The making of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’

By Rush Evans


Interview with Art Garfunkel.

CLICK HERE to read “Building a ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,'” a 40th anniversary celebration

Bridge Over Troubled Water, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel.
Bridge Over Troubled Water, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel.
It has been 40 years since the release of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

It was clear, however, that when Garfunkel was interviewed for this story that he felt as passionately now as any other time about the song and album by that name, and he was more than happy to discuss both with Goldmine.

The Bridge Over Troubled Water album turns 40 this year. What are your first thoughts looking back?

Art Garfunkel: It was a hell of an undertaking, I’ll tell you. I don’t want to sound inflated, but it’s a worthy album to look at, because it was a rich experience.

Does it hold up well for you?

I haven’t played the album in quite a while now. I doubt if I’d find any surprises if I played it. The whole way that the first song, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” [is] so slow and soft and so long in building, [and] therefore so daring as a first-song attention-getter. It’s like, “I’m going to enter your consciousness by creeping along at you instead of capturing you.” When that makes its transition into “El Condor Pasa,” and you hear these South American charangas, “doo-doo-doo” [singing], that transition into sort of ethnicity after “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” I thought was the cutest left turn. We were all chasing after The Beatles in those days, so I — like the whole rest of the world — was very enamored of Sgt. Pepper.

We all remember Billy Shears, and we all remember how that first song turned into, [singing] “What would you say if I sang out of tune” … Ringo’s “I Get By With A Little Help from My Friends.” And there was that one-two punch at the top of that magnificent album. And even the sonics being somewhat flat, the second song being a little deeper studio echo, and how these sounds, these sonics, have feelings and imagery about them. These are the values that you’re aware of and you tinker with when you make one of these things. I remember the flow of our 11 songs, and I remember loving the flow and these transitions, moving from one song into the other. They were really choices made with care.

Was the confidence in that song felt in the studio? Were you recording it and saying, “Yeah, this is pretty much gonna be a classic, and we have to make it a single?”

We were three-quarters in the way in belief in it. We loved the third verse and how it took off like a rocket and the production gets kind of Phil Spector-ish. We thought that this is a big “Whiter Shade of Pale” kind of record, and it might be a hit as a single.

It’s daring because it’s so quiet and it starts so slowly; it’s unprecedented. Along came Clive Davis, who ran the record company, and he said, “No, fainted-heart faltering boys! This baby is gonna go all the way. I’m gonna get behind it, we’re gonna advertise it, [and] we’re gonna have full faith in ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ It’s the title of your album, it’s the first cut on your first side, and it’s your single.”

I know the lyrics were inspired by gospel music, and with you and Roy Halee also being part of the production team on this, how did it evolve into the lush ballad that we know it to be?

It was a piano vocal song, completely, with two verses in it. When the two verses were recorded, it was supposed to be a build. I sing the first one gently and heartfelt, but the second one has more intensity.

It occurred to me that this is only the setup for some kind of magnificent third verse that transcends all of this. This is the set-up. I said to Paul, “Let us do the Phil Spector-production idea that we loved when we heard The Righteous Brothers’ recording of ‘Ol’ Man River.’” Spector has Bill Medley sing 98 percent of the song with just a simple backing, but in the final line of the song, Spector throws in the kitchen sink, and the record grows in dimension, about 12 times as big.

“I get weary and sick of tryin’, I’m tired of livin’, and feared of dyin’’ [singing]. At that point, Spector brings in, for the first time in the entire record, the full rhythm and maracas and a wailing, rhythmic, gospel-y kind of vamping fade-out. “But ol’ man river, he just keeps roll …” [singing], and it became a fade-out, and Spector stays with that “Ol’ Man River,” and suddenly the record fades out, and that fade out is 12 times bigger.

And the idea that you save production for so late in the piece killed us. And we were always enamored of that idea, and so when I said to Paul, “Here you go, this is our chance,” we used that same idea. We changed that whole record from a piano vocal into a full band and strings and big highs and lows, full extension, an oil painting. And he said, “Right, let me write a third verse.” And he wrote kind of a transcendent lyric. “If you need a friend, I’m sailing right behind,” perfect for the production scope, you know what I mean?

So the song fully existed before, [with the line] “Sail on silver girl?”

AG: That’s right. There was never supposed to be a third verse. It was in the studio that we said there should be a third verse, and Paul wrote it. And then came the fun of adding the pieces. If there’s gonna be an augmentation with the orchestra, let’s let them all slip in one by one. So when the piano finishes the second verse, there’s a long 16-bar turnaround, which [keyboard player] Larry [Knechtel] and I worked out.

It ends up with the strings creeping in, and doing a long string pad, and there’s the first addition. Then we had Hal Blaine play his explosion drum … You’ll love this one: way in the background on every other bar, on beat No. 2, you hear a cushy kind of an atom bomb, soft and kind of hushed but explosive, way in the back. It’s our backbeat, on the two beat of every other bar.

We took our tape, [and] we sped it up twice as fast so the whole “Bridge over Troubled Water” was running at twice the speed. We asked Hal Blaine to play his drums on every other bar, and on bar No. 2, [he] gives us his nice, fattest, mallet sound on his skins. And then we slowed the record back down to proper speed.

Everything fell back into place, except Hal Blaine’s impact of his drum hits. Now the cushiness of the fat mallet on the skins has a wider spread to it; it’s been slowed down. The rest of the record fell back into place! So you get a very interesting soft impact, almost atom bomb percussive, and you place that way in the background on every other beat. And it becomes a record beginning to take off: The bass slides right into the pocket, and the boys sing, “Sail on, silver girl.”

