Meeting Garfunkel

 

And if my silence made you leave, then that would be my worst mistake.

So I will share this room with you, and you can have this heart to break.

-Billy Joel, “And So It Goes.”

As some of you know, my interest is primarily in interviewing lyricists and composers—the great songwriters.  I am ombillically connected to Simon & Garfunkel, perhaps thee great duo in American music.  My mom, who tends to have the best taste in music, loved them, and saw them when she was in college.  The year was 1969 and the place was Buffalo, New York.  Those were years with war and strife, but she loved the songs and the harmonizing.  “’Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was a song of hope,” she said.

Paul Simon is known by many as the primary songwriter of Simon & Garfunkel, but it is Garfunkel I have tried for so long to interview.  Certainly, Paul Simon will go down in history with the great songwriters like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter who are remembered as the few who could write songs with lyrics and melody of equal brilliance.  Simon belongs in the small and prestigious class of living legends of American song, among them Billy Joel, Stephen Sondheim and Jimmy Webb.  They write songs that are immortal.  In one verse, you are transported to that other place.

So why Mr. Garfunkel?  Isn’t Paul Simon the writer?   It started with a different kind of writing, Garfunkel’s own. It was his book of prose, Still Water that caused my curiosity.  You get the idea that Garfunkel is someone with a very inquiring mind and a perspective that is very much his own.  Still Water starts out with a series of questions and answers.  The interviewer is never identified.  He is only called “Interviewer” and one wonders if it is Garfunkel asking himself the questions he wished an interviewer would.  From there the reader dives into his prose.  Through his prose, Garfunkel shares perspectives from a very full life, it is a life he seems to express a lot of gratitude for. 

It’s my belief that much of his very interesting life came as a result of interesting choices.  We could start with the books he has read.  I believe reading expands outlooks.  Stephen King has said that in order to be a good writer, one must read.  Garfunkel has read his share of books.  In fact, he keeps a list of the 1,195 books he’s read, starting with The Confessions by Jean Jacques-Rousseau in 1968.  The most recent entry from October 2013 is The Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz.  He lists his favorites, which include a lot of biographies.  The books he reads show he has a very inquisitive mind.

Some of the perspectives in his book Still Water clearly come from his travels.  Simon & Garfunkel performed in many places around the world, and at the recent solo concert, he told us of the joys of singing at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England—his favorite.  Aside from his solo and Simon & Garfunkel tours, his desire to travel has been different.  You may think of the lyrics “and we walked off to look for America” when you hear of Garfunkel’s journey by foot from his apartment in New York all the way to the Pacific Ocean in Washington State.  My decision one day to walk on the Gulf Coast from Florida to New Orleans, Louisiana was only over a tenth of the 4,000 plus miles Garfunkel walked, but I speak from experience in saying Garfunkel probably gained new insight and there is a kind of intense introspection that a long pedestrian voyage can bring.  It can only be likened to meditation.  But he didn’t stop with America.  He walked across Japan and in spurts he has walked across Europe—starting in Ireland and so far reaching to Greece.  He plans to pick up where he left off and continue on to Istanbul.  Writers must experience the world.  He’s seen it from an atypical vantage point and the distance afforded him the time to think about it.

It was in 2004, ten years ago, that I decided to try and interview Garfunkel.  I wrote to his manager Bridget and expected to receive no answer.  To my surprise, she wrote a very kind reply and said that he was taking a break, but we could look at doing a telephone interview down the road.  She had Garfunkel’s publicist send me a copy of his ninth album, Everything Waits to Be Noticed.  The album is unique in Garfunkel’s solo discography because it features songs Garfunkel co-wrote, a first for him.  I listened again and again and found a collection of great songs, in particular one called “Perfect Moment.”  The interesting lyrics begin “I met you once before the first time,” and ends with the wistful lines “For a moment, you are mine. Just for a moment, you were mine.”  The song stands up among the catalog of songs Garfunkel has recorded and that’s saying a lot—given his penchant for recording the legendary Jimmy Webb’ssongs and the immaculate Some Enchanted Evening, which feature his take on the American Songbook, something he proved he could do as well as Rod Stewart.

