Simon & Garfunkel endure despite troubled water

Essay

December 13, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

The Queen led me to them.

Aretha Franklin's music is as much a part of my life as soap and water. So it's through her eclectic song selections that I've discovered several heroes of pop and the blues. Her take on "River's Invitation" introduced me to Percy Mayfield. I found the Beatles through her funky, lowdown rendition of "Eleanor Rigby." And after being lifted countless times by her gospel-fried version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (arguably the best performance of the song), I wanted to know more about Simon & Garfunkel. Rooted in soul, nurtured by funk and hip-hop, I opened myself to the airy, folk-tinged harmonies of one of the squarest, most brilliant duos to grace the pop charts.

All of this has been within the last three months or so. Before I got a copy of the recently released two-disc set The Essential Simon & Garfunkel and a few other albums, I already had a cursory knowledge of the duo -- knew the two had grown up together, knew that Paul Simon's solo career basically eclipsed that of Art Garfunkel, and I knew the men split several times over the years because of "artistic differences."

But they're together again. And all seems to be going well during the new S&G national reunion tour. The legendary pair will play to a sold-out crowd at MCI tomorrow and Monday night. What is it about the music that draws millions year in and year out?

Apparently, the devoted fans aren't just limited to baby boomers who were in high school or college when "The Sounds of Silence" flowed from transistor radios in '66. Last month, Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, originally issued in 1972, was certified platinum for the 14th time. Garfunkel's high, floating tenor and Simon's finely wrought lyrics haunt us still -- delighting those who were around when the two looked like serious liberal-arts students, enchanting those of us who went to high school with Nirvana blaring from our Walkmans.

While S&G dropped such classic LPs as Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (1966), Bookends (1968) and Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970), American pop simmered and boiled with radical experimentation. And things were loud. Motown had announced itself with a pounding beat. The Beatles were tripping out, and Jimi Hendrix excused himself to "kiss the sky" and set his guitar on fire. Demonstrations, marches and Vietnam footage dominated the evening news. Downtown Detroit, Watts, Harlem and Chicago burned after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead on that balcony in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

During all of this, the music of Simon & Garfunkel swept through on delicate acoustic guitar notes, orchestral swells and gossamer harmonies. Beneath the beauty, the lyrics reflected the dissolution of the so-called American Dream. Youthful innocence melted away in "America": I'm empty and I'm aching and I don't know why/Countin' the cars on the New Jersey turnpike/They've all come to look for America, all come to look for America.

In the beginning, the two aspired to be like the Everly Brothers. In 1957, under the name Tom and Jerry, the guys, both 16 at the time, entered the Top 50 with "Hey Schoolgirl." It was a cute little single very much in the early rock 'n' roll mold. But after an album went nowhere, the two split. For the first time. Garfunkel went to college and Simon pursued a solo career. They reunited in 1964 and signed with Columbia, releasing Wednesday Morning, 3AM that year. The set contained an all-acoustic version of "The Sounds of Silence." However, the album flopped and the pair split again.

Two years later, producer Tom Wilson went into the studio and overdubbed resonant electric guitar and a more pronounced backbeat on "The Sounds of Silence." (Originally, it was titled "The Sound of Silence.") Weeks after the single hit the streets, it rose to No. 1, and Simon & Garfunkel quickly became a team again. Columbia rush-released an album named after the gold-selling single, and it featured "Homeward Bound," a penetrating look at life on the road, and "I Am a Rock," an angry observation of relationships.

College students made up the bulk of S&G's fan base at the time, which made sense. Tall, curly-haired Garfunkel and short, pensive-faced Simon rocked khakis, scarves and turtleneck sweaters on stage and in promotional shots. They referred to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost in their music. The two came off more like English majors than pop stars.

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