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Don Swaim Interview - 1989

DS:Are you going on a tour?

AG: Well, what kind? I’m …

DS:Book tour … as such, per se

AG: Not really … I’m here, this week, seeing you and some others, and doing some TV .. and then LA next week , to do the Carson show and sing a couple of tunes in mixed two careers … and between these two weeks that’s it, I’m not going to Houston and Chicago … because right after that I’m going to Europe to do singing … I’m going to do a set with one accompanying instrument, something I’ve never done, keep the background very lean, and see if I can break in that kind of show. I’m gonna work Germany and Spain, Holland …

DS:What’s the instrument?

AG: Piano.


AG: Me and piano … No I’m not gonna play. I’m going to work with Nicky Hopkins.

DS:I see. Well let’s talk a little bit about you and some of the events leading up to Still Water … You grew up in Queens and uh, this of course was your first book of poems. I can see through the dates at the bottom of each poem that you have been writing these for quite a few years now. What kind of family did you , did you have a.., literary type family, a musical family or what?

AG: Musical. Not professionally so. But dad and mom sang and harmonized around the house, just informally … my dad would play piano by ear … (sings) ‘oh how we danced .. da da di’. They were not literary and they did not go far in their schooling … the fact I went to Columbia College and then read a million books after school got me somewhat literarily … a little literarily inclined?

DS:That’s correct.

AG: And uh, words began to come to me a little freer … and so the choice of how to say various things I might want to say was somewhat at my command by the 80s … and I began to write these to my surprise when I had finished touring with Paul. Cause Paul Simon and I had done the concert in central park in ‘81 and then the two years of touring around the world. And as that was coming to an end, I began to look at my open schedule, and I remember being on a motorcycle in Switzerland, thinking we have one more show to do, I’m gonna get ready for my next activity creatively. I think I’ll spend this whole afternoon on the bike writing a poem about the stages of descent in the Alps. I’m coming down from 12,000 ft to this town. Let me see if I can describe how the landscape changes in each of the different stages. And I felt I had a bit of embryo talent for it by the time I was finished. And that got me off and running. Next … two days later, I had another inspiration for another idea. This was the first time that I began to be creative in the sense of bringing something into existence that wasn’t. Because all the work I did with Paul Simon was with Paul as writer, and the two of us as singers and as producers. So here I was for the first time creating fully, and so I was beginning to get that kick of speaking from my mind, and my memories, and my angst.

DS:It’s interesting, that story is interesting. It reminds me a little of the way James Dickey the poet started. It was in WWII, he was in the Philippines. He was walking along the side of a very dusty road, and he saw a row of flowers, and on those flowers was a fine sheen of dust, and Dickey looked at it and he said, that’s remarkable, he said, somebody should write about that. And then he said, no, I’ll write it. And he did. He did. Of course he had a stint as an advertising man in Atlanta, Coca Cola was one of his accounts before he became a full-fledged poet. He also wrote I think the movie called ‘Deliverance’ which he played the bit role of sheriff at the end, Dickey himself. Herbert Gold, who is a novelist based in San Francisco has refused to show any of his poems to anybody, but he has decided that every day of his life, he will get up in the morning and write a couplet. Something he feels, something he sees, something he observes. And that’s a wonderful way to express your ideas and thoughts even though he has declined to seek a publisher for them.

AG: I wonder if he shows them to wife and family or friends, because to write totally …

DS:He’s had many wives (chuckle).

AG: (Shares the chuckle) They all know his work … To write completely for oneself doesn’t seem to be true. We write, when the pen hits the paper, there’s some notion of someone on the other side of the paper.

DS:It’s a form of communication isn’t it?

AG: So you have some idea of who you are communicating with, even if it’s vague. To say that the person you are communicating with is the public at large, that is a leap of commerce. And that is an odd one, that requires some kind of ego, expansion, need, or something. And I guess I’ve got that bub.

DS:Well, a poem is an expression, not in every instance, but in yours certainly, an autobiographic effort to express a hurt, a longing, a feeling, a desire, a goal, an observation, and some of these things you can only do in poetic form, you just can’t do it in any other way.