But Bridget gave me another great gift.  She tried to interest me in her client Bruce Hornsby.  Now, I was familiar with The Way It Is album and loved it, but hadn’t really listened to much of Hornsby’s newer stuff since the 1990s.  I’m embarrassed to say the copy of Hornsby’s Halcyon Days sat there for a few months before I listened to it.  When I finally listened to it, it really blew my mind.  I became a solid fan of Hornsby’s digging deep into his catalog and I would later find out, Garfunkel was a fan too.  I read interviews through the years where Garfunkel would praise Hornsby, including in a very interesting piece that appeared in American Songwriter. 

In 2003, my friend Brent Griffis and I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to see Simon & Garfunkel perform in Atlanta, Georgia along with a special appearance of a couple of songs by the Everly Brothers.  I am so grateful we decided to go, as I recall it like the other people who saw it.  We all felt it was transcendent.  That’s no exaggeration!  The hair on my arm stood straight up when Garfunkel sang “Kathy’s Song.”  Was there ever a more beautiful performance of a song?  I had most of Paul Simon’s albums, but collecting Garfunkel’s solo albums increased my appreciation for the man’s work even more.  My friend Frank Reddy gave me a vinyl copy of Garfunkel’s record album Watermark and my admiration for Jimmy Webb’s songwriting grew.   Years later, I had the opportunity to interview Webb and was delighted to ask him about Watermark, which featured all Jimmy Webb songs aside from Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World. All of this inspired my first trip to see Mr. G. sing—and he was backed by an entire orchestra.  I remember it very vividly.  It was November 13, 2004 at the BJCC in Birmingham, Alabama.  I was broke and attending the University of Georgia.  I kept calling the box office and nobody would answer.  I recall the recorded voice on the other end saying the date of the show and “the one and only Art Garfunkel.”  To this day, I rarely hear one of his recordings without thinking of that woman’s voice and those words. How much were tickets?  I left for Alabama and didn’t even know if I would have enough money to buy a ticket, but I felt it was worth the risk of not being able to afford to get in.  Tickets were no longer being sold online. 

I got there and the tickets were expensive.  My heart started to sink.  Then it occurred to me that I was a college student and could ask if there was a student ticket price.  The elderly man behind the desk smiled with both his face and his voice and told me there was and he asked if he could see my student ID.  I gave it to him and he said I owed five dollars.  I said, “Five dollars?”  I thought he was joking, or perhaps trying to make sport of me.  He was serious.  I gave him the $5 and thanked him over and over when he handed me the ticket.  I went inside and awaited excitedly.  Hearing Garfunkel sing with an entire orchestra is something one doesn’t forget.  I drove home very pleased with my decision to venture out.  What a performer.  What a voice.  One and only was the only description for Garfunkel!

I’ve seen Paul Simon solo.  In fact, last year, my friend Wesley Cook invited me on his birthday to see Paul Simon speak about songwriting in an old chapel at Emory University.  It was right up my alley.  After the talk Simon sang and played “The Sound of Silence,” “Slip Slidin’ Away” and “Me and Julio.”  Outside of the chapel, he walked right by us.  I didn’t talk to him, but it did feel surreal.  All of these experiences have been great, but nothing could prepare me for the most recent one.

As I mentioned earlier, I am a big fan of Bruce Hornsby and had pursued an interview with him for years.  It finally so happened that Hornsby was in Atlanta, performing at the Atlanta Symphony Hall.  I wrote Hornsby a letter 5 years ago and although we had attempted to sit down and talk several times, it wasn’t until last week that we finally had our interview.  It was well worth the wait.  Because in a strange way, I was introduced to Hornsby via Garfunkel’s management—I wondered if it would be possible to talk with Garfunkel when he was in Georgia, given that he would be here playing a string of dates spanning about half of the month of February.  I couldn’t imagine how fortunate it would be to land both of them in the same week. No go.  Alas, it was not to be and that happens.  You put your best foot forward and try again next time.

