Art Garfunkel is among the legendary artists who gave us the soundtrack of the 1960s. His angelic tenor lead on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is as iconic and indelible as Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” or Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”
On the phone last week from Martha’s Vineyard, Garfunkel talked about the heyday of his work with Paul Simon (1964-1970), years that tracked closely to the life span of the Beatles.
“It was fascinating to be at my vantage point,” he said, “with a college education in the middle of rock and roll, to be a partner of the Beatles and look out at the scene in the ‘60s and see everything open up and to have your own intelligence as your location in the middle of it. It was an amazing, charmed life.”
Garfunkel credits the Beatles as the principal ground-breakers in record-making. “You’re talking to one half of Simon & Garfunkel,” he said, “and I’ll tell you this: We chased after the Beatles. They served as leadership for anybody making rock and roll records. They taught us that making an album can be as open-ended creatively as you cared to make it.
“With George Martin as producer, the lads’ albums got more arty each time. ‘All right, boys, let’s turn the dials and give our ears the maximum treat for the kiddies’ sake, the audience.’ That’s what I felt the Beatles were spearheading as album-makers, and Simon & Garfunkel were right behind them as students.”
When it came to the Simon & Garfunkel vocal sound, Don and Phil Everly were important role models. “The Everly Brothers were so brilliant,” Garfunkel said, “that, for me as a harmonist, that’s a personal piece of nourishment that was very important. That was a genius blend, those two guys, the magic of those two brothers, how they vibrated. You can’t say enough. They weren’t great, they were super-great. They’re such a national treasure, Don and Phil.”
Garfunkel’s description of his personal experience of singing bordered on the metaphysical. “At the fundamental bottom of it,” he said, “when you sing, you let that joy and that bubbling thing happen from heart to vocal cords. I think about this a lot. If you try and analyze how this works, you’re stumped, you’re stymied.
“It’s like looking at joy. What does joy taste like if you analyze it? Well, you can’t. If you’re joyous, you’re within something. You can’t get outside of it to look at it and describe it because you’re within it. That’s what singing is. When you’re singing and you’re using the voice, you’re experiencing joy. You can’t talk about it.”
Garfunkel’s joyful singing experience came to a crashing halt six years ago with the onset of a weakened vocal cord. “I lost it in 2010,” he said. “I was touring with Paul Simon in the Far East. We played arenas, and we played them loud, too damn loud. I came home overworked in the vocal cords. I believe it’s a good guess for what happened to the loss of my chops.
“It was fucking traumatic. I use wild language because it’s an extreme experience. It’s tragic. It killed me. I am a singer. You can’t take my identity away from me. Then who am I? Walter? What kind of guy am I walking through life without the identity I always had? It’s soulless. It’s murder.
“I never accepted that I was really going to not have a voice, and I kept working at it. I kept practicing, using my iPod and singing on my own, and looking for rooms with good reverb, and bringing this crappy voice to bookings with some very small attendance, and trying to work it up again. I succeeded with patience, working at it in small rooms. I got the voice back.
“I can sing 100 percent now, but I can’t sing loud and dramatic, and that makes up only about 5 percent of my repertoire. To be high and loud is rare for all my singing. I almost never go there. For example, I cannot do the loud, high finish of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ I can’t quite do that. So I rewrote the ending.”
Alongside his musical life, Garfunkel has been writing poetry for decades, samples of which are integrated into his live performances.
“For 30-something years, I have been writing little prose poems to myself or to whomever,” he said. “I just wrote them and collected them. They are poetic bits, little half-pagers or one-pagers. They were describing what I was going through my tours with Paul, in the loss of my voice, in my life, in my children, in show business, in private life.
“They began to add up to an autobiography. I shopped it around with an agent, and I got a really good response. I will put out an autobiography in the autumn of 2017. I am truly excited by it. It’s a big deal when you reveal your life. I have my fingers crossed that I know what I’m doing. It will be published by Albert Knopf.”
At 74, Garfunkel remains a fascinated and engaged performer. “I have passion for it,” he said. “At this age, I still am in love with my work, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I have money in the bank. You only do this if it’s alive and well. For me, reading my poems, these autobiographical pieces, between the singing and having a voice back that still works and being a lucky man who can sing and use it in front of attentive audiences is entrancing. It’s a great work life.”