The Great Albums

Old friends never sounded better


October 19, 2003


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 explosion.

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 & Garfunkel.

"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, respectively).

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.