Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water

Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel were an odd couple, mismatched physically and emotionally, but their voices could produce the most gorgeous synthesis. Garfunkel was tall and gangling, with a shock of receding curly blond hair that seemed impervious to the attentions of a comb, and a personality that seemed both overtly romantic yet skittishly whimsical. Simon was short and stocky with at, straight hair, of serious demeanour and ostensibly unyielding in his concentration and intensity. Garfunkel was light and airy; Simon dark and brooding.

By the time this album was released they were unquestionably the most successful duo in pop. They went out in style with this blockbuster, a multi-million seller that at the time set sales records and, if they weren’t already, turned the duo into household names. As their career progressed, S&G took longer and longer to complete their work in the studio and, with the exception of two hastily contrived tracks, the lengthy gestation period of this album marks another important landmark in Simon’s eternal search for perfection.

It also marked the end of the partnership. Paul and Artie weren’t getting along any more: Simon wanted absolute control over the way his songs sounded, and Garfunkel wanted to be a lm star. Work on the album was held up while Garfunkel lmed his scenes in Catch 22, which annoyed his partner. Simon was also annoyed, not to say insulted, when the hierarchy at CBS pleaded with him not to go it alone, suggesting that without Garfunkel he was unlikely to succeed. The record company’s attitude, of course, was further intensified by the extraordinary sales gures the album notched up.

In many ways, Bridge Over Troubled Water became an icon of its era, its dull, blue-grey cover and washed-out picture of Simon & Garfunkel suggesting the doom and gloom that must surely follow the end of the 20th century’s most colourful decade. So many homes had a copy of this album that its songs became as well known as classics by The Beatles, but two and a half decades later, it’s dicult to justify exactly why it became the massive seller that it did. There were two huge hit singles, of course, in the title track and ‘The Boxer’, but at least four of the songs, all of them uptempo efforts, were inferior by the standards that Simon had set himself on earlier albums, and because of this there’s a slightly patchy feel to Bridge Over Troubled Water that wasn’t present on S&G’s previous album, Bookends, or even its predecessor, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme for that matter.

Perhaps it was because they split up that Simon & Garfunkel’s nal album attracted buyers in droves, all of them greedy for a nal slice of the most successful duo of the Sixties now that the decade was over. Perhaps it was because the two singles were so good, as good as anything that S&G ever recorded, that buyers assumed the whole album must be chockfull of wonderful tracks. Or perhaps it was because the record industry as a whole was approaching a boom period and Columbia (CBS in the UK), under the guidance of the dynamic Clive Davis, was leading the way.

Bridge topped both the US and UK charts in February 1970. In the US it remained in the charts for 24 weeks but, in the UK, it stayed there for an extraordinary 303 weeks.

Bridge Over Troubled Water

This elegant, majestic, piano-led ballad, the effective climax to Simon & Garfunkel’s partnership, has now become a popular standard, the most covered song that Simon ever wrote. Epic in its sweeping grandeur, ‘Bridge’ glides through three verses at a stately pace, evoking images of the power of healing followed by a transcendent conclusion to life’s burdensome journey. The resonant piano is played by session man Larry Knechtel.

Art Garfunkel’s reading of the song has a hymn-like quality, which suggests the gospel inuence that Simon would bring out on later live versions after S&G split up. But Garfunkel’s melliuous tenor is a far cry from the heaving gospel interpretations that Simon performed with The Dixie Hummingbirds and which, he often stated, was his preferred reading of the song. Garfunkel, of course, felt differently and wasn’t afraid to say so.

  There have been over 50 cover versions of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by such disparate artists as Elvis Presley, The Jackson 5, Perry Como, Lena Martell and Willie Nelson, not to mention a slew of male voice choirs. As a single, S&G’s version topped the charts in both the US and UK in February and March of 1970.

El Condor Pasa

Although not nearly so well known as the stately title track, in retrospect ‘El Condor Pasa’ can be seen as the most important track on the whole album. More than any other song in the Simon & Garfunkel catalogue, it pointed to the direction that Simon’s music would take for the next 20 years, insofar as it indicated his growing interest in music from regions other than North America (and Europe).

In its own way, ‘El Condor Pasa’ is also a stately anthem, owing at the serene, somewhat deliberate pace established by the fretted instruments of the South American group, Los Incas, whom Simon had apparently rst encountered and befriended in Paris many years before. The melody is borrowed from a Peruvian folk song to which Simon adds his own lyrics, subtitled ‘If I Could’, which oer a common sense, albeit somewhat prosaic, philosophy about life’s choices.

Cecilia

A light-hearted, uptempo romp dominated by the percussive track over which Simon sings, probably fairly spontaneously, about a faithless ladyfriend who invites another man into her bed while the singer is in the bathroom! The track was conceived in Los Angeles, at a house S & G rented in Beverly Hills, while the duo experimented with the reverb on Garfunkel’s tape machine. Joined by Simon’s brother Eddie on guitar, they created the backing track there and then. Other instruments — and the vocals — were added later in the studio.

By Simon’s standards, ‘Cecilia’ sounds like a throwaway, an experimental dance track with a carefree, singalong vocal, but it comes as a refreshing change after the solemn pace of the title track and the rather po-faced lyrics of ‘El Condor Pasa’.

In 1996, it was covered without distinction by Suggs, the singer from Madness, who took it to number four in the UK singles charts.

