Beyond Troubled Water
Four years after nearly losing his voice, Art Garfunkel and his golden tenor fly again
8 p.m. Feb. 28, Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, Ponte Vedra Beach, 209-0399, pvconcerthall.com
Forget having one of pop culture's most abused names, one of its most epic white-guy Afros, one of its purest singing voices. Art Garfunkel is also one of American music's most complex characters.
Born to first-generation Romanian Jewish parents, Garfunkel discovered his voice in a stairwell at 5 years old. He sang for more than four hours at his own bar mitzvah. He met Paul Simon during a middle school staging of Alice in Wonderland — he was the mellow Cheshire Cat, Simon the fussy White Rabbit. In college, he was a fraternity brother and ace tennis player, skier, fencer and bowler. At the height of Simon & Garfunkel's fame in the 1960s, he earned a master's degree — and nearly a doctorate — in mathematics.
The credits continue: Garfunkel has walked solo across Japan, the United States and Europe. He maintains a list of every book he's read since 1968. He turned his back on a successful 20-year musical collaboration with Simon in 1970 to pursue an acting career, earning a Golden Globe nomination for the second role he'd ever had. He's one of the most literate public figures in American life, describing himself to Esquire in 2011 as the "silvery edge around Paul Simon's coffee-brown lead front part," a description that even Lester Bangs could never have dreamed up.
It's hard to imagine now, what with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and nine No. 1 hits and countless sold-out reunion tours under their belts, but Simon & Garfunkel were far from an instant hit. They wrote Everly Brothers-inspired novelty hits like "Hey, Schoolgirl," recorded mediocre solo material under bogus pseudonyms (Artie Garr and True Taylor), and both went to college immediately after high school — Simon to Queens College and Garfunkel to Columbia University.
Even Simon & Garfunkel's first big break didn't quite pan out. Columbia Records legendary star-maker Clive Davis signed them in 1964, insisting they adopt their real names to release the debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. But, in the wake of Beatlemania, the record was a flop — Simon even disembarked for England in 1965 to have a go at the folk music club/coffeehouse/college campus circuit.
Belying Florida's standby reputation as a black hole of musical tastes, however, Wednesday Morning's lead single, "The Sounds of Silence," was getting a lot of requests at radio stations in Cocoa Beach and Gainesville. Without Simon's or Garfunkel's consent, Columbia producer Tom Wilson corralled the studio band that had worked on Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone, dubbed electric instrumentation over the originally sparse folkie track, and catapulted the song to No. 1 on the Billboard charts on Jan. 1, 1966 — giving birth to mainstream folk-rock, and a new and improved Simon & Garfunkel in the process.
The old friends quickly reunited and poured all their energy into an impressive five-year run. From 1966-1970, they released four critically acclaimed, multiplatinum-selling albums; scored two more No. 1 singles; won eight Grammys; and redefined the zeitgeist with catchy, sonically complex hits like "Mrs. Robinson," "I Am a Rock" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." But interpersonal tension — perfectly encapsulated by the much-taller Garfunkel appearing half-hidden and scowling behind a smiling Simon on the cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water, their last album and magnum opus — quickly tore the duo asunder.
Simon went on to have an unimpeachable solo career, while Garfunkel seemed to recede into the shadows. The duo did reunite for one-off concerts in 1972, 1975 and 1981, attracting more than 500,000 fans to Central Park in '81. They even recorded a new album together in 1983, but old fires flared up and Simon stripped away all of Garfunkel's contributions and released the songs solo.
That backstabbing turn of events, coupled with the suicide of Garfunkel's longtime girlfriend in 1979 and the death of his father in 1985, drove Art further into seclusion. In between raising a family, writing poetry and trekking across continents, Garfunkel periodically released unheralded albums of pop standards and offbeat originals.
But Simon & Garfunkel looked to have new legs in 2010, when a full reunion tour was booked. Garfunkel came down with vocal-cord paresis, however, related to giving up cigarettes after 50 years as a smoker. Predictably, the world mourned the possible loss of one of our most beloved voices — especially after Garfunkel announced in 2012 that he was healed, only to cancel another run of solo dates.
Lucky for us, the man with the golden tenor is back in 2014. He played a few intimate warm-up shows, complete with storytelling sessions and audience Q&As, in December. And he arrives in Florida with 10-plus recent dates to his credit.
"The voice is back," Garfunkel said in a press statement. "I'm in flight again. I believe I have grown through adversity. A new creation has emerged that is truly exciting me — my stage show."
Will the eternal perfectionist be pleased with what he hears, though? "I'm a mathematician who's anal-compulsive," Garfunkel told Esquire in 2011. "[I'm] a man whose ears demand beautiful pitch and beautiful singing. To me, singing is execution. You don't throw out what you've learned to execute. You refine what you've learned. … Find the inner beauty within and keep going. Live to refine." o