Interview: Art Garfunkel - the sounds and silence
PUBLISHED: 11:33 26 November 2012 | UPDATED: 12:47 26 November 2012
Art Garfunkel has compiled his best vocal performances onto a double album, Singer. He talks to Andy Welch about his career, good and bad, and his lasting relationship with Paul Simon.
Sitting in his hotel room, wearing jeans and a baseball cap and tucking into a bowl of soup, club sandwich and fries, Art Garfunkel could be any American grandad enjoying a meal.
But when he stands up to say “hello” and his distinctive curly mop comes into view, it’s clear I’m in the presence of one half of the Sixties’ greatest duo - a man who possesses one of the finest voices ever captured on record.
“I don’t mind talking if you don’t mind me eating,” he says. “I have to be articulate through the tomato soup. And I say to-mayto, I refuse to say tom-arto, even when I’m in London. It’s so tempting to speak with the British accent, but I’d make a fool of myself.”
He’s excited about The Singer, his new double album. It’s a 34-song collection Garfunkel regards as his best work. “It’s good isn’t it, this album? It’s got good singing.”
He’s right, of course - any album that opens with Bridge Over Troubled Water is setting the bar pretty high - and to pretend otherwise would involve unnecessary false modesty. Why talk down talents that have been praised by others for more than 60 years?
“I knew I could sing when I was five,” says Garfunkel. “I would walk to kindergarten and sing along in rhythm to the cracks in the sidewalk. I knew it was a gift from God in my throat. How nice! I would sing wherever there was reverb. Bathrooms, stair wells, wherever. I loved reverb.
“When I was in sixth grade, class PS164, the other children would go back into class, I would linger in the stairwell and sing to myself. You’ll Never Walk Alone was my favourite. Inspirational stuff that would give me goosebumps. It was a lucky gift, and I’d turn myself on with my sound.”
He soon started singing in school concerts, while regularly bringing elders at his synagogue to tears with his angelic voice. “Tears and goosebumps, these are the great reviews,” he says, proudly.
It wasn’t long before he met Paul Simon, when they were both cast in a school production of Alice In Wonderland in 1952. The 11-year-olds bonded and started singing together.
“We’d already started writing songs, singing on top of Paul’s guitar. And then came rock ‘n’ roll. I said ‘this is the hippest thing in the American landscape’, and that was it. We were hooked.”
He sings a verse of Buddy Holly’s Oh Boy, explaining it was one of their favourites to cover when they were performing as Tom & Jerry, a stage name they used because, even in New York in the late Fifties, two Jewish teens singing rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t have been accepted by largely Christian audiences.
When it came to releasing their debut album, Wednesday Morning 3AM, they did so under their own names, although the record tanked. Dispirited, Simon headed for London where he became the toast of the folk scene, inspired by another American youth carving out his own sound, Bob Dylan.
Their fortunes changed, thanks largely to the electric band dubbed onto the previously acoustic The Sound Of Silence. It reached No 1 on New Year’s Day 1966, Simon returned to New York where the duo reconvened, and they duly became one of the biggest-selling acts of the decade.
By 1970, they’d split. “The period after we broke up has many elements,” says Garfunkel. “It took me a while to realise we were no more. Paul was busy. The group never announced its split. We were too hip to ever talk about anything and spell it out.”
Afterwards, Garfunkel taught geometry in Connecticut for a year, much to the bemusement of his class.
“This was right off the back of the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, our biggest record. I said, ‘I know you know me from elsewhere, but for now let’s just study geometry’. I loved geometry, and I think I was a good teacher, but I don’t know if it worked for them.”
He also tried acting, starring in Carnal Knowledge alongside Jack Nicholson among other films, and in 1973 he released Angel Clare, his first solo album.
Four more albums followed before 1981, not to mention huge hits Breakaway and Bright Eyes, although the suicide of his girlfriend and “great love” Laurie Bird in 1979 cast a spell over much of the Eighties, sending Garfunkel into depression and self-imposed reclusion.
“After Laurie, I went internal. I was living in my apartment in Manhattan and went very artiste on myself. I communed with Tolstoy and JS Bach, and the great artists. I developed my intellect, I developed my love of harmony, I studied the Brandenburg concerto and worked out what the bass underpinning it all meant, I learned so much as an artist during that time,” he reflects.
By the end of 1988, Garfunkel had married former model Kathryn Cermak, and in 1990 they had a son, James. They had another, Beau Daniel, by a surrogate in 2005.
“I made an album with Geoff Emerick called Lefty, and put a band together and it really helped me stretch out as a singer,” he recalls. “I developed my identity, which comes out in this album Singer.
“I realised it was nice to sing without Paul, I could sing stronger, come down into the baritone range, own the lyric more, stand on the stage with my two feet planted.
He’s worked sporadically since, and doesn’t think he’ll ever make another album. Live performances are limited due to a long-standing problem with his voice which has baffled medics - perhaps years of heavy smoking taking their toll, although he no longer smokes and is convinced his voice will come back as strong as ever.
Should that happen, he’s confident a Simon & Garfunkel reunion won’t be far behind.
“I’ve had shows where backstage I’ve hated him. And vice versa. But then we’ll be on stage and the three of us make this sound - me, him and the guitar, and we’re 11 once more, and in love all over again.”
Art Garfunkel’s double album The Singer is out now