Keep The Customer Satised

Maintaining the brisk pace, this is an update on ‘Homeward Bound’ but, instead of longing to return to his love life, our troubador is now quite simply fed up of the road, dead tired and longing for some peace and quiet. Some might argue that singing about the displeasures of rock stardom, and the boredom of being on the road, smacks of sour grapes when you’ve banked a million dollars and, o the road, enjoy a lifestyle akin to an emperor. But there can be no doubt that Simon, at least, was tired of Simon & Garfunkel, though not necessarily of his career in music. Not one of the most distinguished oerings on Bridge.

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

Sung by Garfunkel alone, this lush ballad operates on two levels, rstly as a tribute to the celebrated American architect, and secondly as a nostalgic look back to the S&G partnership as it comes to an end. It also acts as a tribute from Simon to his buddy, who might have become an architect had Simon’s songs not got in the way.

With a melody that comes close to the grandeur of the title track, the lyrics suggest the parting round the corner; this is one of two instances on the album where Simon drops his guard slightly and admits to having second thoughts about ditching a partner who could sing as beautifully as Garfunkel. In the long fade-out, Simon and producer Roy Halee can be heard faintly chanting: “So long, already, Artie”. Keep raising the volume and a logical conclusion can be heard just before the track fades to silence.

The Boxer

Staking its claim to stand alongside the very best songs Paul Simon has ever written, ‘The Boxer’ is a subtle commentary on man’s inhumanity to man and, more crucially, a scathing castigation of American society’s preoccupation with winners and lack of sympathy for losers. It’s also a new tune, propelled by a fast, intricate guitar figure that underpins the melody, lingering and returning over ebbs and flows from major to minor chords until the song breaks out into its swaggering, full-throated climax. It’s quite possible, too, that ‘The Boxer’ was the rst song to incorporate the word “whore” in its lyrics and, by extension, to reach US airwaves.

The possible identity of the “boxer” has been the subject of some speculation. Some have suggested it is about Bob Dylan, who covered the song on his Self Portrait album in 1970, while another school of thought thinks it is about Simon himself, though the details of the boxer’s life are clearly not autobiographical. However, a song doesn’t have to be literally true or about a specific individual. The hero of the song is the archetypal underdog, standing up bloody but unbowed to all that society (or even rock critics) can throw at him.

Unlike so many of the songs from the Simon & Garfunkel era, ‘The Boxer’ refuses to date, and Simon has repeatedly returned to the song in concert over the years, often changing the arrangement and, on many occasions, adding a central verse not heard in this original version, which suggests that time cannot erode the value of anything that is genuinely virtuous. Such sentiments — and the line, “After changes upon changes we are more or less the same” — inevitably win heartfelt applause from long-time fans.

As a single, ‘The Boxer’ reached number seven in the US charts and number six in the UK.

Baby Driver

It’s to be hoped that Simon’s point of view was tongue-in-cheek on this rocker, with apparently smug, self-satisfied lyrics about his well-to-do family, comfortable lifestyle and, in the nal verses, determination to experiment sexually.

As seems to be the pattern on this album, the uptempo songs carry considerably less weight than the slower ones, into which far more thought and care has been invested. Like ‘Keep The Customer Satisfied and ‘Why Don’t You Write Me’, which follows, ‘Baby Driver’ is quite dispensable, and it is the inclusion of these inferior tracks that always begs the question as to why the album as a whole sold as remarkably as it did.

Only Living Boy In New York

Unusually, Simon takes the lead vocals on a slow, dramatic ballad, which, in different circumstances might have been more suited to Garfunkel’s style and voice. As the lyrics imply, however, Simon wrote this touching song while his partner was away in Mexico film Catch 22 — looking for a future without his old friend — and, like ‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’, there’s more than a suggestion of regret in Simon’s words. Tom, of course, refers to Tom Graph, Jerry’s partner in the Tom & Jerry days of long ago.

The song is carried by another beautiful melody, well up to the standard of the title track and the other outstanding ballads on this record.

Everything But The Girl’s eloquent cover of this song scraped into the UK Top 50 in 1993.

Why Don’t You Write Me

Simon’s first stab at reggae is unconvincing. He would later admit as much and, to make amends, travel down to Jamaica to record the infinitely superior ‘Mother And Child Reunion’ on the next album he made. With slight lyrics that castigate a poor correspondent, the rhythm track is amateurish and clumsy, a poor imitation of the real thing, and a further example of the yawning gap between the quality songs on Bridge and the largely uptempo throwaway stuff.

Bye Bye Love

(Felice & Boudleaux Bryant)

Until the emergence of S&G, The Everly Brothers were the most successful duo in American popular music and an obvious influence on S&G, and it seems fitting that their successors should offer some sort of tribute as they retired from the contest. ‘Bye Bye Love’ was Don and Phil Everly’s début hit in 1957, a sorry tale of lost love set to the kind of rhythm that suggests it doesn’t really matter because we’re only young and we’ll fall in love with somebody else next week anyway.

Simon & Garfunkel’s version, recorded live during the previous year, stays faithful to The Everly Brothers’ arrangement and is executed with appropriate finesse and gusto.

Song For The Asking

This charming closing ballad is a plaintive declaration of love, touching in its simplicity, brief but heartfelt. Take me as I am, imperfections too, Simon is saying in this particularly honest declaration of modesty.

Significantly, the closing song on the final Simon & Garfunkel album features Simon’s solo, although ballads like this, and the three that preceded it here, would be few and far between in his solo career. Without Garfunkel to sing them, Simon seemed less far inclined toward the smooth, harmonious ballads that grace this album. A pity.

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