Art Garfunkel: 'Singing is always an act of faith'

Art Garfunkel on turning 70, backing the Occupy protest, his relationship with Paul Simon – and how, more than 40 years ago, they recorded a classic.

December 31, 2011
UK Guardian-The Observer
Tim Adams

Bridge Over Troubled Water, the last Simon and Garfunkel studio album, was released in 1970. Looking back does it feel like more than just the end of your partnership with Paul Simon?

Yes, it does. Things fell of a cliff when the 1970s began. That was the point where in America and in Britain we really embraced the culture of money, and what was of value from the previous decade was left behind. To me it became a bankrupt scene in our two countries.

Are we seeing the fallout of that now?

The hippy spirit, if I can use that unfortunate term, was really a generational striving for cultural value and meaning. It was an expansive search for what might be the point of our civilisation. It seems perhaps to be coming around again. But this time we need to turn it into real change.

So you feel some kinship with the Occupy movement?

Absolutely. I mean to the extent they are saying it can't all be about this profit motive gone wild. You can't have a society where a $12m bonus is considered "not enough" by some people. The numbers drive you crazy. But of course I sit here in my very nice apartment not giving all my money away, and comfort myself with the thought that if they changed the tax system to make the rich pay a whole lot more I would say "hear, hear".

You walked across America, in stages, a few years back, now you are trekking across Europe. How far have you got?

I was there a couple of weeks ago in northern Greece. I am 99% completed in my diagonal south-east direction, from Shannon to Istanbul.

Do you walk alone?

Usually. I take a little journal. I don't look for experiences, I just keep trucking. The physical body takes over. It is the cosmic exhale that I pursue. Eyes and breath.

Writing seems to have become a major preoccupation the second half of your life – prose poetry in particular – were you also writing in the 1960s?

No, in the 1960s I was very busy being a studio rat. I gave away those years to the fun of record making and polishing and producing. Later I discovered partying, which is not such a bad word for what I did in the 1970s. Hanging out with my famous friends, and all that. I started writing in the 1980s, just these little fragments and pages, which I continue to do. I am also working on the story of my life, sketching who I was, how I came to have this voice that raises goosebumps, how I met Paul Simon. All of that.

It must feel "terribly strange to be 70", to borrow your line from "Bookends"?

To tell you the truth it is extremely unstrange. I am still going from project to project. I look up and notice my age from time to time, but then it is on with the next thing.

Paul Simon was 70 in October, a month before you, did you celebrate together?

We celebrated his birthday at a party down in Greenwich Village. We all came. I took the opposite approach, I saw 70 coming like a wave, and I just dove under it.

You said recently that when you were performing with Simon, for a long time every day seemed better than the day before. Did you know that was coming to an end when you released Bridge Over Troubled Water?

No. It felt like it was time for a rest from being with Paul Simon, that's all. I didn't think it was time to terminate Simon and Garfunkel because I thought Simon and Garfunkel was a terrific thing, it had more albums in it, more laughs in it. But Mr Simon had a different point of view, I suppose.

What was his point of view, do you think? looking back?

His point of view was: "I'm hurt to see Artie go off and put Mike Nichols's movie [Carnal Knowledge] at the centre of his life." Mine was, well: "Paul is the one who holds the guitar and writes the songs, maybe I should enrich the Garfunkel side of this a little, try being a film actor for a while".

Listening again to "Bridge Over Troubled Water" itself I am struck by how it takes off in that third verse – that was a shift that you suggested?

I did. You can look at songwriting, at which Paul Simon is clearly a master, and you can look at singing, the Frank Sinatra part of the thing, which we both did. In between the two is record making. I heard "Bridge of Trouble Water" first as this two-verse beautiful hymn of peace. But I thought it had the possibility to go into high gear, do this Phil Spector thing, and take off.

Paul was wary of that high gear, temperamentally as much as anything?

He is like a purist, in that way. "No Artie, I wrote it as a hymn." But he did open himself up to it and wrote the third verse…

You went to pray in St Bartholomew's church in New York while recording the track. What did you pray for?

When I did the vocal I did the big last verse first and nailed it. But the first verse required a delicacy that was maddening. I couldn't get it. So it was, just: Lord help me relax. Help me find that lovely place as a performer when you believe you get a visitation from higher powers, and it passes through you.

Do you still access that every time you sing that song?

I do. I'm a lucky son of a gun in that respect. Singing has always been this 12-, 13-, 14-year-old's experience for me. It doesn't age. The brain has more experience of life, I've known heartbreak, I've known frustration. I am a different man. But singing has been a constant.

Is it also, always, an act of faith?

To analyse singing and to think of what it is like is the devil's business. How you move from one word to another, how you connect the heart to the lyric and how you chase after the loveliness of a melodic line. It eludes analysis, largely. But to be out on stage and take a breath and hope a perfect sound will emerge, that is always an act of faith.

When Bridge Over Troubled Water came out it seemed something like the voice of America, designed to soothe a nation that was convulsing over Vietnam and the end of 1960s hopes. Did it feel consciously like that?

I was very aware there was something soothing going on. I don't know if it was the voice of America, or just a voice of humanity. To step on stage in 1981 and play for half a million New Yorkers gave me a feeling we had done something right, though. Now jump ahead 30 years and you feel there might be some lasting power in those songs. It's an unexpected thrill.

Is that something you can celebrate with Paul, or are there complications still?

You know what I think of when you say that: who knows what Paul Simon is thinking or celebrating? We are different chaps. Celebrate is a fair word for me, though. But we don't talk about it, and who can fathom his soul?

In that sense it feels like a familial relationship. You've been through a lot together...

Well, brothers can be very different. And it is like that in this respect: in a family you can act out all different kinds of bullshit and know that you will always hang together beyond it.

As a journalist, I‘ve done my share of big interviews. By choice, many have been “heroes” of mine growing up – Neil Armstrong, Joe Frazier, Sir Edmund Hillary, Ginger Baker, Sir Roger Bannister. As such, while exciting, each requires me to keep a certain distance from any biased preconceptions going in.