Silence like a Cancer Grows: Lockdown Conversation with Garfunkel, Part One.

The sound of silence between Simon and Garfunkel, he says, has gone on too long

Simon & Garfunkel, “America”

Artie’s in lockdown at his Manhattan home, where he lives with his wife. He’s singing “America” a cappella: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together….” Line by line, going over each, saying which he liked, and which he didn’t so much. Lines written by Paul Simon.

This was unexpected, but great. Conversations with Garfunkel are always surprising and enthralling, if sometimes poignantly perplexing. The first time, after we did a long interview, he told me with an intensity, “Just remember – there is a lot of love between Simon and Garfunkel.”

The most poignant and unexpected passage this time was when Artie grew suddenly somber, and spoke about the sad gulf of silence between Simon and Garfunkel. As he repeated this more than once, it seemed an overt indication that he wanted it to be published. As it also did when he spoke directly to his old partner through this interview:

“Paul,” he said, “read this American Songwriter interview and give me a phone call.” That entreaty comes towards the end of this interview.

He quoted one line from their first hit, the song that almost disappeared into oblivion before it was injected with electricity, and ultimately introduced them to the world forever, “The Sound of Silence.”

He repeated it darkly, several times. This line we’ve heard for decades, he said, saddens him because it applies to Simon and Garfunkel, 2020.

“Silence, like a cancer, grows.”

Simon & Garfunkel. Photo by Henry Diltz/Morrison Hotel

Asked how he’s endured this season of isolation, he said he enjoyed it, and that New York was more peaceful than ever. For him, he said, it was a time about books. But every time for him is a time about books. He doesn’t listen to music much anymore, but he reads a lot. A whole lot. Also walks a whole lot.

His delightful and unconventional 2017 memoir What Is It All but Luminous: Notes from an Underground Man triggered the wrath of some reviewers who had a really tough time with his inclusion of many lists; of the multitude of long walks taken all over the globe, and of all the books he’s read. Critics objected to this because it’s not done, they wrote. Yet that isn’t accurate anymore, as Artie has done it. Deal with it.

In fact, it’s essential Artie. This is who he is. He’s not the kind of guy who does anything much in life that isn’t worth remembering. Whether it’s the 300 mile stretch he walked between Tokyo and Kagawa, or reading The Immoralist by André Gide, it’s all worth saving.

He’s not the type for a disposable existence at all. Savor the day, honor the experience of living inside every moment, and every song.

It’s not about passing time, it’s about feeling alive. To embrace all that is luminous, even now in the days of darkness and dissonance. To harmonize, and sing like an angel even here on this earth. 

As they sang in “Bookends” long ago: “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you…”

Simon & Garfunkel, “The Sound of Silence”

AMERICAN SONGWRITER: We recently asked our readers which songs have helped get them through this lockdown. The number one song by far was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” 

ART GARFUNKEL: No shit?

No, none! Would I lie to you?

[Laughter] You sure you’re not just saying the nice thing? Because there’s something a little perfect about that.

It is a little perfect. But shows how much that song means to people. It is one of those great records of all time, and as powerful now as ever. Which is due to the song, of course, but also that guy singing it. 

[Laughs] It’s what one would hope to hear, that the message is touching and it leads to an emotional slush. Okay, then. I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I’ll take it.

You should. You did great work. And it lasts. It matters as much now as ever, if not more. 

I did my best. I had this very thing in mind.

Also, hearing human harmony is especially nurturing right now, especially given all the dissonance there is. It gives us hope. 

I watched that dissonance set in. My years have been tracking sonics. Studio sonics. For decade after decade after decade. I have seen abrasiveness. Abrasiveness, Paul. I’ve seen it arrive and grow, and become fundamental. It’s been awful. In praise of ugliness, and now to let the ugliness rule. Decade after decade. 

