Art Garfunkel: The Cream Interview
Jan 18, 2019
Art Garfunkel’s 2017 memoir, What Is It All but Luminous: Notes From an Underground Man, might strike the casual reader as the sort of non-linear book a famous ’60s person would write about making his way in the decade of The Beatles, Andy Warhol and Simon & Garfunkel. As you may know, Garfunkel, who brings his current show to the Ryman on Sunday night, hit the charts and made history in the ’60s with singing partner and songwriter Paul Simon, who wrote such tunes as “The Sound of Silence,” “Homeward Bound,” “Fakin’ It” and “America.” Like Simon, Garfunkel was a New York teenager whose head had been turned by the sounds coming out of New York, New Orleans and Memphis in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Simon & Garfunkel began their career as Everly Brothers epigones, recording a hit single, 1957's “Hey, Schoolgirl,”under the stage moniker of Tom & Jerry. The duo achieved fame in 1965 with a Simon song called “The Sound of Silence,” which benefited from the electric guitars and drums Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson added to the original, folkish recording of the tune. By the middle of February 1966, they'd sold half-a-million copies of “The Sound of Silence,” and they were off and running as musical avatars of a decade that was alienated, wistful and youth-obsessed.
Like The Beatles, and maybe even Andy Warhol, Simon & Garfunkel gave audiences the impression of unity and fellowship, as if their harmonies could act like a shield against the confusion of a fractious, technologically advanced period. Garfunkel’s pure high tenor voice fleshed out Simon’s increasingly minimalist and acerbic songs.The sense of unity, however, was an illusion, and by the time Simon & Garfunkel made it to the 1970s, it was over for the two friends from Queens, at least professionally. (They would reunite sporadically over the next decades.) Garfunkel’s vocal performance on Simon’s 1970 song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is, perhaps, Garfunkel’s high point as a singer.
While Simon reinvented himself as a pop tunesmith who drew inspiration from what we would now call roots music, Garfunkel released well-made, soft-pop albums in the ’70s and ’80s. He took memorable turns as an actor in 1971‘s Carnal Knowledge and director Nicolas Roeg’s bizarre 1980 movie Bad Timing. As he writes in the more linear sections of What Is It All but Luminous, he has also walked across both North America and Europe. He is, as he points out in the memoir, a bibliophile. He pauses frequently in What Is It All but Luminous to list the books he has read, which is one reason you can tell he’s not a rock ’n’ roll star. Among his favorites are works by Balzac, Kafka, Montaigne and Edith Wharton.
What Is It All but Luminous is the work of a civilized person with a flair for writing prose poems, which feature heavily in the book. In fact, the form of the gnomic prose poem may be the best vehicle to carry his most interesting insights. I caught up with the 77-year-old singer via phone at his New York office. Garfunkel’s voice is deeper than you would imagine, and very rich. The great singer is also a wide-ranging, funny conversationalist.
Art, I’ve been reading your memoir over the past week, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
It is wild, isn’t it?
It is wild. It has a lot of range, from straight narratives to prose poems, and your lists of the books you’ve read are fascinating. I notice you’ve read Balzac, a very interesting writer.
Well, yeah, he’s a great French writer. He takes you into what it’s really like to be in 19th-century France, in the Loire Valley, or in Paris. Of his hundred novels, half of them are of Paris life, and the other half are country life, usually south of Paris. But he’s so wonderfully descriptive about what it’s really like to be there. He’s a forgotten man. You don’t hear that name at all nowadays: Honoré de Balzac. When you see pictures of him, he was so ruddy and alive. You just know he was a steak eater and an alcohol drinker. He’s got such a furious amount of energy
What is your current tour like, Art?
I don’t look at it as a tour. I just look at it as: "This is what I do." I go out on the road and I do shows, usually on the weekend. Are they tours? They’re mini-tours. This is my life. I sing; I have a booking agent; he finds me stages; and I go all over the world and I do my shows. I love it. It’s great to be able to get away with singing, warbling, making those tones. [sings] Aahh. To do that and get away with it, and that’s your living, and you do these famous songs, and they pay you, and you move on to the next town — I love this deal.?
I would guess that Simon & Garfunkel played Nashville during the late ’60s.
Oh, I’m sure we did. [On further research: multiple databases list a Simon & Garfunkel appearance at Vanderbilt University on May 13, 1966.] See, my memory is not great. Your question makes me think, surely we did. Simon & Garfunkel reached a lot of Americans. How’s Nashville, Edd? My impression is it’s exploding in population.
Yes, it is, and the city, as I’m sure you’ve read, is growing rapidly in every other way as well.
[Nashville is] such a big hit in America. You’ve got Vegas, you’ve got Nashville, and you’ve got Charleston, South Carolina, that’s big. There’s a few cities, half a dozen, that America is really in love with. You know what Nashville means to me? As an old-timer who’s been in Nashville many times, and has cut many records, Nashville is the place where the studio musicians are so wonderful that after you show them the tune, and you make a chart, and they run it down once, they say to you, “All right, how do you want the intro to be? How do you want the outro to be? How do you wanna go into the instrumental break? How do you wanna come out of it?” And they reach for their pencils, and they make those four notes. And then they say, “Roll the tape.” And then they give you a take that is right in the pocket. There it is. Nobody does this. Nobody in the world can do this.
