The song didn’t exist and then, as if by magic, it did. He sensed it could be his greatest work.
When Paul Simon said, “I think you should sing Bridge Over Troubled Water,” although Art Garfunkel obviously did sing it (and Paul ironically resented how the song came to be associated with Art), his original response was reportedly, “Nah, you go ahead and sing it.”
Simon & Garfunkel did not record another album after Bridge Over Troubled Water. If childhood friends who built their relationship over years and blended their voices together so beautifully couldn’t maintain a harmonious friendship, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The Harmony Game
Last year was the 40th anniversary of Bridge Over Troubled Water and I recently saw “The Harmony Game,” a documentary about the making of the album. The documentary reignited my college obsession with Simon & Garfunkel’s music. And their friendship.
I enjoyed the documentary as much for the old footage of Paul and Art interacting at the height of their partnership as for the more recent commentary on the music by them and the other players. The ease and bond between them back then came across clearly and poignantly. However, by the end of their partnership, Paul’s lyrics gave powerful voice to the abandonment, rejection, and regret he felt in his friendship. Those feelings resonate with me more than I’d like to admit.
I discovered the Simon & Garfunkel catalog and read their biography at a time of unwelcome changes in some of my friendships, some fading with distance and others damaged by regretful behavior. From sitting in my tiny dorm room trying to work out Art’s harmonies, to shedding a tear 20 years later realizing I don’t sing very much anymore partly because I no longer have anyone to sing with, their music both soothes and unsettles me.
Obviously I don’t know the status of Simon and Garfunkel’s relationship today, nor is it any of my business. There was friendship, partnership, estrangement. There were reunions and rejections (like Art having to be talked into singing Paul’s masterpiece or when Paul decided to strip Art’s vocals from what was supposed to be their reunion album). The interviews did not focus on the friendship and Art, in particular, focused on how wonderful his memories were. Neither man mentioned any debate about who would sing “Bridge,” and Art only said how much he enjoyed “delivering Paul’s intentions.”
Both men danced around the obvious questions about friendship. Art said: “I don’t want to play my friendship with Paul on camera. It’s very deep, very private, and full of love. But yeah, those songs are about friendship.” Paul said: “If there’s a theme that runs through Bridge about leaving, it was certainly unintentional.”
This discussion centered around the most obvious abandonment song, “The Only Living Boy in New York” (one of three songs Paul did in concert this year that made me cry). But when Art heaped praise on what he called Paul’s “under-appreciated gem,” “Song for the Asking,” I couldn’t help but (probably) misinterpret this “love song” to be about his friendship with Art too.
During the discussion of this song, Paul said, “Notes of apology that show up in album after album, that’s just to say I haven’t forgotten what I did to various people.”
“Thinking it over, I’ve been sad. Thinking it over, I’d be more than glad to change my ways, for the asking. Ask me and I will play all the love that I hold inside.”
I’ve been hurt by people I thought were my friends. And I’ve done really dumb things when I’ve felt a friend slipping away. It’s like my subconscious tried to avoid the pain of loss by, ironically, causing me to behave in a way that would speed up the loss. People say marriages require work, but friendship is more difficult for me. Without the commitment of marriage, the close proximity of shared space, and physical intimacy, what binds one to a friend?
One of the goals I set for 2011 was to be more social–a euphemism if ever there was one. It had become easier to believe I didn’t need friendship than to put forth effort, since that effort often exhausted me and left me feeling empty and rejected. And while it is daunting to feel that way, I decided to stop pretending I don’t need friendship or that a happy marriage negates that need. So I’m trying what for me is heavy lifting in the friend area. Like making some. And being a better one to those I have. I toy with the idea of trying to make amends to those I’ve hurt even though I worry those scabs are better left unpicked.
The jury is still out on how I’m doing, but I’m trying. In the year when both Simon and Garfunkel turned 70 (how terribly strange!), I wish for them the same thing I wish for myself, to have a cherished old friend sharing that park bench.
I haven’t even scratched the surface on the actual music. I’d love to write about my favorite songs, but haven’t been able to whittle my list down to fewer than 20. I might as well just say, “I really, really like Simon & Garfunkel” and leave it at that! Do you have a favorite Simon & Garfunkel song?
Have you ever reached out to an estranged friend? Or an old friend with whom you’ve lost touch? How did that go?