If I picked an example, it would be rude. But I watched the love of ugly grow. And it was more than acceptable and stylish. It was horrible. Is it  acceptable?  All right. But the way of things ugly as an aesthetic? Ugly? I watched that come in. And it’s sad.

Yet what you did was the absolute opposite. It was about beauty. 

[Sings] “All come to look for America…” And now Artie goes [sings the high part] “All come to look for America…”

And now Artie holds on to the suspended note: [sings] “All come to look for America…” 

He holds the top note beyond the beat. It’s the suspension. And it’s a dissonance with his partner Paul. And the dissonant rub really rubs groovy, it’s like great sex. It rubs just right. It’s dissonance, but it’s not too dissonant. It’s the right amount. 

[sings] “To look for America…” 

It works. It works so much that the Bernie Sanders campaign felt it was the thrilling way to wave the American flag, and show that Bernie is our guy for the next four years. And that’s the power of good harmony.

A good choice on his part. It’s inspirational. 

We both agree.

It’s interesting you went right to “America”  Because it still sounds so good. Maybe better than ever.

Well, Paul [Simon] was a killer of a writer.

Yeah, he’s pretty good, you’re right. I didn’t realize for years that it has no rhymes. 

That’s right. I never liked it. For years and years, it was one of my lesser favorites.

Really? Why is that?

I didn’t like how it began. I hated “some real estate here in my bag.”

Really?

Come on, Paul. “Here in my bag?” What’s his bag? 

[Sings] “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together. I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.” I hated the choice of that word. 

[Sings] “So we bought a pack of cigarettes, and Mrs. Wagner’s  pies.”

All right. The love of specifics.

[Sings] “Then we walked off to look for…”  I like that the rhythm now kicks in, and then it has a forward motion. And then the harmony becomes interesting. 

`Kathy,’ I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh…”  Now it moves along. 

I don’t want to sing the whole song, Paul. But I do want you to sing the whole song!

[Laughter] But you sing it better.

[Laughs] So I didn’t like the beginning of the song so much, with Mrs. Wagner’s pies. But as soon as they walked off to look for America, that has a nice hopeful thing. That I like. The rhythm is forward-leaning, and has a forward march. 

[Sings] “And we walked off to look for America…” You can feel the forward-leaning intention in the rhythm. 

“‘Kathy,’ I said, as we boarded a Greyhound…” It swings with a nice harmony. It’s a sixth. And now we’re laughing on the bus. And now I take the middle eight. 

[Sings] “Playing games with the faces. She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy…” 

Very quirky. Really weird. Paul wrote it, I sang it. What can I say, Paul? We made it famous. But it’s quirky as all hell.

It is. But we love the quirkiness. 

I did my best with it. Paul wrote it. I just delivered as if I loved the quirkiness.

So many of those songs could be called quirky

That’s a good point. Paul Simon is idiosyncratic. And Garfunkel does his best to be a singer who delivers the writer’s intention, as he did when Garfunkel was an actor.

It was 1967, the year of Sgt. Pepper. A lot of those Bookends songs have playful, surreal language, such as “Punky’s Dilemma.”

Is that “I wish I was a Kellogg’s corn flake”?

Yes. 

Singing Paul Simon’s songs doesn’t bother me. The challenge of it is nice. [Laughter]

But “America”–

Well, don’t sell the quirkiness of “America” short. It is a strength, What’s the middle eight?

[Sings] “Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces. He says the man in the gabardine suit was a spy. I said be careful, his bowtie is really a camera…”

“Singing Paul Simon’s songs doesn’t bother me. The challenge of it is nice.”

His bow tie is really a camera? Okay.

And now it fades away. The chords are nice.
 
[Sings] “Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat…

Now here you’ve got to love it. The writer is going for chords that have a sadness to them, a sadness setting into the chord changes, you’ve got to love it. 

[Sings] “Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat…”  

I would prefer not to sing it now, because it’s very good writing. It’s touching now. 

We did good work. We were a good group.We were good in our day, Paul. 

