Simon and Garfunkel’s headlining set at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was one of the most difficult two hours of Art Garfunkel’s life. A couple of months earlier, he started to experience major vocal problems, and when he launched into the opening of “A Hazy Shade of Winter” he was barely able to squeeze out a note. “It was just terrible,” he says on the phone from his New York apartment. “I was terrible, and crazy nervous. I leaned on Paul Simon and the affection of the crowd. It was the beginning of bravery.”
It was also the beginning of a four year struggle to regain one of the most beautiful voices in rock history. For a couple of years it seemed like Garfunkel would never sing again, let alone hit the high notes on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But Art spent the last few years workshopping in a Harlem theater and playing underground gigs where the crowd was instructed to not take a photo or send out a single tweet. Slowly, his voice came back and Garfunkel now says he’s 96 percent recovered — and he even sings a few bars of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to prove it. He’s booked an extensive American theater tour this year, and he hopes that Paul Simon will agree to another Simon and Garfunkel tour at some point in the future.
Do you remember when you first noticed problems with your singing voice?
The end of January 2010. Things were going along great at the time. I had done 15 years worth of live shows with my band. I had moved my singing basically to the stage instead of the recording studio. At the end of January I did a show in Nicaragua. I brought my son. We did what you call a “private.” That means they pay you well so do you a show at Mr. Gomez’s poolside.
The show was great and everything seemed fine. I hit the high notes on “Bridge” real good. I don’t think there was trouble. I came home and a few days later I went to the Palm restaurant, where they have great lobsters. I was with my son and I choked on one of the larger strands of lobster. That can send you into a near-panic state if it’s bad enough. All seemed to be okay, but a couple of days later I started to find that the swallowing muscle was numb. For the rest of the week I was speaking real hoarse and I couldn’t quite swallow properly.
When I went to a doctor, they put a snake down my throat with a camera to check things out. They said, “Yeah, one of your two vocal chords is stiffer and fatter than the other one.” So I had to assume that therein lies the issue because it was in approximately the same time period [as the two incidents]. That says it all to me.
That must have been terrifying.
Tragic. As the weeks ensued, I saw that I couldn’t finesse my singing in the mid-range. I could do the high notes and the low notes. High notes are my stock in trade, thank God. But I couldn’t sing, “When you’re weary, feeling small.” I couldn’t do anything in the middle where you need that finesse. It’s indescribable. I was crude instead of fine.
And you had a tour booked that summer with Simon and Garfunkel.
Did I? You would know better than I would. We had come back half a year earlier from the Far East. It was a glorious success. I was into it. I just loved that two-hours-and-seven-minute set. It was the same one we did in America, but this time without the Everly Brothers. And we did a few of my own songs within the Simon and Garfunkel set like “Bright Eyes” and “A Heart in New York,” songs that I love. I had big eyes to do more and more and more. And we started talking about doing that in America in 2010.
What happened after Jazz Fest when it was clear you couldn’t play a show?
I don’t know. Did we have a pizza that night?
I mean, the rest of the tour dates were postponed indefinitely. What plan of action did you put into place to try and recover?
Put that part about the pizza in the article. After that, I don’t remember exactly. I remember that plans were in suspension. I was working with manager John Scher in those days. John was very keen to get me on my feet sooner rather than later. People love to make their quarterly profits in this quarter, not the next. So the pressure of, “I think you’re ready, let’s book you,” was a goad that was not fair to proper healing.
(Editor’s Note: Garfunkel has since issued the following statement concerning Scher: “In my Rolling Stone interview of February 27th, 2014, I unfairly characterized John Scher, my former manager, as pushing me to work while my voice was in the process of mending. He did no such thing. This error on my part was unfair. I don’t want to see John Scher’s fine reputation tarnished.”)
Yeah, the stress of that couldn’t have helped.
No. I did a show in Sweden that was the beginning of a fall lineup of shows. I tried to think I was ready, but it wasn’t there. It was a tough experience.
What were doctors telling you at this point?
Well, they look and they see. . .I’m not sure I believe in doctors. I own the body, the vocal cords and I own the issue. It’s my best friend, singing. All my life I have been very, very, very in touch with what singing is all about. So I knew that what was fine is now crude. And my instincts told me, “You can’t sing, so give it a few for a few months.”