AG: To care, to write it out, and to get it published, would it not be fair to say that you are trying to be of service to the human community, to risk and to be brave enough to tell your truth and risk the reviews of magazines so that you can add to common understanding what one person’s honest truth is about, so surely that has to come from some kind of wish to be of service to the human race?

DS:Yes, I think you are right. Also, there’s another element I think. Somebody told me this, and I thought about it a long time, and I believe it’s absolutely correct. It’s through a sense of poetry and through a sense of fiction, all poems don’t have to be literally true, but they can express deep-rooted sensibilities and feelings, and this sort of thing, so in many respects, poems are a form of fiction. Which is why I keep poems on my fiction shelf. But it is through the art of poetry and through the art of fiction that we know what we, what human beings actually feel in life. (AG tries to say something, but was talked over.) In non-fiction, you do not really get into the heart of a man or a woman, you could see what they do, see where they go, you could describe a historical event and this sort of thing, but through fiction you actually get into the skin of a person, or through poems, and how he feels as a human being.

AG: Exactly. Extremely necessary part of a culture. If you took it away, how would we know that our private disturbing feelings are shared by the rest of the human race? We would have a much greater alienation in the sense of I-dare-not-show-what-makes-me-tick-because-it-feels-so-unique-or-so-odd. And we’d be much more in our corners. So the culture very badly neeDS to share the emotional truth of what a human being is, which we all are.

DS:Well, in fact, I read some fiction and some poetry that have shocked me in the past because they are so brutally honest. They would describe for example a very easy lust, or a sexual longing. And when I grew up in the, when I was a teenager in the 1950s, and in my 20s in the 1960s, and in those days until the 60s really got hold, nobody really told you what lust was, or … there were some guide books, some signs … I remember driving across the Midwest with my father, and we stopped at a filling station, and inside the men’s room, there was a machine that sold condoms. I had no idea what this machine was, or what these condoms were. Because it said ‘sold for the prevention of disease only’. You couldn’t use it for any other purpose except to stop diseases. So my father came in, and I said, dad, what is that?

AG: Son, that’s going to take a long explanation.

DS:Well, almost. He said, I’ll tell you later. Now my father is now 82 years old, and he lives in Houston Texas, and I am still waiting for him to tell me. They didn’t tell you. But as you read, you had description of people in fictional context, or in poetic context, describing lust, or describing sex, and you could say to yourself, you know, I feel that way about myself, you mean other people feel that way? I can share these deep-rooted human emotions? Non-fictional writers don’t tell you that. They can’t.

AG: I think the word bravery is relevant here. Because to be a valid artist is to find the unique parts and disturbing parts of the self and to gamble that it’s universal, and to expose. And there’s a kind of courage.

DS:I have some questions about some of your poems, if you don’t mind.

AG: Sure.

DS:Some of them are obviously deeply personal, and some of them I didn’t understand because they deal with events, or characters, or happenings within your life that I don’t know about. The poet Robert Lowell went through various phases of his poetic existence. He started out writing what you would call I guess Catholic poems -- he was very concerned about faith God and so forth. He later evolved into an autobiographical poet, and unless you knew his life, you would have virtually no idea what he was talking about. Toward the end of his life, his work obviously represented the man of a very deeply disturbed man, mentally ill man, so he went through these phases. But in his autobiographical phase, I know a little bit about it now because I read the Ian Hamilton biography of Lowell, so I know some of the people he was referring to, and this sort of thing. But in your book, poem #25 for example, you make mention of people, I mean, I know who Bird is, Laurie Bird, I was trying to figure it out. Maybe you could explain the poem to me.

AG: Well, OK, I guess. I need …

DS:You don’t have to. It’s all right to create questions. You don’t have to tell everything in a poem.

AG: Of course if you feel a little unsatisfied through a lack of clarity then I didn’t do quite well.

DS:It’s not a lack of clarity. The poem is clear except you are talking about some events that I’m not exactly sure what’s happening here.

AG: In the late 70s I was making an album called Watermark. When I was in the mixing stage, I said to my lover, I need a few weeks to be completely in isolation to mix this.

