Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel don't get enough credit for their contribution to American music. Their recordings from the '60s are rarely played today, never covered and largely viewed as adolescent folk-rock relics from days gone by. They weren't as dramatic as John and Paul, not nearly as menacing as Mick and Keith, not as angry or as cryptic as Bob, not as sexy as Sonny and Cher or as swingy as Denny, John, Michelle and Cass.
In listening back, however, the duo truly was magnificent, delivering melodies without bad-boy pretension or sly agendas. Instead, their approach was bare and pure, sporting tight vocal harmonies that cast them as urbanized Everlys. Their high-range voices made them sound like knowing choirboys, more Greenwich Village preppy than working-class wiseguys or motorheads. Perhaps in retrospect their delivery was a tad passive-aggressive. But Simon's melodies and Garfunkel's vocals were deeply sincere and sophisticated, making them the decade's only extroverted introverts.
By any measure, Simon's songwriting in the '60s was stirring. Between 1965 and 1969, the duo recorded hits that were unlike anything else on the charts. These included The Sound of Silence, Homeward Bound, I Am a Rock, At the Zoo, Feelin' Groovy and Scarborough Fair/Canticle. In 1968 came the explosive Mrs. Robinson, with lyrics that seemed to begin mid-verse, as though we were late for the opening ("And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson...")
And then came Bridge Over Troubled Water, an album recorded in 1969 and released in January 1970. At the time of its release, the album seemed to be a jumble of acoustic radio hits, ethnic tunes and layered tracks with odd references (Who was Frank Lloyd Wright and where was he going that we had to say so long?) .
Yet the LP was an instant concept hit—you had to listen to it from beginning to end. Each song was its own trip, but they were all interlinked, like train cars, and they had to be heard in that order.
Yes, The Only Living Boy in New York had hints of the Beatles' Lovely Rita, Celia sounded a little like the Beatles' Getting Better and the title track was surely a relative of Let It Be—even though the two songs were written at the same time. Yet they were all different, and in some ways Simon and Garfunkel's tunes were more honest and less music-hall novelty.
I spent the weekend listening to the newly released Bridge Over Troubled Water: 40th Anniversary Edition (Sony/Legacy). The remastering is superb—warm and rich with textured detail that was inaudible on earlier versions. For instance, the flute solo on So Long Frank Lloyd Wright has been brought up and Simon's guitar on Song for the Asking is snappy and distinct.
But the big surprise for me was the DVD that accompanies the set. It holds two revealing documentaries: The controversial Songs of America, which aired just once on CBS, and The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, featuring recent interviews with Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and many of their collaborators on the LP.
The former is a time piece directed by Charles Grodin, who followed the duo around and superimposed footage of John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and others, giving the music a sixties soundtrack feel. The latter is a revealing look at how this still-relevant album was conceived and recorded.
Among the revelations in both films is just how terrific a singer Garfunkel was. Simon has been a solo act for so long that one tends to think of Garfunkel today as a hanger-on or a cosmetic counterweight. Hardly. You listen to him sing on these DVDs in footage shot back in the '60s and you're immediately taken aback by his confidence, cool and glass-breaking delivery.
Even if you own Bridge Over Troubled Water on CD, and I'm sure you do, the new package is well worth the $15 for a remastered version and the twin-documentary DVD. Through this album, I rediscovered the qualities of a nearly forgotten group and in the process I rediscovered parts of myself that had gone missing for some time.
JazzWax tracks: Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Trouble Water: 40th Anniversary Edition, featuring the original recording remastered and a DVD, is available here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Art Garfunkel with Paul Simon in 1968 singing The Sound of Silence...