The doctors love their expensive machines and they damn well want to use them. They said, “Look, one of your vocal cords is stiffer than the other.” And I would say, “Yes, I know all this.” And they would give me the $1,200 bill. And I would say, “I know this, too.”
There was this lovely doctor named Gwen. I can’t recall her last name, but she was full of niceness. She said to me, “What shall we call it?” She was trying to help me put out a word that would satisfy the press so there’d be a name for it. She picked the word “paresis,” which is kind of like a paralysis or a stiffening. She said, “Shall we call it paresis?” I told her that sounded pretty good, it’ll throw them. And nobody knew quite what it meant.
The real truth was that I’d lost my finesse in the mid-range. There was a stiffness there. It’s funny how how the world is made up of these things that are just semantics. Semantics becomes everything. I guess that’s your business, though.
You must have been worried that your voice was gone forever.
You’re correct. We pushed off the shows for a year and a half. The manager would say to Paul and his people, “I think we’ll be ready.” Paul would say, “I care about my reputation in the business. Will he be ready?” And John would say, “I believe so.” But I wasn’t ready. Paul got thrown under the bus of false optimism. I’m sure that didn’t feel good at all. I felt terrible about that.
Then the tour got pushed back indefinitely. After about a year and a half of rest, I started singing to myself, and singing with an iPod and just singing on the street. Then come 2011 I started booking a hall uptown in the 160s, an area that is unknown to me. There was a place for rent, a 1,000 seater. Stuart Breed, my right-hand man and engineer, was a godsend. He worked with me ever so sensitively to bring my voice back. He’d say, “There’s speakers. There’s the mic. There’s the reverb unit.” It was like a real show without the people.
So now you’re uptown and you hear proper sound and it’s professional. It’s one thing to sing in the shower, it’s another thing to be onstage and project through a microphone. That’s the real business we’re in. Those are the people that you cover. And it was very dodgy. I saw that it was going to be a long road ahead. I would work with my guitar player Tab Laven, a great player. I would constantly sing to vocal exercises that Stephen Bishop sent me. I would also sing to James Taylor since he sings so beautifully. I would unison to him and try to put heart into my voice. I would sing to J.J. Cale, the Everly Brothers, my own past stuff, Chet Baker. These singers are perfect training wheels if you unison to them.
It started to sound pretty good and 2011 turned into 2012. There was lots of recovery, so it was finally time to book shows under the radar. One day I had lunch with my friend Luis Pearlman. Not the boy band guy, but my old friend I knew from architecture school. He’s an art curator in Yonkers. He said, “I have an art gallery called the Blue Door that I control in Yonkers. It fits 90 people. You wanna call it your workout room?” I said, “Yes!”
We did about seven or eight shows with a voice that was sort of there, but not totally. They were called rehearsals. I quivered with fear. I did my best. I found adrenaline is very good for healing if you can just face the music and the knees knock, but do it anyway. You start getting recovery. This is a very interesting insight. Adrenaline brings mending.
So I did seven or eight of this shows with a very supportive crowd that was a completely on my side. It made me start hearing recovery. The voice got stronger. Stuart started to look around the tri-state area for rooms you can work out in. No publicity. They were under-the-radar as I call it. I would say, “Just give me a place where I can go out into the street and round up strangers so I can sing in front of people and face the vulnerability of show time.”
It’s pretty tough in the age of Twitter and YouTube to pull off shows that don’t wind up on the Internet.
I don’t know what was leaked, but audiences are extremely loyal to me. They are on my side. I never saw anyone cheating and filming on their phone. Slowly, I started to play bigger and bigger shows of 200 to 300 people. The imperfections in my voice were still there, so I began to weave spoken word bits into my show. I’ve been writing prose poems for thirty years. I actually got signed by a publisher and a book of them will be out in about a year. They’re reflections on my life, on Paul Simon, my love life, on what it’s like to be a singer who loses it.
The shows became good fun. The audiences were with me. I could hear a pin drop. So my show became a modest amount of songs with a bunch of these prose poems, followed by a Q&A.
I know you’re on a real theater tour, so how is your voice right now?
Oh, I’m in a state of ecstasy. The voice has come back, slowly, slowly. I did 49 shows through 2013 and the audiences have grown in size. The sound in my own ears of vocal strain keeps increasing. For the last two dozen shows I can say I’m pretty much there. I can sing again.