The Nashville Number System has certainly facilitated a lot of great records.
You’re being very cool about something that’s really extremely exciting, Edd. I guess this is your style. You sit on the things that are exciting. Why? You should be going, “Oh, my God, I know they do that. But you’ve been in the studio with them, Art. Are they really that amazing?” And I would say, “It’s really shocking how good they are.”
The studio musicians here are certainly great. I know jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond played on some of your recordings. Did you meet him?
Yes, I knew him through Mort Lewis. Mort was our manager, Simon & Garfunkel’s manager, for years. Mort was [jazz pianist] Dave Brubeck’s friend and manager, so he was tight with Paul Desmond. And I got to know that charming gentleman. What an ace. Why can’t I be like Paul Desmond? Paul Desmond was with us when we were making “The Boxer” in New York at St. Paul’s Chapel, when we were doing the “la-la-las.” On my old campus, Columbia [University]. Because there was a chapel with a dome, a perfect tiled dome, and it gave you brilliant echo.
And [producer] Roy Halee brought up our studio musicians. He called it a field recording. He brought up all the recording equipment. And in this church with the dome, under the dome at the Columbia campus, my old alma mater, we went [sings], “La, la la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la,” and then we did the next take [sings], “La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.” You can see us raising in harmony. We stacked up about 16 different harmonies. Desmond was there.
How is your current show structured?
I’m gonna do about 90 minutes, with an intermission. I’m gonna split it up with half Simon & Garfunkel stuff and half my own stuff. I have made about 12 solo albums through the years. So, I love my stuff. I love the whole show. What’s different in my show from others is that I write. I became a writer over the years. I walked across the U.S. and walked across Europe. Wait a minute, Art — did you say you walked across the U.S.? Yeah, and I walked Europe, and I keep a notebook in my pocket and I write. And over the years I’ve become a bit of an interesting writer of prose poems, and I will serve up a few of them in my show between the songs. You might find that they set up the songs. They’re relevant.
I will not leave out the obvious songs. There will be “Scarborough Fair.” I will get in the famous Simon & Garfunkel hits, because it would be coy to not do them. I’ll do some of my own. I’ve had hits of my own. [sings] “New York, to that tall skyline I come.” So the voice is back, and it’s a real pleasure to have it and use it.
You had a role in Nicolas Roeg’s 1980 movie Bad Timing, which didn’t get a lot of play when it was released. What was it like working with Roeg?
It’s too crazy, Edd. You know, it’s always good to answer questions with what comes to your mind immediately, so you don’t think. You just give the gut reaction. The word that comes to my mind is “handsome.” Nic was — he just died two weeks, three weeks ago. [Roeg died in London on Nov. 23, 2018.] He was very handsome and charismatic. Very fine, very beautifully put together. What a great English gentleman he was. And this is the package; this is the image. Inside there’s a man like the rest of us. He treated me wonderfully. He gave me the feeling that he thought, “I’m impressed with where you’re taking the character. I think I’ll stay out of the way.” And he gave me the great freedom to go very intense about this guy. [Bad Timing] is love gone wrong. I have to play Theresa Russell’s lover, where she takes him on a ride that goes south. It’s a weird movie.
You and Paul Simon got your start in New York in the late ’50s by knocking on doors at places like The Brill Building, a famous songwriters’ and song publishers’ enclave on Broadway. What were those days like?
The Brill Building, on Broadway and 50th Street, was in the heart of the honky-tonk, messy, unattractive, Broadway, New York, noisy-traffic scene. Only Broadway comes down in the streets in a diagonal. All the other streets are grids. On Broadway and 50th was The Brill Building. It was 12 stories and it still is. It’s so well-loved they won’t tear it down, but everything around it now has been changed. New York is in such a state of reconstruction. When I went to The Brill Building I was invariably with my friend Paul Simon. And he was carrying his guitar. And we would take the train, the E train or the F train, from Queens, and we would get off on 53rd Street, and we would walk south a few blocks to The Brill Building. It was either that or 1650 Broadway. That was the other address. We knew these addresses because we saw them on the label on the records we bought. They were vinyl records. They were 78-RPMs and then they were 45s. On the label was the name of the record company, and their address.
We knocked on the doors and we flattered them by letting them know that, “You guys here make records, and we are the kids who know.” They respected us. “We have our own songs,” we said. We tried to show ’em songs we wrote, and they stopped us after 12 seconds: “What else you got?” That was brusque. We were learning about getting the door smashed in our face right away. They were old men smoking cigars, 55 years old, fat, and just hardly had the time of day. But they were looking for material. They knew that these kids, that’s us, command the new audience for rock ’n’ roll. And then, if we had a catchy tune, they wanted to do business off of us. They liked our [song] “Hey, Schoolgirl.” And we recorded it, and we sold 150,000 copies. We were high-school seniors. The Brill Building was where it happened.