When you and Paul sang “American Tune” in your concert in Central Park, it was stunning. That is the best version of that song. Your part is just beautiful and perfect. 

I adore that song. I really have a connection to “American Tune.” 

I have yet to show the world how much juice I find in that song and the lyric, and, I’m sure, that well-written harmony that’s executed beautifully will get my point across. There’s a lot of juice in “American Tune.”  It’s really about this country. I haven’t quite gotten it across as a singer yet, but I will.

I wonder if I still didn’t quite live up to what I hear in my visionary mind, Paul, which I have yet to execute, with all due respect. Thank you for your compliment. I have a feeling there’s something truly magical that lies in the harmony there, which I haven’t given you, yet. I hear it sometimes when I sing into myself.

Before I die, I’ll show you what I mean.

Good. I’m going to hold you to that. Of all his solo songs, none sounds more like a Simon & Garfunkel song as this. It is meant for your two voices together. 

It came from me. Paul wrote “American Tune” when we split up as if to say, “See what you’re missing, Artie. I know you love this song. It’s right up your alley. Well, you turn your back on me.” 

But I know exactly what you mean. It’s right up our alley.

Simon & Garfunkel, “American Tune,”
from the Concert in Central Park, September 19, 1981

And we’re in an even more uncertain hour now than we were then, when he wrote it, during the Nixon era. And we thought it was never going to be that bad again.

Yeah, we keep getting these blows. Are we a young country or are we an old country now that we’re up to 2020? So we’re just over 200 years old. We’re young.

“My Little Town,” which was a Simon & Garfunkel reunion record on both your albums. It’s an unusual song–

Well, it was surprisingly black. I remember it as black. I felt that this one’s not going to be melodic at all. I know they love Simon & Garfunkel’s sweet tooth. We could be funky and pretty in a surprising way that’s quite witty when we want to be, and we use it a lot.

But here’s one that hardly has any of that. It’s done very sparingly. And then it gets real pretty. It’s sweet stuff in a careful way that fits the lyric.

And a dark lyric, “Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town.”

It’s a little bit dark, yeah. It’s bitter. It’s about how unimaginative they were, where I come from.

Now you know my friend Paul. He’s had an angry side of how unimaginative they were, those people where I come from.

On Bridge, though, when you went off to make Catch 22, Paul wrote not one but two beautiful songs for you –

[Sings] “Tom, get your plane right on time,” you mean?

Yes. “The Only Living Boy in New York” and “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.”

(singing) “So long, Frank Lloyd Wright…. I can’t believe your song is gone so soon.”

Do you remember how you felt when you heard those songs? There’s a lot of love in them.

These are great questions. All I have to do is give my Simon and Garfunkel career its proper importance, and then I can appreciate your whole interview, Paul. Because I respect my group. It was a wonderful thing we achieved. 

And so this question goes right to that wonderfulness: Did you feel, Artie, when you were singing it, that he was writing these wonderful songs about your departure?
(Sings) “So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.” There you were, the architect.

(Sings) “I can’t believe your song is gone so soon….” 

He’s telling you he can’t believe you’re gone. This friendship has come, and now… it’s fucking gone. And he can’t believe it. And he’s giving you, in your mouth, these lyrics to sing.

What a world.

How did that feel for you? 

Well, first and foremost, it feels like a singer with a job to do. It’s great fun to sing. When you have great material, great lyrics, great chord changes, then the vocal cords leap with appetite to the microphone. They want to tear the shit out of the singing of the song.

It’s appetite, man. All you need is really good songwriting, and you go, “What time is the date? Will Roy be there?”

Yet it was so personal. It’s not like Lennon and McCartney were writing those songs to each other. It’s loving. 

I divorce any emotional overtones.  Only after the fact did I start thinking about things like that he wrote it to me. You could say it’s a song of rejection. You could say all kinds of shit. I never got into that. I got into the melody. As a singer, my appetite to sing that damn song comes to the melody. Does the melody move? Does it move me? Is it a piece of good singer’s candy? That’s all I think about.