A lot of your signature songs have some really challenging notes to hit.
[Sings] “And friends just can’t be found. . .” That leap octave on “Bridge” is daunting and I still shied away from it. I’m just about to put “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in the show.
That part you just sang to me sounded pretty great.
I was trying to show off.
You really did sound just like your old self.
I’m trying to win you over. I want to to write that exact sentence out. Yeah, there’s pretty much full return now.
Wow is right. You know the word “wow” is one of the most popular words in the English language. I use it all the time. It’s that exclamation point. It’s irresistible. But that’s how I feel, just grateful to God. I really didn’t know if I’d ever sing again. I don’t know who I am if I can’t sing. Am I somebody named Walter for the rest of my life?
How close is your voice now to where it was pre-injury?
I’d say 96 percent.
Do you want to record a new album now?
Well, now you’re switching to the other activity that singers do: recordings. If you know how the record business works, you tell me the answer to your question. I love being in the studio. It’s cerebral. It’s the area for private people to craft and fix and polish and erase and do it again. I love to craft beautiful albums. I’ve had a lot of success over the years. I made twelve albums total and I love them all. But suppose I make a really great song, another “All I Know.” How do I know it won’t just fall on my shoes when it’s time to get it out there? What do I do? I don’t know how to get it out there. I don’t know how to work through the Internet. I don’t know how you get publicity.
You’re not alone in that. Nobody knows how to sell records anymore.
Right. And I don’t know how to get paid for records. I saw that movie The Social Network. And I love the movie. It opens like gangbusters, like a big hit record. It comes at you with terrific rhythm. In the middle of the movie I said to myself, “This is all about theft. It’s like this Napster stuff.”
The public has the right to call me the “Man” with a capital “M.” I’m the corporate asshole and you’re allowed to rip my song out of my vocal cords before I finish singing it because it’s all publicly owned. Well, I’m gonna be a fountain who gushes great, special stuff. It’s a thing called a record, and it has a beginning, middle and end. It’s my attempt to make another “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” You can just steal my copyright and call it publicly owned stuff. Do we have the means to pull back from this sad reality? Can we say, “Now, wait a minute. Privacy is being destroyed here.” Is there a way to turn back?
Well, it has pushed me away. I’m an artist. I’m one of the people who introduces the music and tries to make the stuff good. But this system, this apparatus has shut me down.
Do you think that Simon and Garfunkel are going to tour again?
Do you know when?
It takes two to tango. I don’t want to be the blushing bride waiting for Paul Simon to walk down the aisle. If he’s too busy to work with me I guess the real answer to your question is, “I’m too busy to work with him.” I think that’s the only answer I can give you for pride’s sake.
But I will say that word “Yes” because I left that tour of the Far East in 2009 really happy. We did a neat show, and we both shared that feeling. It was cool. The band was great. So we’re both committed to constant growth as men and as musicians. It sits there as a potential thrill. I know that audiences all over the world like Simon and Garfunkel. I’m with them. But I don’t think Paul Simon’s with them.
It does seem like you guys are friends again. I saw photos of the two of you at a baseball game just a few years back.
We are indescribable. You’ll never capture it. It’s an ingrown, deep friendship. Yes, there is deep love in there. But there’s also shit. Put that down.
I guess things get complicated in a friendship that goes back 60 years.
You’re right. It has many wrinkles. Someday I’ll let my hair down, not yet, and I’ll tell you lots of stuff. And you’ll go, “Artie, you were a hell of an accommodator.”
It’s funny to think back to “Old Friends” when you sang “How terribly strange to be seventy.” Now you’re 72. Is it terribly strange?
At first, it wasn’t strange at all. You pass through these decades and they don’t seem to have any inherent meaning and you try to not lay any meaning on top of it. You just slide through and say, “They’re just numbers.” Seventy was painless. Seventy-one was still painless. Seventy-two is about your lower back. You put your socks on in the morning and you’re 72. You get out of the taxi with a package and you’re 72. You’ll see. The lower back feels the age.
The other 99 percent of my life is cool. I’m a rock & roll kid. I’m particularly young now that I have the thrill of a returned voice. I’m so grateful. I have a beautiful wife and two kids I’m raising. I’m full of riches and I feel them. I feel pretty light, ageless.