By Rush Evans
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel came together in the late 1950s in their little town of two and a half million, Queens, New York, where rock-and-roll music would find them and change their lives forever.
It stirred their imaginations, and they would do nothing less than create music that would become the soundtrack of the entire decade that followed. But by the time the 1960s drew to a close, they were nearing 30, tiring of each other and hoping to create newer sounds.
But shortly before their breakup, Simon, who wrote the songs, brought forth a piano piece rooted in gospel, an instantly familiar anthem that started small, then gradually built to a massively moving powerhouse of a track. It would bear an inspirational message with a melody burned into the collective memory of a generation or three.
Some 40 years later, the men, now in their sixties, would stand before an image of the Brooklyn Bridge just blocks away from the real deal, and revive this song on the stage of Madison Square Garden for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary show. To the people who cherished the song, it was as though no time had passed, but it had. There was plenty of water under that bridge, both before and since that song’s genesis.
Back in 1969, Simon and Garfunkel had already evolved from a doo-wop loving pair of teens to a musically dynamic duo with something to say that transcended the question of why fools fall in love. The recorded result was a harmonic convergence of voice and conscience — four albums’ worth of it — with songs that had already established their place in pop-music history like “Mrs. Robinson,” “Sounds of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair” and “Homeward Bound.” But they would produce their most daring work at the end of the decade, just in time to launch a new one.
I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail
Yes, I would
If I could
I surely would
— from “El Condor Pasa”
The fifth Simon and Garfunkel studio album was to be their last, though no one knew it at the time.
Garfunkel had become famous enough to expand his art into film acting, and he spent part of 1969 in Mexico filming “Catch-22” with director Mike Nichols. Simon’s art, then and now, was dedicated mostly to the writing of songs, good ones, and that was where his focus was in 1969.
The recording of album five had begun in late ’68, and an interesting selection of songs began to emerge, though they lacked to thematic unity of its predecessor, a concept record called Bookends.
But the new songs were superb, three being the most upbeat of Simon and Garfunkel’s recordings. “El Condor Pasa” was a lyrically lighthearted excuse for Simon to experiment with a third world beat that had always intrigued him, setting his own words to a traditional Peruvian melody. “Cecilia” was an infectious rocker that called for a percussive wall of sound, and “Keep the Customer Satisfied” used Paul and Artie’s voices as the unified force that they were seemingly born to be.
Producer Bob Johnston, who worked on numerous Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan albums, including At Folsom Prison and Blonde On Blonde, had taken the helm for the three previous Simon and Garfunkel albums. This time, however, the artists themselves served as producers, along with their longtime studio companion, Roy Halee. This allowed Simon to match his compositions to the sounds in his head, while extending voting power to his two like-minded allies.
Another song, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” reportedly sprang from a Garfunkel challenge to Simon to write a song about the famed architect. Among the lyrical interpretations of the song, however, is that Simon was in fact saying farewell to Garfunkel as his musical partner.
Reading such ideas into a Simon composition is easy to do (likely to the delight of Simon), given his penchant for cryptic phrasing and imagery. Such is the business of a true poet and eventual one-man band. (The song includes an “I am the Walrus”-worthy clue. When Garfunkel is singing the phrase “so long” repeatedly as the song winds down, Simon’s voice can be heard deep in the mix, “So long already, Artie!”)
I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises
— from “The Boxer”
It was two other songs that ultimately defined the album that was to be, and that would catapult it to the overwhelming success that it very quickly enjoyed.
“The Boxer” was the story of a figurative and literal boxer, someone facing adversity of every kind, recalling every glove that laid him down before prevailing with dignity intact. It was an obscure lyric, but the final line’s declaration that the fighter still remains, coupled with the dramatic “lie-la-lie” chorus, made clear that this was a story of triumph, of personal pride. It was in this spirit that Simon would sing the song on “Saturday Night Live” years later, shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11 on his beloved hometown of New York.
When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all
— from “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
While Garfunkel was shooting in Mexico, Simon wrote a song intended for Art’s voice, something inspired by the gospel music he had come to love.
Reverend Claude Juter had been a member of gospel music’s Silvertones, and a particular song of his, “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” moved Simon deeply, not just for Juter’s extraordinary falsetto voice, but for a particular line: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.”
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” struck Garfunkel instantly upon hearing it, though he and Halee believed that the two verses needed a third to serve as a blessing of sort, to drive the spiritual home with its lush, orchestral arrangement [see Garfunkel interview].
Columbia Records president Clive Davis heard the potential in this unusual grand ballad and suggested that it serve as the album’s opening track, title and first radio single. The song did not rock like the other music of the time, but the rest of the song’s story, it’s fair to say, is rock and roll.
Close scrutiny of the song’s lyrics can become merely academic, so suffice to say, it’s about friendship, sacrifice, undying loyalty and whatever the listener wishes to feel. “Bridge over Troubled Water” continues to live and breathe on its own, rendered still relevant most recently by Stevie Wonder, who sang a soaring gospel version on the “Hope for Haiti Telethon” Jan. 22.
At 40 years old, the song remains timeless, transcending genre and era, one of the most glorious five-minute musical achievements of the 20th century — and now, the 21st, as well.
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