Whatever may happen to this world—political calamity, natural disaster, the sun swallowing the Earth itself—there will still be a place for Paul Simon’s fingerpicking guitar and Art Garfunkel’s lullaby voice. Simon and Garfunkel are widely considered to be the greatest recording duo in rock and roll history. But they aren’t. Like all the best music groups, they made their own type of sub-genre. No critic and no recording company could keep tabs on their sound. It just worked. Their partnership grew out of New York stages and echoed from the vinyl records of teenagers and from the protests of the Vietnam War era. As undefinable as it was and still may be, the music of Simon and Garfunkel became the soundtrack for the 1960s, a decade of so much change that it is best appreciated and not understood.
I can’t describe Simon and Garfunkel’s music. Try describing the taste of a banana. You can’t. Beyond the obvious, its color and sweetness, you fall into a paradox of describing your own experiences with bananas. It never comes out the right way because it’s in your soul. That’d be bananas.
Instead, I’ll just describe an experience. Last Saturday, a friend and I took the train from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central and then took New Jersey Transit to Newark. We were going to see Paul Simon on his farewell tour, “Homeward Bound.” We were too giddy to talk. It was a short sprint from Newark Penn Station to the Prudential Center. We arrived just in time for the end of “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
Simon and Garfunkel are two very special people to me. I recognize how weird that sounds given that they’re transcendent musicians and the closest I’ll come to meeting either of them is a poster of “Bookends” on my dorm wall. Yet many people feel the same way. In 1981, they played to a crowd of half a million people in Central Park. In a city of neuroticism and impatience, New Yorkers sat together in silent admiration of their homegrown rock stars. Simon and Garfunkel are adored by everyone except for themselves, it seems. They haven’t performed together in over a decade. The old friends occasionally trade jabs through the paper like two especially curmudgeonly pop stars might do. But I love them.
It was just Paul that night in New Jersey. I slipped through the black curtain dividing the lobby and into the inky darkness of the Prudential Center. Small white points of light flashed every few seconds as longing fans snapped photos of Paul when he spoke.
“So, this being my last go around,” he smiled. There were boos. One fan called out, “It doesn’t have to be this way, Paul!” He responded cheekily: “Of course I’ll still do private gigs.”
The atmosphere was the same as that night in 1981, silent, all of us on the edge of our seats, hanging on every word he spoke. I found myself reaching for my phone just to record his little rants. They were about growing up with his father, a bass player, in Newark and then in New York. He recounted playing the electric guitar and how he grew tired of it in the late 50s: “Rock was getting very weird, but maybe because it was so wonderful.” Not too different, I thought, from Paul, who was standing over a large Persian rug wearing a cardigan. “I think he was born to be this age,” I whispered to my friend. Paul seems to revel in the assumption that all old people are losing it. He’s endearing enough to write a ballad called “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog after the War” and pull it off. No young person would ever write a song like that; we take ourselves too seriously.
Another experience I had with Simon and Garfunkel was in my senior year of high school. In the slow crawl to the end of 12th grade, I found myself listening to them whenever I could. Somewhere along the way, Paul Simon, who wrote all of Simon and Garfunkel’s music, became my idol. Maybe it was because his lyrics could take me away from the platitudes of second semester senior year, carry me from drives to school and long runs to a fantastic land of Mrs. Wagnar pies and trips to the zoo. I have never heard anything like it. Songs like “I Am A Rock” and “Baby Driver” are as bizarre as they are beautiful, small vignettes capturng family life and adolescence in catchy rock grooves. But Simon’s poetry and arrangements really shine in “The Boxer,” “America” and “The Sound of Silence,” massive melodies that deliver anthems of American introspection.
Paul Simon played them all that night. He played everything the crowd needed to hear. Alluding to our political climate, which easily lends itself to parallels with the 60s, he said, “Weird times, huh?” and, “Don’t give up.” It was reassuring, but that night wasn’t about politics to me.
When a couple splits up, who gets the possessions? Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s split was public and nasty. Their long friendship wasn’t enough to save them from the perils of rock stardom. In the divorce, Paul lost what he calls his child, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” “Bridge” is a song he wrote for Arty to sing. In his solo career Paul has rarely played it live. But on his final tour, he wanted his baby back.
It was a different arrangement, but the words were there. While It was comfortable and heart-warming, Paul didn’t mention his old partner the whole night. Ever since I became a fan of Simon and Garfunkel, I’ve waited for the day when Arty and Paul would mend old wounds and play together. Sadly, this was Paul’s last tour, so that hope seems to be snuffed out.
The next morning, I stopped by one of my favorite delis in New York. I ordered takeout and the guy behind the counter recommended I enjoy it at the park. I’m not going to try to describe how good the sandwich was. That’d be bananas.
I brought my breakfast to a bench on a hill overlooking a birthday party. I plugged in my headphones and listened to “Old Friends,” pretty self-explanatory. Just a conversation between Arty and Paul about what old age would be like with each other. All around me were old friends, old couples, new friends and new couples, “sitting on a park bench like bookends,” but no Art and Paul to be found. I finally finished my sandwich, smiling. I got up from my park bench and tossed the wax-paper wrapper in a nearby trash bin. I was in a bit of a hurry to catch a train. I checked my watch. I still had time. So do Arty and Paul from the neighborhood.