Given how much I enjoyed Garfunkel’s concert 10 years prior, I decided I would like to see his Atlanta show anyway.  I was heartbroken when I found out I wouldn’t be able to go because my Friday was way too busy.  Finding my Saturday evening free a couple hours before Garfunkel’s scheduled show, I decided to make the drive down to Macon, Georgia to see him sing at the Grand Opera House.  Arriving 15 minutes prior to the show beginning, I was lucky to get a good seat. I wasn’t prepared for what would become the best concert I have ever seen, and this is coming from a guy who has seen a couple hundred, starting with seeing the Platters at sixteen (yes, the singing group from the 1950s).  It’s a diverse list featuring some of the biggest names like Paul McCartney, to other very talented artists both new and veteran who are largely passed over by our current radio station playlists.

First there was a pointed announcement from a man on stage to turn off all cell phones.  Garfunkel doesn’t like people taking pictures of the show or texting and I don’t either.  Imagine going to a concert to, well…listen.  It made me realize what a huge distraction all of the iPhones have been upon seeing a concert where people don’t use them.  Then the auditorium went completely black with only a light.  The very skilled guitarist, Tab Laven walked out on stage and I heard a melody I recognized, but it took me a moment to place it.  It was Billy Joel’s song “And So It Goes.”  Tab’s sound was mesmerizing. After a few chords, we heard that unmistakable voice, perhaps the greatest in music.  Garfunkel sang the beginning of the song from backstage and casually walked out well into the song, singing it in a way that would make Billy Joel proud.  I thought about the lyrics in a different way.  “And if my silence made you leave.”  Garfunkel was recovering from vocal cord paresis and the world had been deprived of hearing that gorgeous voice since his last concerts in 2009.  Thankfully, the silence was over.  Of course he sang many of the Simon & Garfunkel songs that were cherished by all, but the great thing about the concert was how much it felt like he was giving of himself.  He read his own prose, which usually correlated with the song he was about to sing.  I thought back to the opening song’s lyrics, “So I will share this room with you.”  Yes, he certainly was sharing the room with us.

Hearing “Bright Eyes” and “All I Know” sung with only Tab Laven’s acoustic guitar and Garfunkel’s voice made me realize what true masterpieces they were.  Other very touching songs included him singing “Let It Be Me” and dedicating it to the late Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers along with sharing his memories of Phil.  He did a stunning rendition of the Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch Over Me,” that appeared on his Some Enchanted Evening album.  He shared with the crowd a list of his five favorite songwriters, which included Stephen Sondheim, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb and Randy Newman.  I love it when singers recognize the writers of the songs, but it made me very curious if he would sing one of the songs he wrote himself.  He did, and the performance of “Perfect Moment” that appeared on Everything Waits to Be Noticed was one of the highlights of the evening.  It was sung very much from the heart.

The concert was finally winding down and the guitarist left the stage so Garfunkel could take questions from the audience.  I’ve never seen an artist do something like that in a venue of that size, but it worked very well and seemed to excite Garfunkel.  There was that inquisitive mind again.  It was impressive and very open of him to acknowledge that the audience is a crucial part of any concert.  He certainly gained my respect and it was great when helit up upon being asked what was on his iPod.  His enthusiasm for listening included Native American tribal chants, Fleetwood Mac, Chet Baker, James Taylor, J. S. Bach and poets like Dylan Thomas and W. B. Yeats reciting their poetry. Finally, Tab Laven reappeared on stage with his guitar and they sent us all on our way with that hope my mom talked about—“Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

I walked out feeling satisfied, but instantly thinking that I wanted to see the show a second time.  The simplicity of Garfunkel’s voice with a single instrument proved that if you can’t do it in blue jeans under a single light—you can’t do it.

