Simon and Garfunkel: Class Reunion

The folk-rock duo on why its reformation looks like a lasting thing

American pop duo Simon & Garfunkel performing at their reunion concert in Central Park, New York City, September 19th,1981. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

It may be an idea whose time has come again. Two men, one guitar, a body of beautifully crafted songs. Sounds retrograde, you say? Well, until six months ago, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel probably would have agreed. But then, last September 19th, Simon and Garfunkel played a free concert in New York's Central Park. It was their first full performance together in eleven years, and nearly half a million people flocked to see it. In the aftermath of that unexpectedly successful event, as they worked on a live album and video, Simon and Garfunkel talked seriously about getting back together again. Now, they're considering a tour of Europe in May, and possibly some U.S. dates this summer. And if things go well, there may even be a new Simon and Garfunkel studio album.

If things go well. In all their years as a singing team, these two boyhood buddies somehow never learned how to talk to each other. Personal tics caused tension, and quibbles accumulated into quarrels. Nothing major, but unpleasant memories lingered. In fact, the Central Park show almost didn't come off.

"The weeks before the concert were so tense that there were times I really regretted having agreed to do it," said Simon, sitting in the palatial study of his apartment, which overlooks Central Park. "It was very rushed. Artie had to learn a lot of material very quickly. Basically, the show combined old Simon and Garfunkel arrangements with expanded orchestrations of arrangements I used on my One-Trick Pony tour. We didn't have time to make new arrangements."

It didn't matter the concert was a spontaneous smash. And in the postconcert projects that followed polishing the tapes for the recently released live double album, The Concert in Central Park; editing videotapes for a February 21st airing on Home Box Office; and planning a videocassette for commercial release Simon and Garfunkel discovered that they could work together again. Better yet, they wanted to work together again. With their music as the focus, the old disputes fell away. As Garfunkel said, "We had a rapprochement."

"It got easy again," Simon explained. "Artie and I had some heart-to-heart talks which, amazingly, we had never had and we just settled some things. I said, 'Look, I can do this, but I can't do that. I can offer this, but I can't offer that.' And vice versa. And as we started to figure it out, we found ourselves talking about what would work, instead of what the other person did that was wrong. And that sort of dialogue made us open to the idea of re-forming as a duo."

You can almost hear cynics snorting about this particular reunion a shrewd, desperate move to sock some life back into two sagging solo careers, n'est-ce pas? But Simon and Garfunkel insist that's not the case.

"The truth is, neither Artie nor I feel our lives rise and fall on hit albums or flop albums," said Simon. "Of course, it's great when you have a hit and a disappointment when you don't. But I don't think we'd get together if the potential for a joyous reunion weren't there. We'd never decide to grit our teeth just to make a couple million dollars."

Of course, the reunion of Simon and Garfunkel certainly has all the potential to become a financial windfall for the duo, especially given what seems like an intense interest on the part of the public. In Europe, for example, a recent Simon and Garfunkel greatest-hits anthology sold 1.5 million copies in two weeks; it seems likely that The Concert in Central Park will fare at least as well. And Home Box Office won bidding rights to the cable-TV special, reportedly paying in the neighborhood of $1 million.

Simon and Garfunkel do, nonetheless, seem genuinely pleased about all the new possibilities of working together again. Garfunkel, for example, has wanted to add his voice to Simon's "American Tune" ("I always thought of it as Simon and Garfunkel," Paul admitted), and he finally did in Central Park. "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" is another Simon number that Garfunkel looks forward to putting his personal stamp on. As for Paul, he seems equally excited about writing for a duo again.

"It's well known that Artie's a great ballad singer," Simon explained. "Working with him will give me the opportunity to write that big ballad that I wouldn't write for myself. Artie's worried that he can't sing rhythm, but I know that he can, because that's how we grew up. We started with rock & roll when we were thirteen years old."

Those kinds of ties tend to bind, beyond all disputes and distances. "I was in Europe when Paul called and told me about the concert," Garfunkel recalled as we sat in the kitchen of his triplex apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, just across the park and a few blocks north from Paul Simon's place.

"Instead of the usual guest shot of two or three tunes, his idea was for us to do a full second half of ten tunes," he said. "After I got back to New York and we went into rehearsal, some friends of ours said, why not a full Simon and Garfunkel concert? That would give the crowd the biggest kick. It also didn't seem right to either of us that Paul should be the opening act for Simon and Garfunkel. And for him to follow Simon and Garfunkel didn't make show-business sense."