DS:No, we are talking about a different poem. #25.

AG: Yes.

DS:This is on page 43?

AG: Hm-hmm. (yes)

DS:OK, I’m sorry, go ahead.

AG: And so, Laurie Bird, felt a little displaced to see me need to be so in isolation to do this. And she, somewhat put out by my needs, struck off on her own, and shortly after that was in this clothing shop in Los Angeles, and she ran into and befriended this girl Gayle. Gayle became my friend as well through the years. And I wrote this poem about Gayle’s meeting of Laurie, and how the two came together. Shall I read it?

DS:Uh …

AG: It’s a long one, so we …(was talked over)

DS:Uh, well, I have a couple more … uh I do want you to read a couple of poems. There’s one, in fact, there’s one, uh 34 is one I really especially liked, because I just liked the reference to foils. Why don’t you read that one? That’s an especially cunning poem I think.

AG: “(starts to read poem #34 but was interrupted)”

DS:Excuse me, Art, let me get you a little closer to the mike.

AG: This is what you write when you are remembering the days that you were first going to the Europe and those days I was with Paul and we were busking, street singing, in the streets of London. “(reads poem #34)”

DS:And I like that. That’s a very nice poem.

AG: Thanks. It helps to know I’m borrowing from an old Paul Simon song. The Leaves That Are Green Turn To Brown is his tune. And those old fans of ours will see that reverberation in the poem.

DS:Paul won’t mind. Another one I liked, because it reminded me of myself at various phases of my life and at various times of day and night, is #5, maybe you can do that one for me.

AG: (Chuckles) “(reads poem #5)”

DS:My story precisely.

AG: (With a smile in his voice) 18 tequillas huh Don?

DS:No, I think I’ve even done better than that on occasion. There was one poem in here …

AG: It’s my memory of Paul and I, this poem, and some of the behind-the-scenes difficulties. That one.

DS:The poem that you wrote, you wrote a couple of poems in here about your father. One I thought was particularly moving is #70. I would assume… no wait … yeah… #70. I presume this ...

AG: My dad died a couple of years ago.

DS:I presume this was something that led up to the death of your father.

AG: Yeah, he died like two weeks after this event. #70. “(reads poem #70)”

DS:It sounds like, he was holding out wasn’t he?

AG: Well, you know how we, in order to keep our front face proper, we do a lot of behind the scenes machinations, to the disservice of our health, in order to make that dentist appointment, or get that broker’s check from upstairs, so you forget your real needs, you forget your age, your health. It makes me think, why did he put his own needs so secondary to the need to get that check from upstairs so that broker can be paid?

DS:I don’t know that he necessarily forgot the needs, but to a certain degree, I have a feeling it’s an unwillingness to accept the fact that the body changes, and mentally in many respects, he may have felt like he did when he was 30. You know what I mean, but the body can’t carry that. Another very poignant poem is #7. This has to do with Laurie Bird …

AG: Laurie was my love from ‘75 to ‘79, and really she went through me, and the 80s were reclusive for me because it was hard getting over her loss.

DS:Would you care to read that one?

AG: “(reads poem #7) …(explains in the middle that ‘Nick is director and I made a film with Theresa Russell who had played Milena’) …”

DS:Has it helped you to write down some of these things that in some respects were hurtful periods in your life? Does it help?

AG: I don’t know. I think time is really what helps. And if you are trying to get over something that presses on the heart, I think really all you have is time. I don’t know if you accelerate that process by seeing a shrink, writing a book, or lying on a couch. I think it helps to find someone new, but it’s hard to find someone new when there’s the obstacle of the past in the way.

DS:I’ve noticed in my own case where there’s been a tragedy, in fact, there was a suicide in my own family, and even after I had put the specific memory behind me, I would feel something in my chest. It would be … I knew I was depressed, but I couldn’t remember exactly why, then I would all of a sudden remember, that’s why I’m depressed. Or when my mother died, I would forget about it. I’d go to work … or after my mother died, I’d go to work, all of a sudden I would feel this, almost this ‘tthump’, and I would begin to say why am I feeling that, and then I would remember. So in a way, our bodies are kind to us, in that respect, because the distance separates us.

