June 15, 2014

Reinventing Art Garfunkel

by Jim Newsom

You could call Art Garfunkel a perfectionist, and it’s unlikely he’d object.

“I'm a mathematician,” he says, “who's anal-compulsive. So I don't want to freshen up the song each performance. To me, singing is execution. You don't throw out what you've learned to execute. You refine what you've learned.

“I run into a difference of opinion with Paul [Simon] on this. When we tour, after the eighteenth show Paul invariably goes, ‘Now we know it. I'm tired of the show. Let's move on to some other project.’ And I go, ‘No. Now we're ready to execute it.’ Execution is where it's at, man. Refine and refine. Find the inner beauty within and keep going. Live to refine. But for every one of me, there's nine of the other type: Keep it fresh through reinvention.”

When Garfunkel comes to the Attucks Theatre for an intimate concert with guitarist Tab Laven on June 28th, he will do so in the midst of personal reinvention. Four years ago, he began having trouble swallowing, developed hoarseness, and “lost my finesse in the mid-range.” The diagnosis was vocal cord paresis and the singer took some time off in hopes his voice would return. Fortunately, it did begin to come back gradually over the next couple of years. And right now he’s in the midst of a two-month theatre tour to celebrate that return to vocal form. The setlist draws from every facet of his 50-year career, from the iconic canon of Simon & Garfunkel through solo hits of the ‘70s and beyond, plus personal favorites from the pens of Jimmy Webb, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Randy Newman and others.

Art Garfunkel’s angelic countertenor could make any song sound better than it is, but it’s the ones he sang with Paul Simon in the 1960s that will forever secure his place in music history. The duo met in the 6th grade when both had roles in the elementary school graduation play, Alice in Wonderland:

“When Paul and I were first friends, we would sing a little together and we would make up radio shows and become disc jockeys on our home wire recorder. And then came rock and roll. The very phrase was born through the mouth of Alan Freed as we were junior high schoolers. When we listened to that subversive, dirty, rhythm and blues music on the radio, we knew that was the cool stuff. It was the only thing in American society, aside from baseball, that had real genuine appeal and was not hype-y.

“So we emulated the songs and practiced sounding like them and we tried to have our own record, and we knew we were going to try to get on a label, and we would work on our harmonies. And then we got remarkably serious in our rehearsals. We would have sessions that were so much about accuracy and patience and repetition and study. I would sit and examine exactly how Paul says his ‘T’s at the end of words like ‘start.’ And where would the tongue hit the palette exactly. We would be real masters of precision, figuring this would be the way to make it sound slick and tight and professional.”

Those precision harmonies ultimately created a fresh sound all its own. Like their idols The Everly Brothers, when Paul and Artie blended their voices, a third voice emerged, rich and expressive. Once the world was introduced via “The Sound of Silence” in 1965, Simon & Garfunkel quickly rose to the top of the pop music world. Garfunkel has shared remembrances of some of those classic songs through the years:

“Paul was writing a song called ‘Mrs. Roosevelt’ and he was going nowhere. He was going to chuck it. We were in the sound stage at Paramount or MGM in Hollywood working with Mike Nichols on the soundtrack of The Graduate. We had sung ‘Sound of Silence’—we had to re-sing it to put it in the film. And ‘Scarborough Fair’ came right off the record into the film. But we still needed one up-tempo tune that Paul hadn’t written. And I said, ‘There is an up-tempo song that Paul is despairing of, but it is very commercial. It’s called ‘Mrs. Roosevelt’ but we could change ‘Mrs. Roosevelt’ to ‘Mrs. Robinson.’

“And Mike loved that thought, as if he knew right away this was going to work: ‘Let’s hear this up-tempo song.’ ‘And here’s to you Mrs. Roosevelt….’ We changed it to ‘Robinson.’ He said, “Let’s try to put it down and see if it works against the picture.’ So we sang it against the screen. And all that existed of the song was the chorus. That’s why the verses are “Doo doo doo doo…” There are no lyrics there. And it worked.”

Art Garfunkel’s best known recorded performance is surely his remarkable take on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

“The listener gets to hear the whole record from beginning to end in one shot,” he explains. “The maker fusses over it so much that you have to have the concept of the whole record in your head. [In this case,] the concept of the last verse would be a surprise augmentation of power. And a considerable augmentation. That concept moved me, so I knew that the vision was wonderful. When I recorded it, the fun was to do that last verse first as a vocalist. So peaking out on that last verse was fantastic, knowing where you’d come from and that you’d set it up with two quiet verses. I had a great, spiritual time.

“The second verse was a lot of fun. I knew how to do that. See, once the third verse is done, now you’re going back to do the second verse and you know you haven’t released it yet, the world doesn’t know it yet. It’s all saved up. It’s a lot of fun. It helps you do your work to have something so neat up your sleeve.”

An Intimate Evening with Art Garfunkel
Attucks Theatre

Saturday, June 28 – 8:00 pm
Tickets: $55.00 - 75.00

copyright © 2014 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.


”Poetry in Music”
PortFolio Weekly
November 19, 2002
Garfunkel comes to Norfolk with Buddy Mondlock and Maia Sharp.