Well, it’s great to do a neighborhood concert,” proclaimed an ebullient Paul Simon to the 400,000 people who squeezed their way onto the Great Lawn in New York City’s Central Park on September 19th to see – or at least hear – the reunion of Simon and his Sixties cohort, Art Garfunkel. Though the concert proved to be one of the finest performances of the year, no one, least of all Simon himself, dared think of this New York Parks Department benefit solely as a musical event. “I think it’ll be a chance for everyone to all of a sudden jump back and be eighteen years old again,” Simon posited the day before the show – and for many, the twenty-two-song show vividly recaptured another time, an era when well-crafted, melodic pop bore meanings that stretched beyond the musical sphere and into the realms of culture and politics.
“You know, I’m just as curious as everyone else is about that,” Simon said on the concert’s eve, when asked why the pair had opted to reunite for this performance. “I don’t remember what it was like, either. So you do it for the fun of doing it and for the pleasure that, hopefully, you’re bringing to a lot of people.”
And that they surely did. After a brief introduction by Mayor Ed Koch, the duo strolled out, Garfunkel joyously raising his clenched fists overhead, Simon holding his Ovation guitar and smiling. The pair shook hands at center stage to the roar of the masses and, backed by an impressive array of session vets, promptly launched into a spiffy “Mrs. Robinson.” As luck would have it, their long-awaited vocal commingling was delayed for one song by Garfunkel’s malfunctioning microphone. By the time “Homeward Bound” rolled along, though, the familiar harmonies were wafting across the sea of blankets, thermoses and fondue sets.
Merely getting to that moment had taken more than three weeks of intense rehearsal and preparation, all of which began sometime before Labor Day, when Simon first decided to turn what was to be a solo Central Park gig into a Simon and Garfunkel extravaganza. Simon’s initial intent was to have Garfunkel chip in on only a few tunes. “But I didn’t know what kind of a statement half a show would make. So I just felt it would be better to make it all Simon and Garfunkel,” Simon stated. “Just… let’s do it! Because that’s what people are always asking for.
“There were really only two big reunions possible. And now…” Simon’s eyes widened and his small frame shrugged, “…one of them can’t happen. And I think they probably would have done it too, eventually. Just the temptation.“
The duo offered practically all of their hits, both as a unit and as solo performers, during the hour-and-a-half set. Simon, shuttling from electric to acoustic guitar all night, was in superb voice throughout, while Garfunkel tended to eschew his traditional ionospheric vocal parts from time to time, finding more restrained, but frequently more intriguing, harmonies to sing.
Some of the evening’s finest performances were turned in toward the middle of the show, beginning with a smooth-rocking cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” and a flawless, gutsy vocal from Simon on “Still Crazy After All These Years.” “American Tune” became a duet, and what may be Simon’s finest set of lyrics proffered a patriotism that moved even this crowd of Sixties veterans. The drug reference in a horn-powered “Late in the Evening” got the expected roar, and on “Slip Slidin’ Away,” both Paul and Art swung through the melody with urgency.
Following Garfunkel’s well-received “Heart in New York,” Simon premiered a new song called “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” which deals with the deaths of the R&B artist Johnny Ace and John Lennon. Eerily, a man attempted to climb atop the stage while Simon was singing and had to be subdued by police and security men.
The only gaffe of the evening came when a spunky “Kodachrome” segued into a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.” Somehow, neither singer could summon the panache to pull off such an out-and-out rocker. Far more successful was a gloriously rendered “Bridge over Troubled Water,” during which the crowd occasionally threatened to drown out Garfunkel with its own singing. Tasty versions of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “The Boxer” closed the show, with an added verse on the latter tune seeming particularly appropriate: “After changes upon changes/We are more or less the same.”
Returning without their band for the encore, the pair eased through “Old Friends” and “Bookends” before scoring with a letter-perfect version of “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” Simon’s guitar playing never sounded jauntier, and for once the “feelin’ groovy” chorus emerged without its cutesy affectation, becoming at last what it was meant to be: an urban times-is-good tune. Similarly redeemed was “Sounds of Silence,” whose morose portents carried less pretense and more passion than they had in ten years. The show concluded after another encore – a reprise of “Late in the Evening.” “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” Simon said to the by-now-chilled crowd before splitting into the night.
At press time, no figures were available on the amount of money made from the sale of concert T-shirts, supplied by the show’s sponsors, Fiorucci and Warren Hirsh Enterprises. Simon waggishly suggested from the stage that T-shirts wouldn’t be the only source of Parks Department revenue: “The guys who are selling loose joints are giving us half tonight,” he quipped. Tons of garbage were deposited on the site by the concertgoers, requiring a cleanup effort that reportedly cost $20,000.
Though Simon stressed that “we have no other plans to do this,” he declined to rule out the possibility of another reunion show with Garfunkel. A video of the concert, directed by Let It Be lensman Michael Lindsay-Hogg, should be turning up in some form by the end of the year. In the meantime, Simon has already written material for his next album.
“It’s very different,” he said. “The songs are more like stories now; they’re like Simon and Garfunkel songs, but I think they’re more sophisticated lyrically.” The LP will be recorded in Los Angeles and produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman. “I thought it’d be good for me to go out there and change it around,” Simon said. “Just shake it up for once.”