I’m not really sure why I’m writing about Simon & Garfunkel. But it seems important.
In the early 60s, folk, thought by many to be “the only place where someone with intelligence could make music”, thrived in the dark ages between the death/imprisonment/mind control experiments performed on the early rock heroes and the advent of the Beatles. A great number of closet rock & rollers roamed the land in those days, publicly denying from behind a battered acoustic that they had ever pounded a piano or wished for an amplifier. Most prominent among these was Bob Dylan, who carefully hid urges like he expressed in his high school yearbook – to “play in Little Richard’s band”. As soon as the folk ship lost steam, there were many musicians jumping off in a hurry, most significantly the members of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. Neither made any real pretensions to being “folk” groups, but with the media love of labels thus was born the creature of “folk rock”, which included such groups as the Turtles, who probably had no real interest whatsoever in folk, but definitely were interested in having a hit single. Whether their backgrounds were legitimate, either in experience or intent, all found themselves making essentially Beatle-esque music, with the remnants of their folk past, existent or not, given a nod through the vocal arrangements, slight country tinge, and, especially in the case of the (early) Byrds, in choice of material. Nevertheless, their actual style would have severely frightened the hardcore folkies of a few years before, where electric instrumentation, and the audacity to write some of their own songs (something only such luminaries as Dylan, Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs could get away with, and only then if they were liberally borrowing from traditional tunes) would open them to charges of heresy from the real purists. Interestingly, or obviously enough, black blues musicians were lionized in this context (as long as they avoided that pesky amplification) for their “authenticity”, whatever their choice of material, underpinning the inherent snobbishness and white-America centered implied racism that lay behind the folk craze.
Skipping much of the narrative, since anyone reading this already knows all of it (right?), Simon & Garfunkel had a brief flirtation with success in the late 50s performing in an extreme upbeat Everly Brothers mode. That success was brief, and they went their separate ways, Garfunkel giving his best to become a teen scream dream, and Simon flitting between proto-post-pre-50s-60s-rock&roll-garage music and trying to get his foot in the door as a Brill Building songwriter. Neither had much success, and so, they took their shot at the (dying) folk music movement with the somewhat obvious Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.LP (complete with the requisite Dylan songs), which died a quick death. The two split, with Simon going off to England, where folk music had taken the remarkable step of allowing actual instrumentation of any kind for the first time, and so he was celebrated as quite the revolutionary novelty. In his absence, in the indomitable spirit of record companies fucking with artist’s rights, Columbia (quite cleverly) overdubbed “the Sound of Silence” with a de-rigueur rock backing that was, in truth, really more Southern California surf than folk. But Gloriosky! Simon & Garfunkel, with at least Simon knowing nothing at all about it, had themselves a number one. So, Paul Simon hightailed it back to NYC, rerecorded his straight folkie English LP with admittedly superior vocals of Garfunkel and session musicians and they were stars – and stayed that way.
So now, having gotten the world’s longest introduction out of the way, here’s the point: Simon & Garfunkel occupied a curious and unique position within the music of about 1966-1969. They were the only ones that did what they did, and they did it well. Between the time of the death of folk and the rise of the singer-songwriter, there was precious little for the sophomorically intelligent and moderately timid to listen to. Such artists as Judy Collins provided a relatively sanitized version of such virgin totems as Joan Baez; there were the “folk-rock” types who increasingly drifted into country-sequel and/or psychedelic realms (the aforementioned Birds, Springfield, and most of the San Francisco rock scene); and elsewhere characters like the Who, the Doors, or Jim Hendrix probably scared scores of middle-American high school and college students to death.
What Simon & Garfunkel provided was an aura of sophistication, the safety of two men and a guitar, and just enough semi-alienated pseudo-poetry to get by in an era of rapidly cascading pretensions. As such, they were icons of the not-too-deep, not-too-experienced, not-too-well-read folks who by god, wanted to be deep, experienced, and well read, and certainly had a nagging feeling that something was not quite right – Simon & Garfunkel gave them justification, support, and music to listen to. The cult of the “personal artist”, which began most strongly with the rise of television, was perfect for Simon & Garfunkel – all alone, with the albums, one could be all those things one wanted to be.
This is not to say that they didn’t have real qualities, just that they were full of contradictions. For all the image we have of Simon on a stool with a guitar, with Garfunkel sitting or standing beside him, all alone on a spot lit stage, their records – or at least the later ones where they had some creative control- are uber-produced. As “records”, as creations of production, they are masterful. Simon, either because he was not a prolific writer or because of a certain perfectionism, labored intensively over the recording of his songs, a tendency that has never left him. Garfunkel’s voice was, always, at least on the less faux-rock numbers, one of the greatest in the last 50 years – purely angelic. And all that time spent worshipping the Everlys resulted in some perfect harmony – an almost intuitive sense between them that again, they still share to this day.
The problem, of course, is that Simon’s lyrics, 90% of the time, are horrid. There are a great many songs within the S&G canon that are truly cringe worthy: the awkward attempts at “sensitivity”, and full of name-dropping literary references that only impress those who have just the barest idea (no more) of the meaning of the song. Their other extreme is the Las Vegas-pleasing, Mom & Dad loving Sturm und Drang extravaganzas exemplified by “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “The Boxer.” Simon’s songs are often no better or different than what would have been supplied by a crack/hack professional songwriter, and thus, conversely, will be remembered forever. It’s no accident that a truly inspired “meaningful” song, “7 O’clock News/Silent Night,” is barely remembered.
That their inestimable production, supreme performance abilities, and the all-important being in the right place at the right time so largely overshadowed their not insignificant faults is in itself a not insignificant accomplishment. For the young would-be tortured bohemian away for the first time at college, or the 16 year old alone in their bedroom, wishing that someone understood, there really was no one else to turn to. In time, the world would slow down while it was speeding up, and that generation would have others – Joni Mitchell for one, who while her early aspirations in songwriting were not so different, has always seemed like adult music. Carol King. Laura Nyro. And many others, once the chaos of the sixties had shown the need for something quieter, something more basic, a place for one with a sensitive heart. Since then they have wandered, Simon in and out of burlesque, and Garfunkel a voice without a song.
So….this is why the in-concert recordings on bootlegs are so important. Just the two of them, not trying to be clever, just singing….that is the memory you should take, and what truly remains valuable. There’s magic there.
I received Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits for Christmas at about 12 years old, and I played it until it was completely worn out. The first girl I ever made love to was named Janet; we were both the tender age of 15. She came over to my house while my parents were at work, and we made love in my childhood bed while Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits played.