A full-scale reunion, of course, made perfect show-business sense. But it was not an easy undertaking. According to former Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, whose Broadway Video company taped the event, Simon made the decision to videotape the concert once he and Garfunkel agreed to make it a reunion show. "We had to build a hundred-by-sixty-foot stage," said James Signorelli, who produced the video. "We also built the rooftop set, which was designed by Eugene Lee. It took a week to put it up." It also cost a lot roughly $750,000 to stage and tape the show and Simon himself put up the bulk of the money.

But the Central Park concert was logical in another light, too coming as it did just when the two men's solo careers had each taken a downturn. Both are forty now, and it's been painful for them to watch the public's declining interest in their various solo projects.

"Even though forty is only a symbolic number," said Garfunkel, "somehow, when you reach that age, you can't fool yourself into thinking you're still a kid. I know that if I tried to be a kid, I'd feel more than a little foolish."

Garfunkel worked for a year on his last solo album, Scissors Cut, then watched it sink like a stone after its release last fall. He was sure the single "Heart in New York" would be a Top Twenty hit, but it barely made it midway up the charts. Somewhat bitterly, Garfunkel wondered if his label, Columbia, had "buried" the album; in any case, he claims to have no plans to make another solo LP.

To make matters worse, Garfunkel's movie career also collapsed. He considers his last film, director Nicholas Roeg's Bad Timing — a Sensual Obsession, to be his best, and he is as proud of his acting in it as he is of the sessions that produced Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge over Troubled Water. The movie was a modest hit in Europe, but bombed in the U.S.

"I came home after making the picture and for the first time got an agent and actively went looking for parts," he said ruefully. "But nothing came of it."

Meanwhile, Simon was in similar straits. One-Trick Pony, the movie he'd written and starred in, faded from sight only a few weeks after its release. "It was a very hard thing for me to accept," Simon admitted. "My feeling at the time was, well, I've made a failure. I hadn't had a big history of failure; I'd had a pretty good history of success. And here was this project that I'd put more effort into than any other project I'd ever done. I had a lot of years tied up in it, and it came and went just like that. But since then, I've come to realize it's not gone. Some people from Los Angeles told me they just saw it on cable out there. And it's been on cable here, too. It has a life that's going to go on and on, and now that I realize that, I feel much better.

"I feel that I tried to tell the truth in One-Trick Pony," Simon said earnestly. "When it came out, I was criticized for playing a character who's a failure. But my point was that there are a lot of people with talent who don't succeed. I wasn't trying to draw a portrait of a guy who didn't have any talent. He just wasn't succeeding anymore. The major difference between Jonah and Paul Simon is that I'm just lucky, because people like what I do."

Obviously, people like what Simon and Garfunkel do together even more. What was it that drove them apart after their final concert in New York's Forest Hills Tennis Stadium eleven years ago? Nothing specific. They just weren't getting along.

"It had lost its sense of fun," Garfunkel recalled. "The juices weren't flowing. I think when I went off to make Catch-22, Paul was left feeling out of it and uncomfortably dependent. Looking back, I know, too, that I felt envious of Paul's writing and playing, especially onstage, where I had nothing to do with my hands." So after that final gig, "We just went our separate ways without ever officially agreeing to disband."

Garfunkel went to Scotland, where he lived on a farm with a woman named Linda Grossman, whom he later married. When he returned to the U.S., he lived on the West Coast. Simon, who was by this time also married to Peggy Harper lived in New York. "It was easy for us to keep our distance," Garfunkel said. "As the years went by, we'd communicate only two or three times a year."

On occasion, they did attempt to work together again a duet on an album, a guest appearance at a concert. But the old tensions still tingled. "Typical of our problems," Garfunkel recalled, "was what happened when I closed my 1977 tour at Carnegie Hall, and invited Paul to sing. Afterward, he was unhappy that I'd brought him out for a duet before the final encore and then closed with 'Bridge over Troubled Water.' It pissed him off and probably rightly so that it was necessary for my ego that I trv to reclaim the show as mine after we'd sung together."

But when Garfunkel finally returned to New York in 1978, the old wounds began to heal. "I started hanging out with Paul, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world," Garfunkel said. "We reminded ourselves of the humor we shared, the jokes, the similar concerns the similarity of our lives."