There’s Paul’s first entrance into the record, and we doubled our voices so we would both have more of a commercial sound. “Sail on silver girl, sail on by” [singing]. And now the whole thing is beginning to happen in your belly. There’s rhythm setting in, the drummer’s about to add to that backbeat. And that rumble of rhythm, which you feel in your gut, starts taking place somewhere after “Sail on silver girl, sail on by, your time has come to shine.” Somewhere right after there, you start getting this more turgid rhythm, and then the strings move in bigger, and the arrangement, and you get brass.

What fun it was to make that. So much is about mixing. You’ve got to credit Roy Halee for being such a fine artist and getting all these nuances of what’s going on with these instruments and bringing them all out so that a good listener can have a feast.

You have a solid production memory of all this, which is fascinating. Let’s talk about the other noteworthy song from the album: “The Boxer.” To me, “Boxer” and “Bridge” are the quintessential Simon & Garfunkel songs …

Thank you. You’re really responding a lot to care and labor and detailing. These things went way beyond normal budgets and anything that makes sense in terms of business. Expense and return, they’re just labors of love gone wild, both of those tunes.

When I heard “The Boxer” in 1973, it was an important moment for me, because it was the first song I ever heard where I realized that these guys were trying to tell me something. I realized that music can have a message, though I didn’t know what it was.

No, you have to be more grown up to have a feel for “I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains,” which is kind of a world-weary, middle-life or later-in-life kind of “they’re killing me, I’m dyin’ here!” You have to know about that. A young person doesn’t get world weariness, which is where the song ultimately takes you.

Right. And for me, I realized then that music could be about something greater than, “My baloney has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R.”

You’re giving tribute to the folk tradition. When folk music joined rock and roll, you got a lot more goose bumps and intensity and thoughtful lyrics. That folk tradition which Dylan gave us — “’Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man” — he’s saying something, we don’t know what. That’s folk music intensity. It’s trying to use intelligence. It’s trying to be ironic. It’s trying to be bitter. It’s trying to wake you up to nuclear disaster.

What did you say to Paul when he brought this somewhat cryptic lyric? Did you say, “Who is this about? Who is this boxer?”

AG: No, our friendship doesn’t work that way. My sense of an artist at work does not allow for such feedback. I give him his province. If he’s the writer, he’s allowed to be inscrutable without me challenging him and saying, “I can’t sing it if I don’t know what I’m singing about!” Never mind that stuff. He’s a first-rate writer. I give him the right to be difficult or easy or whatever.

Bookends was more of a concept album than the more popular Bridge album. How do feel now about that album?

It does move. From song to song, it’s like a beautiful black-and-white drawing or painting. But then, neither of those records has anything quite like “Scarborough Fair.” That three-and-a-half-minute side we did on the previous album, which was the flowing-est, most naturally organic, sent-from-the-heavens-right-through-Paul-and-Artie piece of music we ever did.

By the way, I must tell you that my first record was Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits in 1973.

AG: I was so wildly in love with the making of those things. If you think they were fun to buy and collect, you should’ve made one. The day you finish it and then you listen in the control room at the console to your hard work over the many months, and you hear the whole thing from top to bottom, and you have fussed over every detail of every minute of all of the songs, and you go, “Okay, there it is,” and you love it, and then they send you the jacket, and you color approve it … you know, “The greens are a little too bluish.” And you go through all this, [and] finally you get the handsome jacket, the liner notes are done, and you say, “Send me a box of 25 copies, so I’ll get ‘em before the retailer gets it.”

And you open the box, and there’s your hard work. It’s such a fabulous American invention, the record album.

One more Bookends question: That line in the song, “Bookends,” that says, “How terribly strange to be 70.” Seventy is coming, of course, to Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon. Any thoughts on that reality?

It’s a well-written line — a youngster [in] Paul Simon who can speculate on the future and get the right tone? Now that it nears, 70, “How terribly strange to be 70” is not a bad line. It’s a good line. He was ahead of his time. We didn’t know that in those days the number 70 was not gonna be that old by the time you get there! It’s gonna be middle life! Who knew back in those days?

We thought it was old! Now it seems just part of the middle momentum years.

The life of a song and an album: ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’
By Rush Evans

Album release date: Jan. 26, 1970
Title track single release date: Jan. 6, 1970
Weeks at #1 on the pop charts: Six, beginning Feb. 20, 1970
Weeks at #1 on the Billboard Album Chart: 10 (March 7 to May 15, 1970)

Number of recorded versions by Simon and Garfunkel: Five.
• Two from the studio (the original, plus a demo version on the album’s CD reissue)
• Three from live performances (Concert in Central Park, Live 1969, and Old Friends: Live On Stage, from the 2004 reunion tour, on which Garfunkel sings verse one, Simon sings verse two, and both sing verse three).
• Both Simon and Garfunkel have also recorded their own live versions on several of their solo albums.

Number of 1971 Grammy Awards: Six
1 Album of the Year
2 Record of the Year (the single, “Bridge over Troubled Water”)
3 Best Contemporary Pop Song  (“Bridge over Troubled Water”)
4 Song of the Year (“Bridge over Troubled Water”)
5 Best Engineered Recording (Non-Classical)
6 Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) (the single, “Bridge over Troubled Water”)

Number of recorded covers of the title track: Hundreds, including noteworthy versions by Willie Nelson, The Jackson 5,
Eva Cassidy, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Shirley Bassey, Charlotte Church, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and The Buckaroos, LeAnn Rimes and Elvis Presley (whose version was heard by Paul Simon at an Elvis performance in Las Vegas, after which, Simon was reported to have said, “That’s it; we might as well all give up now”).

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