it’s Wrecking Crew member Joe Osborn's intricate bassline that makes it a memorable cut and lightens the peril of Simon’s often overly clever lyrics.
Along with the aforementioned ‘Mrs. Robinson,’ Bookends’ concluding side may have been to be put together in slap-dash fashion, an approach to LP sequencing that acts like Simon & Garfunkel helped to put out of its misery. Yet, the experience of listening to it renders this criticism irrelevant, even moot. It’s partly because of how good the music is but also that it comes after the transcendence of the album’s opening side, arguably Simon & Garfunkel’s most ambitious statement.
A song cycle that follows the arc of life from childhood to old age, the Bookends suite startles, the sensation resulting from a realization that a work as short as it is (it’s running time just a hair over 15 minutes) and comprising a mere four songs has a scope that is as wide as cinemascope and as intimate as the camera of John Cassavetes.
It starts with the quiescent theme of the suite, a brief 30-second dissertation by Simon on guitar before we are thrust into turbulence through the use of a Moog synthesizer, played by John Simon, who produced part of the album’s sessions, one of the first uses of the newly invented instrument on a pop record. The mood it creates, beyond that of the surprise of hearing it on a Simon & Garfunkel record, is of the unrest, the dread of 1968. A tale of a youth attempting suicide, ‘Save the Life of My Child’ goes far beyond its narrative parameter through its production touches: the eerie female choir, the psychedelic interlude complete with a gauzy callback to ‘The Sound of Silence’ and the ambiguity of the ending, a nightmarish urban scene of chaos—a police spotlight shines on the boy on the ledge, the bystanders surrounding the scene erupt—turning surreal—the boy flies away. As Simon & Garfunkel sing a folkish coda, ‘Save the Life of My Child’ segues into ‘America.’
Here is one of Simon’s most affecting compositions, full of engrossing details, moments of poignancy and arty bohemia. Its contours are the same as ‘Save the Life of My Child’—chiefly in its unforgettable climax in which the narrator, venturing with his girlfriend from Saginaw, Michigan to presumably New York, notices all the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike from their Greyhound bus and realizing that those in them are, like them, engaged in a search for an America congruent with the principles upon which it was founded. Bringing out the song’s sweetness and soaring majesty is the intersection of Simon’s voice, soft and occupying the lower part of resulting harmony, with Garfunkel’s voice, softer, higher and lilting.
The quality that each brings allows the tale of the decaying relationship at the heart of ‘Overs’ to be both matter-of-fact—Simon’s grounded voice recounts all the dispiriting details including the revelation that “it hardly matters, we sleep separately”—and sad—Garfunkel caresses the bridge where lines like “time is tapping on my forehead” shimmer as leaves changing from green to the crimson brilliance of autumn. It serves as the informal closer to what may be considered the first part of the Bookends suite: portraits of dissatisfaction, existential angst, questions upon questions but few, if any, answers.
‘Voices of Old People’ is a collage created by Garfunkel from recordings made at two retirement homes: the United Home for Aged Hebrews in New Rochelle, New York, and the California Home for the Aged in Reseda in the San Fernando Valley. Immaculately constructed, the reflections of the elderly that are included touch on family, aging, illness and then, most poignantly, the narrowing of life as one gets closer to its conclusion. The final thought: “It just is a beautiful life. Just a room, your own room and your own home,” leads gracefully to Simon’s guitar playing the main progression of ‘Old Friends,’ its syncopation approximating the chiming of a clock at the beginning of a new hour.
The scene related in the song—two long-time friends sitting on a park bench—has an urban luster. Arranger Jimmie Haskell’s chart uses the swell of Simon’s melody to create a rhapsodic coat of strings. He makes them shimmer as Simon sings “settle like dust” in “the sounds of the city sifting through tress settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends.” The detail Simon adds of a blowing newspaper further brings out the song’s very New York setting. The extended string sequence at the end emphasizes that at its heart ‘Old Friends’ is a danceable waltz. It allows the whirl of life to swirl and twirl around the two old confidants like an old MGM musical number. The waltz ends with the strings on a keening high note, ushering in the reprise of the Bookends theme by Simon, demonstrating that he is among the finest of guitar pickers. The focus narrows for an intimate benediction on the passage of time and that nothing truly lasts except traces—a photograph, for example—of what was.
When Paul Simon embarked on his farewell tour in 2018, there was hope that perhaps somehow, someway, Art Garfunkel would materialize at some point. When I caught Simon’s stop in Toronto, there were cheers the few times a picture of Simon with Garfunkel appeared on the screen. True to form, Simon referred to his life-long musical partner as simply “Artie.” But that was the extent of it.
Two years previous, both Simon and Garfunkel had put whatever differences between them existed aside to allow the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign to use ‘America’ in a famous campaign ad. But perhaps reflexively and even ominously, in an interview with Garfunkel on CNN at the time, he referred to ‘America’ as “my song.”
That Simon & Garfunkel’s final performance would be the 2010 gig in New Orleans would be a disillusioning conclusion to their legacy. Somewhat miraculously, however, it wasn’t. About seven weeks later, they reunited for a brief appearance. The occasion was the American Film Institute tribute to Mike Nichols. The song was ‘Mrs. Robinson.’
Cutting it down to two verses and with just Simon’s guitar and another guitarist playing rhythm, Simon and Garfunkel put on a fine performance, the rockabilly riff that is the song’s signature pushing them through. Garfunkel is in better voice and even if they don’t make eye contact with each other while they sing together, it stands as a fitting epilogue to Simon & Garfunkel. Seeing luminaries like Michael Douglas, Steven Spielberg and Warren Beatty in the audience—Beatty, in particular, looks like he is having a grand time—remind of Simon & Garfunkel’s prominence for the boomer generation that has transcended beyond them to sons and daughters, and now grandsons and granddaughters. After Simon plays a cycle of repeats of the main riff of ‘Mrs. Robinson,’ he ends by raising the neck of his guitar. And that was it. Two old friends playing one last time.
Thank you for this! I’ve only heard the essential compilation of S&G, never bothered to go album by album. As an artist myself I both understand and feel frustrated by the ways that even in a legendary duo like this, there were bound to be rifts and breakups and misunderstandings. There will always be an idealistic part of me that wants great art to be two pals staying together. Human, all too human.
Just saw The Graduate recently too and I loved that backstory! Thanks!
Back in the summer of 1968 I was 13 years old, attending summer camp in PA. A kid known to us as Bunky told us that he could get us any records we wanted, give him a list and his father would bring them down on parents visiting weekend. One of the albums I chose was Bookends. The kids father was the great producer Tom Dowd. We all got our package of records, each set packed in a large manila envelope and left on our respective bunks. I thanked Mr. Dowd having no idea until a a couple of years later as to who this man was. He produced Cream, Aretha the Allmans. Wish I had stayed in touch with Bunky (LOL).