AG: Yeah, the body shuts down if it can’t take in what’s too painful. It can sip away, but it can’t drink it. And it somehow says, I’ll take in what I must in time and only the body can know how to do that and how the time works. Yes we get a break from the overwhelming nature of sad events that way.

DS:You were studying for your Ph.D., weren’t you?

AG: Yeah, in Columbia.

DS:Did you abandon this?

AG: Yeah, I abandoned it when I started having hit records. (Chuckles.) I did a lot of years at Columbia. I got a Bachelor’s degree and went on to a Master’s. And then, kept going in mathematics for a Ph.D. But I was singing with Paul all the time, and working with the record company that’s right here in this building.

DS:That’s right. You spent probably many days here at Columbia Records.

AG: I know this building well. That kind of pull got me out of school.

DS:Yeah, I had some fraternity brothers back in college. They called themselves ‘The Four Winds’. They imitated everybody from ‘The Four Lads’ to ‘The Four Aces’.

AG: Yeah I liked that period, The Gaylords.

DS:They imitated every …The Hilltoppers and so forth. And uh, they got a RCA recording contract, and made one or two records. Wasn’t a big contract. Singles. 45s. And they quit school. And they went out on the road, and they toured in some nightclubs all over the country and made a few more records. And then the 60s came and things kind of dried up and they went back to college to finish … they all finished their degrees. Now they are selling insurance, or … every once in a while I suppose they get the old Vic recording out and hear ‘Colorado Moon’ or ‘She Wears Short Shorts’ one of their cover records. But you actually started very early didn’t you? In the 50s, with recording right?

AG: I remember that Alan Freed the disc jockey came to New York and invented the phrase ‘rock ‘n’ roll’, and started playing this subversive exciting music in 1954. I was 13. Paul Simon lived three blocks away from me. Same age. We both listened to the radios that many New Yorkers (did) and jumped on this wonderful rhythm and blues stuff from New Orleans and Chicago, this Chuck Berry, Little Richard stuff, and the fact that our age was so in sync with that birth and we were just being born in young adulthood is really what was lucky for us. We had a hit record by the time we were 16. We spent those years practicing and going to New York with our hearts in our throats making demos, knocking on doors of record companies. So all of that dealing with the fear of the audition kind of served us well. And having that hit, and seeing the stresses, and the nonsense of, well, the distortions of the limelight, the flattery that goes with it, that was part of the education.

DS:Well a pretty heavy, heady experience for young guys like that too.

AG: If you are a high school senior, it’ll trip you out, yeah. You get into public performing I think in order to win the girls. That’s the whole point of it, to impress the girls in the neighborhood. And after we had that initial hit, and we broke up our friendship and our group, it was about five years later that we came together, started using the name ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ instead of ‘Tom and Jerry’ which we were then, signed a contract with CBS, and then the world got to know us a year later through ‘Sounds of Silence’ and those big hits.

DS:Well, I have … I’m going to tell you some very good news.

AG: Good.

DS:I have … ‘course when the Walkman phase came I got all the Simon and Garfunkel albums as those of us who were in our 20s in the 1960s had. And I recorded them onto cassettes. Including the Boxer, which had a terrible scratch in it. ‘tch tch’ all the way through. So I resolved that after I finished the interview this afternoon, I’m going to go buy all of the Simon and Garfunkel records on cassettes, so I have fresh ones without all the surface noise and scratch and hiss and everything. (AG chuckles) Well, we are just about out of time, I did want to ask you one more thing, cause it’s such an intriguing interesting thing to do, something that I always thought I would like to do, for example in the year about 1961, I was fired from my first radio television job from a station in West Virginia, all I had was a Volkswagen, and I thought here’s a great time to take my Volkswagen and drive across America. Now I didn’t have the guts, so I went out and found another job at a radio station.

AG: I know just what you mean.

DS:But you are …

AG: I’m walking across the United States.

DS:You are walking across the United States. So tell me about this.

