By Elysa Gardner
NEW YORK — They say that if you remember the 1960s, you couldn't really have been there. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel beg to differ.
"We were there," says Simon, perched on a chair in Garfunkel's sun-splattered den, smiling. "And it was fabulous." (Related item: Through the years)
Garfunkel, who is seated right next to him, nods. "I don't think films have captured how good it was. It hasn't been recorded faithfully."
"Except in one area," Simon notes. "Sound. You can still hear a sound from a certain era and get chills from it. It can make you cry. Sound is, I think, the most powerful of the senses."
So it would seem, judging by the reaction Tuesday when Simon and Garfunkel, whose recordings as a duo rank among the most memorable sounds of the '60s, announced that they would embark on their first concert tour in two decades.
Tagged Old Friends, after a tune on their 1968 album, Bookends, the road trip kicks off Oct. 18 in Auburn Hills, Mich., and will cover more than 30 North American cities before wrapping in mid-December. (A new two-CD retrospective, The Essential Simon & Garfunkel, will also arrive Oct. 10.) By then, the old friends, who began singing together as pre-adolescent schoolmates in Queens, will have both turned 62.
Though Simon & Garfunkel released only five studio albums between 1964 and 1970 — not including the 1968 soundtrack to The Graduate, which spawned the hit Mrs. Robinson— folk-pop gems such as The Sounds of Silence, Homeward Bound, America, Scarborough Fair/Canticle, The Boxer and Bridge Over Troubled Water remain as musically resonant as anything The Beatles or Bob Dylan contributed during that period. Simon's haunting melodies, evocative lyrics and supple guitar work, and the distinctive vocal harmonies he forged with Garfunkel's shimmering tenor, made a deep impression on the generation that came of age with them, as evidenced by the more than half-million fans who flocked to see their 1981 reunion concert in New York's Central Park.
In recent years, though, their personal relationship has reportedly been as fractious as their music was mellifluous. Since completing a world tour in 1983, they had publicly performed together only three times before last week: at the 1990 ceremony where they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at a string of New York shows Simon gave in 1993 and a couple of charity concerts that year, and February at the Grammy Awards, where the pair was honored for lifetime achievement and delivered an acoustic version of Silence.
It was that last appearance that inspired what both Simon and Garfunkel describe as a sort of truce. "Before the Grammys, for about nine or 10 years, our friendship was not there," Simon concedes. "There had been this constant inquiry about whether we would tour again. But after we had this satisfying experience at the Grammys, it became something that could be seriously considered."
At the time, Garfunkel was committed to European dates promoting his latest solo CD, Everything Waits to Be Noticed, and Simon was beginning work on his own new album while struggling with carpal tunnel syndrome, for which he had surgery in June. "That's when we got into discussing it," Simon recalls. "We had dinner together, and we began to think about how many shows we could do, what size places we could play, how long we would have to be away from our families."
Chatting in Garfunkel's spacious Upper East Side apartment, the two profess that they still consider each other family. "We grew up in each other's kitchens," says Simon, who first recorded with Garfunkel in 1957 under the pseudonyms Tom and Jerry.
"I knew Paul when he wore his belt buckle on the side, real doo-wop-like," Garfunkel says.
"Artie was the most famous singer in the neighborhood," Simon muses. "It didn't even occur to me to sing until I heard Artie at an assembly. We learned to sing together by imitating the Everly Brothers. I realized I had a nice voice. But Artie had a really great voice."
Garfunkel demurs. "The core of our music may be two voices and a guitar, but I think the core of that is Paul's guitar playing. There is Simon & Garfunkel to me. He bleeds the notes beautifully. He plays so well that you can sing like a jockey on a dray horse."
This newly restored mutual admiration society clearly doesn't lack a capacity for friction, however. During an hour-long conversation, Simon and Garfunkel reveal varying, sometimes conflicting perspectives on a variety of subjects, including aspects of their breakup and reconciliation.
Even their personalities are a study in contrasts. Garfunkel is gentle and sunny, with a fondness for lofty, sometimes florid language. Describing his and Simon's history of discord, he says, "We're both individuals with strong senses of autonomy. I just think the world of Paul — he's a terrific guy, and a terrific musician. If one of us was weaker, more tan-colored, it might not be such a problem. But two people etched in confidence will bring a richness to the mix."
