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Greatest Hits

Here is a greatest hits album that lives up to its name — a generous collection of 14 Simon and Garfunkel classics, from “The Sounds of Silence” to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The only single hits not included are “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo,” and “Fakin’ It.” In their place are a couple of earlier album cuts, plus excellent live versions of “For Emily, wherever I May find Her,” “Kathy’s Song,” “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” and “Homeward Bound.”

Why bother to review an anthology of such familiar material? In this case, it seems to me that Simon and Garfunkel deserve particular homage for their quiet but extraordinary accomplishment during the late Sixties — especially since there was a definite reaction against them. Perhaps it was simply that they became too popular, embraced by the middle class, praised by The New Yorker, and apotheosized by The Graduate. At a time when it was hip to drop out and blow your mind, when the rhetoric of protest escalated into the rhetoric of revolution, when the communal idea began to spread, Simon and Garfunkel suddenly seemed old hat, even reactionary, to many people. Simon’s songs were intellectual and meditative, hardly the right background music for manning barricades.

There was no cryptic psychedelia buried in their records. Nor did Simon and Garfunkel ever invoke sensuality. Indeed it was probably their image of chastity in an atmosphere of aggressive sexual ostentation that most set them apart from the vanguard counterculture. There they were, crooning to the dream figures “Kathy” and “Emily” — ideals that didn’t so much stand for a type of woman or relationship as for virginal adolescent romanticism itself. The poignancy of unconsummated longing, so very un-hip, was made all the more acute by the purity of Garfunkel’s voice and his angelic face. I recall reading sarcastic remarks about Paul Simon’s “bridge fixation.” Well, Hart Crane liked bridges too. And besides, the musical-cultural role of Simon and Garfunkel was precisely that of bridging gaps between styles.

I’m a little sorry that the cuts on this collection aren’t arranged in ‘chronological order so that we could trace directly Paul Simon’s development as a songwriter. Unlike Dylan, who executed a series of dramatic stylistic changes, Simon’s evolution has been subtle, but in the long run almost as significant. Though the distance he has traveled is far more apparent on his solo album than it is here, it is still very evident after close listening. Compare, for instance, “The Sounds of Silence” and “I Am a Rock,” with “America” and “The Boxer.” The difference represents a triumphant movement away from folk rock formalism and an academic poetic style toward a more relaxed, more assured narrative style with greater depth and range of expression.

The first Simon and Garfunkel hit, “The Sounds of Silence,” appeared late in ’64, a couple of months after Another Side of Bob Dylan, but it didn’t become popular until the end of ’65, with a newly-dubbed electric backing. By that time the first two Dylan electric albums were out. Listening to the song today, it sounds even better than it did then, its statement as powerful and provocative as Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which at the time I preferred infinitely. “The Sounds of Silence” has a strong melody, simple harmony, and knock-out words — an outpouring of beautiful imagery flawed only by the predictable excesses of a gifted but still-young poet intoxicated with language and a little uneasy working with close rhymes in a tight structure. There was stilted poeticism (“‘Neath the halo of a street lamp/I turned my collar to the cold and damp”) and pontification (” ‘Fools!’ said I, ‘You do not know.’ “) but these faults scarcely detracted from the lyrics’ cumulative impact.

Toward the end of ’66, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme was released. Two cuts from it, “The Dangling Conversation” and “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” are included in this collection, plus the new live versions of three other cuts. Listening to Parsley today is almost as staggering an experience as it was nearly six years ago. One glorious melody follows another, each brilliantly arranged and impeccably sung. “The Dangling Conversation,” for all its literary self-consciousness (“You read your Emily Dickinson and I my Robert Frost/And we note our place with book markers that measure what we’ve lost”), expresses better than any song before or since the pervasive angst of the affluent collegiate. Parsley also contained “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” Simon’s most relaxed, least “poetic” song up to that time. (“Slow down, you move too fast./You got to make the morning last./Just kickin’ down the cobble stones,/Lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy.”) As a whole, Parsley was a kaleidoscope of moods and ideas communicated with unprecedented tenderness and intimacy.

“America,” from the Bookends album, was Simon’s next major step forward. It is three and a half minutes of sheer brilliance, whose unforced narrative, alternating precise detail with sweeping observation, evokes the panorama of restless, paved America, and simultaneously illuminates a drama of shared loneliness on a bus trip with cosmic implications. I don’t think a song could be more compact and fluid at the same time. Also from Bookends are the title cut and “Mrs. Robinson.” The latter, as deft a putdown as any, goes to express with humor and pathos a general loss of faith and innocence, skillfully equating the national sport with the American dream.

Songs taken from Simon and Garfunkel’s last album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, are “Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa,” the title cut and “The Boxer.” In some ways “The Boxer” is even more ambitious than “America.” Both songs are essentially dramatic monologues with commentary. But “The Boxer” is more daring, since it is the autobiography of a loser in the big city and risks sounding false. In “America,” Simon was able to call upon a stereotypical middle class ethos, familiar since The Catcher In the Rye. The saga of the boxer goes beyond that ethos into social tragedy. The reason it works so well is that Simon does not literally enter his character. The impersonality of the monologue is accentuated by the cut’s excellent streamlined arrangement which keeps the singing partly submerged and provides just the right amount of telling sound effect.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” is of course the ultimate Simon and Garfunkel hit. Though I think the cut suffers from too much echo and syrupy strings, it contains Gar-funkel’s finest inspirational singing. In recent years, only one other song has so thoroughly saturated the national psyche — Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Both songs are basically pop spirituals that can be done by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Andy Williams. To discuss them in depth would be almost meaningless, since they transcend categories of popular music and are already so much a part of our cultural lifeblood. It is enough to say that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has one of Simon’s greatest melodies — a long soaring arch that perfectly carries forward the spirit of the lyrics, whose sentiments of hope and promise of comfort are universal.

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