AG: Well, your experience of your being fired is a case of you’re un-programmed, the things you are connected you are suddenly unconnected to, gives you a wonderful philosophical chance to look at what comes next in your life and go, it’s rather wide-open, life is not a programmed affair. It can be, if I just keep kindness about me, the rest can be whatever. I started this walking stuff when I took a freighter trip across the Pacific. I traveled alone, got to Japan for the first time, had never been there and just decided then and there I’m gonna see the country on foot. And I checked what little baggage I had in a hotel, and I walked the country on foot. I stayed at whatever inns I could find, and walked through rice fields. Again the Sony Walkman is a great friend for these things. If you are a singer it’s great to be out there and use the clean air and the isolation to sing. Since that was such a wonderful success, I set off to cross America some years ago. I remember the day I left my apartment, put the sneakers on, went through Central Park, Columbia University, Grant’s Tomb, the George Washington Bridge, Fort Lee, New Jersey. Eight days later, I crossed Delaware into Pennsylvania. Then I came home, and picked up on this walk some months later, and added the next leg across the Amish country of southeast Pennsylvania, into Maryland, and now I’ve added about 15 legs to the trip. I’m in Lincoln, Nebraska now.

DS:You are doing this by yourself?

AG: I keep going out, sometimes by myself, sometimes I take my bride with me. So I go in all different ways. Usually I’m alone. I have my notebook in case I want to write.

DS:It’s not lonely?

AG: I’m used to that lonely. That word lonely is an old friend of mine. I live half my life in that solitary place. Mostly happy. I think I can fool myself about loneliness pretty well.

DS:You are taking … you said you are taking a notebook?

AG: Yeah.

DS:So thank goodness for that. We can see another volume, Still Water 2.

AG: We’ll see.

DS:At some point. But have … it may be premature to ask you, maybe it’s an unfair question, it’ll be my last one. But uh, I don’t how many hundreds of miles you’ve covered on foot …

AG: About 1,600.

DS:1,600? You’ve seen a lot of country. You’ve probably talked to a lot of people. Is there anything special that you have learned or observed up to this point in your travels, just by this very walk?

AG: Yes. The world is pretty much a safe place. That’s what I keep learning. It is not dark and scary out there. It’s about us, human beings trying to have happy lives without causing other people damage to the best of their ability. And yes we do hurt each other, but if one looks to stay out of trouble, one pretty much finds others will leave you be. And if you bring a smile, bring good-heartedness to other people, just about everyone will return the same in kind.

DS:Well, this does lead to one more question. And this will definitely be my last. You mentioned the people. What, most of us especially if you lived in the area of New York for more than 20 years, and in New York you don’t talk to strangers very often. A woman came up to me on the street corner the other day, on my way to CVS, because it was raining, but the sun was out. It was very bizarre. I even got my umbrella and I saw the sun and the rain. And this woman came up, and she nudged me in the shoulder. You don’t do this in New York. And she was laughing. She said isn’t this amazing?! Look the sun is out and it’s raining!

AG: (Chuckles) yes, it’s so un-New York.

DS:Yeah, and you know I was put off for a moment and I said maybe we could find a rainbow there.

AG: Good for you!

DS:And then I walked off. But normally you wouldn’t do that.

AG: No, that’s a real out-of-towner’s point of view.

DS:Yeah. But as you walked across America, have you talked to people, and have you found, what kind of people are Americans?

AG: I think they are people who are a little uninspired. We are part of a country that doesn’t have any great nobility about itself or any great vision. The only vision I see is the desire to make money. I don’t know what we stand for now. We are good-hearted people, but we don’t know what this is all in the service of, in terms of a direction. We’ve … Our direction is space, but that’s not good enough. What is our direction in terms of the values of the country? So I feel for people, because I know they are doing the best they can without a sense of inspiration for the country. Now people have their own personal inspiration, but I wish the culture had areas of height that would pull us up. And I don’t see it.

DS:Well, on that slightly pessimistic note. (Chuckle) Art Garfunkel, I’ve enjoyed your music over all these years. Many of these poems are quite nice and extremely moving. I thank you very very much.

AG: Thanks for the nice words , Don.