By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Alas, poor Simon & Garfunkel. At a time in music when it was more important to be hip and cool than to necessarily be good (sound familiar, kids?), they were so collegiate, so pop, and never quite hip and cool. So why is it that their three-CD boxed set Old Friends evokes such vivid memories of that late-'60s era?
Maybe because they were good--at their best damned good. Tie-dye may still persist, but it's become tired-dye. People now smoke pot on the sly. And when's the last time you smelled incense burning? Perhaps these two nice Jewish boys from Queens with a taste for melding folk music and Brill Building pop with literature and poetry were onto something more than we gave them credit for.
Simon & Garfunkel had to contend with two looming shadows over their emergence in 1964: Bob Dylan, who set the standard to which all Simon's early songwriting efforts would be compared, and the Everly Brothers, whose genetically imprinted harmonies were the model for the singing style of these two "old friends" who would inevitably become estranged by the end of the decade (as would the Everlys).
They did reunite in the early '80s to give some of their best songs their finest readings to a massive audience in New York's Central Park, but the nice surprise about Old Friends is how well some--but certainly not all--of their work has held up. Maybe it's even matured with age--ours and theirs.
Having moved into my turbulent adolescence (typical of the times) with the music of Old Friends as part of the soundtrack, I have to marvel at how few of the best Simon & Garfunkel recordings sound dated, as well as how far the occasional clunkers now sound positively archaic. Happily, there's such a bounty crop here that the chaff serves its informative purposes.
It's usually the hits that sell these collections, and perhaps the coolest--yes, coolest--thing about Old Friends is how robust and canny many of them sound with digitally remastered clarity. On the single version of "The Sound Of Silence" (on which producer Tom Wilson overlaid a backing track by Dylan session players over the original acoustic version) through "I Am a Rock," "Homeward Bound," "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," "A Hazy Shade of Winter," "At the Zoo," "Mrs. Robinson" (a far-too-over-spun song that nonetheless still bursts with freshness here), "The Boxer," "Cecilia," "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" to, of course, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," one rediscovers the solid-oak craft of Simon's best songs. But it's the arrangements--their depth, richness and imagination--that one hears almost anew. Bob Dylan may have sparked a musical revolution when he all but invented folk-rock, but Simon & Garfunkel were the moderates who institutionalized the notion as a lasting pop idiom. And they did it by mastering the art of recording, something a cut 'n' run artist like Dylan has rarely given much time to.
The three discs here rather discreetly offer--though I doubt it's entirely intentional--distinct chapters in the progression from Simon & Garfunkel to Paul Simon, an artist who occasionally makes records, and Art Garfunkel, a singer who occasionally makes records, acts in movies, and has recently gone on a cross-country walk "to look for America" (although the line is Simon's). On disc one we find Simon the nascent songwriter, as the introductory unissued demo "Bleecker Street" shows with its folk-music term-paper lyrics. Yet the duo's luscious harmonies redeem the B-minus song, as they do with much of the stuff from their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., where Simon was caught between the poles of meaningful Dylanesque song poetry and the Brit-folk revival, and without much to say for himself in between. By their next platter, Sounds Of Silence, he began coming up with modestly smart stuff like "Leaves That Are Green" and "April Come She Will" to back up the hits.
On the second disc, Simon grows more fluid and fluent. The rhythmic fixation of his later solo work starts creeping in on "Patterns," and he begins to strike a balance between more contemplative work like "The Dangling Conversation," "Blessed," and "America" with the actually somewhat nutritious pop fluff of "The 59th Street Bridge Song" and "Punky's Dilemma"--and that's just on the non-hit album tracks. On the clunky "Save the Life of My Child" you can hear the stirrings of what came to fruition on "Boy in the Bubble" years later, but the experimentalism is also just plain awkward on "You Don't Know Where Your Interest Lies."
Disc three is where Simon's artistic ambitions for the duo find fruition. Every studio track here is a well-crafted and buffed-to-perfection pop gem, but lurking beneath the hits is also a restless creative soul: slightly alienated and questioning on "Song For The Asking" and "The Only Living Boy In New York," yet also searching for new musical inspiration on the previously unissued traditional chant "Feuilles-O," which presages Simon's later collaborations with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Simon was obviously canny enough to realize that after this point, there was nowhere to go with Simon & Garfunkel but down or out. Simon wisely chose the latter. One can hear him hinting so on "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" (which Garfunkel, who studied architecture at Columbia University, primarily sings), and then making the point plain on their belated 1975 goodbye single, "My Little Town," which isn't so much a capstone to their career as it is a slamming of the back door (and despite reunion shows and tours, the duo has remained defunct as a creative collaboration).