My friend Mike Bridge who lives in Macon was alerted that I was in town and texted me to ask if I would like to grab a bite and a beverage at the Downtown Grill before heading home.  Mike is a great guy and a lot of fun so I decided I would.  He told me that he would be there in about 40 minutes so hang tight.  Not knowing the streets of Macon, I decided to walk off some of my energy and find this spot he suggested, but not before an encounter with a true legend on the street in Macon.  I don’t like to drive.  It was a happy accident.  Had I gone home, I would have been in my car heading home already, but there was Arthur Ira Garfunkel, right in front of me wearing a baseball cap.  I’d been a fan of his for years and there he was.  I strongly dislike bothering people, but I spoke up.  “Mr. Garfunkel.”  He looked over and smiled.  So I just spoke the truth.  I told him that it was one of the best concerts I had ever seen.  He flashed me a Duchene smile, the truest type, where you smile with your eyes.  He said “thank you very, very much.  That means a lot.”  I wanted to ask him about opening the show with “And So It Goes,” and told him I liked the choice.  It was far braver than opening with something like “Feeling Groovy” or “Mrs. Robinson,” not that I don’t like those songs, but “And So It Goes,” is heavy.  He came right out with something with a lot of substance.  He remarked in agreement calling the song “emotional” and I told him he should record it.

I mentioned seeing him ten years prior at the BJCC in Birmingham, Alabama with an entire orchestra and he said “Oh yes!  I remember that show.”    Then I told him that it was even better hearing him with just a solo guitarist, as he took the ticket I was holding.  He signed “Art Garfunkel” carefully and looked me in the eye saying “Less is more.”  He smiled and handed me the ticket back.  I told him goodbye and he said “nice meeting you.”  I walked away and he got into a car.  As the car left, Garfunkel and the young man driving him waved goodbye. 

Did I tell him about interviewing Bruce Hornsby a few days prior?  Did I tell him about how I had interviewed his friend Jimmy Webb or about how I had asked Percy Sledge what he thought of Garfunkel’s take on his song “When a Man Loves a Woman”?  Did I tell him about the time I interviewed John Sebastian  of Lovin’ Spoonful fame backstage, and Sebastian said that Garfunkel’s cover of his song “Daydream” was his favorite cover of all time?  But the question everyone has asked me is if I asked Garfunkel to do an interview.

The answer is no.  First of all, it’s not my style.  I don’t like to put people on the spot.  Certainly, I would love to one day sit down with Mr. Garfunkel, but I walk away from this experience with no regrets.  I had fun.  There were a lot of times where I could have sit out of the dance—driving out to Alabama to see him when I was broke ten years ago, or seeing him in Macon recently.  After the concert, I could have gone home and gotten some much needed sleep, but I didn’t.  Not many exciting things happen when you sit it out.

I’ve listened to the recording of Art Garfunkel sing “Bright Eyes” probably 1,000 times.  Garfunkel is an actor, and I thought his acting in Carnal Knowledge as the reserved and sensitive Sandy was very good, especially since he was sharing the screen with Jack Nicholson, one of the greatest actors of our time.  Then I watched him play almost the opposite character acting alongside Theresa Russell and Harvey Keitel in Bad Timing.  I’ve picked up his book Still Water too many times to count.  I could pick a random page and be swept into the particular piece and before I knew it, I was rereading the book.

Occasionally there are artists who are so steeped in talent that it spills over into multiple areas.  Such an artist is Art Garfunkel.  He can write prose and occasionally he writes lyrics.  He can act.  And you give him a stool to sit on and a microphone to sing into and he will have your undivided attention until the very last note is sung.  No costume changes, no pyrotechnics, just undeniable talent and one of the world’s greatest instruments—his voice. 

Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only Art Garfunkel.

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