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).
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A hearty serving of live recordings rounds out this set, along with such genuine previously unissued oddities--and I do mean oddities--as these two Jewish performers singing Christmas carols, and quite beautifully, I must add. On the live tracks, the verve and potency of this dynamic duo's performances are positively bracing, though Garfunkel's stage raps do verge dangerously close to being unctuous. And it's certainly a kick to hear them deliver picture-perfect takes on such Everlys material as "Bye, Bye Love" and "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine."
That's the thread that binds it all together: those two voices in an almost heavenly blend. The avid and always informative boxed-set annotator David Fricke reveals here that S&G often double-tracked their vocals to enhance the infectious combination, yet their singing in live performance here is just as vibrant as the studio selections (this also holds true on their Central Park reunion concert, which would have made a nice fourth disc to this set, but was released by another record company). By combining the backwoods harmonizing they nicked from the Everlys with an urbane, literate consciousness, Simon & Garfunkel fashioned a rara avis in pop music--a distinct artistic signature that roamed through a raft of styles, an approach whose influence has remained persistent even if few have ever attempted to duplicate their particular approaches and patterns.
Spinning through the discs of Old Friends, one starts to savor the multiple entendre inherent in the title (one gets the feeling that Art Garfunkel spends countless hours waiting for Simon to call, which he rarely does. "Why Don't You Write Me" indeed). For anyone familiar with the pop and rock legacy I happened to grow up with, many of these songs are landmarks (or at least benchmarks) on the road to the future. But nearly two decades after Simon & Garfunkel split up, these old friends also play like friends made anew. The reacquaintance reveals forgotten or heretofore undiscovered facets to Simon's songs, the duo's harmonies, and their savvy and sophisticated recordings--which is the fondest wish one might ask for with these sorts of collections.
So even if Simon & Garfunkel were never truly hip, they nonetheless captured a more-populist (and certainly pop) vision of their times, compared with others whose freak flag flew more proudly but today looks rather tattered as it flaps in the wind of retrospect. And the bonus to this set is how it proves that Simon & Garfunkel were actually pretty cool, and are probably even more so now with the perspective of time. The best tracks here are more than just old friends, but rather reliable musical companions that pop out of the past to surprise and delight you, maybe more like old lovers who still have some new tricks to show.