That similarity had persisted even during their years of estrangement. Both men's marriages ended in divorce, and both underwent periods of intense sadness. Garfunkel was shattered by the tragic death of his longtime lover, Laurie Bird, who committed suicide in 1979 while he was in Europe filming Bad Timing. And Simon, despite the then-enormous success of his solo career, found himself frequently depressed.

"I had some very bad years," Paul acknowledged. "Looking back, I think my depression was in some sense an arbitrary choice. There were things to be depressed about, but there was so much to be joyful about, too. I think I was unconsciously choosing to concentrate on the problems, rather than dwelling on the joyous areas. But now I feel stronger, surer of my values and less afraid to speak up when they are transgressed. I feel more responsible for other people. I have a son [Harper, who's nine], and my own parents. Once you get past the fear of being responsible, it feels good. At forty, it suddenly seems unattractive to be a boy and very attractive to be a man.

"I really feel that given my place and my age, I have a responsibility," Simon continued. "I don't know what I can do, but I feel I must do something. I guess I have to use my art to do it. I'm sure I feel the way a lot of people feel. Just because the times are tough doesn't mean we have to be antihuman. There may be less to divide up, but that doesn't mean the division has to be unfair. So I think these times raise very important moral and ethical questions. I don't think they'd have been raised had Reagan not come to power. How can we be decent people? And what are decent people?"

Maturity seems to suit them both, even as they've settled into their separate lifestyles. Simon has developed a steady love relationship with actress Carrie Fisher, and Garfunkel says he most frequently dates actress Penny Marshall. Garfunkel skis, plays racquetball and likes to travel. A devotee of the arts, he spends much of his time visiting museums, poring over art books and studying Bach. "I haven't followed what's been happening in pop music for the last five years," he said, "because for me, it's not happening."

Simon is more tuned in to pop trends, and has even seen the Clash. ("I understood where they were coming from," he said, "but I had to leave the concert to protect my ears.") He's assembled an eclectic art collection, ranging from impressionistic to contemporary paintings, that is both an investment and a reflection of his personal taste. He doesn't compose songs on a daily basis, but there's a sense that he's always working. His personal life, however, he keeps private, contenting himself with the company of such close friends as Buck Henry and Lorne Michaels.

"I care about Paul very deeply," said Michaels. "He was the best man at my wedding, and Artie was the cantor. I think Simon and Garfunkel have been largely underrated by the press. Although the concert in Central Park was very much of a one-shot, I think that by working together again, they found a lot more mutual ground. The lyric 'After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same' that covers it. They're older and more open, and it's a different time. Particularly after the Lennon murder, it was a wonderful feeling that we could all still meet in the park for a concert, without incident, really."

Well, almost without incident. These are different times, and in Central Park, while Paul was performing a new tune called "The Late Great Johnny Ace," an anonymous young man vaulted the barricades and attempted to mount the stage before security guards hauled him off. Paul doesn't remember being scared at the time, only annoyed. But it was a disturbing incident. The new song was Simon's tribute to John Lennon, and its verses linked the shooting deaths of Fifties R&B star Johnny Ace with those of John F. Kennedy and the fallen Beatle. And Simon was premiering it practically within earshot of the Dakota. For days afterward he was haunted by that lone kid. "Paul," he had shouted, "I need to talk to you."

"I think they both underestimated how many people cared about their reunion, how important it was to so many people," said Michaels. "It was the right time, and they both sensed that."

But the question that remains is whether their newfound sense of togetherness can withstand the grind of touring and recording. If their projected European tour goes well, they say they will bring it home to the U.S. But then what about Simon's solo career? He says he wants to have a new album out by fall, but pressures to keep the Simon and Garfunkel ball rolling could prove irresistible and maybe maddening.

To Garfunkel, the bottom line is maintaining what he calls "the quality of this most valuable personal friendship." It still means a lot maybe everything even after all these years.

"In the videotape of the concert," Art said fondly, "there's a moment at the end of the show where the camera is shooting us from behind as we come out for one of our bows. Paul has his hand on my back for this affectionate hug, and I return the gesture. And as I looked at it, I realized both of our arms are exactly symmetrical." He's genuinely struck by the image. "Both hugs," he says, "they're the same hug."