Simon, whose insights tend to be drier and more to the point, simply shrugs. "We broke up because we wanted to be ourselves. It's typical of partnerships, of duos. Being in a duo is a discipline, and at a certain point, you want to be free, you know?"
Not surprisingly, both dismiss the notion that Old Friends is to any extent a bid for old glory, or a new financial windfall. "There's something potentially wonderful here," says Garfunkel. "There's a chance to add our sensibility to this hard-edged world of catchphrases, of black and white ... "
Simon stirs. "I don't think that way," he says, arguing that it's an audience that "brings meaning to an event like this." He adds, sharply, "What if I said, 'I'm doing this to recapture glory'? As a matter of fact, I'm not. But the culture's so cynical that if someone said that, everyone would applaud it."
One thing on which the two are in complete agreement is that the reasons for their original split have been widely misconstrued. "I didn't have any plan to have a solo career," Simon insists.
"Nor did I have any aspiration to be a movie star, though I see that in print all the time," says Garfunkel. "I just said yes to offers that came to me during breaks in recording."
It was during such a break that Graduate director Mike Nichols approached both Garfunkel and Simon about appearing in his film Catch-22. "My part got written out," Simon says. Garfunkel made the cut, and also appeared, to wide acclaim, in Nichols' classic Carnal Knowledge. "I just thought I was enriching the Garfunkel part of Simon & Garfunkel," the singer says. "I thought, 'This will be very good for the duo.' "
In fact, Garfunkel maintains that he never intended his partnership with Simon to end after their 1970 album Bridge Over Troubled Water— and still regrets that it did. "I would have taken a two-year rest and then returned. I loved Simon & Garfunkel. I thought I was a lucky man to have such world acceptance with this thing. So it wasn't my choice. Had I had my way ... "
Simon is perfectly still for a moment, taking in the sound of Garfunkel's silence. "Well ... anyway, we never could have topped Bridge," he says finally. "Whatever we did would have been a disappointment. You can't speculate about what might have happened."
What did happen, of course, is that Simon became an independently successful singer/songwriter, releasing a series of albums that revealed a desire for more personal reflection and broader musical experimentation.
"It wasn't so much that I wanted a solo career, it was that there was other music I wanted to pursue," Simon says. "Where I didn't have to say to someone else, 'Shall we go to Jamaica and record a ska song?' And I didn't have to solve the problem of how the two of us could have done (Simon's 1973 single) Loves Me Like a Rock with a gospel quartet. My writing opened up in ways that led me all over the place, and that further fixed us on separate paths."
Not that Simon discounts the amount of ground he and Garfunkel covered in their collaborations, from their folk-based early work to later songs such as the world-music-inspired Cecilia and the lushly orchestrated, piano-driven Bridge. On tour, a full band will help recapture the variety and density of these recordings. But Simon & Garfunkel also plan to perform a few songs accompanied only by Simon's guitar, to emphasize the sense of intimacy people associate with the duo.
"We're more concerned about staying true to the emotional memory of Simon & Garfunkel than we are about note-for-note fidelity to the recorded arrangements," says Simon. "There's real value in being able to connect with your generation again, and we're looking forward to that."
Simon is aware that '60s nostalgists won't be the only fans attending the shows. "I think our generation will bring their children, maybe even their grandchildren. That happens at Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney concerts. The connection to older music among certain younger people today is pretty powerful."
If that connection proves potent enough, might Simon and Garfunkel consider working on new material, or even recording another studio album?
"It's a possibility," Garfunkel says.
"Yeah, it's a possibility," Simon echoes, quietly.
"Not a probability, though," Garfunkel adds, after a pause.
Simon smiles again. "Look, there's something comforting about not making a commitment to a thing you haven't worked out. That means we can do something on record, if it's right and appropriate. And if it isn't, we haven't made an announcement that we're under pressure to live up to.
"The way we're doing this now, it's not going to be a prison," Simon says, looking at Garfunkel. "You won't do what you don't want to do, and I won't do what I don't want to do. We'll do what we both agree on, and we'll enjoy ourselves. That's the opportunity that becomes available to you when you re-establish a friendship. It's nice to have that opportunity. It's a real privilege."