I always felt the line, “Let your honesty shine, shine” was beautiful. One of my friends said, “No, I think it’s sarcastic. I think he’s being ironic about that, mocking that he’s not honest.” 

I’ll tell you something about your friend. His heart is showing his limitation. He should believe in the sincerity of a writer’s sweet statement. There’s no reason to not believe in Paul Simon’s sweetness at a moment like that. 

If your friend opts for sarcasm, I’m sorry, but that’s a real choice of his heart’s limitation, because I’m friends with Paul Simon. I’ve known him many years. I take that as very sweet and loving. He knows that Art Garfunkel has a very beautiful honesty, and Paul Simon is trying to say, “When you get to Mexico, let your honesty shine, shine like it has shined on me all these years.” It’s all fucking sincere.

Don’t let your friend confuse you, as his heart has a limitation to it. Or he has a language limitation. I think that’s one of Paul Simon’s sweetest moments as a songwriter.

The song has quite a title too. Such a way of putting loneliness, in New York of all places.

How about that song during the coronavirus time? “I am the only living boy in New York right now in my apartment, avoiding the virus.”

It’s so odd to think Broadway is closed, and that there’s a hospital set up in Central Park.

It’s extremely odd. You should be here. In many ways, it’s safe. It’s very cool and empty. There’s nothing really wrong with it. You’d be amazed if you were in New York right now. There’s nobody here, so what’s the problem, folks? Look how inviting Central Park is. There’s nobody here. Where’s the danger?

I didn’t realize it was so peaceful.

It’s much safer than it’s reported to be on television. To take a walk in Central Park. I walk out a little bit every day. Everything’s all empty, there’s nobody around, and it’s so easy to avoid people. It’s a strange time. It’s not what it’s supposed to be.

Sorry if I dive too deeply into this stuff. I am, as they say now, a Simon & Garfunkel nerd –

I love it! I love it. It sounds to me just like respect. You’re really into the hard work we did. We were really good, Paul. Thank you for being into the whole thing. You’re helping keep the past alive. It was, just full of great hard work.

Well, one more then. Have you notriced that anytime you sing “Bridge” live, you always get a standing ovation. Have you noticed that? 

Yes. It comes alive for me. I start breathing very deep because you got to have a lot of deep breathing and it becomes very exciting, all the deep breathing. I can deliver it. Paul’s just a great writer, and when his great writing happens for me in my heart and mind, I deliver the exciting song. A good singer, that would be me, makes a powerful song. 

I started thinking of what Paul was really talking about. It’s very sad that we don’t talk, too. Some of his lines kill me. In “The Sound of Silence,” the fourth verse: “Silence like a cancer grows.” We never speak these days, Paul and I.

No?

And yet he wrote, “Silence like a cancer grows.” It’s sad how true it was years later. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has these things: I’ll be your friend when you’re in trouble. Well, I’m in trouble now that I’m 78, Paul. 

If Paul is supposed to be my friend, give me a phone call, Paul. Read this American Songwriter interview and give me a phone call.

It’s been a long time?

It’s been a while.

It’s always been tough to understand the love/hate thing you two have. What is the reason for it? 

This is an interesting part of this interview. Have you spoken to Garfunkel about like his real truth? He deals with these songs very neutrally, very abstract.

Garfunkel is a singer looking for appetite in the song. If the song is very strong and he loves the melody and the words, Garfunkel goes abstract and he doesn’t bother about Paul Simon the person or Art Garfunkel the person receiving anybody’s statement. He’s not hearing anybody say anything to him. 

He’s a singer looking for great melody. That’s Garfunkel’s approach to all of Simon’s material. He’s just a singer looking for a great melody. 

“Have you spoken to Garfunkel about like his real truth? He deals with these songs very neutrally, very abstract.”

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