Of Simon and Garfunkel, 'a friend like no other', and music that transcended its makers' bitter fall-out
I distinctly remember the first time I heard the phrase 'bridge over troubled water' — it was my maternal grandfather explaining how his wife, my grandmother, had anchored the family during the turbulent years of the Emergency. I was seven years old, and had barely warmed up to much music beyond the staple Bollywood numbers and Rabindrasangeet (being a Bengali). But those words stayed with me, more so as I then began to notice my grandfather hum them to a tune I'd never heard before.
"Whose song is this?" I finally asked.
"Simon and Garfunkel," came the answer.
"Simon and who? Sounds like a grocery store, no?" I said.
Grandfather's throaty laugh filled the room, as he sang the lines out loud — "'Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down'... it means to be a friend like no other. Bujhle maa?" ("Understood, dear?")
I wonder what my seven-year-old self really understood that day, but I quickly learned to associate lasting friendships with the duo who had a "grocery store" name, who, ironically, have spent more time locking horns than collaborating through their musical careers.
Paul Frederic Simon and Arthur 'Art' Garfunkel grew up in the same neighbourhood of Queens in New York through the 40s and 50s. They went to the same school, only to strike up their first conversation on reaching Class Six over an Alice in Wonderland stage adaptation. The two were born merely days apart, and that's perhaps the closest they ever came to standing on common ground, while embodying one of the most iconic, yet rocky artistic marriages in musical history.
Garfunkel's angelic voice slipped seamlessly into Simon's poetry, who, like his predecessor Bob Dylan, wished to literarily emancipate pop songwriting. Transitioning from 'Tom and Jerry' at the age of 16 — delivering a minor hit with the Everly Brothers-inspired 'Hey Schoolgirl' — into folk-rock sensations at 23, the intervening years was what set them on a slippery slope.
In 1964, Garfunkel — who was then pursuing his Master's in Mathematics from Columbia University — received a call from old friend Paul, only to be told that he'd written his "best song" till date. Paul soon drove down from Queens and played it for him in the "kitchen...among the roaches". The song, 'The Sound of Silence', went on to earn them an album with Columbia Records.
On 19 October, 1964, the duo debuted with Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, a 12-song album whose cover featured them in a Manhattan subway. It went unnoticed, muffled by 'Beatlemania', but eventually ended up growing on a young America recovering from war. By 1966, after producer Tom Wilson (a close associate of Bob Dylan's) rejigged the music with drums and electric guitars without informing its creators, the duo had their first chart-topping hit within two months of the song's rebirth.
Much like all classics, the song stood the test of time. It spoke to the youth in search of a home that they'd lost to rapacious, war-mongering capitalists. It evoked the hollowness of the 'American Dream' that had been "planted in" their brains. With the Vietnam War in tow, followed by President John F Kennedy's assassination, Simon and Garfunkel's America was in the throes of unmitigated chaos, that was beamed into people's lives through their newly-bought television sets.
"And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said:
'The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence'"
The duo — who were now catapulted to fame, and had graduated to million-dollar deals — may not have been too taken aback by the way fellow youngsters had found resonance in their songs. However, what they perhaps couldn't gauge was the manner in which their music would become a shorthand for estrangement for generations to come. Their creations were songs of protest.
In the ensuing four years before their first definitive divorce, Simon and Garfunkel's sound seamlessly evolved to embrace experimental strains of gospel, while staying true to their harmonic folk-rock roots. The lyrics, however, continued to reflect their quest for the self. Released as a part of the Sounds of Silence album (1966), the song 'Homeward Bound' introduces us to a protagonist with a "suitcase and guitar in hand", returning home from a "tour of one-night stands".
"And every stop is neatly planned
For a poet and a one-man band
I wish I was homeward bound,
Home where my thought's escaping,
Home where my music's playing,
Home where my love lies waiting silently for me."
The desolation is palpable, akin to that of a showman performing for an empty auditorium, or that of the last man standing on earth. Their melodies are almost too sweet and simple to foretell catastrophes, and it's in this deception that Simon and Garfunkel's genius precisely lies.
Their protagonist seems to be on the road at all times, often encountering women on the way, like Kathy, Emily, and Cecilia. While some show up in the flesh, others manifest as the different seasons of nature. As Simon the songwriter begs St Cecilia, the patroness of music, to "return home" and help him overcome his alleged creative block, his young protagonist navigates choppy waters with a flighty lover on the surface of the song.
"Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia
Up in my bedroom (making love)
I got up to wash my face
When I come back to bed someone's taken my place"
The artistic couple's unbridled success, however, could barely salvage their relationship from hitting rock bottom. As both of them struggled with insecurities that fomented bitterness, the two were eventually led to their first official fall-out in 1970 (with several subsequent reunions, including the legendary 'Concert at Central Park' in 1981, which saw a footfall of 500,000, making it one of the largest concert attendances in history).
"I created a monster," a jilted Art Garfunkel said to The Telegraph in a 2015 interview about his frenemy Paul.
"He let us all down. I was tired of all the drama...I didn’t feel I could trust him (Garfunkel) any more," Simon was quoted as saying in his biography Paul Simon: The Life, by Robert Hilburn, referring to their final split in 2010 after the New Orleans Jazz Festival performance.
The bridges between the two seemed to have burnt for good, but that barely kept them from achieving dizzying professional heights. From being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, to creating music that is considered a cultural touchstone, the duo has arguably witnessed far lesser success in their solitary careers. Their song 'America', originally inspired by a five-day-long road trip taken by Simon with his then girlfriend Kathleen Chitty (of 'Kathy's Song'), is a study in disenchantment with the land of promises. It's riddled with a despondency that's typical of postwar literature.
In 2016, senator Bernie Sanders rallied against Donald Trump in the US Presidential elections, borrowing the song for a campaign ad. With visuals of lively faces rooting for the politician set to the echoing refrain of "They've all come to look for America", one could barely deny its haunting, enduring relevance, especially in the backdrop of the polarised times to come.
At the age of 76, Paul Simon announced his retirement from concert tours last year. He delivered his final performance befittingly at a park in Queens — the place where it all began. As Simon and Garfunkel completes 55 years since its official debut, the closest one can hope to get to them today is through a proxy act named 'The Simon and Garfunkel Story'.
An immersive concert-style touring theatrical show conceived in 2014, the two-hour-long performance captures the duo's arcs through life-size projected photos, original film footage, and a band performing their songs live. Undeniably, such acts stand testament to their prolific legacy that's long outgrown them or their troubled chemistry.
Now, in hindsight, I realise the poignancy in my grandfather's musings on what it meant to be "a friend like no other". With humanity running for cover from its own demons, maybe we could all do with a friend "sailing right behind."
Updated Date: Oct 21, 2019 11:03:59 IST