By 1968, it had become
obvious that there was a dark flip side to the sunny ideals that
characterized the first half of the decade -- the boundless optimism of the
Camelot era and the intoxicating freedoms ushered in by the psychedelic
With riots in the streets, the mounting toll of a bloody war and a flurry
of assassinations filling the headlines, it seemed as if the center wasn't
holding, as New Journalist Joan Didion famously observed. America was lost
and "getting loster," and few artists captured that vibe of anxious
uncertainty better than genteel crooners turned melodic folk-rockers Simon &
"America," one of several standout tracks from the duo's fourth and best
album, "Bookends," can be heard as a baby-boomer's update of the central
crusade that was the theme of many of the Beats' best writings, starting
with Jack Kerouac's immortal On the Road. The song starts with some
introspective humming, and then quietly introduces two playful, daydreaming
lovers who set out to find "the heart of America" by hitchhiking through
Michigan and taking the Greyhound bus out of Pittsburgh. The tune builds to
a beautiful, tastefully orchestrated climax as Paul Simon and Art
Garfunkel's vocals join together for the ultimate verse.
"'Kathy, I'm lost,' I said, though I knew she was sleeping/I'm empty
and aching and I don't know why/Counting the cars on the New Jersey
Turnpike/They've all come to look for America."
Nothing is resolved, but the musical coda of Garfunkel's amazingly pure
and soaring vocals and Simon's soothing guitar and organ indicate that
maybe, just maybe, our heroes and their many peers will eventually find what
they're looking for.
Childhood friends from Forest Hills, N.Y., Simon & Garfunkel began
recording together in 1957 as an Everly Brothers-style duo called Tom &
Jerry. They scored one minor hit, "Hey, Schoolgirl," before splitting up
after the act went nowhere.
The two reunited in the early '60s during the height of the Greenwich
Village folk boom, split up again, then came together most successfully to
join a wave of folk-rockers that included West Coast artists such as the
Byrds, and the Mamas and the Papas.
Simon, who wrote the vast majority of material, was always capable of
crafting a memorable melody a la early hits such as "The Sounds of Silence"
and "Homeward Bound," and Garfunkel's high-tenor harmonies were never short
of amazing. But the pair could also be annoyingly twee and cutesy -- witness
"The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" -- or unbearably smug,
pretentious and self-important. With "A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I
Was Robert McNamara'd Into Submission)," Simon lampooned Bob Dylan, who he
clearly thought was an -- harrumph -- inferior songwriter.
Recording technology had been improving steadily through the mid-'60s,
and under the influence of psychedelic drugs (or simply the spirit of
experimentation that they represented), many artists had begun to use the
studio to create imaginative new worlds that existed only in the listeners'
imaginations. Released during the height of 1967's fabled "Summer of Love,"
the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" represented the new
standard for other ambitious artists to emulate. Simon & Garfunkel certainly
benefitted from this new, ambitious but playful attitude.
The duo recorded "Bookends" with producer Roy Halee, a trumpeter who had
become a staff engineer at Columbia Records, recording "Like a Rolling
Stone," among other Dylan songs. "It was never a challenge to get that blend
as long as they were singing on one microphone," Halee said in 1990 of
working with Simon & Garfunkel two decades earlier. "The blend of their
sound hitting that microphone was very unique; it changed it, and it sounded
separated when they didn't do it together. It was never quite the same."
Though "Bookends" was, in fact, a collection blending previously released
singles with new material, the album, like "Sgt. Pepper," was perceived as a
concept effort -- at least through the first half. After opening with the
quiet "Bookends Theme" (which also closes what would have been Side 1 in the
vinyl days), the songs chart the life cycle, from birth and early childhood
("Save the Life of My Child") through the teenage years ("America" and "Overs,"
which finds the couple portrayed in the previous song splitting up) through
old age ("Old Friends," which features the line, "How terribly strange to be
70" -- odd to ponder at a point when Simon and Garfunkel are 61 and 62,
The album's most famous track hails from Side 2: The rhythmically
galloping and wildly hummable "Mrs. Robinson" became a smash hit after it
appeared on the soundtrack for "The Graduate." But even beyond the theme of
sexual tension, it is timelessly poetic in its evocation of lost innocence:
"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" Simon sings of an icon from the
previous generation. "A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."
(The notoriously cantankerous baseball legend was said to have been
offended by the line, but Simon has disputed this, citing a meeting several
years after the song's release. "I said that I didn't mean the lines
literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes
were in short supply," Simon wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times.
"He accepted the explanation and thanked me.")
The album's third undeniably great track is "A Hazy Shade of Winter,"
which stands not only as an indelible East Coast answer to "California
Dreamin'," but as a production tour de force, with electric rock instruments
joining symphonic touches to create a psychedelic-rock classic. (Psychedelic
popsters the Bangles recorded a memorable cover in the '80s, just as
progressive-rockers Yes claimed "America" as their own in the '70s -- two
diverse testaments to the enduring strength of these tunes.)
With Halee cheerfully indulging them, Simon & Garfunkel continued the
psychedelic experimentation throughout the album, and the results are mixed.
Odd synthesizers enhance "Save the Life of My Child" (one of the weirdest
songs the duo ever recorded), and Simon's flair for surrealist wordplay
flourishes on "Punky's Dilemma" ("Wish I was a Kellogg's cornflake/Floatin'
in my bowl, takin' movies," he sings while banging on a toy piano).
But "Voices of Old People" serves as a pointless collage of sounds and
conversations that Garfunkel taped on the street, and Simon's tendency to
overreach as a lyricist comes to the fore on the album-closing "At the Zoo,"
a wannabe Orwellian allegory. ("Zebras are reactionaries /Antelopes are
missionaries /Pigeons plot in secrecy/And hamsters turn on frequently.")
After "Bookends," Simon & Garfunkel began to drift apart. Halee was
heartbroken when they started insisting on recording their vocals
separately. Simon wanted to strike out on his own without a collaborator,
and Garfunkel was branching out into acting.
After one last great studio album, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (1970),
they took a "break" that has been interrupted only occasionally for reunions
such as the 1975 single "My Little Town," a 1981 concert in New York's
Central Park and their current concert tour.
The pair's rivalry and animosity has become legendary -- an earlier
reunion tour in the early '80s was supposed to culminate in a new studio
album, but that was canceled, due to the infamous "artistic differences" --
so it's anybody's guess whether the pair will move forward after their
sold-out shows Friday and Saturday at the United Center.
On "Bookends," though, the strength of their collaboration is apparent,
and neither has ever topped it.
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